The clash of character and context

I was prompted by a post over on Department V to go furtling through some old Forge articles, and I stumbled upon this bit of text tucked away behind some musings about coherence.

“In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following models.

A pre-play developed setting, in which case the characters develop into protagonists in the setting’s conflicts over time. Examples include Castle Falkenstein and Hero Wars. Pre-play developed characters (protagonists), in which case the setting develops into a suitable framework for them over time. Examples include Sorcerer, Everway, Zero (in an interesting way), Cyberpunk 1st edition, Orkworld, and The Whispering Vault.

I have observed that when people bring a Narrativist approach to Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings, or other game systems which include both detailed pre-play character creation and a detailed, conflict-rich settting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably.”

This is interesting to me. It makes a kind of sense: if you set up an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) setting and an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) set of characters at the start of a game, chances are good that these are not going to work well together. The players don’t know all of what was in the GM’s mind when writing the setting, the GM doesn’t know all of what was in the player’s minds when writing their characters, and if everyone insists on staying faithful to what they pre-decided, chances are you’re going to get some friction.

In fact, I have observed this in many games. The GM writes an awesome, detailed setting that they just can’t wait to set the characters lose in. The players read a light summary of the setting, this triggers a cool idea for a character and they go wild writing up a history for them. All too often, one or t’other ends up feeling their vision is being compromised, or that what they have created doesn’t quite “fit” with the rest.

Certainly from a narrativist point of view it seems relatively high risk – is this going to create interesting issues to resolve in play?

It seems to me that the design of Apocalypse World very much plays on this observation. The players create their characters and then, collaboratively, seed the world. The GM adaptively brings the world to life and introduces elements of conflict, reacting to the characters the players have created. The exhortation to the GM not to plan anything out seems like it must have at least partly had this thought in mind.

Anyway, interesting. I’m pretty sure a lot of my campaign design has totally broken the above advice. I’m not saying this has ruined my campaigns, far from it. But I and my players have certainly had to be ready to adapt things over time to avoid disappointment.

Structure vs Mechanics

So, Dan Maruschak recently posted to Story Games (the G+ community, not the forum; which you would think they were the same thing, and they are – except they aren’t) about the frequently expressed view that too many/too complicated rules are bad in a roleplaying game. Now, his post had a point all of its own, which I shall ignore because I want to talk about something else. Take that, rules!

Anyway. In discussion on the said post, I arrived at the view that there were two types of “rule”, which I shall here call structure and mechanics. Why is this relevant? I shall tell you if you would accompany me to the next paragraph…

Glad you could join me! The point I was responding to in making the above distinction was that sometimes, rules make roleplaying easier. Take a simple example. Fiasco has almost no in-scene rules. It essentially leaves the job of running scenes completely unconstrained – sure, one person sets the scene while another bunch of people decide the broad outcome (or vice versa) but everything else is down to whatever you collectively want to do. And the thing is, that works for some people, but for others it leaves them lacking direction and unsure when they should jump in. You have to develop the kind of culture that improv groups make use of all the time, and developing that culture can be challenging.

In contrast, Fiasco makes generating the overall scenario for the game much easier by providing a basic setting and a bunch of simple rules for generating story elements. You take turns, and nobody is in doubt about what they can and can’t do during this stage of the game.

So, weirdly, the most rules-heavy bit of Fiasco is in some ways the easiest and smoothest part of the game. All those rules didn’t get in the way after all!

…which brings me back to my point about structure and mechanics. See, I think Fiasco’s set up phase is not really a “rule” as traditionally conceived in roleplaying games. This is a bit of a vague concept which I’m having trouble articulating, but what I call a mechanic – the traditional RPG rule – is a very well-defined procedure for taking a well-defined input and generating a well-defined output. “When you are hit by a short sword, roll d6 and subtract it from your hit points.” “You can take two half actions or one full round action every combat round.” …that kind of thing.

In contrast, the Fiasco set up isn’t really like that. It’s all “before you start the game you should create some elements to use in play”. Now, I’m contradicting myself here slightly (did I mention I’m having trouble articulating this?), because the element generation tables have all the hallmarks of what I’m calling a mechanic, and the rules about how you arrange relationships and other elements around the table look like that  too. But the overall effect is merely to guide play towards a relatively ill-defined form: a structure, if you will. Similarly, Fiasco’s two-act structure and its token-based scene resolution are designed not truly to constrain play but to provide a framework on which to hang your story. Likewise, defining roles (is there a GM? What do they do? If there isn’t, how does that work?) is more about setting a framework rather than fixed procedures. This is all what I call structure, and although it kinda fits in the category of rules, it serves a radically different function.

Now apropos of Dan’s discussion, I’m not saying that structure is good while mechanics are bad. But it seems to me that roleplaying games have historically had a tendency to major on mechanics and leave structure to the GM to work out. And, furthermore, they have tended historically to err on the side of too much mechanic (for some people’s tastes) but very rarely got even close to too much structure. Even Fiasco, which is quite a structured game by RPG standards, is in my view not structured enough.

So in principle: more rules is neither good nor bad. But in practice, more mechanics is often going to turn out to be too much, while more structure is very unlikely to be too much. That may not stay true, if RPGs continue to develop and diversify, but even post-indie revolution it’s still the case for most games , in my opinion.