Dissociated Thoughts

Jeff’s Gameblog has a great post up today about dissociated mechanics… he links to another post from his so feel free to run off and read – I’ll wait.

I was really appreciative of the comments section of this post. The replies open a nice window into some of the thinking people have about dissociated mechanics from several angles. I also like that Jeff* is so open about his own DM’s (heh) in his post – and the possibility that thinking about these mechanics might be a little off.

I tend to agree with him that our thinking is a little off, that D&D 4e is not the sole (or even just worst) culprit, and that to a certain extent these mechanics are manageable and even okay.

He mentions all those hip indie games that use lots of DMs. It’s true – and it’s why whenever I tell strangers that I’m more into character and story than rules they always suggest some game to me that I have to explain why I don’t play – usually, some form of DM. And I love the breakdown in the post about how mechanics should map to intent and action at the table in a fairly straightforward way. It’s a good way to think about it. And when games over-mechanize certain interactions; that’s the same problem.

For me, the problem with dissociated mechanics is not really that they might not map directly from game rule to action at the table (sometimes they do – or can – as several people find perfect justifications for healing surges**). The problem for me is when I’m forced to think more about the game mechanic than I am about the action at the table it’s mapping too. And a rule can be well-written and smooth in function but I’m still thinking about the game action more than the action of my character. All the dice trading that goes on in games like the new Marvel Supers game and 7th Sea are perfect examples of this. When I’m passing around dice and figuring out complicated pools, and expending resources, I’m thinking more about the “way the game plays” than “what my character is doing.” In many ways, D&D 4E is not actually the worst offender in this category. (It occurs to me that maybe I don’t really understand the “community” definition of dissociated mechanics… this is what I think of when I hear the term.)

Some of this happening is inevitable and totally okay. Heck, we are playing games, sometimes you have to think about the “game” part. But minimizing the bits that make me “play a game” is really important to me when I’m on either side of the screen (and perhaps more important to me as a DM). There are games that hit that sweet spot well (for me) and games that don’t (for me). Other people’s tolerances/preferences are elsewhere. That’s cool.

It’s funny, I was just discussing this with a gaming buddy the other day and then it pops up again.

Anyway, this was just my two cents, inspired-by-someone-else weekend post. And a way of linking to other great posts.

Thanks for reading.

* I call Jeff by name up there, which feels weird to me, I don’t know the guy – but since his blog title includes his name, it’s hard to find ways around that… and it’s consistently one of my favorite reads.

** So here’s my idea for healing (surge-style) in D&D. Healing surges can make sense both in a narrative and player’s-mind way of thinking. Watch any professional wrestling match and you’ll see what I mean. Right? But here’s what I’d do. I’d give one surge (literally a Second Wind) a day. One. And it doesn’t give you back part of your hits points – it gives back all of your hit points. Full.

If your DM only runs one combat a day, well, then you’re a superhero. Good for you. If your DM works on the 4E model of small fights leading up to a boss fight then you might be full and good to go for the boss – but maybe, for example, the wizard got unlucky in a previous fight, got surrounded by some sneaky guys or took a few crits from archers and suddenly, he needed his second wind before the boss fight… Adds a level of scare to that fight, of tension, without making everything impossible. And, well, sometimes you still get to be a superhero.

And death is not at -40 hp, or negative level + CON or any of that… It’s at 0. So you get your second wind and that’s it. Otherwise, you in trouble.

This is of course, not perfect, but it’s more in tune with what I see in “fiction” and what I’d like to model in a D&D game.


14 responses

  1. “The problem for me is when I’m forced to think more about the game mechanic than I am about the action at the table it’s mapping too.”

    That’s a good way to put it and it’s probably what bugs me about some of the more modern rules. There are some old school mechanics that don’t don’t map to anything in-game, but they don’t come up quite as frequently (like going up in level). When it’s every encounter it keeps getting in your face.

    Also, I don’t think I’d have a problem with your Wrestlemania-type second wind. I like that you’ve streamlined the idea so you don’t have to think about it as much.

    1. Yes… coming up every encounter (or being intentionally mapped onto the system to do so) is a big part of the issue. And the original post from Jeff’s Gameblog mentions this as well. That is part of the frustration for me as a player/GM.

      And thanks – I’m glad you like my healing surge/second wind idea. I’m still working out the kinks but I might have to try it out sometime (if I ever play D&D again… too many other good games).

  2. If we are going to Pro Wrestling mechanics can my fighter have a giant albino snake as his gimmick animal? ;).

    I don’t mind the concept of the surge, but the idea of a lasting HP pool is what really throws me off. I think the concept of a Surge in a Rage-like mechanic, that maxes out the user and boosts them up for a few rounds of combat, essentially giving them a superheroic encounter? I like that idea.



    1. Why not? I have pictures of an albino gator I saw at an aquarium that I’m still looking to work into a game some time. Albino snake? No problem.

  3. I don’t think healing surges bothered me in 4th Edition, because it was the first edition that actually treated hit points like the abstract model they were of fighting potential – you could mock someone to death (ala the Bard), speak southing/encouraging words and restore them, or cast a cure light wounds and heal the aches/pains/wounds.

