The Purpose of Mechanics

I wrote this post over the last week or so, and then a discussion of romance in role-playing games over at Gameplaywright moved on to this topic. Rather than repeat myself, I decided to put this post up a little early.

All role-playing games have mechanics, and I don’t think that this is a matter of blind adherence to tradition. I think that mechanics should serve an important function: they should make it easier to role-play.

This might seem obvious, but I think that mechanics at both extremes of rules-light and rules-heavy fail in this goal. For rules-heavy, the failing is obvious. The rules are so complex, and difficult to apply, that most of the playing time is spent working out the rules, rather than role-playing. The problem with rules-light may be less obvious, particularly if you are sensitive to the rules-heavy problem. However, if a system is too rules-light, the rules do not do anything to support the role-playing, and you might as well just make things up.

Obviously, just making things up, without the aid of rules, is not a bad thing. I’ve written two novels, and did not create any rules for them. It is, however, not easy. I enjoyed writing the novels, but it was hard work. A game should not be hard work; it’s supposed to be entertainment, not moral discipline. Therefore, a role-playing game should have rules that are detailed enough to make it easier to role-play.

One way they do this is by restricting the options available, and thus telling you what is important. This is something that I think rules should do; rules that let you do anything fail in this respect. Dungeons and Dragons is an excellent example of success: you are a warrior of some kind. You have a list of styles of warrior to choose from, and you know that the way you fight is what really matters.

On the other hand, rules can also help by suggesting options. If combat rules include rules for feinting, then players will consider having their characters feint. This is, I think, one of the big strengths of Ars Magica’s magic system; it suggests dozens upon dozens of things that magi can do with their magic.

However, the more options the rules suggest, the more complex they become. There is a serious risk of being too rules-heavy, and making it harder to get on with the role-playing. I think that the best way to avoid this problem is to make the decisions concerning the rules role-playing decisions. That is, the decisions that the character makes translate directly into decisions about the rules. This solves the problem because making the rules-related decisions is, then, roleplaying. You can even set it up so that the player and the character find out about the rules and the world at the same time, so that learning the rules is also a role-playing experience.

It is necessary to make the decisions fun, but very complex decisions can still be fun. Role-players spend hours creating characters, making lots of complex decisions, or designing spaceships or giant robots, or designing complex magical effects for their magi to create. This is fun and, if the character is also making those decisions, role-playing.

Now, in a game session it is necessary to ensure that the other players don’t spend ages sitting around waiting for one person to finish role-playing, but that is a different consideration.

By now it should be clear that I incline towards more complex rules, so the game that I design will probably, in the end, be quite complex. However, all the decisions should be fun, and should be role-playing decisions. Players should, as far as possible, not be making decisions that their characters cannot discuss.

There is a second aspect to mechanics. They determine what is important in the game-world. If there are no mechanics for something, it doesn’t matter that much. More precisely, it won’t matter that much in play. For some things, this is the right decision. In most settings, it’s a very good idea for skin colour to be nothing more than colour, and the same normally applies to which sex you are. Of course, that can lead to the situation mocked in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, where players forget which sex their characters are. On the other hand, if something is only background colour, it doesn’t matter that much if you do forget. It’s just a bit embarrassing for the player.

However, if something is supposed to be important to the game, it should have mechanics attached, and those mechanics should be integrated with the things that the characters normally do.

One of the things to think about in game design, then, is which aspects of the world you want to make important to the game. You can’t make everything important, or the mechanics will be too cumbersome to be used. That means that you are also going to choose things that are not important. As an example, I strongly suspect that my game is going to have no rules for physical injury. The way I see the game now, injuries are going to be rare, and they can just be treated as background colour. I’ll also be astonished if I end up with any rules for combat. Conversely, I’ll probably need fairly detailed rules for coming up with ideas, as that’s likely to be central to the game.

This also has implications for the choices players are asked to make. Important choices should generally have game-mechanical effects. If you want the colour of clothes a character wears to be a major decision, it should have a mechanical impact. If you want the choice of weapon to be entirely a matter of colour, it shouldn’t. Most games, of course, do that the other way round. This also applies to choices made within the game.

Drawing all these points together, we can summarise my view of the purpose of mechanics as follows.

Game mechanics should make it easier to role-play by guiding players to make in-character decisions about issues that are important to the game world, and ensuring that it matters which choice the player (or character) makes.

This, of course, is only a general philosophy about game mechanics. A game needs actual mechanics, and that’s what I want to look at next.

