Some Things I Like
1) It's likely to be lying around somewhere like old monopoly games and checkers so can use what you have (rather than buy it like me).
2) It's a very social mechanic. I can't think of any other resolution system that is quite as showy and dramatic. So, it's easy for everyone present to watch and be interested in the results. Harder to achieve that with dice.
3) It's interesting because it's a different kind of mechanic. It's about seeing how far you can push your luck, not diminishing returns, but a dimishing chance that the risk you just took won't blow up in the party's face.
So, When do we use it?
Seems like, because of #2, it would be best with something involving the whole party. Yes, you might use it to determine when an individual player makes a lycanthropic switch, but it wouldn't be capitalizing on the group aspect. So what then? It seems it would be best where the actions of any of the party would affect all the party. So maybe:
- Reputation or trustworthiness in a place - caught in lying or stealing
- Going incognito or not/fitting in - breaking taboos
- Raising an alarm - individual noises
- Overusing a resource - rubbing the lamp too many times and the djinn is freed, how many chests can you load on the barge before sinking it (in a way it's a greed mechanic isn't it?)
- Come to think of it, lycanthropy or going berzerk might be well suited - one pc's transformation will affect the whole group. Have a list of things that set them off (challenges, being hurt, hurting someone else) and make them pull each time one of them happens.
So, for example, if the role playing situation is scoring political points against opponents at court by making cracks about them without pissing off the monarch, each pull gives you something good but means you're closer to getting thrown out of the court. 30 wisecracks seems like a lot in that case.
You might utilize the colored blocks somehow here, if a jibe is red and a compliment to your allies was blue, the courtiers would soon be shifting their verbal strategies as all the easy to pull red blocks are pulled.
By giving a certain category of trigger a color we limit the amount of those triggers that pc's can get away with before calamity. How much we limit depends on what pattern you stack the colors in, but if you stack them randomly (say, drawing them from a bag) I think it would divide that number by three. So, from 15-30 down to 5-10 red blocks. Does that sound right?
Who Pulls? You might make the person who caused the pull to do it as a kind of punishment, or allow the players to nominate someone to pull for all of them (although this might soon lead to one person pulling every time).
I don't want to keep setting the blocks back up, so this mechanic should represent something dramatic and consequential. It should be the focus of the rest of the session if not, multiple sessions after.
But . . . not campaign-ruining, because my sense is if you set the blocks up, people are going to keep pushing until they fall, especially my drunkie players.
Other ideas about when or how you might use Jenga in your old school games?