Monday, March 16, 2009

Rationales for Mechanics

{or the case for designer notes}
revised from the 2203 article

Why do rpgs use mechanics? Such a simple question, but one with such complex answers. It seems obvious that those answers would be key in the design process or in the judging of an existing game. After all, it's only by knowing your needs that you can chart the nature and placement of mechanical systems properly in such a way that the game meets the desired goals.

Sadly it seems very common for rpg designers of the current day (especially in the free or small print world) to skip right by that question. It is painfully common for me to receive what is in effect a blank stare upon quizzing a game designer as to the reasons and rationales behind their design. Typically the only response is "I was looking for something different" and "It does what I wanted it to do", without being able to express what was different, or what it is doing. The end result is I receive in answer a jumble of words typically tossed on the back cover of a book as basic marketing ("Powerful yet simple mechanics!", "Yes it's a floor wax and a desert topping!").

With this as the common response, there is little reason to wonder that mechanics in many games seem almost pointless- seemly existing often just because other games have included them. The result is typically a distraction from (or misinterpretation of) the purpose of the game, reducing what could have been a powerful design to yet another rpg that will sit on the shelf.

Let's take a moment to consider some important and common rationales, just so we're on the same page. I don't think these are by any means the only reasons, but they are at the very least reasons every designer should consider his mechanics in the light of.

I. Limiting Player Options

If any single rationale could claim to hold prominence in game design, it would be this one. Why can't my 1st level Age of Heroes fighter kill an ancient red dragon with his penknife? Because the combat rules make that all but impossible as a core requirement of design.

The natural result of any mechanic is to limit options. What those options are limited to however determines the actual rationale for the mechanic. In this specific case, the reason is to prevent specific player actions and choices because they are unsuited to a intended purpose of the game- advancing and leveling characters to the point where one can defeat more epic opponents.

Advancement rules are typically guided by this rationale. The player gets X amount of power within the game for Y amount of effort, not no effort at all. Requiring a certain Strength level to break down a specific door is yet another example while falling damage is yet another (for those games limiting a character's ability to jump off 40 foot walls to reach a battle).

II. Providing Meaningful Player Choices

The classic example here is combat mechanics. The idea is to present a complex and diverse enough set of choices in order to make the decisions of the player important in determining the outcome of the game events.

III. Inspiring Player Action

Examples of these are the Sanity rules from Call of Cthulhu which provide a nudge of when and what type of insanity the player is struck with, but leave the exact details of expressing it up to the player and GM.

Psychological and Drama mechanics are normally created with this rationale in mind, to respectively inspire role-play and story creation.

IV. Replacing Player Choice

These mechanics are intended to flat out replace decisions by a player or GM.

Single roll combat resolutions are typically this type of mechanic, the idea is to remove any tactical choices beyond that of the decision to engage in battle (and sometimes even that isn't offered). Another example is the use of straight up 'social' skills like 'bribe' and the like. The concept is to remove choices and actions from extensive play that are felt to be either beyond the ability of the players or outside the focus of the game.

Another way of looking at these mechanics is as a simple and quick method to resolve something so that the game can go forward. Removing significant player input is perhaps the fasted way to achieve that goal.

V. Provide an Illusion

Some mechanics exist to aid in suspension of disbelief. Thus a game may include detailed currency rules because the players have a hard time believing that everyone in the world uses the same coins.

Some mechanics provide an illusion of Rationale II above. A typical example is providing a wide range of combat maneuvers that suggest a good selection- but upon using some math it's revealed that a single one of the provided maneuvers is always the best choice, or that the choice doesn't matter. Sometimes this is a result of failed design, at other times it's done on purpose (often using dice pools mechanics in order to make the illusion more difficult to pierce).

There are other possible reasons of course. I'm sure you can add a few with a little bit of thought.
Once one knows the rationale for a mechanic, it becomes much easier to determine the Layer of Design it applies to as well as its form. Rationale IV mechanics for example tend to be simpler than Rationale II systems by nature.

There's just one gotcha to keep in mind. A little thing called the 'the eye of the beholder'.
Remember Rationale III above, a little thing about inspiring player action? Most of the time I see such mechanics I'm not inspired. Instead I see a Rationale IV mechanic- something that takes my choices away in order to meet a goal of the game design (in the case of Call of Cthulhu, it's enforcing the genre concept that everyone goes insane- a type of railroading with respect to the role-playing of a PC).

Here's another example- Rationale II mechanics become little more than Rationale V mechanics if the players can't grasp the actual effects of choices in the system (dice pools tend to cause this effect by making probability determination exceedingly difficult).

Take a few mechanics from a favorite game of your own and try fitting them into each of the above rationales. With a little bit of work and a talent for seeing things though the eyes of others- you may be surprised how many rationales a single mechanic can fit in.

So in the end you may design a wonderful game, one that has developed mechanics that fit their reasons for use at every point. But in the end the final result may be viewed by others in a completely different light than what you intended.

But all is not lost. The solution to this sad state of affairs is right in the subtitle to this article.
Designer Notes.

