Don’t Fight The System

Posted: October 7, 2011 in System Design
Tags: , , , , , ,

A lot of roleplayers believe that game mechanics are evil things, to be minimised if not completely rejected. A common complaint is that they get in the way of “the story” – which, to story-lovers like myself, is most definitely a Bad Thing.

But is this really justified? Certainly in many games (especially traditional ones), the mechanics are convoluted and difficult to remember, and this can definitely lead to them claiming the focus of the group’s attention, at the cost of the fictional aspects. But is this an unavoidable consequence of mechanics?

I suggest not – and in fact I think mechanics can help the story-focussed group avoid other things that might distract from the story. Here are three examples.

Removing GM responsibility

A roleplaying game is essentially a series of statements made by the various players about things that happen in the fiction. In a “traditional” GM / player model, many of these statements are made by the GM, who, without mechanics, has to decide “what happens” using only their own intution. Sure, they might use some guiding principles (e.g. drama, fairness, plausibility, “cool”, etc.), but fundamentally it’s their call.

Not only is this potentially disempowering for the other players, but it’s also quite risky socially – it’s very easy for GMs to upset or frustrate players by making a call the players don’t like (too harsh, not harsh enough, and so forth). Even with an extremely close understanding between the GM and the players, no GM is flawless – and besides, such understandings are rare treasures indeed. For a new GM, a new player, a new game, a new group, the potential for misjudgement is huge.

A mechanical framework distances the GM from these decisions. If the dice (or whatever) come down against you, then Bad Things Happen, and you’ve accepted the risk by agreeing to play within this particular framework. No hard feelings toward the GM. As Apocalypse World shows extremely clearly, this doesn’t remove the GM’s creative input – there are plenty of different ways Bad Things can Happen – but it can provide a bare-bones structure for the GM to enhance and flesh out in play.

Managing Pacing

In games which focus on “story”, pacing is paramount – but tough to get right. Whoever’s responsible for managing pacing, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside in favour of the other jobs that player’s juggling, leading to play that gets bogged down in mediocre scenes rather than staying focussed on the action.

Using mechanics to handle pacing allows it to be more strictly guided and emerge naturally through play. Sorcerer’s advice: “Get to the Bangs!” is exactly this sort of thing in action.

Clarifying Authority

Any system, no matter how freeform / mechanical, defines who can say what, when, about the game’s fiction. The more freeform (or less strict, or less clear) a system gets, the easier it is for clashes to occur between two (or more!) players whose statements conflict – “hey, GM, you can’t put that into my character’s backstory”.

Having a clear mechanic for who is allowed to say what sorts of things can help avoid such conflicts, and keep the game running smoothly. (Indeed, I think even most “mechanics-light” systems tend to have this dictated somewhere, though not always clearly.)

What I’m Not Saying

Important note: I’m not saying a good GM / group can’t do the above things themselves, without the help of mechanics. They can, of course! But when they don’t, the results can be just as detrimental to the story as the most convoluted mechanical systems out there.

So no, mechanics aren’t the only way to get these things done, but they are another way, and one that might leave the GM / group free to spend effort on other things, e.g. contributing cool stuff to the game, playing more games, or even (shock, horror) their lives outside of roleplaying. (I believe such things exist.)

But wait, there’s more…

But those are just my three things, right? What else can a system do for story-focussed groups, that I haven’t considered?

  1. Kit says:

    It can help people avoid blank-page-syndrome, by scaffolding ideas. When I can do anything, it’s harder for me to choose what to do—a form of analysis paralysis.

    It can also help shape a particular kind of story. When you play Dogs in the Vineyard, you get Dogs. When you play Becoming Heroes, you get BH. This is related to pacing, and to the particular kinds of bad things that happen, but it’s more than that. Particularly, you can shape voluntary action through systems of reward and penalty.

    I’m thinking about this last point a lot with Et in Arcadia Ego. I want to make a game that encourages people to act in the manner-bound fashion of a Jane Austen novel, when those people themselves don’t necessarily understand the manners or the reasons for them.