    I find the averaging effects of dice pools to be less disassociating than single die resolution systems – the swinginess from round to round of actions generally annoys me. With multiple dice, the swinginess equals out – I used to ask DMs, when I played a lot of D&D, if I could roll 3d20 and drop the high and low rolls (thus criticals became a 1 in 400 chance versus a 1 in 20 chance) – but I only found one that let me do that.

    And how is 7th Sea is complicated system X+YkX; there are some horribly broken bits to it, that as far as I can tell are inherent in all Attribute + Skill + Modifiers Keep Attribute or Skill + Modifiers systems (L5R, 7th Sea being the primary two), but the baseline system, to me doesn’t act any different than 1d20 + Attribute + Skill + Modifiers.

    Marvel Heroes, I’ll grant you is odd coming a more standard system, but I got to see it work Sunday morning at Madicon and even in a hungoverness watch some of the visualizations come alive for the players. And a few moments like that is all I ask for in a brand new system that no one has ever played before.

  4. 7th Sea isn’t “complicated.” I’m talking about passing dice around the table back and forth between PCs and GMs. John Wick has written frequently about how “that was the point” to have dice flowing back and forth all the time. And that’s what I didn’t enjoy. The actual rolling/dice pool mechanic isn’t overly complex (and complexity wasn’t the issue anyway or I could have mentioned grappling in D&D, for example).

    As for Marvel, I’ve run it twice — and it’s a very cool system — but after my (still) limited experience I find that I don’t really like “passing” dice around the table/picking up and putting down dice for everything. Yes, the “dice for everything” model and some of what it lets players do is clever and intriguing. But the sheer act of passing around so many dice really detracts from the experience for me.

    Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a darn fine game — but I think I still like my Supers gaming a lot simpler… I’ll stick to the old Marvel Saga system or to SUPERS for now.

  5. I think Justin at The Alexandrian has a really good run down of dissociated mechanics, why they’re bad, and how they can be used effectively. It definitely codifies my thinking on the subject in a way I never had the words for.

    The key bit that’s applicable here, I think, is that a mechanic is dissociative regardless of whether you can find a way that it “makes sense” or not. I have a lot of problems with Healing Surges, but even if you can cast it as a surge of adrenaline or whatever, it’s still problematic because it still forces you to make choices as a player that you simply can’t make as a character. As a player you know you can activate it at any time, but only once/twice/whatever per day. I’m skeptical that anyone could really have a notion of “activating” an adrenaline surge (except maybe Barbarians with Rage), and I really don’t believe that a character can know “I can only get that boost once/twice/whatever times per day, so I better think hard about using it.” it forces me to stop making decisions as my character.

  6. “The problem for me is when I’m forced to think more about the game mechanic than I am about the action at the table it’s mapping too. And a rule can be well-written and smooth in function but I’m still thinking about the game action more than the action of my character. ”

    Yep–this, for me, is why I’ve moved away from most d20 stuff. I find myself constantly looking at my character sheet, wondering, “How can I be useful to the team in this encounter?” rather than thinking the first thing about what my character would do as an individual. At that point, I’d just as soon be playing a board game.

    Thanks so much for the links, though. The stuff on the Alexandrian about the difference between roleplaying games and storytelling games really got me thinking.

  7. I like games where players find themselves free to perform any action they imagine their character could/should be able. When the mechanics of the system start to dictate to the players, that’s when I find the rules to be imposing themselves too heavily on the game itself.

    That’s not to say the rules shouldn’t help the players frame their character’s desired actions, but when they start to become limitations in the player’s minds, rather than options and examples, they’ve gone too far in my estimation.

  8. @Kevin

    I think you’ve mentioned this before (I’m pretty sure I heard it from you…) that often you find that players don’t look at a skill list and see “This is what my character can do” but rather, all the things their character can’t do.

    The two thoughts do intersect. And your second point, here, is a good one.

    1. @morrisonn, it’s funny you say that — my players had the opposite problem when we played the 5E playtest (which essentially removes skills). My players were paralyzed with possibilities, and all felt like they had no clear guide as to what their character would be capable of or how good they’d be at it.

      1. @morrison: That’s exactly what I see happen more often than not.

        Take the prime example of swimming. Absent from the character sheet, the lack of presence typically is interpreted as, “Your character can’t/doesn’t know how to swim and will likely drown if she enters water over waist-deep.”

        Which is absurd.

        @Jack: That sounds to me less like a problem and more like an opportunity to help the players expand their roles in helping everyone imagine the game world.

      2. @Jack
        I’m with Kevin on this one. I see this as a golden opportunity to introduce players to the wide world of possibility that is infinitely open to them in roleplaying games.

        Heck, it’s really why I play.

      3. That’s all well and good, and I’m glad it works for you. Skill list or no I try to emphasize to my players that any action they’d like to try can be attempted within the system. But no one is infinitely capable, and that’s the part that froze my players. They had no way to answer the questions “what am I good at” or “how likely am I to succeed.” It’s possible I could just wing it an essentially decide success by GM fiat (uhm, yeah, that’s probably a DC 15 STR check…) but that doesn’t provide a consistent frame work for them to work in (and come up with new ideas). Skill Lists do have the possibility for limiting a player’s perspective, but I don’t think it’s any more likely than the paralysis I’ve described, or any more difficult to fix. For some players, though, having a framework can be really helpful.

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