So here's the first couple of good bits that are worthy of Picasso-ing from various games:
There is much to like about Jonathan Tweet's underrated classic, produced in the days he was working for Wizards of the Coast but before he was one of the main writers on D&D 3rd Edition. Everway was the first diceless game I got my hands on, and it's still my favourite (although I know Amber has its dedicated fans).
Two things jump out at me, however, as particularly memorable. Each character in Everway is generated with a Virtue, a Fault, and a Fate -- which are drawn from the Tarot-style Fortune Deck used to decide the outcome of actions in the game. You could choose them, if you want, but since the cards are fairly subjective in their meaning, randomly drawing cards is an easy way to create a "rounded" character with not only good points and bad, but something he is struggling against -- the "Fate" card is considered sideways, so characters are involved in a tug-of-war between the good and bad forces the card represents (depending on which way it lands on the table). Over the course of play, you can change your Fate, drawing a new card, if you feel you've confonted the forces that the first card represented. Pretty elegant, narrative-centric way of encouraging roleplay.
The second thing that impressed me about Everway was the method Tweet developed for quantifying powers. Each mythic hero had special abilities that set them apart, from the very, very small (such as being able to march all day, if you whistle while you're doing it) to the very large (such as wings granting the power of flight). Tweet set out a way of measuring powers by three metrics: how Frequently it would come up in the game, how Flexible it was, and how Major the ability was. So a power that was effective but rarely used would be scored lower than a power that was always useful and could be used to accomplish many things. This chain of logic, which boils down a vast number of possibilities to simple questions, is great design -- and I can see its DNA in a number of other games that have come along since.
I think what we can take away from these techniques is perhaps less a specific tool to use in your own games, but rather a way of thinking about games that's useful. Having a simple baseline for roleplay (and also a way of boiling down a potentially very complex issue like powers) is something you can bring to any number of games -- perhaps as a way of appending or altering existing systems, or as a way of measuring how effectively the games manage those issues.
Over the Edge
Another great Tweet game from the 90s was OTE, a game that is rightly being celebrated with a ritzy new anniversary edition and an open license for the system itself -- which, like Everway, is elegantly simple, flexible, and able to handle all kinds of craziness.
Although there is much to admire in the basics of this game, the bit I'm thinking of is from one of the supplements, Weather The Cuckoo Likes, which details the struggles of a group of superpowered Dadaist anarchist heroes called the Cut-Ups. We actually have Robin D. Laws, another great game innovator I'll come back to another installment, to thank for this supplement -- thanks Robin!
Robin talks about creating a "Cut Up Machine" as a way of randomly generating surreal stories for your game and injecting some Dadaist madness into the setting. The idea is to clip a large number of evocative, interesting words out of newspapers, magazines, etc., and mix them together in a big bowl (I used an empty peanut butter jar). Whenever you need a jolt of surreal energy, you draw several words and let them inspire what happens next.
My players at the time loved this idea -- which Laws borrows from William Burroughs -- and not only did we use it in our games, but it became a tool for our other creative endeavours as well. If I were to revisit the Cut-Up Machine today, I'd probably place it in the hands of the players, as a player-facing way of introducing chaos into the game. Let the players draw out the random bits, speculate about what they mean, and then look for patterns in the surreal events that unfold. Good fun.