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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?

7 responses to “Backing away from Mechanics”

  1. Yeah, this is an excellent point. I think generally games with a reasonably extensive set of mechanics are by their very nature a bit prone to target fixation – I guess it’s easy to think “if these mechanics weren’t important, they wouldn’t be there”, whereas it’s more that they’re just tools the players can use *if they want*.

    If you take a game like Everway, for example, which has very simple and vague mechanics, I think it’s much *less* prone to target fixation simply because the rules are too vague to be able to fixate on the specifics. In other words, because they *require* some interpretation by the players, the players will only interpret them in ways that actually work for the group – whereas with more extensive and clearly defined systems, that “what works for us?” player interpretation is more easily forgotten.

    I’m not sure I’ve expressed that very well, but anyway 🙂

    1. On the other hand: I’ve found that from a GM point of view especially, Rules for How to Do Things can really help me run a game; one of my best World of Darkness games was motivated by reading the core and seeing the chase rules and a few other things, and then just starting the game by stringing together some scenes centered around those rules.

      I won’t say that those rules made the game great, but they enabled us to start, and helped us avoid the Big Blank Page problem.

      1. Yeah, that’s certainly true – in fact the first game I ever ran (when I was much younger) was an Everway game, which floundered exactly because I didn’t really understand how to interpret the rules 🙂

        There are advantages and disadvantages to both, definitely – I just think one of the disadvantages of thorough mechanics is that they’re more prone to this sort of fixation.

  2. The article that prompted the OP and, to a smaller extent, the OP, seem nonsensical to me outside of the context of D&D. Indeed, the central problem is that D&D’s skill system is simply awful (and, in 4th, was originally admitted by the designers to simply not work at all, leaving nothing but a minatures game). It’s a bit — well, the kindest word is absurd — to assume all rpgs suffer from some intellectual hobgoblin because D&D is crap on a substantive point. It’s like a guy in Alaska claiming that the problem with the Earth is that there’s so much snow on it for everyone, all the time. You’re using old technology; many, many other games don’t have the problems that concern you here.

    1. Mr. Schwalb’s article is naturally focused on D&D, given that he’s been a writer for the system for years. But this situation is by no means restricted to D&D. For instance:

      In Call of Cthulhu, there’s a natural tendency to overfocus on SAN checks. When every thing you encounter produces a SAN check, they lose their effect.

      In Mage and Vampire, players have so many sensory-related powers that it’s totally plausible for the first five minutes of every encounter to be about scanning and probing the scene with those powers. This demolishes any attempt to actually set up a scene. And any time you attempt to inject any intrigue, players flay it alive by scanning it.

      Even in indie games, we can see these problems. Dread quickly turns into a procedural grind if every simple observation requires a pull. Fiasco loses its charm if you’re trying to “win” it.

      The problem isn’t just mechanics; I agree that D&D has a lot of problems, but they’re complicated by people overfocusing on mechanics. It can be a real challenge for players to step back from rules that let them do things. Really great games address these issues in their rules text. Dread’s a perfect example: it makes it very clear that things written on your character sheet are things you can do without having to make any pulls.

      I was thinking about this when revising the rules for In a Dragon-guarded Land. In that system, there’s a natural tendency to start conflicts early and have them sort of always going on. But that’s disruptive to building a fiction in which to play. I think simply calling that tendency out in the rules makes the game better. Thoughts?

      1. Each of the examples you cite are merely symptoms of a much more systematic problem in the game in question, though I hope we’re not talking past one another. Some of the games you mention are legendary for their horrible mechanics — in general — and the mechanics slowdown you’re describing are a minor side effect in comparison. Taking them in the same order:

        CoC does, indeed, have excessive SAN checks. But hell, it has excessive everything. Every adventure is chock-full of paranormal nasties, prompting very, very idiosyncratic behavior. Classically so. If you’re running any game and one of your players immediately, upon discovering evidence of the supernatural, burns everything that may have been “afflicted” by the paranormal and heads straight for the local library, you’re facing a CoC vet. This actually isn’t a mechanical problem of CoC but a severe genre problem: CoC is set up in an absurd way. Lovecraft’s audience would have been really shocked by alien life; we kind of assume that we’re not alone. Most CoC monsters are nothing more scary than your average psycho killer because Lovecraft really thought that their mere alieness would be as shocking as their sharp claws. Unarmed black men walking past squad cars in 2011 have much more to fear than your average CoC hero, but the game’s setting hasn’t realized this. Sure, some mechanical tweaking is needed — SAN checks when dealing with mundane “scary stuff” needs to be reworked to handle more hardened characters (all coroners must be insane in Lovecraft Country). But, honestly, the setting itself is centered around a fallacy that needs to be tackled before mechanics are addressed, and once the former is done, little needs to be done with the latter.

