Avoiding Design Traps in Game Mechanics / by Brandon Kidwell

This particular post is my thoughts & opinions on design traps in game Mechanic. 

Mechanic Trap: A mechanic purposefully or accidentally designed to look beneficial to the player but doesn’t provide appropriate benefit.

(this may not be the best description, but it is a starting point).

I have run into this many times in both digital and tabletop games. This commonly appears in RPG games, but is not limited to just that genre. A very brief example would be Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition where many feats available to the player actually provide little to no benefit. It can be argued that it is up to the player to make the choice of which feats they are going to take. However the deceptive nature of some of the feats leads us to question if the feat should be in the game at all.

While working on my tabletop RPG, Project Aymir D12, I ran into such an issue. I was designing the abilities for the rogue class and I gave them two reactive abilities. Reactive abilities are literally used as reactions to something and the player can only use so many “reactions” a turn. So, when I created these abilities I looked over both to make sure that the player would want to use them but have to make a skillful decision on which one to use due to their limitation.

Let’s look at the abilities: (these are just quick overviews of the skill and not the final description).

  • (R1)Quick Acting - if the rogue fails to evade an attack he can spend a reaction to attempt a second evasion roll.
  • (R1)Lucky Coin - When the rogue receives damage he may luckily escape the full force of the attack. Flip a coin, if the coin is heads reduce the damage based on your luck score. If tails take the full damage.

The issue here lays within the second ability Lucky Coin. The player gets a 50% chance to reduce damage or take the full damage. You may ask: What is wrong with this?

The skill provides a 50% chance to gain a bonus and costs an important resource. It doesn’t reduce damage to 0 unless the players luck score is really high. On the other hand the player could use Quick Acting and have a chance to negate the damage all together.

This causes “gamist” players or players with some common sense to only chooseQuick Acting as a skill because Lucky Coin is too risky and a trap/waste of experience. If players only choose Quick Acting and based on the games rules it is the most viable option then Lucky Coin doesn’t even need to be in the game.

In that case all we need to do is add some kind of “reason” for people to want to take Lucky Coin. With that in mind I added a second bonus to the player for getting tails on the coin flip.

  • (R1)Lucky Coin - When the rogue receives damage he may luckily escape the full force of the attack or cause the attacker to get hurt as well. Flip a coin, if the coin is heads reduce the damage by your luck score. If tails take the full damage but deal your luck score back as damage.

Now when the player flips the coin he receives a benefit from either side but he takes damage no matter what. This makes it so that players with high evasion may want to retaliate or reduce their damage when actually being hit, so they may take Lucky Coin. Players who do not have a high chance to avoid may choose Quick Acting to give them a second boost in dodging the attacks.


When designing mechanics for anything make sure that there is a reason to choose all mechanics. It is important that the players decisions are skillful choices of their gameplay style. Adding a skill for filler isn’t a valid excuse to put it into the game. It is your job as a designer to piece together the interesting choices players can make.