Alien and the Power of Asymmetrical Rules

I’m glad to see the examples regardless. (Especially about Goblinville, since that’s a game I’d like to play but probably won’t get to.)

I’m partly talking about this because it’s something I’d like to design towards. I’m just not sure how.

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Well let’s try and reverse engineer what’s happening

Based on my understanding of how you described the Alien game, there is a mechanic that is a meter which as it increases provides bonuses and penalties. An aggressive oversimplification would be it is a push-your-luck mechanic.

We have created two asymmetric “classes” of character by having ones that do and ones that do not interact with the mechanic. We could say you can simulate this effect by taking mechanics from other games and isolating them from specific classes; but this is a very typical thing most RPGs do (DnD Wizards get spells, Warriors do not), so obviously there is something more to this.

I will refer to a talk by Justin Gary (of the Ascension deckbuilding game) at PAX East in which he described “pain points”. A pain point is the twist you have in a game mechanic that creates the actual emotional response to playing the game. For example, in MtG, you want to cast all your spells, but the pain point is your finite mana resource. You thus have a strong emotional response (high and low) to the amount of lands you draw.

In Alien, you (presumably) want to succeed at all of your die rolls. As you accrue stress, you get the opportunity to create bigger and bigger outcomes, but the pain point would be the growing potential for panic. As an android, your pain point is instead the fact that you can’t accrue stress. It relieves the pain of potentially causing panic, but gives you the pain of not being able to add more dice to rolls.

So to return to the DnD example, the reason spellcasting does not create the same emotional response is it’s not a tradeoff of pain points. In DnD you want to hit the enemies until they die, with the pain points being the limit to how many times or how hard you can hit things. The Wizard is limited by how many uses they get, but the Warrior is limited by physical positioning (both limits on how you hit things).

So how to we replicate this asymmetry? We can use mechanics that provide benefits and drawbacks. Therefore not interacting with those mechanics creates a distinct play style; and if those mechanics create strong emotional responses then the lack of those mechanics can create a separate but just as strong emotional response.

As a quick thought experiment, let’s take Dread. In dread you pull blocks from a Jenga tower to achieve things, and if you knock the tower over you die. Harder challenges can require pulls of more than one block, and players can choose to not pull (their character will fail, but at least they won’t die).

Let’s create a distinct character type; “The Jock”. The Jock character in horror movies is arrogant to a fault. We’ll say whenever they make a pull on the tower, they must always pull an additional block but cannot choose not to pull. They now occupy a different emotional state from normal characters. In Dread, everyone is bold when the tower is stable, and cautious when it’s rickety. The Jock can be just as bold, but will accelerate the tower towards an unstable state much faster. Once the tower is unstable, they are now in much more danger than other characters, which can compound if everyone else blames them for making the tower unstable in the first place.

I hope that helps. If you have other ideas please share them!


That idea of ‘pain point’ is very illuminating! It unlocked a Trophy Gold idea for me.

In TG, I think the pain point is the tension between your Ruin & your Burden. Can you stay alive (keep your Ruin high enough) long enough to get enough gold to meet your Burden (minimum funds required to stay alive in civilization) & advance toward accomplishing your PC’s long-term Drive, knowing that the longer you stay in the Incursion, the more likely you are to run into something that will kill you?

Here’s a class idea that builds a different tension by only interacting with the Ruin mechanics:

Automaton of Old Kalduhr
Veteran of an ancient, long-forgotten war between civilizations of the Forest, you have an array of magical tools, but find life in human civilization difficult to navigate. A tragic figure, you are an enigma to your fellow Adventurers & reflect their Drives back to them as in a twisted mirror.

Ancient Analytical Engine: At creation, only roll for a Background, to reflect the few tricks you’ve managed to pick up in your centuries of travel. You may not use found weapons or armor.

Not Built for This World: The Automaton is beholden to no Burden, and pays tribute to no Drive—they are intent on entering the forests, ruins, and other haunted spaces of the world because these are the final remaining places that feel like home. They begin with Ruin at 6.

Alchemical Adaptations: When engaging in a Risk Roll, take 1 white die if your Background applies, & 1 dark die if you choose to conjure a useful gadget or tool from your body; you may not strike Devil’s Bargains, & you may not push your luck with additional dark dice. Before combat, you may increase your Ruin by 1 to conjure a weapon; if you know a foe’s weakness, your conjured weapon may reduce its Toughness. During combat you can increase your Ruin by 1 to avoid any amount of Ruin from your Weak Point, by alchemically improvising armor.

Walking the Old Paths: The Automaton can walk in peace through places that would make others tremble with dread. During downtime, reducing your Ruin requires you to commune with forests, ruins, and other haunted spaces of the world, and functions like a Hunt Roll.

