Theory: The Gold Standard in Thematic Design

One of the things I love about Netrunner is how the game expresses complex ideas using core mechanics. A given card will use the exact same mechanisms as lots of other cards, but still have something it uniquely, convincingly represents. Each such card is a masterwork in miniature, a perfect building block for a remarkable game.

By way of example, take a look at Yog.0.

8-17-15 - Yog.0

Yog.0 is a simple card—and an amazing design. The italicized flavor text gives us the thematic background: this card represents a tool for hackers, a database containing lots of stolen passwords. While that might seem pretty complicated, Yog.0 only needs two bits of text to fully express the concept.

To see how that’s true, let’s imagine how such a database might work in practice. The player is in the role of a hacker, and the card represents a list of passwords. If the player-hacker needs to break through security and the relevant password is listed, there’s no additional cost in time or money. She has everything she needs. If the password doesn’t appear, however, the database is useless; she must use a different tool.

Both of those aspects are represented on the card. The first is contained in the line above the italics. Without getting into the technicalities of what it means to “[b]reak” a “subroutine,” it’s clear that the player-hacker gets to make progress for a cost of zero. Furthermore, since it costs zero the player-hacker can do it as many times as she wants. Both of those are what we expect from using a list of passwords; so long as the password is in the database, the player-hacker can keep right on going, no additional input required.

Of course, it’s also important to capture the situation where the password isn’t there. That’s handled by the “3” in the lower-left corner. In Netrunner, every security system has a strength. Getting through requires a hacking program of at least equal strength, as noted in the lower-right corner.

Yog.0 has a strength of 3. Right there, we can tell which passwords are on the list. The password to get through this is:

This has a strength of 2, noted in the lower-left.
This has a strength of 2, noted in the lower-left.

But to have the password for this, Yog.0 would need a strength of 4. It doesn’t, so we know right away that this password is missing.

Strength 4 is more than Yog.0 can handle.
Strength 4 is more than Yog.0 can handle.

All of that thematic information, in one line and one number. Yog.0 doesn’t rely on its italicized flavor text to put across what’s happening; we can feel it as we rush through one code gate after another, effortlessly putting in the necessary passwords. We can also feel lit in the sudden stop when we run into something we don’t have the password for!

Compare how Yog.0 works to more complex alternatives. Password tokens could be put on code gates, and Yog.0 could come with some; a match means one can get through. We’d have to keep track of all those tokens, of course. There might also be a need to accumulate more tokens; that could be a minigame, with the player-hacker stealing new passwords. Stealing passwords doesn’t directly advance the player toward winning, though, so there need to be adequate incentives for participating in the minigame. That implies a development issue . . . .

Ack! Thematic design can very quickly lead down an incredibly complex road.

Yog.0, like many of Netrunner’s cards, is brilliant because it avoids that trap. It has all of the thematic power with none of the rules bloat. That’s the gold standard for thematic components, and the key to an elegant, yet thematic, game.

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