Dev Notes 6 - Mechanical Matters (and Mechanics Matter)

“Our best sessions are when we don’t even roll dice.” – generic, often-repeated assertion by players who are playing the wrong game

There is a visible shift this year in roleplaying games. You can see it in the instant popularity of new offerings like Fate, 13th Age, and even the upcoming D&D Next. Designers are beginning to rethink what it means to play an RPG. Indie publishers have been producing “story games” for years now – games whose mechanics do not define conflict resolution but rather narrative flow – and now many of those ideas are taking hold in more mainstream gaming. In the past, there was a certain amount of disdain between the opposing camps of story gaming and “traditional” gaming, but now it seems that the grognards are losing. Everyone apparently agrees that roleplaying is about sitting down to tell a great story, and so it’s time to abandon mechanics that “get in the way of the story.”

Or is it?

Story gaming has brought an amazing revolution to tabletop gaming. It hands control to the players in ways that have long been uncharacteristic of traditional gaming. It is allowing players to spend entire sessions focusing on character interaction and on social and emotional issues rather than combat scenarios. It allows for the story to be created collectively rather than top-down. But from my perspective, none of this is entirely new. I have been doing Live Action Role Playing in both campaigns and one-shots for nearly two decades. These features of story gaming are common experiences to the LARPer, and I think that story gaming owes quite a bit to the LARP tradition. Now, I applaud and appreciate the ability of story games to bring these elements to a smaller group and a tabletop setting as well. But there is more to “story” than narrative flow.

This brings us to the other side of my gaming background. You see, I am very much a tactical gamer as well. Battletech was my first big game, and will always hold a place in my heart and on my shelf. I mention it because, although Battletech is a straightforward wargame, it has one of the most extensively written fictional universes in all of gaming. Many times I have played a simple 4v4 lance battle that I could then place somewhere in that universe. Every game in some way told a story – and here’s the important part – purely through our tactical decisions. Players of Warhammer, Warmachine, and other lead-pushing games will know what I mean. The story is still there, played out turn by turn and roll by roll. Will the Dwarves defend their lands from the encroaching forces of Chaos? Will the Draconis Combine take back this planet that was once theirs? Let’s fight and find out.

Go away, Word of Blake

Go away, Word of Blake

On even a character scale, tactical choices can help tell a personal story. As I have mentioned in previous Dev Notes, we define our characters in part by how they respond to difficulty. That can be an emotional response as in a game like Monsterhearts, or it can be a tactical one. In Steamscapes, an Aviator is going to respond to stress very differently than a Gunslinger. In the many sessions that I have run, the story is told very differently depending on who responds to certain stresses and how they choose to do so. (I’m looking at you, Spark Wrangler who ignited the dirigible’s leaking bag.)

Story games do correct a terrible and unfortunately common problem: the authoritarian gamemaster who strips away the players’ narrative control. But what about games that strip away players’ tactical control? For all of the criticism of D&D 4th Edition, that game certainly gave tactical control back to the players. Some might say that swing was too large, and it became difficult for DMs to appropriately challenge a skilled group, but at least they had more options and more power over the game than they had under 3rd. As a tactical gamer, 4E was a great relief to me – it did everything I wanted to do in previous editions but could not.

We often hear the complaint about games being “on rails” when the GM has a clear direction for the plot, and plans all the encounters in advance. It is absolutely valid to be upset if players are making choices for their characters and those choices don’t seem to matter. But what about the converse? Consider a game like Swords Without Master, in which players are given incredible freedom to determine the flow and content of the story, and yet tactical choices do not actually matter. If I know that I am going to be struggling right now, and my only task is to describe HOW I am struggling, where is the tactical decision-making? Even when I succeed, that success is a given. It does not matter HOW I choose to succeed, because we have simply arrived at the point in the story when I will. I can never have a surprise success or failure, whereas those possibilities are much more likely in a tactical game.

What we come to, therefore, is the realization that gaming and in fact the telling of stories is both narrative and tactical. Some games are better at one or the other, but struggle to combine them. I would never play 4E to tell a great story. I would never play Fiasco to “win” a fight. But that’s fine. As long as we know what our goal is in playing, we can choose games that achieve that goal. The problem comes in trying to shoehorn a game into an experience for which it is not designed.

Can we present a game in which we are both telling a great story and making interesting and meaningful tactical choices? I believe we can. I think that many of the newer games I mentioned at the beginning are trying to do this, perhaps with a little bit of lean in one direction or the other. I also think that Savage Worlds already does this, and I hope that the Steamscapes setting presents a decent sandbox for players who want more open-ended play, while also providing a few clear scenarios for those who prefer that.

I know that many people may fall on one side or the other of this argument and read offense into this post. I want to end therefore by saying that gaming is a multi-faceted experience. Please do not presume that I dislike the facet you love. But at the same time, please do not presume that the facet you love is the only shiny one. The whole jewel has value. I will end with a quote that I firmly cling to:

“Play more games.” – Wil Wheaton

With these dice

ps - If you do have comments, I am happy to discuss them on our Facebook page or the Savage Worlds forums.