Take 1 light die for traveling deep into the wilderness, asking about the environment, & answering questions about what you remember of Old Kalduhr. Take another if there are haunted places in the area (ancient ruins, sacred caverns, etc.) These might be sites for future adventures, or you may walk reflectively through a ruin you fought inside alongside your companions. You may spend 1 token to remove all Conditions, & additional tokens 1-to-1 to reduce Ruin. On a roll of 4-5, the GM may opt (instead of something terrible) to confront you with incontrovertible evidence that the old ways you follow are irremediably corrupted or long dead, or show you ways that mortal Incursions upset the otherwordly ecology of the Forest.


Not to derail the thread, but I would argue that #1 and #2 are just two types of structures - there is not real difference the the structures “You create an adventure” compared to “Play your character” (just to give an example). I think game designers are doing themselves a disfavor if they think they are different, and #3 is just an emotional response for when #1 and #2 are in progress in a compulsion loop.

Lets say that we play Dread, but one of the players don’t have to draw, but instead delegate their draw to another player. That would possibly render a similar emotional response to what the example in the OP gave. However, the game master is doing just that - delegating others to draw.

We have probably all played roleplaying game sessions where one of the players were secretly working for the opposing force, may it be a assassins guild, a competitive faction or the bad guy in the end, possibly guiding the players to their doom. That kind of experience, where the player knows everything will work out for its character (sort of), isn’t really a type of mechanic but a structure from your first point, because the player is basically a co-game master, but it potentially gives the same emotional response as the android example.

If you would only to focus on the mechanical aspect, you will miss this kind of nuance.


I can’t agree with this generalization. To me there’s an important difference of intent in #1 that’s absent in #2. This will be clear, I hope, when I get to your Dread example.

But they are. Every participant in the RPG medium is essentially a creator but the “why” is different and “how” is often different too.

This is where intent comes in. Unless you change Dread into something completely different, Host’s intent is to put forward the framework of the story and to resolve conflicts. Assigning a pull has a specific goal: enable players to uncover some intended story piece. If you were to give these tools to one of the players, they’d still be there to play through the story and push players’ agenda: uncover story piece in a way that increases survivability. So even if we put aside whether I agree with your assertion that assigning pull would render a similar emotional response to the one Anders described, there’s a difference between #1 and #2.

From my experience if you share this level of insight into the world with GM, you are co-GM, not a player. To me the situation you’re describing mixes two different scenarios. You start with something that I would describe cooperative-competitive game (essentially two games run by a single GMing body in parallel: the good guys and the bad guys - with maybe the bad guy working alone) but then end up with the aforementioned co-GMing (the bad guy knows his end game). And again, I don’t see how your example is in line with what Anders described - the assassin example is about two antagonistic groups of players which wasn’t the case in his Alien example.


I think that you’re pretty much spot on WRT the description of what happens, but not with the example above. To me the example interaction in Aliens reads like an emotional detachment from a pain point. This would closely mirror your description of detachment from a game mechanic.

Your example on the other hand shows how you can twist mechanic to intensify certain emotional response but the goal seems to be, at least from my reading, to split certain experiences at the table. It’s probably a loaded example (and it’s not based on Dread, sorry, I can’t think of an example that draws from Dread) but the Aliens example sounds to me like the dissonance between the perception of a religious person and an atheist.

I’m not making a value judgment here but simply trying to draw a parallel between android being sort of a cold machine assessing the risks and atheists observing the faith of believers. In your system description we could say that atheist doesn’t interact with faith mechanics.


I think describing it through emotional response is totally valid, that’s pretty much the metric I’m trying to evaluate by. To TLDR my previous post I think this type of design works when being unable to interact with a mechanic is as emotionally powerful as interacting with it.


This discussion is really fruitful. I second Rickard in his remark. Task and role distribution both can create assymetry and obviously change the players’ experience. Both looking at it from the foundation up, or focusing on the effect (to reproduce it) are valid perspectives. The later approach is dominant in this thread, but doesn’t make the former off topic.
Since I first played “Cosmic encounter”, I have learned to recognize assymetric rules and roles and enjoy them.
One could imagine a GMless Technoir hack where protagonists and antagonists exchange (“charge/discharge”) Push dice (narrative role assymetry). In any game, one player can have more “non character” initiative, like that of framing or cutting scenes, or establishing certain setting facts. And this has been made into a character capacity. It certainly feels different to be a Hardholer or a Driver or a Quarantine in AW. Is it coincidence that my examples distribute traditional GM tasks among players ? Maybe it’s my taste showing, maybe the distribution of tasks is behind it. Maybe the task of the droid in Alien is to make them PCs get to the end of the story. (or maybe it’s just a taming the chaos balance mechanism Anders made something of)
To conclude, I think the Droid experience in Alien is not fundamentally different from other games with assymetric rules. But it’s striking because the assymetry is elegant : a small change induces a deeply different experience.


