Math, Crunch, and Dice

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.

The more “general-purpose” your system, the more likely people will run into a situation that was never intended. I think of this as the “pool-table effect”. (As in “if you don’t want people to play pool in your house, why do you have a pool table?”) D&D has this effect in spades—a quick search of the internet can return any number of “broken” characters for each of the many editions, and Rules as Written (RAW) versus Rules as Intended (RAI) is a frequent discussion topic. Shadowrun, GURPS, and Rifts all suffer from this problem of doing too much. In many cases this is mitigated with good GMing, but then you get into the position of explaining to a player why they can’t play a half-dragon psion/ranger, even though the rules are designed to allow it. Sorry, psychic forest dragons are cool and all, but (story reasons).

Ironically, story reasons are the least agreeable rationale for not accepting a character.

It’s easy to pick on others though, and perhaps not instructive as to our process. Lets talk about one of the mechanics we like least in In a Dragon-guarded Land: mass combat. There are a lot of problems here: Firstly, Dragon is a game of narrative, of personal triumph and dealing with the consequences of your actions. Mass-combat de-emphasizes the role of the individual, in favor of the countless unnamed. Secondly, romanticizing war does not sit well with any of us, nor do we particularly want to portray the callous random destruction that war brings. Thirdly, the idea that some sort of karmic justice applies on the killing fields is absurd. War stories are, in short, not what we’re trying to do with this game.

BUT! It simply is impossible to tell the stories we’re trying to tell without somehow modeling war. The Lord of the Rings is, from a certain perspective, about the war between Mordor and the world. Star Wars without the rebel defiance at the Death Star is anti-climactic. War is a super-frequent motif in epic fiction.

So in designing the mass-combat system, we used a highly stylized system that echoed the trait system in our core rules, extended the effects of Destiny and Doom, and provided our only numerical stat in the game. (Believe me, the last of these was the hardest, and only acceptable because these numbers are established purely narratively.) In other words, we “Dragon-ified” war. Then we took that system and modeled epic battles in various fictions, looking for ways to accommodate different classic stories—Helm’s Deep, Thermopylae—and kept refining whenever we hit a bit of those stories that we didn’t know how to deal with. We tied it into the rest of the game via Threads and Arcs.

Even with all this work, I still worry that the mass combat feels too technical, too war-game-esque. I worry because disruptive mechanics matter. At the end of an evening, we want our players to come away thinking about the final battle of their character’s revolutionary war in terms that emphasize emotion over numbers, heroes over unit types, and alliances over ratios. The only way to make that happen is to care about crunch. In the end, I think we have something that’s as good as possible without changing what the game is about. Only playtesting can tell us for sure.

Fortunately, the only thing we like as much as designing games is playing them.