Here's a little aphorism that's been rattling around in my head recently:
An engaging game leads players to make decisions whose consequences affect later decisions.
So: do I buy Park Place, decreasing my cash on hand and giving me a potential profit later, or do I let the other players bid for it on auction, perhaps spending significantly more or less than the list price in order to gain that same potential later advantage? Whichever way I go, I will have changed the variables of the game so that when I later land on Boardwalk, I will have different cash, assets, and/or competition that affect that decision.
In the "traditional roleplaying game" this principle is harnessed in weak and uncertain ways. The consequences may risk hit points, spell points, maybe willpower; occasionally some gear can be lost or gained. Those are the concrete things that can get involved. Most everything else involved in the decisions and consequences, though, is in the fiction. You risk alienating the Duke but might gain the support of the Archbishop; you might find the McGuffin or incite the tribesmen or disrupt the timeline. Or its most basic: the tunnel splits in two directions: down one tunnel is riches and the damsel in distress; down the other tunnel is goblins and pit traps. Generally speaking, both the arbitration of the decision and the consequences of the choice made are in the hands of the GM or hanging out there in imaginary space between the players at the table. It's hard to get a handle on any of this stuff, and you can run into all sorts of problems with disconnects between player expectations, realism, favortism, social maneuvering, and the like. As I said above, it is all weak and uncertain. But it certainly feels immediate and visceral, like you really are deciding the fate of the Duke, Archbishop, tribesmen, damsel in distress, et al.
Here's what I like second-best* about Dogs in the Vineyard -- writing new shit on the character sheet. Taking moral stances on complex situations is nice and all, but hot fucking damn do I love playing the character and in so doing defining what the character is about. In fact in my (short-term) experience I keep finding I want more ability to shift and grow the character through play, and I think it'd be neat if new traits happened more often and your starting set of defined traits was smaller (Annie Rush's Hatch will attempt to do just that). But what's at the core of my glee, here? It's that feedback loop of decisions and consequences -- I stared down the Steward and he's going to support me, now? That's nice. But I've got this new trait, I stared down the Steward 2d4! To me, the consequences in the fiction are secondary to the consequences on my character sheet. The fictional consequences are just that -- fictional. And they're going to go away when we head off to the next town. But this thing I've written on my character sheet? That's tangible and lasting -- that's something that I can use in later decisions as long as I care to keep it.
Tony Lower-Basch is doing something that I hope will ratchet that action up another step with his game-in-progress, Misery Bubblegum. The stakes of each conflict are shifted between players -- so if I win a conflict whose stakes are Sophie Loves Me, I take control of the Sophie Loves Me card. My "character sheet" is composed of the stakes that I've won throughout the game. The various cards on the table all represent different elements of the fiction, and controlling those cards means you can exert control over those elements of the fiction. It's all Decision and Consequences land made real and tactile and immediate.
Stepping beyond the player character, this is something I am groping towards in Web of Shadows. Each and every scene inescapably has specific consequences on the situation as represented by the web of cards. This is the easily-overlooked first part of the aphorism I'm talking about: an engaging game leads players to make decisions. This shit isn't optional. It shouldn't be possible to not make decisions with attendant consequences. With a good deal of luck and a little bit of good design, the consequences of player decisions elaborate the world, creating a vibrant context in which to make later decisions. It's iterative creation, and can be applied to characters (Misery Bubblegum), situation (Web of Shadows), and setting (minutiae in Shock:). It isn't hard to argue that this is how individual scenes work in every roleplaying game out there.
It's also useful in analyzing why some games or individual mechanics within games fall flat. If a decision has no consequences, it's not engaging the feedback loop. If I'm playing a game of Mage and I choose to make a Son of Ether, there are two broad "consequences" to that decision -- I get a dot of Matter and I'm a member of the Son of Ether organization. If I was already planning on buying one or more dots of Matter, the first consequence is weak to the point of irrelevance. If my character's membership in the Sons does not bear any affect on the ensuing game, so is the second. This has led many Mage players to tell me "it doesn't really matter what Tradition I choose" and explains a lot of limp organizations and politics in Mage games. You're a Euthanatos mage? So what! More significantly, when the available choices include options that will have consequences and other options which will not, you have what Chris Chinn calls "bunk choices." If the consequences are good, of course you pick those options; if the consequences are bad, of course you don't pick those options. Either way, this is not really a decision, and the consequences are more the creation of the game designer than the players. Less investment, less engagement, less fun.
I'm not sure how far to go on this tack, however. I'm tempted to leap from the rooftops shouting, "Every invocation of the mechanics must have consequences outside the fiction!" and I'm not certain that that is the case. What about those short conflicts in Dogs where nobody takes fallout and the only repercussions is that some guy gave and told you what he knows? Do they have a place, or are they instances where the GM should have just said Yes in the first place? Or take a glance at Capes -- if somebody puts out a conflict that nobody expends any effort in winning either side, is it really a conflict? The only consequence is that the original player spent their turn putting it out there. And of course there are the players out there in the world who are perfectly happy eating dinner in character, chatting away merrily about the weather of their fictional world. Where do they fit in on the decisions-and-consequences diatribe bus? I never know where to put them on any bus I'm driving.
* What I like best about Dogs -- it says what it does, it does what it says.