In the realm of table top roleplaying games countless tons of breath-air has been expended to argue the virtues of various systems over others. While it is generally agreed that each RPG exists as a coordinate on a graph where one axis represents a continuum between narrative and simulationist systems, while the other axis denotes a continuum of greater player authority or more game master authority, I will not be commenting much on that today.
No the aspect of games that is in my mind are gimmicks. Now, gimmicks are in no way a technical or universal term. In fact, I would be hard pressed to suggest it is the best term. But I have not yet thought of a better one and it allowed me a nice rhyme in the title. I mean, come on, rhyming is fun. Don't think so? Well thousands of years of music and poetry and I will be sitting over are having a ton of fun. A TON of FUN.
Anyway....I am defining gimmicks as isolated rules or rule systems too small to truly simulate a game world as a robust resolution mechanic that DOES serve to simulate a narrow, no matter how important aspect of a narrative. My first experience with such gimmicks may have been (it was a while ago, forgive me) in Deadlands.
I met Mike Parker, a good friend and dedicated, GM in a Vampire: the Masquarade LARP. After we both left the game, he invited me to join his friends in regular Roleplaying. Eventually these friends would be the basis of the most dependable and explorative gaming group I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of. We dived into the indie press gaming revolution with fork and knife, but before all that there was the poker game version of Deadlands. In this version of Deadlands, we played a game of poker before each game started as a way of getting out table socialization, preparing for the role play, and determining each of our character's luck. It was not only fun, this focused addition did more to establish the mood of the game for every player than any other aspect of the game. While poker played a small role in that system, save for a specific character type and the motif of the writing, the gimmick was strong enough to be damn memorable.
As the years went on I was able to try more gimmicks; playing shadows for other characters in wraith (meh), social combat in Burning empires (which has found its place in so many systems now that I would say it is less of a gimmick and more of a tool), table dice pools in "Don't Rest Your Head", not to mention Baron Von Munchausen. The last of these is a game so simple, it is all gimmick. The developing focus on gimmicks is one of the trends of the Indie press revolution. Games that seek less to be simulations for all manner of situations and instead focus on one or two gimmicks that are meant to promote the themes and narratives of the game. I would argue that Fate Core, one of my favorite systems, is a simplified universal RPG system built around a workhorse of (by now) highly tested gimmicks.
It is with such a gimmick that makes Dread work so well, a game I had the fortune of trying last night. I had seen Dread, looked through the rule book, and I very much looked forward to playing. The game is intended to simulate the tension and fear of the horror genre. A "host" (GM) crafts a horror movie situation and adapts character creation toward that situation. Characters are built by answering a series of questions so that in the end, they are naught more than narrative constructions. There are, as far as I can tell, no numbers to the game.
The resolution mechanic is left to a game of Jenga. As the host tells the story and invites our participation, they take note of character actions or inquires that would bring them closer to the horror or an ill-fate, bring the horror closer to the fore, or reveal the underlying story. Any such inquires or actions require the player to pull a Jenga piece. As characters do more and more meaningful things, the tension mounts, until one character topples the tower and the proverbial gore hits the high speed oscillating machete blades. After that it's a bloodbath. You don't play Dread to get out scott free.
I can tell you that this lone mechanic works, with raising stakes and tense table talk, fear is easily simulated. There is nothing on my sheet that gives me a mechanical bonus to any action, I have no news to write down any amount of money or quantity of damage save for what I choose in order to tell a story. Dread does not simulate people and situations, actions or attacks. Dread simulates fear and it's gimmick allows it to do that well.
I like gimmicks, I believe there is more to the works of Roleplaying games than universal world systems and specific accounting. Though I favor narrative games due to deprivation from their charms, I do seek balance. I like games that recognize the importance of narrative and support it with promotive mechanics. The highly specific Dread is good for a certain kind of game, but it will never be the bread and butter of my gaming table. I have been told that such highly specific mechanics are "gimmicky" and I quite agree. But I do not recognize the loss of value in using the name. Gimmicks are good, to me, and I highly recommend you try games that make liberal use of them.