Old Stuff Day! Mechanics vs. Simulation vs. Story

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For Old Stuff Day ’11, I thought I’d dredge up one of my roleplaying posts, which didn’t get much in the way of commentary the first time ’round. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few edits, mostly because there were things I was flat out wrong about the first time, in particular the separation of player an GM (which doesn’t actually matter when resolving the issue this post discusses) and the exact nature of the Threefold Model. I kept getting ‘gamism’ tangled up with ‘game mechanics’, and they’re not the same thing; I’m looking at a similar-but-different unholy trinity of design principles here, which borrows some vocabulary but isn’t addressing the same fundamental question of ‘what is this system for’? Anyway, that’s filled up the space next to the picture nicely, so let’s get started!

Many of the things I like to lambast poor miniatures games for are actually things I’d like to see in an RPG – simple combat resolution processes that become more or less automatic after a little play and rules that come down on the side of speedy resolution and improvisation rather than accurately simulating every part of a naked mudwrestling match (for example). Complex processes and a commitment to accuracy are all well and good as principles, but in their application they often prove to be the bane of my enjoyment.

From a mechanical perspective, many RPGs are poorly done. Needing to roll high for this and low for that, table after table of modifiers and special circumstances, writing that introduces special rules before the core mechanics: all of these are factors that work against a consistent, simple system that functions elegantly as a playable game. More fundamentally, the division of abilities by race and class can result in overspecialised, oversimplified characters who don’t function as real people – admittedly, most class-based systems have some capacity to play (for example) an academic who’s also a dab hand with a shortsword, but they often force mechanical difficulty or inefficiency as the cost.

If we bring in simulation of some agreed-upon ‘reality’, we encounter the two-faced monster of accuracy and obligation. Some games, feeling that they need to simulate things like encumbrance, come up with awkward mechanics like break points, where 99.9 weight units can be handled effortlessly because 100 is where the modifiers kick in. Simulation for simulation’s sake results in under-designed elements like this one. Conversely, simulation taken too far leads to overly detailed ones: if I say ‘grapple’ or ‘attack of opportunity’ I think most roleplayers reading this will take the hint. We also encounter the problem of how to simulate things that don’t exist – when I was trying to develop an RPG whilst at uni, m’colleagues and I spent a lot of time rewriting the laws of physics so that dragons could work. Our entire world was consistent according to its own laws, and if you could suspend your disbelief enough to accept that the physics of the game world was different, you’d find that it all made sense. The question I find myself asking now is ‘did we need to do all that?’, but that’s one for another day.

Anyway, considering that my priority is the story, I’m sometimes frustrated by mechanical and simulationist priorities in a system. When players start worrying more about ‘what the party needs’ than ‘who do I want to be?’, I am disappointed; when play stops to look up/explain rules, find dice, work through a torturous process of establishing what modifiers apply and changing the mental gears, any sense of tension or flow to the story flies out of the window. Worse is stopping that process because someone has or thinks they have Real Martial Arts/Physics/New Age Crystal-Waggling Magick-with-a-K experience and wants to have an argument about the quality and accuracy of the simulation.

Most of the people I prefer to RP with don’t worry about party composition or quality of simulation, admittedly, and the issues I have with more gamey/simulatory systems and players are mostly down to a difference in styles and a reluctance among gamers to communicate and establish expectations before plunging right in. I accept that these are legitimate styles of play, but it’s not what I call roleplaying (drama snob alert), I don’t like running it or suddenly discovering that it’s what the rest of the group really wants, and so I tend to avoid games with those elements emphasised. Yes, this is part of why I don’t play D&D – the other part is that it’s too damn complicated for me.

A regular challenge to roleplayers is finding a game that all parties involved can access and know well enough to at least know what dice to roll and whether they’re rolling high or low and roughly what they’re aiming for (it’s the model that Fighting Fantasy was overtly shooting for and describing in its GM guide, and that’s one reason that I love good old FF to bits).

There aren’t many games with dice which my Mage players can access (we’re all rubbish at maths) and so we tend to do the diceless thing because experiments with RPing with the dice have stalled the story. Plus we’ve been doing this for about seven years and don’t have many of the trust/arbitration issues that RPG developers claim the systems are there to resolve.

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have fallen in with a group of drama nerds who happen to be interested in roleplaying, and to share similar goals, needs and preferred methods of meeting them. I often experience a fair bit of anguish when establishing new groups, though, because that kind of lighting doesn’t strike twice, and a lot of people don’t think about what they want and need out of a game.

There are some systems which not many people can access, because they’re either complex or poorly designed (or usually both). Their inexplicable popularity, long-standing acceptance or ‘official’ link to a setting mean that people frequently feel obliged to play them and not something they’d actually enjoy.

Roleplayers in general need to choose their systems carefully and communicate their expectations more carefully – the goal is to establish a common expectation from the game and find a system which the densest among them can access fairly fluently to avoid breaking up the narrative every time the system needs to be used.

When this was originally posted, I was considering running Dark Heresy. I have now run a short Dark Heresy game, and my original fears regarding squashing the system into my rapidly degeneratng brain-space proved moderately well-founded. The gamers wanted combat, and I did my best to deliver, with every other session being an extended ‘combat encounter’, drawing together the previous session’s investigative roleplaying into something more mechanical and game-ish.

It was actually really good fun as a structure for play; a nice change of pace and a chance for me to ease off on the narrative throttle for a bit, which meant that story events were generally better planned (since I had an extra week to work on them). The only problem I had was administrating the combat; Dark Heresy falls into the trap I described at the beginning, operating with a level of detail and mechanical difficulty that doesn’t faciliate quick, smooth flowing from round to round.

Since then, it’s been all quiet on the RP front, except for a quick bit of Advanced Fighting Fantasy (which I’d been intending to run for the Dice and Decks lads before events sort of accelarated around me) with an old friend and Hark as resident adventuring duo. AFF is not perfect for us – I like systems where high rolls are consistently good and low ones consistently bad, and the hardened old-school D&Der of the group likes to develop his attacks in more detail than the system as written really allows for (although I’ll have to check – I’m sure the full combat mechanics were more sophisticated than the ones in the first trial adventure).

However, what it’s shown me is that game mechanics and narrative coexist better than they did when I originally ‘penned’ this little piece, and that a little simulationism is fine provided that the players and system permit an improvised mechanic for it, rather than a tedious devotion to accurate simulation and the rules as written. I suppose I’ve learned to manage the tensions in a way that isn’t ‘cling to the story and chuck the other stuff out the window’, which can only be a good thing in the long run.

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