Backing away from Mechanics

Recently we circulated among ourselves a very well-written article by Robert Schwalb about the frustration surrounding skill systems, particularly in D&D. I recommend the article, but want to talk about an idea that’s slightly tangental—target fixation.

Target fixation is the concept of becoming so focused on something that one excludes everything else, to the detriment of achieving the goal one set out to do. Here, it expresses itself as an obsession with the mechanics of a game, as if they were the only way to achieve anything. As Schwalb points out, if everything is a skill check, then story is quickly abandoned in favor of a series of sequential skill checks. Nothing in a game should be allowed to dominate play to that extent.

As game designers, we constantly discuss the patterns of play we are trying to foster with our rules. We strive to create rules that fit thematically and are fun and make each game compelling. And yet there is a very real possibility of convincing players to focus too keenly on game mechanics as if they were the primary unit of interaction during play. Skill checks are no more the basis of D&D than attacks or standard actions. If anything could be said to have that status in D&D, I would argue that falls to the notional concept of a room, but even this is oversimplifying the case.

Role-playing games have to allow for action outside the frameworks they provide. Skills are nice in part because they give us those horizontal boundaries that help each player feel unique and empowered, but especially in D&D those boundaries have odd vertical effects. Admittedly, it’s challenging to step away from the tools, especially in absence of clear alternatives. Schwalb has some very good advice on when to use skills which I think parallels a growing interest in GM advice in the description of the mechanics of various indie games currently in print.

Skill systems are one very clear source of target fixation in games. I think alignments—in any system—are probably another. What others have you all seen? What are some good examples of authors deftly helping players with avoiding over-focusing on the rules?