At the dinner table yesterday, my daughter kept talking about how she had “more breath” than her little brother. The idea of breath as a thing one has more or less of stuck with me and, naturally, turned to gaming. Then it kind of collided with Daniel Solis’ Dead Weight setting idea (parkour-using survivors navigate a zombie apocalypse) and started turning into a mechanic.
The game designs I’ve done in the past have largely been about mechanics, with everything else growing up out of them. And when I design a mechanic, I try to think about the ebb and flow of energy into and out of the rule. When the thing — whatever it is — is at low power, how does it gain that power back? When it’s at high power, how does that go away? Answering both of those means that the “thing” can be a nexus point for the design, a locus of economy and energy and dynamism, all of which go towards creating momentum in play.
Momentum’s important; the last thing you want players to do in a game is feel like they should sit still.
So, let’s go to the “thing”. Breath. That’s our root concept, the resource at the center of the rule. Seems like the notion of exertion should be important in the game — that’s the first realization I had, which caused the collision with Dead Weight. (It needn’t, though — as presented below, this is a mechanic that could be added onto any number of games, so it works as a house-rule hack, too.) If you’re running from zombies, running out of breath is a matter of some concern, dig?
What can happen with breath? What sort of actions or events might occur with breath in a game? My short list looks like:
- Catch your breath
- Lose your breath
- Get the wind knocked out of you
- Out of breath
- Get a second wind
For implementation, I’m going to go with a dice-pool-success-counting system — I’ve used that in Don’t Rest Your Head, and I think it’ll help me reach for those conceptual hooks. (I’m betting someone could adapt the ideas here to a non-success-counting system pretty easily tho.)
So: everyone starts with a small number of “breath” dice — differentiated by color, typically. Maybe they’re rolled with every roll (or every “exertion” roll, at least), or maybe the players opt-in, with the inclusion of breath dice indicating that exertion is happening in the first place.
When the breath dice are rolled and produce no successes on any of the dice, you catch your breath: the size of your breath dice pool increases by one. Originally, I thought that there should be an upper-bound cap on how many breath dice you can get, but this will produce a natural kind of soft limit — the larger your breath pool, the less likely it is you’ll roll 0 successes. So big pools increase rarely, and small pools increase rapidly. As with exhaustion Don’t Rest Your Head, the bigger your pool is, the more awesome your performance, but the dynamics (and meaning) of a bigger pool are very different.
On the other hand, exerting yourself can and should take it out of you. So when you roll successes with your breath dice, you lose your breath: remove any dice that rolled successes from the pool. Big breath pools won’t last very long; this should produce a kind of “bursty” pattern of big successes followed by smaller successes and recovery.
Between the catch and lose rules, you’ll see a pool that slowly grows over time (but most rapidly when it’s at its smallest), and can drop precipitously (but only after it’s given you a big hunk of success). This should produce a kind of pacing to the breath system that hopefully feels a bit athletic.
Some players are going to look at this resource and try to game it as much as possible — avoiding rolls once their breath pool gets to a certain size (or if it’s opt-in, choosing not to spend breath) until a particularly vital roll hits. That’s a valid (and potentially fun/tense) play strategy, but it also comes off as a bit too safe. When you have a resource like this in play, though, you can start looking at it as a kind of hit point pool, too. Particularly powerful attacks, or maybe attacks in general, should threaten this resource if they succeed. That’s where you might get the wind knocked out of you — big whallops that knock a die or maybe more out of your breath pool.
And that plays into the idea of being out of breath — it’s conceivable that, either by rolling all successes or by getting the wind knocked out of you, you could drop to a breath pool size of zero. Depending on the rest of the system and the setting concept, that might be catastrophe (death or other transformation of character), or it might be a period of higher risk before you can recover. Generally, something you want to avoid, as a player. (If the character remains playable in such a state, the way the rules behave in those circumstances should be mechanically interesting and still fun to play, but not optimal in terms of performance. You’re winded, after all.) This makes small breath pools still kinda scary — while it’s easy to roll no successes, it’s also easy to roll nothing but successes, wiping you out, too.
If character death isn’t on the table, you’ll want options for characters to get their breath dice back to a non-zero level, so I’ll need to think about other ways to catch your breath without breath dice hitting the table. Downtime or low-exertion scenes make a certain amount of sense, there. If you actually get a chance to rest, those dice should come on back, of course. Maybe as simple as short rest/long rest getting you 1 dice/2 dice. That’d be something to explore in later design and playtesting. In the Dead Weight setting, recovering breath could also happen when you score some of those resources you need — food, water, supplies.
But especially if catastrophe is the result of getting out of breath, giving players a one-time “get out of death free” card would be nice. Let folks dance close to the edge, fall off it, spend that card, and then find themselves more exposed, more at risk. Once the player spends that card, it’s not available if the character gets out of breath again, so the catastrophe’s no longer avoidable. This card, then, would be the second wind: if you become out of breath, you spend your second wind and reset your breath pool to 3 or 4 dice. Getting your second wind back would be a major event — rare when it happens.
These ideas are by no means fully baked; it’s a rough draft, a quick effort to connect the idea of breath-as-game-resource with an ebb-and-flow game economy. But it’s a start, and a snapshot of the process. What do you think?