As designers and players, we’re into narrative-focused, story-oriented games. Such games typically eschew complex mechanics in favor of one or two thin premises and a boat-load of charm. So what then, do we have to say about the “crunch”—the technical rules—in our games? Surprisingly, we spend a fair amount of time debating how to mechanize everything from war to afternoon tea.
Game mechanics are not optional in a role-playing game. If done correctly, they can re-emphasize the narrative, in the same way that a picture frame can help a viewer focus on a painting or courses in a meal help a diner enjoy an elaborate meal. If done wrong, they become a distraction to telling a story. In some examples, they may subvert the role-playing altogether as players concentrate more on leveling up than saving kingdoms or winning love.
Here’s the thing I find essential: Mechanics in RPGs are as much a form of world-building as the setting of a game; perhaps moreso. As Austin pointed out about Exalted, when the mechanics of your game don’t support the fiction of your story, the entire affair approaches farce. That, incidentally, is one of the reasons that indie games so frequently have novel mechanics and concentrate on stories of a particular type. By stripping down the system to just the pieces that are essential to establishing the feel of the game, a designer can push players towards styles of play that those mechanics are good for.