I think I get the comparison here. Just to confirm: Are you saying that these different mechanical ‘twists’ get the players into different headspaces. One of a baldly rationalist android who thinks things are ‘just as they are,’ and one of a person with faith who believes the situation can change if you try?

If so, I find that comparison really interesting! I wonder if there are any games that leverage push-your-luck mechanics to explore how possessing belief changes behavior?

Also, I love the way you’ve put that, @Radmad! Are there other instances where being denied the ability to interact with a mechanic is an emotionally impactful experience?

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Two games that sprung into mind when reading DeReel’s post:

Svart av kval, vit av lust have a hierarchy of how powerful characters are. In this pyramid of power, older vampires will always defeat younger vampires, but releasing the vampire’s inner Beast will beat all kinds of vampires. The Beast’s actions are usually violent. This means, in game, that a younger vampire’s road to success will be drained in blood.

In my own game This is Pulp, where it’s all about challenging the players to describe their actions, all characters have two moves with three side effects: 1) a player character gets hurt, 2) something breaks, 3) the action takes longer than expected. Each specific move got suggestions of how this can be described. However, the Explorer with hirelings have a description that - instead of something breaking - one or more of the Explorer’s hirelings gets killed (she have an infinite amount). This have always come out as her being cold and bloodthirsty, in comparison to the destruction the other characters left behind them.

That would be a correct description, yes.


This is a fair point. PBTA games, from my experience at least, do bring more of the android/human split vibe than the earlier wizard/fighter example did. It also seems fair to point out how minimalist a change in Alien seems to produce a huge change. Like you said, it seems very elegant.

And like I said previously, I don’t know if you can have this visceral difference in experience without mechanical differences. The only examples w/o systematic differences that come to my mind aren’t nice.

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@dominik, aside from the “co-GMing” argument, I agree with you. Last year I played in a loose convention game of Savage Worlds Sci-fi. Halfway through the game, the GM gave us cards which secretly changed our roles as players. Instead of cooperately solving a mystery, several of us were designated as infected by the machine singularity with the main goal of escaping the moon base. This did not make us co-GM’s in the story. It only changed our motivations.

That said, it did force the players into having asynchronous goals and different emotional responses towards each other and their actions. I was one of the infected, so instead of helping the trapped healthy humans, I convinced another player to leave them lest we get infected. He became suspicious and I became unsupportive of the original team.

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I’ve a couple of examples to add -

  • Ars Magica - classic traditional game where the Wizard vastly overpowers the grogs that everyone else plays, this is compensated with having rotating wizard players (every player has their own wizard character as well as a grog) and occasional grog-only games.
  • Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. Here there are often characters with quite different levels of power, which is balanced with story points - a game resource that modifies dice rolls and can be thought of as either luck - or that the writer of the plot is on the side of the companions :slight_smile:

Also just like to add, I ran one of the cinematics for Alien and did prompt that having one of the players be the synthetic might be a good idea. Which it is. It also helps if you choose characters that have rivalries and buddies with each other for the stress mechanics.


Ars Magica is an interesting example because of the rotating roles. I haven’t played it but I’ve always wanted, though presently playing a game about locking yourself up in a tower to do research and avoid contact with the external world as much as possible is perhaps a bit too real.

Doctor Who sounds similar to Buffy which has a similar system, where the Scoobies get more resources than the slayers, vampires, and other supernatural badasses. Or are the story points exclusively for the companions in Doctor Who?

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Story Points aren’t exclusive - they’re like fate points in FATE which are reduced with stunts. The more Traits (in this case Special Traits rather than Good or Bad) you have in DWAITAS (Doctor Who) - the less Story Points you have. The Doctor Who game doesn’t usually have The Doctor in it (at least not when I’ve run it) - often has a Time Lord of some sort, but not all the time. You can run a Companions only game (but I’d recommed the Companions PbtA game for that) and you could have any mix of aliens of a variety of “power levels” - with more traits than story points or less.


So it’s more a difference in degree than kind? That can still shape the play experience quite strongly.

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Another example of different win conditions:
Capybara Capers, for example, is a simple game of animal heist, but to add some chaos the characters have different agendas within the game (including diegetic ones, like betrayal, and stuff like not saying the word “capybara” during the session). Althought the major impact seems to be on the narrative (like in Deckard’s example), the traitor/detective dynamic adds an extra layer to the gameplay and impact the mechanics of trust tokens.
I don’t know how it would compare to the other examples you guys listed since it’s a more structured experience, though.

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