Don’t overwork a mechanic.

For the purposes of this post, a mechanic is a set of procedures, defined by the game, that players go through at a table to resolve a conflict of player interest with respect to the world of the fiction. It may rely a lot or a little on randomness, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is something that the game designer has laid out as the way to sort out cruxes in the game’s story.

Right now, I’m working on Et in Arcadia Ego, a game about magicians in Regency England. It owes a lot to Susanna Clarke and Jane Austen. I’m trying to work out how to make the conflict mechanic work well. Like in any design process, I’ve been through many iterations of it. At this point, the mechanic has come back around to looking more like it did at the beginning than it did in the middle, but there have been a few darlings to kill along the way—tying the mechanic to various period card games, for example. At each step of the way, though, the changes I’ve made have made perfect sense to me, as they are responses to things I found to be wrong with a previous iteration. Sometimes the flaws were seen instantly, just on thinking about the mechanic, and sometimes they were seen only after playing with the mechanic a bit to get a feel for it. In any case, the changes grow out of the previous mechanic.

There’s a real risk here. The final mechanic, whatever it may be, makes perfect sense to me in terms of the history I have gone through to get there. I will be able to point to each bit of its design and say “the mechanic is this way because…”. But to someone who has just picked up the game, and who reads it, that mechanic may look very strange. Avoid this!

Overwrought Mechanic

This is not the kind of mechanic I mean. Photo by Philip Bitnar.

Always remember, as you design, that the end result should feel simple, natural. In the words of Saint-Exupéry: “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away”. A mechanic can be baroque, perhaps, but it should not have extraneous elements. After repeated revisions, you may have left elements in a mechanic that are a response to something that is no longer an issue, and that is the very essence of extraneousness.

Let me take this opportunity to talk a bit about some aspects of this kind of simplicity. In short, I don’t like gamey mechanics. This is something I like about Dogs in the Vineyard that I dislike about Mouse Guard. In a conflict in Dogs, the best move to make is always clear, or rather, is always as clear as your understanding of the fiction. In a conflict in Mouse Guard, there’s a best move to make in the mechanics, and you need to figure out what it is, and then make the fiction match it. I like fiction-first—that’s where my attention is anyway, so it had better be where the information I need to make a decision is.

In particular, in Dogs, your path to victory is basically the path that makes use of your character’s traits. If what you narrate brings the fiction in the direction of one of your traits, the mechanics reward you by giving you those dice. So you want to use those traits, and reinforce the narrative truth of your character by narrating towards what is written on your sheet. To do otherwise breaks some faith in the character. Game design is mind control, sure. And one tool for that is equating things—this bit of cloud is this bit of boxes, and vice versa. But when you say two things are equated, and then break that in practice, that weakens your game. A mechanic should help players maintain their faith in the fiction.

  • What do you mean about the best move in the mechanics in Mouse Guard? Do you mean in a conflict?

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. The conflict system is the only bit I have
      a problem with. I love the rest.

      • Man, I get totally lost whenever we talk about the MG conflict system. Scripting and doing stuff in-character is tactically more likely to work out for you than trying to engage the mechanics in absentia of your character’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

  • I disagree with you about decision-making in Mouse Guard’s long-form conflicts.

    So, two things out of the way first:
    – The crunchy subsystems are definitely gamey.
    – The ideal player for BW/BE/MG loves both character-driven roleplaying and gamey mechanics that reward cleverness and dedication. The design goal is, more or less, to make your character-driven decisions do awesome mechanical things and to turn your mechanically-driven decisions into prompts for characterization. (Which, in fairness, is a bit different from your self-described priorities. But it is something enshrined in a lot of “Forge-y” designs, including, I would argue, DitV. So, not exactly an unusual set of priorities.)

    So, now consider this: how does one select an optimal script?

    The most important thing about scripting in BW/BE/MG is predicting your opponent’s actions. Now, that in itself doesn’t create a tie into the fiction (after all, Starcraft and bridge both involve a similar limited-information dynamic), but it does lay some important groundwork: tactical decisions are fundamentally interactive.

    So, how do you get those juicy “rightward-pointing arrows” into the mix? Roleplay your the baddy! The second the GM starts playing that big snake you’re fighting *like a snake*, every single tactical decision now involves a reaction to the fiction.

