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.

Posted in Game Design.

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