Friday, 20 November 2020

Theory - Hard & Soft Tools

Alright, here's a framework I've been using to analyse games. It's about the mechanical means by which players can exert their will onto the fiction. Only a quick little post, but it should help clarify some of my thinking.

So, let's define 'tools'. A tool is basically a mechanic that gives a player agency in the fiction. They use the mechanic, and something happens. It's like a lever you can pull to get a desired result. Generally, this takes the form of options on the character sheet, or codified resolution mechanisms for a given action. The key is that they're player facing, a thing the player chooses to initiate when they want something to happen.
'My PC has +6 to Intimidate rolls' is a tool. 'My PC has the discipline Animalism' is a tool. 'Gaze Into The Abyss is a move I can use' is a tool. 

The next thing to consider is what I consider 'hard' and 'soft' tools. Basically, the harder the tool, the more precise the effect you get is, and the less space there is for the result to be fucked about with by the whims of the GM. 
As an example, in b/x casting the spell Sleep is a very hard tool. You cast the spell, and a valid target (or targets) falls asleep. There's no wiggle-room or interpretation, no saving throw or skill check or anything; you cast sleep, and stuff falls asleep. 
By contrast, let's take social skills in oWoD. Sure, you can say you want to roll Charisma + Intimidation, but there's a lot of wiggle room there. What's the difficulty for the roll? What happens if you succeed? What happens if you fail? Do you even get to make the roll, or does it just come down to a judgement call? All of this stuff is at the GM's discretion. Every time you invoke your social skills, the GM has to make a judgement call for how to handle it.
Lots of mechanics fall somewhere in the middle. Let's take the b/x thief's Hide In Shadows skill. It has a defined fixed chance to succeed, and a pretty clear result when it does. But when do you get to roll? That's a GM call. And what happens when you fail? Again, a GM call. 
Likewise, I think the attack roll in D&D 5e is a pretty fucking hard tool. You roll with a set bonus versus a set difficulty, and if you succeed, roll a predetermined amount of damage; when you've racked up enough damage against an enemy, they're taken out of action. Further, there isn't really any GM discretion in when you roll: every individual attempt at violence is an attack roll. But, there's a little softness, since advantage/disadvantage on the roll is at GM discretion, and the GM is the one setting the difficulty to hit and the amount of damage needed in the first place.

So we can look at a game and work out what tools it gives you, and that will give you an idea of how the game is intended to play.
For example, let's take Monsterhearts. Here are the tools Monsterhearts 2e gives you:
-The moves Turn Somebody On, Shut Somebody Down, Hold Steady, Run Away, Lash Out Physically, & Gaze Into The Abyss. All of them trigger automatically when you take a certain action, and have a fairly limited set of outcomes.
-Spending Strings (a metacurrency representing social influence) to offer XP, inflict a condition, or adjust rolls.
-Tweaks to the above depending on your playbook.
So these are all fairly, but not completely, hard tools. Most involve social manipulation of some kind. So, if you want to exert concrete agency over the fiction in Monsterhearts, the tools you have to do so involve that social manipulation. If you want to take a different approach (perhaps being less manipulative and more nurturing and supportive), the rules don't give you any tools for that. In some sense, you get less agency when you take that approach. So, the tools the game gives you shape play.

Another example, this time classic vampire the masquerade. The hardest tools you get, with the most precisely defined outcomes, tend to be one of three things:
-Most Disciplines
-Blood Bonds
-The Combat Procedure
Most notably, there are a lot of times where the skill system gives you a very soft tool, which is superseded by a discipline that provides a hard tool. As I mentioned above, social rolls in vamp are very soft indeed, filtered through multiple layers of GM discretion. But Dominate or Presence? Activate the discipline, roll against a set difficulty, and you get a well defined outcome that happens without any need for GM interpretation. Likewise, the 'stealth' skill is very soft, while the Obfuscate discipline makes you automatically invisible when you use it without even needing to roll. The 'empathy' skill is very vague in its use and what it gives you, but Auspex 2 gives you well-defined, powerful results. 
Combat is very much pinned down, unlike the rest of the skill system. Set difficulties, dice pools, outcomes. When you engage in violence, you can be sure of the mechanisms that will be used to resolve it. 
So, with this in mind, is it any wonder the game often drifts towards 'superheroes with fangs'? The hardest tools the players have are fighting and superpowers.

This is my main point here. The tools the game gives you shape how the game plays out. Players will gravitate towards activities in the game that they have tools relating to. In particular, the relative hardness and softness of tools is useful to consider. For example, a game where fighting is treated only with a few comparatively soft tools ('Lash Out Physically' is one of the softer moves in MH, for example) is one where violence gives you less agency and will be used to solve problems less.

It is worth noting that games that mostly give you soft tools aren't necessarily bad, and don't necesarily deny players their agency. It's just that that agency can't be achieved through the use of mechanics. And, really, the most useful comparison is to look at a game and say which areas are harder or softer in the context of that game. It's comparative. 


  1. This is a really useful tool for me! I've been thinking about the difference between a game like Blades in the Dark vs. a game like OSR-D&D-ish. Blades in the Dark has rules-set consequences for a roll, and explicitly gives some authority to the player on deciding what action they're doing, so it's hard in that way... But the fictional shape of the set consequence is entirely up to the GM, so it's very soft in that way.

    Thank you for sharing this framework!

  2. Would you say the hard/soft distinction is in terms of specificity, or in terms of 'things the GM can't change'? Or both? For instance, the new AW version, Burned Over, has changed to "On a 10+, the MC must give you at least one good, concrete detail"

    1. its mostly in terms of 'things the GM can't change'. If you invoke the mechanic, the thing you want happens.