I’m a fan of “Extra Credits”. If you’re not in the know, they’re a group of video game design people that put on a cool little semi-animated web series. While their main focus is primarily on design for video games, it still has my recommendation for anyone interested in any game design. In one of their more recent videos, they talked about a concept called “Counter Play.” The basic description is that abilities in a game should exist to do more than just make the game interesting for the player using them; they should actively enhance the experience of everyone playing the game.
They give some examples from “World of Tanks”, but a more widely known example might be the ‘sticky’ plasma grenade in the Halo series. When you get stuck by a plasma grenade, your screen turns a hazy blue and you now have only seconds to live. Halo gives you several options at this point. You can try and suicide-bomb your opponents, wait quietly to die, or try to ‘re-stick’ the bomb onto another player by running into them. In this way, we can see how one player’s mechanic (throwing a plasma grenade) gives the other player a lot of interesting options, instead of simply robbing them of agency.
As you can see, this approach has some serious potential in tabletop rpg’s. A lot of what drags in most games is the feeling that, especially during combat, a player’s actions are only interesting or have consequences for that individual character. Designing a system where player’s actions interact with one another and create new challenges and opportunities is a very solid idea.
There’s a couple ways to go about doing this. Whether your designing player abilities, monsters or antagonists, you want to make sure that their abilities and mechanics contribute overall to the enjoyment of the game. An ability that shuts down other player abilities, stun locks, or insta-kills should be avoided. Instead, status effects, abilities with lots of tactical potential, or skills that rely on teamwork should be utilized. The idea is to give everyone abilities that force the other players to re-consider their tactics,come up with new plans, and reward creativity.
Of course, there’s probably a lot more to Counter Play than just this. Why not leave your own take on the concept / ways to apply it in the comments below?