How many mechanics/things/resources can we use/keep track of in a session?

At first I thought there was a golden number but experience and discussion with other GMs as well as looking at different designs have proven to me that there isn’t. I haven’t seen yet studies about brain performance that could point in an specific direction, though there seems to be a limit to how many things we pay attention to and why. (I’ve been watching the Mind Games show on netflix)

So instead of stopping there I’m thinking now it has more to do with being able to “replace” the tools our mind commonly uses to deal with reality with several procedures and mechanics we use to deal with the fiction, according to the game we’re playing. Most probably the amount of mechanics each of us personally uses has something to do with how much we need to replace to feel comfortable, as it always feels like a game instead of a chore.

So, while there are definitely people whose IQ will influence how many mechanics they can handle, most of us will take hold of as many mechanics as we feel comfortable with, getting them together in procedures/sequences our brains can remember easier or ditching enough to get the game experience we’re familiar with or expect from the game.

While I’m using the term “mechanics”, I’m actually dropping in there together things like rules, techniques, ritual phrases, ways to convey spatial positioning, sequences of procedures that link these together and ways the group exchanges information on everything related to the game.

So, for example, we have ways to:
-Build the fiction. From detailed setting books to monster lists, from having the GM create everything to brainstorming it with the players, or having them create it on the go, etc.
-Decide what and if something constitues a challenge and the outcome of characters meeting them in different ways. Like adjudication, levels of difficulty, dice, etc.
-Define the odds of overcoming a challenge like ways to affect dice probability, bonuses and penalties, basically all the math used.
-Establish and communicate changes of spatial positioning in the fiction. We can go from minis movement rules to words like close and far, to LARPs and more.
-Establish the limits of characters ingerence. From power scale to inventories, attributes, characteristics, skill definitions to random tables of how things can go wrong when using them, etc.
-Reward things that we find good, interesting, fun. From simple laughter and gestures to XP, fanmail, and other in-game resources.
-Keep track of narration and coherence. From communal memory to notes and rules to establish scenes or acts.
-Introduce unexpected, interesting twists into the story, like GM prep, making up new challenges from consequences of previous PC actions, random encounter tables, etc.
-Deal with social situations in the fiction, like roleplaying the characters, rolling dice on social skills, etc.

Help me here, I’m probably forgetting something :stuck_out_tongue:

Anyway, my point is that as a designer you can cover as much of these things on your rules, procedures or game advice. The GM/players will fill the rest, but you always have to consider that they will use their own background and bring their own expectations whenever your game doesn’t explicitly offer options to cover for some area, and they even misunderstood,drop and change things in areas you provide solutions for, just to match them to their expectations or background. Meaning that you either have to be explicit and use aids to explain precisely how you cover each area, or go for familiar enough mechanics and procedures to convey the game experience you want the players to enjoy.

Opinions? Arguments against this? Maybe there’s actually a limit to the number of mechanics in use in a game? Would it be better to get close to that number or just design modules the players can use or not or switch around?

I love this about Blades in the Dark: It offloads all the weird mechanics to the players during heists. Outside heists, the GM gets to play with all the fiddly mechanical bits of project clocks, faction clocks, faction ratings, entanglements, etc. But those are times everyone is doing system-processing stuff. Put simply: All the complicated systems are only used during prescribed times in play. Outside those times, they don’t come up. From there, they inform the fiction, driving the players to action or setting up entanglements (often antagonist actions) for the GM to use later.

When the action is on, you’re not worried about any of that stuff – just the three different kinds of rolls (fortune, resistance, and action), tier, position, and effect for system and player mood, spotlight, conflict, situation, NPCs, reading the room, etc. for non-system stuff.

It passes through free play (you might get some of those entanglements) to a score (action is on, only worry about the three different kinds of rolls, plus tier, position, and effect. All the special abilities and edge cases are for the players to worry about), to downtime (all the fiddly system bits) and back.

My point is, it’s very innovative in how it cordons off all the system fiddly stuff either to push it on to the players (for their special abilities) or into specific times during play (downtime).


To make an ambitious line of inquiry even more subjectively murky: The question you are addressing may not even be “how many systems can we track” but “how many systems is it enjoyable to track”.

That answer is not so much dependent on IQ as it is on personal predilection with respect to what an individual finds entertaining and what they find a chore. And, of course, for most folks that is not even a static pin on a map–some days engaging in complex system mastery sounds exciting and some days it feels like an obstacle to what I really want to indulge in.


We can hold 7±2 things in our short term memory, and then they will fade after 20 seconds. Of course, it’s not as easy as this because humans got a complex brain that tries to take shortcuts in order to minimize the cognitive load. For example, we do a lot of chunking, where we group things to make it easier to keep track of them. Goblin 1, 2 and 3 are just “goblins” in a game master’s mind.


I think a significant factor in this is the distance from real life of the things we’re asked to remember.

For example, in Apocalypse World, it’s pretty easy to remember what the “Seduce or Manipulate Someone” move does—I know what it means to seduce or manipulate someone in real life, and while there are a couple of fiddly mechanics in there about XP or whatever, the basic gist is simple enough.

Contrast that, with, say, “Go Aggro.” Once you’ve read this move, it’s not that hard to understand—you’re basically just threatening someone—but the name itself is unusual, and it requires some dedicated learning time. I have to not only remember the move, but I’ve got to remember to mentally translate “Go Aggro” into “Threaten Someone.”

If you can keep the level of internal translation and complexity down, I think you can require players and GMs to keep track of more stuff. If it’s real complicated and jargon-y, though, as many RPGs like to be, I’d guess it’s lower.

I like it that from the list of things we usually handle in a game, we don’t really need to think of every single of them at the same time at the table. There are lots that can be handled as mini-games that still keep continuity with the rest of the game, but have their own moment and place.

You’re right, I just put IQ among the factors to be respectful to designers who made games with lots of mechanics and love to use them all. Yet for us common mortals is more about patience to learn and interiorize mechanics until they become a reflex, or creativity to hack out things you consider a chore and still get the game experience you want from a game. It’s interesting to know that the degree to which one person can enjoy complex things changes from time to time, it happened to myself now that I think of it but never stopped to think about that.

Amazing! This was what I was thinking of before, so there’s a sort of golden number after all! But you’re right, when players face a new system they may still see mechanics as separate things and forget to use several of them, while one they have grown used to them they can see them as procedures and group them together in chunks. Relating them to moments of high emotion helps burn those mechanics into our memory.

It can be compared to how chess players stop seeing individual pieces and moves and start to memorize groups of pieces in different configurations and moves. After some time dungeoneering you will definitely stop asking yourself why is there a 10’ pole on sale at the shop and start asking what else can you use it for. You stop reading spells stats to understand what they do and you re-read them to find out how could you combine them with other spells and items effects to create a bigger mayhem.

Making games more enjoyable may not be a matter of making them more simple, but making learning and managing the game a more simple task.

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Exactly. There’s also the source material to consider. Some names may be more familiar to people who has already consumed material of the same genre or some specific title. Like, I kept thinking how cumbersome and unusual D&D magic system was until I learned it came from Jack Vance books. Then it clicked for me.

Terms that mean what they do and do what they mean are still the best, as well as intuitive mechanics in general. Of course, it will be more evocative if they have names that match the fiction, but nothing says you can’t try to have both in your game.