        (More problematic are the clue issues — miss a clue and humanity becomes a flesh-puppet of Shub-Niggurath — that Gumshoe attempts to address.)

        And White Wolf — White Wolf — jeez, man, where to begin? Mage was a debacle — its rehash an even more patronizing debacle — when it came to systems at every level. You are, of course, completely correct that sensory magic shuts everything down. Of course, there’s little reason why you need to leave the house in the first place if you have the right spheres, especially if you work with other mages. Vampire isn’t quite as egregious on this score (it has other, ah, issues). WW arguably doesn’t even provide working mechanics in some of their gamelines; it provides a simulastionist system aborted mid-way between precise simulation and a narrativist system. Thus you end up with all-one-shot-one-kill combat mechanics in nWoD, alongside fifty-plus pages of sheer “Storyteller’s Discretion” in mage and many other supernatural power concepts. I must admit it’s not only a D&D problem, but WoD doesn’t even really try to succeed imo (neither did 4th, whereas 3.x tried and failed). Still, I was ambiguous.

        So, the first step of workable mechanics: decide whether you want a narrativist system focused on quick resoultion to reach outcomes or a simulationist system focused on the moment-to-moment events in a character’s existence. (And if, god help you, you want both, create crystal-clear breakpoints between when one starts and the other begins.)

        Personally, I have never had a problem with tons of skill checks in games I’ve run (as opposed to games I’ve played) because I have never had an unsolveable problem with either failure or relevancy. If a skill is irrelevant, say so as the GM — don’t play hide the ball. Shut it down immediately. I mean, let the character do it — but tell the player it’s not germane. Failure is more tricky — you need to have a built-in, written-down concept of failure for either each skill or general skill categories (beyond “you die”) and how each advances the plot. Best example of this ever: Toon. Since everyone is supposed to laugh, failure means something terrible has happened that can cause more hilarity. Failure is good. But Toon has it really easy in this case.

        But again, let’s be clear — Skills in D&D, like the inane Spheres of mage, are what some gamers call Magical Tea Party (in this case derisively). It’s really a mass of GM’s discretion because of bad writing on the designer’s part — in some cases nearly maliciously bad, if customer service of some of these guys is any indication. To ensure player freedom and character relevance, anyone writing up skills (or open-ended powers) should try to outline how they advance the plot (either through failure or success) in the context of an adventure. For example, if I have Accounting as a skill in a, let’s say, dark modern fantasy game, after the boring “this is accounting” paragraph I’d be obliged to describe what you’d get from it in an average adventure.

        Success: names of corporate associates, secret bank accounts, illegal operations, parties of interest.
        Failure: lost time (the most obvious and least useful penalty), feds investigating the PC, private detectives investigating the PC, worms or viruses from the adversaries, red herrings encouraging a false accusation.

        Rig that into the base mechanics of conflict resolution such that “Accounting” neither ends the scenario instantly nor does nothing. Create parameters for a “generic” adventure. Chop up player tasks in this generic adventure format into X pieces and say, all things being equal, Accounting should apply to Y portions of X. If there’s no reason for Y to be much more than 1 or if it’s zero, eliminate the cost of the Accounting “skill” — it’s color, like the ability to stack playing cards into castles (which is useless in most games).

        Note that if a given game’s mechanics doesn’t have specific ways to handle nonviolent conflict, most skills will be extremely problematic because every single use throws the GM into “discretionary territory.”

        And, btw, if players are expressing their desires only through the character sheet, the simplest fix is to do two things. First, tell them not to do that. Second, don’t turn around and absorb character sheet when they try to do something. If it’s something the mechanics don’t encompass, improvise. If it’s something the mechanics handles, the mechanics handles it and it shouldn’t matter if the check comes up one time or one hundred, so long as each check advances the plot in a meaningful and fun way. If this check stops being meaningful and fun, but the player is making what should be a rational decision but for the mechanics, the problem isn’t “target fixation,” it’s because the mechanics suck.

        If each skill check is meaningful and fun, why count how many times you made skill checks?

    2. The OP isn’t claiming that all RPGs suffer from this; merely that this case study of D&D demonstrates that there’s a real risk, when designing a game, of designing a game that has this same problem. The hope, as I read it, is to help us and others avoid the problem by pointing it out and giving it a name.

      We’ve played many other games that don’t have this problem.

      However! I’m just knee-jerk defending the OP.

      I think you’re very right about the original article being very much D&D-internal. I’ve seen skill-based systems that don’t suffer from this in practice, but of course, I’ve also seen D&D games that don’t suffer from this, because of the particular culture of play of the group.