Scene Distinctions

This is an idea that comes out of the new Marvel RPG I’ve been reading.  Basically, when the GM sets the scene, they either have already included one or more scene distinctions that can be used by either side of the encounter – OR the players/villains impose some distinction upon the scene as it plays out.

For example, you may be in a Dark Alley.  Because of the environment, the GM includes the Distinction “Dark” which can then be creatively used by either side.  Marvel rates these Distinctions on a sliding die scale, so if it was just kind of dim, it might be scaled as: “Dark, d4.”  If it was pitch black, maybe that scales up to a d6 or even a d8.  When either side uses the Distinction, they get to roll the extra die and add it as a bonus to resolving their action.

Imposing a Distinction works by allowing a character to actually create or add a distinction to a scene.  This could work by spending some sort of plot point, or it could work by spending an action, or series of actions, to add the Distinction.  For example, the villains might be trying to escape a bank robbery, and one of them sets fire to the place as a distraction.  This might impose a Distinction: On Fire, d4 to the scene.  This kind of Distinction might optionally grow or shrink as time went on, or additional actions might be taken to change it as well (such as putting out the fire, or fanning the flames).

I like the idea of using a completely separate die for this, as it gives the scene something tangible to interact with.  Marvel recommends placing the die on a post-it to remind everyone it’s there.  The main question with this is how to balance this out so that everyone isn’t playing scattegories and trying to bullshit their way into bonuses that don’t make sense on every turn or with every action – turning the game into a constant argument between players and GM.  Maybe it takes a plot point to allow you to roll the distinction die for your action, or maybe it can only be used by one character per round.  I’m not overly fond of these ideas as they break immersion a bit on the game, and one of my main design goals is to avoid disassociated mechanics.

Scene Distinctions are basically a formal codification (or a Thingification) of something GMs have been using forever: situation bonuses.  I like this though because it removes a little bit of the arbitrary judgement and actively encourages player interaction with the mechanic because the die is just sitting there begging to be rolled!  Also, because you’re rolling another die, it’s not a static bonus that gets lost in a sea of other static bonuses.  You clearly see the impact of the scene’s environment physically in front of you.

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5 thoughts on “Scene Distinctions

  1. Andy

    I think this may be interesting in specific situations (I think it could be cool in boss fights), but if every alley we walk down is “dark” this mechanic is going to get very old and very tiresome IMO.

    Reply
    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Completely agree, although if a player can come up with an interesting way of imposing a distinction onto a scene, I think that would be interesting as well (blowing up the fuse box in the warehouse, to impose “Dark” for example).

      Reply
  2. connorbros

    This is a pretty cool unique idea. You’ve covered the upsides and downsides nicely. I guess I can think of two interesting ways to use it as long as it’s balanced right.

    1) In theatre of mind combat, unless I break form and draw a picture (at which point everybody’s quick to follow each individual movement like a grid-based tactics game even though that slows things down and isn’t really what the players want) it can be difficult to encourage players to interact with incidental environment stuff. This means that a lot of combat either feels like I’ve put the ‘obvious thing to interact with’ in the middle of the field, or like combat is happening on an open field with nothing, which is sort of bland.

    I can imagine just using a bonus die like this to remind players about incidental environment stuff and encourage them to use it when appropriate. It’s probably a tough thing to moderate, but I can see it being useful to add texture where it’s been missing (at least recently in my campaign).

    2) In a roleplay encounter, it can help set a mood and really reward players for getting in character and feeling the nuance of the situation. I can see throwing out a ‘Tense’ situation die which can go in favour of a player who takes advantage of the mood (or maybe even against a player who ignores it, but I’m wary of that), and then one player might actively take actions to change the mood to further some plan… breaking the tension with a well-placed joke or the like.

    That’s not super specific, but these are just some of the thoughts that come to mind where I really think a mechanic like this could add enough texture that it’s worth the hassle.

    -Dustin

    Reply
    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Yeah, I think not all encounters would have a “Distinction” or they’d start to feel boring, but I think it could definitely get used in a role-play encounter as well as a combat encounter. You could take an action to change the scene in some way, for example, you might spend your action in a role-play investigation encounter attempting to “befriend” the suspect, so that you could later try taking advantage of that new scene distinction “friendly report” as a bonus die. Or the scene could come with a distinction “distrusting” and either side could use it if they could find a good reason to justify it (maybe this distinction favors the suspect, but a clever player might think of a good way of using it).

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Character Distinctions | Lost Worlds

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