Shells and Seeds

I notice this tendency while I am designing RPG rules to create shells. That is, game mechanics that have a certain size and shape but require player interaction to fill it up with something. It’s a set of requirements. And when those requirements are met, the player is rewarded.[1]

Consider Wushu‘s core mechanic. For each detail you give in your described action, you add a die to your pool. FATE’s Aspects are shells at the time of character creation. Come up with a phrase about your character then you will have this trait to use in gameplay.

Shells are good design tools. Shells fight blank page syndrome by giving players smaller, less-intimidating pages to write on. Don’t worry about your whole action, just tell me the next detail. Don’t worry about your whole character, just give me one phrase about her.

As good as shells are, I’ve been working on a different approach when it comes to game design: seeds. Seeds are low-mass game elements that use player interaction to become something bigger than they started as.

Look at Fiasco‘s playsets. Each item in there is a seed. It’s just a couple of words or a short phrase about a relationship, location, need, or object. But as soon as it hits play, it explodes into story. Most skills, powers, and gear that sit on your character sheets can be viewed as seeds. You look at its name, think of how you can use it, and—if you are inspired—leverage that element into a narrative description.

Seeds fight blank page syndrome by putting the first few words on the page for you. Hopefully it’s enough to launch you into a significant narrative. They are a starting point without an indicated end. You narrate as long as you feel comfortable or entertained by it. When inspiration wanes, you go on to the next seed.

There’s no hard and fast rules for the separation of powers between seeds and shells. Many game mechanics utilize both or can act as either. Aforementioned Aspects, in play, can be seeds if you see it on your sheet and it prompts you to take a certain action. But if you’re looking at an Aspect and you think “how can I use this?” and try to come up with a situation that fills its requirements, then it’s a shell. A Penny For My Thoughts has Memory Triggers which are shells when you write them up at the beginning of the game and then work as seeds to start each story.

Shells and seeds can be extrapolated into larger design attitudes. Shells are akin to skin-in design. Seeds are related to skeleton-out design.

A skin-in approach attempts to define the outer limits of what a character can do—jump so high, run so fast, punch so hard—leaving the player to fill in the details within that space. Skin-in is the easier of the two to control and balance. You get to give players a lot up front. But you often end up having to take stuff away. It’s like sculpting out of marble.

A skeleton-out approach defines the core of the character—what they are interested in or activities they tend towards—and leaves the actual extent of the activity to the narrative. Skeleton-out is hard to control, so the skeleton generally has to start as thin as possible so players can add a lot of bulk without extending past the setting or genre concepts. By giving them so little to start with, the players get the ever-positive experience of always adding on. You’re molding out of clay.

“Skeleton-out” are the words I’m attempting to keep in my head while I’m designing Technoir. Its core elements are seeds as I envision them. The main character traits are Verbs, Adjectives, and Objects. These are used directly in the game mechanics while begging to be put into a sentence structure. There’s not a “you have to make a complete sentence” rule in the game. It’s just: here are these words, what will you do with them?

That’s not to say there isn’t some skin-in going on in its design, but I’m trying to keep that as subtle and as invisible as possible. The limitations are in the background of the system. It’s a dice pool/keep highest dice mechanic. You have a base number of dice based on your Verb and then you can invoke Adjectives and Object tags to add more dice from the variable number of Push dice you may have on hand. There’s no hard limit saying you can never roll more than X number of dice. But there are soft limits built in to the base Verb ratings, the number of Push dice you may have available, and the fact that for each die you add to your pool there is a diminished reward.

Having limited resources to begin with means there’s less need to define hard, outer limits. Which is good because hard, outer limits feel negative and restricting. I’d rather have my game rules say “yes, yes, yes” in small increments than having to say “no, no, no” all the time. That’s my skeleton-out approach.

Ouside of the rules, I have a similar approach to Technoir‘s setting and technology. It’s a fairly hard near-future sci-fi. It has self-driven cars, articulate prosthetics, and augmented reality. That’s fairly conservative as far as RPG settings go. No aliens, no magic, no FTL travel. But I’m of the opinion that it’s easier to give you vanilla ice-cream and let you put chocolate syrup on it than to give you chocolate ice-cream and tell you can remove the chocolate if you don’t like it.[2]

So how do you approach your game design? Have you created mechanics that you can identify as shells or seeds? Do you work skin-in or skeleton-out? Are there other attitudes? Face-first? Guts-up?

  1. [1] The terms I use in this post, like shell, probably have a different definition to others in the gaming community. So consider my terms and definitions herein useful only in the scope of this post and any discussion of it.
  2. [2] Okay, that’s a poor analogy. I’m just trying to ween myself off of sugar again so I have ice-cream and chocolate on the brain. Maybe adding/removing nuts would be be better.
  1. I think I’d like some more examples about seeds.

    Is Aspects are shells, could you turn them into seeds by having each Aspect be a specific thing, say

    Family member relationship
    Favorite weapon
    Personal outlook

  2. This puts me in mind of a post I have been pondering, where I use the terms “suggestive elements” and “constraining elements”. It’s telling to me that you should bring up Fiasco, as it was what sparked the idea for me in the first place. The playset elements have to be treated as suggestive, not constraining, for the game to work. The first game of it I ever played, we ended up introducing a new item, an expensive pearl necklace, that wasn’t in the playset at all, but became the thing we were all fighting over.

    I’ll be interested to hear more on your thoughts about this. It’s something I’ve only just begun to think about.

  3. George: yeah, once an Aspect is defined, it totally works as a seed. If you have an Aspect like “Hits first, asks questions later” that is likely going to inspire you to action when you are confronted.

    My favorite seed examples are the descriptions of cyberware in games like Shadowrun. Like cyberlegs with Hyrdaulic Jacks or cybereyes with thermal vision. They make you think of actions you can take like jumping over a truck or spying on orks through walls. The actual mechanics can often times be shells as they define the limits of what you can do with them or have requirements to use them.

    Again, the difference between the two tools is not hard and fast. One person’s shell could be another’s seed. It’s much more about your approach and vision than anything else.

  4. This is a wonderful post, JJ. It’s got me thinking in a new way about things that I don’t actually have time to think about right now. So: thoughtful and provocative. Dammit.

  5. Excellent post, Jeremy. I like the terms you used even if the ideas have been bandied about before. I’ve had these concepts in my mind over the last few days as my vampire game suddenly thrust itself into my conscious mind without care for my classes or looming finals, and the explanation you give here gives me concrete words to use as I tackle a design issue in my mind. Thanks.

  6. Kit: yes, Fiasco really opened my eyes to this and helped me conceptualize it. There’s no rules in Fiasco that say you can’t lift a semi-truck over your head or fly around the sun. The genius is that its seeds give you so much to do within the genre of the particular playset, that you never feel like you have to reach beyond it.

    Will and Daniel: sorry if I’m adding to your distractions. I guess it’s payback for your own blog posts enchanting me with ponderings while I’m supposed to be working with work stuff at work.

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