Too Mechanical? Whose Fault?

Recently, I read through Dungeon World. It’s a really nifty game, and one that I could see myself running at some point. I’d make some changes – the game is too prescriptive in some ways – but the core of the game is just plain interesting. It does a lot of the things that FATE style games do but in my opinion does them better. I’m planning a full review but really, Dungeon World isn’t the focus of this post, just the inspiration.

I find a lot of modern systems that take a stab at building ‘storytelling’ into the mechanics to be fascinating but I often find that for all their good intentions that just can’t seem to help themselves from slipping back into mechanics in strange places.

But the more I think about this, the more I start to see that my problem may not be the mechanical virtues or failings of these games. I think it’s back to play-style and trying to find a group to match play-style rather than a system that makes me feel good with that play style. I can run full scale combat with Amber DRPG and I can run political intrigue with D&D 2e. I don’t care so much what system I’m playing or what it emphasizes or what behavior it gives incentives for. I care about what my players and I are going for when we sit down at the table together. Because you can’t legislate “giving a shit” with rules.

Let’s think about a common fiddly bit with some modern games – the idea of Complications (call them what you will, the concept is pretty much the same). I think of Fight Club and when Ed Norton’s character goes to work with his face all messed up. You know PCs don’t get bruises? It’s like how no one in the Star Wars universe ever uses the bathroom, PCs just don’t get bruises. Because why should they? If I showed up to work all messed up like Ed Norton at my job I’d have some explaining to do (well, if I did it more than once… I work with great people so they’d probably just be worried about me the first time). But yeah, in a superhero game getting a complication is accepting a bad result to get a better result later. But if you’re teenage superhero is getting into fights, how often would the typical GM say, “well, the villain hit you in the face with a giant mechanical claw so you now have this huge purple bruise on your face… good luck going to school tomorrow.” That doesn’t happen because we all know that “school” happens off-camera. School is where you have your relationship drama with girls who were totally out of your league before you got super powers. School is not where you have to spend all day explaining to teachers that your father doesn’t beat you.

Because that’s boring right?

But what if it wasn’t? What if that bruise mattered because of how it complicated your PCs life? What if you are a business man who has to face down your board with a broken face? What if… What do you do? I thought of this as I was making a Shadowrun character who has a day job and I thought to myself, what happens when this guy comes to work after a ‘run and he’s all bruised up and stuff? But Shadowrun PCs don’t get bruises. Well, they might, but since there are no mechanics for it, no incentives or points, what player in their right mind would let a GM just run rampant by declaring, “hey, how are you going to explain those bruises at work?”

I like games that have action and consequence. I like the idea that a ‘runner with a day job might go out of their way to protect their face. I like the idea that townsfolk might freak out when your adventurers come to market dressed in their gore-splattered robes they’ve never properly cleaned the Roper guts off of. Maybe it’s just me but that sort of thing isn’t a burden for me, it’s what makes gaming the most fun – when the world reacts to my character in realistic ways. Because if I go into town covered in gore and the townsfolk don’t react… then I’m going to worry. What has happened to them that they are so jaded? That’s probably something I need to worry about.

I’ve played a lot of games with a lot of players who would be totally okay (if a bit confused) if I started pulling some of that kind of thing on them. But I’ve met a lot more players who would openly rebel at that sort of thing… Like quit the game rebel. And overall, I’m looking for more of the first kind. Maybe that’s why I like Diceless games, the social contract at the table is different right from the get go.

But in the end I’ve been taking my time away from GMing to really think about what I want out of a game and I think that the game, for me, is almost superfluous. What I care about is the group. Because the group isn’t about mechanics, it’s about relationships.

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15 responses

  1. I prefer to swim nearer to the simulation side of the gaming pool, too. There are far fewer people at this end. I agree that how we use the mechanics is often more important than the mechanics themselves, but am mindful of the exceptions. Some games have so many moving parts that operating them pretty much takes all of your attention. Some are so light that not everyone feels supported enough for comfort. Even if the group meshes on intent, they still need to mesh on comfort zones with the mechanical framework of the game. If a group is able to find its sweet spot, it is definitely a group worth preserving.

    1. I think I’m a little weird though, in that I like “simulation” but only really in the story aspects, not so much the mechanical.

      I couldn’t agree more with your point about group needs – that they need to be comfortable with how much the mechanics support them and how much story they want to live around them. It’s possible that my biggest problem is that I’ve spent a lot of years with gamers who want a lot of mechanical support (or feeling like that was the case) while I feel stifled by it. I have reached a point where I’m really struggling with keeping that balance in my groups. I feel more responsible to make sure that mechanics are supporting everyone than enjoying what I’m doing…

  2. Interesting post. I remember some Spider-Man issues dealing with a beat-up Peter Parker. I think beat-up PCs is interesting once in a while, but once they come up with a standard excuse — “I joined a gym and took up boxing” — it becomes background noise.

