Marked and Unmarked Mechanics

Back to grinding the “mechanics are important” axe! I want to talk about a concept that comes from sociology—marked traits—and how it applies to role-playing games.

Certain RPGs hold a privileged status when compared to smaller production games. D&D, and to some extent the World of Darkness, are two such games. These systems are considered “normal” from a mechanical view. Their traits are unmarked while other games are noted for the ways in which they differ from this status quo.

Let’s throw some examples out here. The use of dice is definitely the biggest category of unmarked mechanics in RPGs. No one, upon seeing that an RPG uses dice, is surprised by that design choice. On the other hand, using playing cards in an RPG is an unconventional design choice, even though standard cards provide for a rich design space and have been used in other games for hundreds of years. Now, I know that there are quite a few RPGs that use cards as a resolution mechanic, but those that have been the most successful (Deadlands, Primetime Adventures, depending on how one judges success) are still far from being as successful as games with more mainstream mechanics. In fact, it’s somewhat telling that the first edition of Primetime Adventures actually used dice.

Some mechanics which were marked have become more accepted over time. For instance, consider the notion of having points that are spent during a session for some mechanical or narrative advantage. This found its way into D20 during the OGL heyday, and then rapidly coursed its way through most of the settings for that system. Now, Leverage, FATE, 4th edition, Hollow Earth Expedition, and our own game In a Dragon-Guarded Land use some kind of “point” mechanic. It’s as if the OGL was an epic social hack by which indie mechanics went mainstream.

While the use of dice in an RPG passes without mention, there are some die mechanics that are viewed more skeptically than others. There are the die-pool systems. There are the percentile systems. Then there are systems like Godlike‘s One Roll Engine, which is different enough to almost be considered a marked mechanic. It uses a combination of die-pool and value-based success combined with a side-effect mechanic to determine the initiative a character acts on. But even this is viewed with less skepticism than games with, for example, ritual phrases.

So. Why do we care? A mechanic gains no intrinsic value from being marked or unmarked. Dread is brilliant because it uses a very marked mechanic to perfect effect. But marked mechanics face a higher bar. Gamers demand justification for them, and if they feel that justification is lacking, the game faces extra criticism for deviating from the norm. They make a statement, where an unmarked mechanic passes unnoticed.

The most significant point to me is that a mechanic being marked or unmarked is not enough to justify its inclusion in a game. It’s tempting to reach for the first idea that feels “normal” without questioning whether the idea is right. It’s also tempting to use a novel mechanic for the sake of novelty. But all our best mechanical ideas have come from establishing what we want the play to feel like and finding the right system to evoke that play.

Oh, and editing mercilously, which has consumed most of our available time lately. April looms conspicuously!