Roleplaying Creativity

I’ve been working as a freelancer in the role-playing industry for a little under twenty years now, but I have never designed a whole game. That’s about the only thing I haven’t done, and it’s an oversight I’d like to correct. I plan to talk about the design here on my blog, in the hope that some people will be interested, and my goal is to have a playable draft by the end of this year. I don’t expect to have a draft I’m ready to show anyone else by that point, mind. That’s the draft that I will try to run, to find out whether it actually is playable. However, since I plan to talk about things in detail, anyone who has read these posts will have a pretty good idea of what’s in the draft.

As I do plan to talk about details, and leave comments open on the posts, I need to set the ground rules concerning intellectual property. I’d quite like there to be some discussion and sharing of ideas, and so the ideas are for sharing on both sides. There’s no copyright in ideas anyway, and I can’t imagine that anyone would want to try to implement all of my ideas in a game. However, I can hope that I might say something that someone else finds inspiring, even in the “no, doing it that way is a terrible idea” sense, and I’m fine with that. Similarly, if you post comments it’s because you’re happy with me taking your ideas and running with them. No legalese, because I’m in Japan, so the legalese would have to be in Japanese as well. (In addition, I suspect that legalese to cover this would be horrifyingly draconian.)

Enough boring preliminaries; let’s talk about the game. I want to design the role-playing game that I want to play, but that no-one has yet published, to the best of my knowledge.

I want to design a roleplaying game about creating things.

Roleplaying itself is a creative hobby. However, the characters we play are almost invariably destructive or, at best, conservative. Heroes in Dungeons & Dragons act primarily by fighting and killing enemies. Player characters in Shadowrun are career criminals who steal the creations of others at the behest of their paymasters. They frequently kill people and blow things up while performing these thefts. Player characters in Call of Cthulhu are trying to preserve their sanity and stop blasphemous horrors from destroying the world. Player characters in the World of Darkness typically are blasphemous horrors, and the games are supposed to be about their struggles with themselves as much as with the other blasphemous horrors surrounding them.

However, this is not the sort of character I really want to play. I want to play characters who create things, whether institutions, items, or ideas, and then see their creations have an impact on the world. These character concepts are not well-supported by any of the games I’ve come across, all of which are mainly concerned with other activities. The game I know that does it best is Ars Magica. Part of the reason for that is that I’ve been writing for or managing Ars Magica for about 18 years now (my first published work was for it), and I’ve been doing my best to encourage it in that direction. However, even in Ars Magica, creation takes place in the downtime between sessions. I want to play a game where it’s the main focus.

I’ve been poking at this idea for several years, and it’s not trivial to make it work. However, I don’t think it’s impossible, so I anticipate that a lot of the posts I make about the game will be concerned with design elements that address this problem. That does mean that I don’t plan to get into the details in this post.

Since I am designing the game I want to play, marketability is not a concern. On the other hand, this is a game I want to play, so playability most certainly is a concern. I am going to ignore the central question of marketing: Why should anyone want to play this game? I want to play this game, and that’s enough for me. However, I am going to pay a lot of attention to what could be called the central question of game design: Given that someone wants to play the game, can they? That breaks down into a number of smaller questions, of which I can list several off the top of my head. Is it comprehensible? Do the rules actually support the activities the game aims to depict? Can the rules be used in actual play, without taking forever? (I think it was Ryan Dancey who described D&D as “thirty minutes of excitement packed into four hours”; I gather that the fourth edition has made significant progress with this problem.) Do the written materials make it possible to play the game — are they complete? Can an ordinary human being remember the relevant rules?

In short, I wouldn’t be bothered by a review that said that great game design was wasted on a boring concept. Actually, I’d be pleased with a review like that; I already know that some people won’t find the concept interesting, and one of them might well review the game.

There is another, less important, reason for writing a game with this concept. I am a little uncomfortable with games where you are expect to pretend to undertake unethical actions. This shouldn’t be overstated; I like Shadowrun, in which, as noted above, you play professional criminals, most of whom commit murder. On the other hand, I really wouldn’t want to introduce my daughter to, well, just about any role-playing game on the market today. Certainly not Dungeons and Dragons, let alone the World of Darkness. I think they’re both good games, and I’ve written for both of them, but I think they should both have a “mature audiences only” warning. The World of Darkness does, of course.

So, that’s another reason I want to write a game about creation. I want a game where I can write, on the front page, a disclaimer that looks like this:

This game is a work of fiction. However, if you wish to imitate your character, and claim the game as your inspiration, please go ahead. It will make the world a better place.

In the end, this may be the same reason as the first one. I don’t really want to play characters who go around killing things, so games based on that make me uncomfortable. Since no-one else is writing the game I want to play, I have to do it myself.

The real work will start in the next post.