push pyramid, and the promise of GM mechanics

You know what’s a great game mechanic? The push pyramid, as found in Blowback.

It’s a concrete tool for the GM to manage the game, helping them pace the escalation of the larger plot in a longer campaign of Blowback. Moreover, it’s actually fun. It adds mechanics and feedback loops to the GM’s process, almost as if the GM was another player for whom the game was designed to entertain.

If your tabletop RPG uses a GM, you certainly may rely on established tropes, such as: the GM will put in a bit more work and balance the whole of the game. That’s fine. I will rely on such tropes a great deal, because they communicate a useful whole culture of play. Even still, this means that design for the GM-figure has not adequately been explored.

When you give the GM the reins to run a game, give them the tools to manage their information and instructions about how to best represent their world, but also make sure to create engaging mechanics, subsystem and feedback loops for their specific role. They, too, are a player, and you must make sure that the system constantly rewards them and pushes them into continued effective play.

That said, you can over-design this. Some games offer a full-fledged currency for every narrative flourish and introduction that a GM may make, but this might overly constrain the GM’s role. Their game is already the freeform elucidation of the world and improvising new challenges. Playing Mother-May-I with a pile of coins is interrupting what is to be the core of their gameplay.

I like the Push Pyramid a great deal, because it offers a slight limitation but dangles a promising reward to the GM, all while still letting them play in an unconstrained fashion and be the best at what they do.

UPDATE: A brief explanation of the workings of the Push Pyramid. An important aspect of gameplay in Blowback is when characters change their relationship levels (up or down) in the aftermath of a mission. The GM starts the game with the bottom level of options “unlocked”. Whenever a chracter changes their relationship, the GM can then use once of the available Push Pyramid options against a character (on either side of the relationship change). Once a move is used, it is not used again in this fashion, but it unlocks new moves higher on the pyramid. In other words: as a key aspect of the players’ game happens (the changing of relationships), the GM is continually prompted to challenge the players and gradually ramp up the intensity of those pushes.