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.

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  • Niki

    Hee. “Pool-table effect.” My go-to for that is dart-boards. No one ever actually wants you throwing darts and maybe impaling the woodwork and wallpaper, but but but then WHY is there a dart-board?!

    Having played Dragon with you in a D&D setting, I can see what you mean about mass conflict in the dungeon crawl. Go into room, party fights group of baddies, party wins. Coming up with individual Circumstances for the conflict to cause felt like a stretch – or maybe I just wasn’t used to thinking along those lines? Dunno. I look forward to playing some more in different settings.

    • “Dart-board effect” is a great term. I’ve actually just recently come across an RPG that uses darts as a randomization mechanic. Seems like it’d be hard to play.

  • Amirtouray

    re: mass combat rules: They seem almost unnecessary. In most epic fantasy everything swings on the heroes and the mass combat goes as the heroes go.

    Maybe not at the hot gates, but say star wars? It’s all based on the heroes: blow up the death star II (Lando) , blow up the generator protecting it (Han, Leia, and Chewie), kill the emperor (Luke). The mass troops (Admiral Ackbar and co.) are assumed to clean up after the heroes make the victory possible, after the heroes serve as the fulcrum upon which the outcome of the battle turns. There are enough Mon Cal and Rebel Alliance ships to clean up handily if the heroes win, but few enough that they will be crushed utterly if the heroes fail. The armies themselves don’t matter really–they’re plot.

    I need the IADGL rules in front of me, but I suspect from your concerns they can be condensed even further–at least as far as mass combat is concerned. Take LOTR: the climactic battle at the end is based upon the ring’s destruction at the hands of Frodo, Gollum and Sam and the consequent faltering of saurons armies.

    Likewise the battle of Minas Tirith turns on the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas by the Paths of the Dead (undead army in tow), and the Rohhirim: Theoden, Eomer and Eowyn. Once the heroes have won their respective personal combats/arrived with their respective armies (easily represented by a Thread) the mass combat is over.

    Rare indeed is the case where the heroes succeed and the mass combat fails. That’s more Conan. He’s often the sole survivor after a disastrous battle he loses due to betrayal (never due to his own failings) or being outnumbered. He then has to fight his way back to the throne/riches after being reduced yet again to the status of a penniless vagabond. Though perhaps this just means he failed a roll. He didn’t die, but he did fail to win the conflict and gain whatever his goal was, thus his army is destroyed. As the hero goes, so goes the army. Conan fails, so the army fails.

    Even Conan mass combat is amenable to the pared-down IADGL style treatment I suggest. To wit, in the Scarlet Citadel, Conan is attacked by a dark spirit that paralyzes him. His advisors get a body double to wear his armor, and the double leads Conan’s army into a trap, and a gorge collapses on them, killing them all. Everything turns on the hero. Conan fails so the army fails. And when Conan succeeds, his army succeeds.

  • Amirtouray

    The Fundamental Problem With Mass Combat Rules As a Concept:

    from pg 23 of IADGL:

    “A good rule of thumb is, if the real muscle of the fight rests in the soldier’s hands and not the hero’s hands, then it’s time to break out Mass Conflict.”

    My problem is THAT SITUATION DOES NOT EXIST. The real muscle of the fight is NEVER in the soldiers’ hands and not the heroes’. The heroes are always the fulcrum about which the battle turns, or else its not epic fantasy. If the grunts matter, then its another genre entirely.

    To quote myself: “There are enough Mon Cal and Rebel Alliance ships to clean up handily if the heroes win, but few enough that they will be crushed utterly if the heroes fail. The armies themselves don’t matter really–they’re plot.”

    • I can see your point, but I think I disagree slightly. First, I do agree that it’s entirely plausible that another system would work better for IADGL. However, simply allowing the larger scope conflict to hinge on a set of individual conflicts all going well seems dishonest, in a way. More specifically, I think you want to allow players to come up with strategies that can impact this larger conflict and actually see the results.

      We tried a sort of conflict-within-a-conflict system that really didn’t feel quite right – in the same way that skill challenges really don’t ever work in D20.

      As for whether mass-conflict is ever really an issue, that depends on your style of epic fantasy I guess. For instance, at Helm’s Deep, I saw that the reason the Rohan show up is because of a social challenge sure, but that their impact was theirs, and not the players. Without having a moment where you can see the difference *mechanically* of having the Riders there, the whole conflict of the battle itself is adrift.

      YMMV, and of course, the most important thing is that the people at the table are enjoying themselves, so if you have a group that prefers to drop mass-conflict altogether, I doubt that would disrupt the game. I suspect strongly we’re coming from the same place as players.