    Moreover, you can forget all that and just roleplay your dude! Just like you do in DitV. Do you always reach for your 2d6 equipment in every conflict? It’s a lot of dice, after all! I find it very tempting. More tempting than anything in scripting, actually.

    For me, most of this stuff is clearer with Burning Wheel, which has more concrete actions in its crunchy subsystems. In general, though, I think you somewhat underestimate the value of mechanics-driven decisions in making good fiction.

    In Duel of Wits, for instance:
    – Sometimes I’ll script a Dismiss because I think I can win with it on that go.
    – Sometimes I’ll script a Dismiss because it’s my character’s strongest skill.
    – Sometimes I’ll script a Dismiss to show that my character has run out of patience.
    – Sometimes I’ll script a Dismiss because I think the scene has dragged on a bit and I want to end it quicker.
    – Sometimes I’ll script a Dismiss because I feel like taking a risk.
    – Sometimes I’ll script a Dismiss in the third volley, because I want my character to fail catastrophically.
    All of these do something for the fiction. The ones that didn’t explicitly start with me going “Okay, my character would do this…” can often end up saying even more about my character than the ones that did.

    — Alex

    • I disagree about MG, clearly. I found that I spent more time trying to figure out what I should do in the crunch to get the fiction effect that I wanted than I felt I should; the issue was not one of tying mechanics and fiction together—as you say, and as I say, MG does that. My issue is that the mechanics were not smoothly linked to the fiction.

      • I think most of what you’ve said applies to Dogs equally, though. In particular, I had a lot of first-session issues tying the dice to the fiction: how to continue an argument when you have the dice but can’t think of any new lines, how to handle threats of violence, what that dang “physical but not fighting” category really means. All that stuff doesn’t just flow effortlessly out of the narrative, specifically because the escalation mechanics are deliberately designed to constrain and direct the narrative at every stage.

        • Curious; I did not have any such problems. So what’s different between the games, and between us?

    • The design goal is, more or less, to make your character-driven decisions do awesome mechanical things and to turn your mechanically-driven decisions into prompts for characterization.

      And this is where, in my experience, it comes up short. While Mouse Guard’s resolution mechanics provide prompts for characterization, the scripting impedes rightwardsness. It feels like one is choosing actions without the benefit of the fictional context in which those actions happen.

      The “resolve then explain” pattern is hard for me to engage with. Our first attempt at Dogs in the Vineyard ran much the same way as Mouse Guard. We rolled the dice that seemed appropriate, then narrated. It was only when we engaged with the idea of adding in dice from traits mid-conflict that the game took a better direction.

      I differ from Kit here – though I hesitate to speak for him – in thinking that Dogs’ mechanics don’t as much work to support the fiction building as they try not to get in the way – a characteristic of Baker’s games more generally. That’s admirable, but I prefer systems with something to play off of. Dogs gives little game shape from its mechanics. Whether it needs that shaping (and the rich game text performs a lot of shaping already) is, of course, up for debate.

      But what the Dogs mechanic has over Mouse Guard is this: rather than attempting to fulfill a mechanical need, it evolves out of the play style it tries to promote. That sort of naturalness comes from removing the aspects of the system which are cute game ideas, but that lack correspondence with the fiction.

      Just my two cents. Hopefully I’m not overfocusing or butting in.

      • I differ from Kit here – though I hesitate to speak for him – in thinking that Dogs’ mechanics don’t as much work to support the fiction building as they try not to get in the way…

        I think that’s actually very fair to say. I definitely do willfully blind myself to issues in his games, because I like so much else about them.

  • “So you want to use those traits, and reinforce the narrative truth of your character by narrating towards what is written on your sheet. To do otherwise breaks some faith in the character.”

    That’s going on in Dogs, yes, but there’s more than that. Otherwise it would play a lot more like Wushu.

    Why don’t you always want to use the traits? There are fiction-driven reasons, yes, but they aren’t the only ones. Look where the real “powergaming” (in the sense of “game-mechanical finesse”) is in Dogs: failure.

    Dogs very richly rewards you for making your character lose conflicts in just the right way. With mechanics. It’s a big ol’ rules-carrot to encourage you to betray your character a little bit from time to time.

    — Alex

    • That is true! But that, I guess, explores another side of your character—you can’t just lose arbitrary things and have the reward-for-loss be satisfying. You want to lose things that, by losing, reveal more about your character.

      Which is really not a mechanically encouraged issue so much as it is a we like good stories encouraged thing.