  2. Rabalias says:

    So, I think there’s a lot to be said for consistency and realism, and having a mechanical system usually means increasing the former and can help with the latter too. Systems that work a bit too hard at realism can start getting in the way of story, but a well designed, streamlined system needn’t. I don’t know if this is really a big deal for story-focused groups, but I tend to think that story-focused/not-story-focused is a bit of a false dichotomy anyway.

    A further thing that a system can do is provide active support for storytelling. Think about Fiasco – those tables in the playset are invaluable for creating inspiring elements for the players to bounce off. Or Cyberpunk (and, if my sources are correct, Traveller) which have character generation systems designed to produce interesting background plot hooks. And then there’s the Exalted stunt system which, admittedly as part of a rather clunky system, encourage vivid and varied narration.

    Finally – and I wouldn’t say this is necessarily ideal for story-focused play – system can help in the event of player-on-player conflict. No matter how trusted the GM is, the need for an independent and fair way to mediate that sort of conflict will always be there.

  3. Blackrat says:

    Kit – nice! Both excellent points. I certainly wouldn’t know how to behave in a Jane Austen novel myself; I look forward to seeing what you come up with to make me do so :-)

    Rabalias: Yeah, I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said.

    “story-focused” – sure, the term’s a bit wooly. Given that I’m addressing concerns about “getting in the way of story”, it was the best I could come up with on the fly. You know the kind of play I’m talking about, right? What would you call it? (And, FWIW, I do think that consistency / plausibility is important for most games, story-focused or not.)

    Exalted stunts – your point is absolutely right, so this is off-topic really, but I honestly don’t think they *do* encourage vivid and varied narration. They *intend* and *claim* to, but they actually don’t in practice (mostly).

    Player-on-player conflict – yeah, I think this is a special (and particularly difficult!) case of my first point – removing the GM’s responsibility for making a “good” call in that circumstance. (And it can be a really interesting part of story-focused games, IMO.)

  4. Rabalias says:

    Well – I think I have an idea what you mean by story-focused, but I think it would be well worth putting some effort into clearly explaining it, because I suspect we probably aren’t thinking of exactly the same thing, and it’s clearly an important concept to your game philosophy.

    Kit – story scaffolding is pretty much what I had in mind when I mentioned support for storytelling. That’s a nice way of putting it.

  5. Blackrat says:

    Re “story-focused”: yeah, alright. Actually I don’t think it is a particularly important concept for my game philosophy; it’s a loose grouping of certain game preferences, nothing more.

    What I’m talking about in this post is the common (and often justified) complaint that mechanics “get in the way of the story” or similar. What I mean here when I say “story-focused”, then, is a game which is not interested in exploring the possibilities of the system (for interest, for min-maxing, or whatever) but rather is interested in prioritising the fictional events as the main focus of attention during play. The kind of games, and groups, which produce those kind of complaints, if playing with an inappropriate system. Simple as that.

    What I’m *not* talking about (or not *only* talking about) is Narrativism. If I had been, I would have said so :-) There are many reasons and ways to focus on “story”, and Narrativism doesn’t by any means cover all of them.

  6. Blackrat says:

    Addendum: perhaps “fiction-focused” would have been a better term. The point is that attention is paid to the fiction in preference to the real-world cues such as mechanics.

  7. Rabalias says:

    Ah well, that has made me think of another point in favour of system. System produces (can produce) unexpected outcomes. Of course, a narrator (player or GM!) can drive the action towards unexpected outcomes deliberately, but then they’re only unexpected to the other people in the game. System can at times create outcomes that are unexpected for everyone – and that’s cool.

  8. Blackrat says:


  9. Blackrat says:

    Huh, here’s an interesting expansion on my “Remove GM responsibility” point:

    (From Jesse Burneko’s “Play Passionately” – a series of articles that’s well worth reading.)

    Essentially it says that in order to play the “antagonist” role in an emotionally-powerful game, the GM needs to invest a lot of their own emotional effort and vulnerability to make the antagonists powerful and meaningful. In order to “referee”, they have to “break off from that emotional space to make sure everything is being handled ‘fairly.'”

    What system can do (as Jesse’s post says) is provide the “refereeing” so that the other players have the tools to push back on the GM’s emotional / creative input. Therefore the GM doesn’t have to step back from providing that input, which leads to easier and probably more satisfying play for them.

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