So first, read John’s brilliant post. I want to talk about some of the “fenceposts” we use to corner off that narrative space he mentions.
My first attempt at designing a game was laden with the same kind of hubris the creators of GURPS had—trying to make a game that could do anything. And a game that can do anything can do no one thing really well. Eventually we got bored of it. Why play a wild west game in a generic system when you can play Dogs in the Vineyard? Why play a game of space marines in a generic system when you have 3:16, or if that is insufficiently crazy, WH40k? Mechanics are a huge part of this. A generic mechanic (like percentile dice, any pure attribute + skill, d20, etc) will never hook you like one designed for what it’s doing, in its home narrative space. This is because those fenceposts are fun in and of themselves, in their own way. So we all know about some neat ways to say, hit a guy with a sword, but I want to talk about mechanics that change the game over time. Because in the end, even a really neat mechanic for hitting a guy with a sword pales in comparison (after a few sessions) to the macro-sized mechanics that define how the game is played after the first few sessions.
So games like Burning Wheel have an interesting way of engineering the shape of play. Over time, the conflict that Beliefs create for the character add up in the form of Artha and cause them to Be Awesome later. Similarly, in FATE, you get narrative ammunition through losing conflicts, in the form of Fate Points. The end effect is that over time, a bunch of strife and loss cause you to accumulate narrative power which you then leverage in a later conflict. This seems to me like a neat hack to getting that awesome story-like arc that many are looking for in a game—a period of being laid low followed by glorious victory. The best part is that the GM doesn’t even need to plan too much for it happening, they just need the barest of peripheral awareness of your banked-up story control points.
Of course, this kind of story-like shape is nearly impossible to engineer in more traditional games. D&D, Shadowrun, Pathfinder and their comrades don’t try to get this kind of story, and so they don’t get it. So if you find your epic fantasy game devoid of the proper amount of epic heroism, there is a reason for that. The advancement mechanic, really all the macro-level stuff, in games like D&D do not change or do anything to your narrative space. It’s simple math, an incredibly careless mechanic that gives you no sense of progress or destination. Think for a second about how in movies, heroes become more badass, but in D&D, you do not really change relative to your opposition. CR is matched to party level. You just get more options for texturing your opposition as you grow in “power” over time.
This of course leads right back to that tricky issue of needing boundaries to be boundaries, while needing them to get broken. Advancement really highlights issues with relative power level and boundaries, and I’ve not yet encountered an advancement system that was to my liking. Does anyone out there have some particularly good examples in mind?