Write them. Spend as much time and effort on them as you did in the design of your game- for they determined the design of your game. Put them directly in the book or on your website. Explain why you selected the mechanics you did, what they do in your game, why you rejected other possibilities.

You'll achieve four outcomes.

  1. You'll produce a better game. One tailored to your needs and perfect for the type of play you desired.
  2. You'll provide the best guide there is to how the game was meant to be played. And you'll do it in a way far better than the typical stilted 'example of play' fiction.
  3. You'll define for the reader the terms on which your work is to be judged, so that in that judging they are not looking for a game you never designed. It is much better to hear "Even if I don't care for the style, Game X does what it intends almost perfectly" instead of "This games sucks".
  4. I won't get a blank stare when I ask you what makes your game different or what you were trying to achieve. For not only will you be able to answer that question, you've already written it for me meaning the only thing I'll bother you about is the details of your vision. And isn't the details of the designer's vision the reason for making a game in the first place?


jamused said...

With IV I think it's worth mentioning that choices may be felt to be beyond the capabilities of the players for a very good reason. (This hearkens back to my post about near vs. far reasoning.) The moment-by-moment actions and decisions involved in, say, surgery, aren't something the players and GM are likely to have the background necessary to perform, so unless the game intends to actually educate them to make those choices in a meaningful way the mechanics are going to have to take up the slack or reduce it to something they can reason about (e.g. Speed vs. Caution). The moment-by-moment actions and decisions involved in repairing a hyperdrive aren't even possible to know, so unless the game intends not only to make up all the details from whole cloth but to then educate the players in the fictional details you have to use mechanics to replace the player's choice about what they would actually do with the Hyper-Sprocket on the Cosmic Framulator if they were the character.

Gleichman said...

@jamused: I agree, in fact I make significant use of that concept in my own game design. There are things that I either don't know enough about to model, or the modeling itself would have negative effects on the game. So I take an easy but acceptable way out.

I don't think any of the reasons are bad in themselves although like anything they can be carried too far. I think this is especially true of III (Inspiring Player Action) and V (Illusion).

Helmsman said...

Very good post. For a while now I've been working on a new set of game mechanics that's designed for realism. Our goal with the mechanics was to create a game that used real mathematical probability and actual human capability to create a highly realistic game while keeping the gameplay simple and consistent. We think we've achieved that, and now we're putting the polish on and adding secondary features. In some ways our approach has been backwards to what most game designers use. We started with a mechanics build, and once that's complete we intend to build settings that the mechanics would represent well.

Gleichman said...

@Helmsman: That's quite the goal you set for yourself. In general I find that such attempts are focused on a specific part of reality rather than all of it- as reality can quickly become too complex and ugly for the taste of most.

If that's the case or not, I still wish you luck. Today's gaming market has moved away from that design focus and I'd like to see things swing the other way.

For what it's worth, I like your backward approach. Too often I think people go with 'setting based mechanics' and never stop to think about the the downsides they've created. Classic Deadlands is an excellent example of this.

Be sure to shoot me an email or something when you've reached the point where there's something you can show. I'd be interested in seeing it.

Helmsman said...

@Gleichman: If you'd like to discuss it further you can reach me at or on Skype as tainfebren . I'd certainly like to hear a bit more of your background, from what I've read you're well grounded in game mechanics theory, which makes me think you've published a few things, but I'm lazy and haven't looked at past posts to see if my suspicions are correct.

Gleichman said...

@Helmsman: You can certainly send me information at my email address for the blog. It's under the 'About Me' section to the right. I'd be interested in what parts of reality you're modeling and what information you're using to define human ability.

As for my background, I like to consider myself a talented layman.

I've designed a number of wargames and rpgs over the years (one was published online as a free PDF for a time) but have never been driven to do a dead tree for sale print run. They've been primarily for the use of my gaming groups.

That interest and work resulted in a number of articles and online postings & debates over the years (dating from the mid 90s)- some of which have been referenced in text books and academia papers for what it's worth.

I likely should publish one of my games. It's not hard to do these days with Print on Demand.

Helmsman said...

@Gleichman: Just curious if you got my e-mail or not. I know I've been swallowed by spam folders in the past.

Gleichman said...

@Helmsman: I got it, but have been pressed enough for time that I haven't responded yet. It was interesting, you've set yourself some high goals.

I'll say more by email, but it may be a day or two...

Howandwhy99 said...

I'm really liking your blog and its' insightful posts. This one in particular is fun to use with multiple games. Currently my game has every rule fit into every one of the 5 categories you list. Which is just odd, but certainly some are more or less influential according to type no. III.

Gleichman said...

@Howandwhy99: Thanks for the comments.

Yes, some are more important to some game designs than others and some cross over into multiple reasons. The list wasn't meant to be exclusive.

John Morrow said...

I was reviewing some old blog posts and found this. To your list, I would add that rules can teach players and/or GMs how things work. For example, a combat system that assigns different weapons different damage ratings can teach someone who knows nothing about comparative effectiveness that some weapons are better than others. One can learn about the benefits of things like flanking from rules that provide benefits from doing so.