    1. You’re right, it can fade into the background. And in some genres it doesn’t really matter as much… in serious fantasy where everyone is an adventurer it really doesn’t matter if you’re looking a little beat up – but even in that game there are other interesting non-mechanical consequences to explore. I think the challenge is finding them, using them judiciously, and making the game better for it.

  3. “Because the group isn’t about mechanics, it’s about relationships.”
    Couldn’t agree more.

    And to extend the concept, “Because the game isn’t about the rules, it’s about the fun.”

    1. @Kevin
      Thumbs up to that.

      As I responded to Runeslinger above though – that’s what I’m fighting with now to find my fun again.

      1. It might be interesting to discover what qualifies as ‘playing the game’ to people. I mean. for some it might be the setting, to others it might be the setting plus mechanics designed to evoke that setting, for others it might be familiar mechanics with setting optional, and so on…

        I used to play with a gent who tinkered with everything, and as soon as we would get into a setting he would make proposals like using Fate instead, or switching from Storyteller mechanics to OGL-derived mechanics, and so on. He would get inspired by the settings of whatever we were playing, but could not stand the vast majority of rules sets that came with them.

        By comparison, I want to run the settings with the rules envisioned for them for long stretches of time to see what they can do and how they do it. I wonder if they will have an influence on the way that we play, or the way we will approach that setting. The rest of the group was more concerned with the ease of adoption of the rules, and whether or not they got the genre.

        While this quiet, background disconnect was in effect, none of us were really satisfied. We explored a lot of games, had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, and experienced some great stories, but when it finally came to a head, we disbanded the group.

        In the end, intentions and sources of fun were different, and were best-served by gaming with new blood more closely aligned to our individual enjoyments.

        I am not saying that is what you need to consider. I am saying that the tinkering with systems was a symptom of his dissatisfaction, the systems themselves were not the source. For us, the tinkering was a source of dissatisfaction. When we all realized that the real problem was that he wanted to focus on crafting stories, story arcs, and other types of play learning more toward the narrative aspect and less toward the simulation aspect it was obvious that the time had come to address that need.

        As a result of this experience, I am wondering if the source of your discontent might lie outside what it seems to be.

  4. […] “that’s breaks immersion”, should really be replaced with “that breaks immersion for me”. My blogger buddy Mr. Morrison’s recent post pushed me to thinking of immersion as being a component of what someone might conceptualize as their […]

  5. @Runeslinger There’s probably more truth to what you contend than you realize.

    1. I am prepared to accept being obliviously correct~ 😉

  6. I would not be surprised if you were right. I’ve had a similar journey with gaming – not that I tinker so much as I want to find a game that feels right to me… like putting on a comfortable pair of pants – it just fits.

    I’ve never found it. I am a dissatisfied gamer at the RPG table. I game for story and for engaging with others and I find that I only really enjoy gaming when I do it with other people that I really like and/or feel comfortable with. I’ve never been much of a con gamer – though I’ve had good and bad experiences with it – and I see gaming as my primary pastime. It is what I want to do for fun when I have time in my life for fun. It’s what I set aside time for. So when it is not fun I wonder why I’m doing it.

    1. Time to break out the CSI forensic gear and begin some analytical assessments of the ‘best games ever’ to see what elements were present (and absent).

      If it turns out that you and your typical group do not align on what makes a good time across most of the games in the spectrum of systems you play, what then?

  7. As it turns out – it’s difficult to do an in-depth analysis because I don’t have most of the gamers I considered “my best” available to me for research… which is, of course, part of the problem.

    But you’re right. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s missing… the problem is, the critical element isn’t a game I like… it’s having more than just a tiny handful of people I love playing it with. I think, for me, gaming is primarily about collaborative storytelling – but not the kind of one-off experience offered by a board game or a game like Fiasco… but the kind of collaborative storytelling experience that only emerges from a campaign. For me, it’s all about relationships. And well, no matter what game you play, system doesn’t build those.

    1. How about we start simple then.
      Are there portions of a game in particular that foster (or hinder) collaborative storytelling?

  8. I’m not sure if I can answer your question in a useful way. I’m not being obtuse, I just mean that – for me – once the rules get past, “you’re having a conversation” I think they are in the way of collaborative storytelling.

    That’s not completely true but it does make the point. I mean, I really enjoyed reading DungeonWorld for the emphasis that the rules put on that back and forth, conversational aspect of the game – but it was ruined a little for me by the absurd amount of highly prescriptive “other stuff” that was in the game. I found pretty much the entire section on creating character and the idea of Fronts, etc. to be really frustrating as I considered playing the game.

    So, that’s probably a good place to start… I’m not a fan of prescriptive rules. I don’t need the rules to tell me how to play, I need to game to make me want to play by making me feel invested, like this is going to be a cool experience no matter how many players at the table decide to play wizards… you know?

    I may have done a terrible job of explaining that…

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