Monthly Archives: September 2012

Fiction and Mechanics

Roleplaying games can be divided into two pieces: the fiction of the game (the story that everyone at the table is telling) and the mechanics of the game (the bit where you roll dice and find out what happens). The relationship between the two can be quite interesting when you dig into it, and can also explain the reaction of some people when faced with games which play with the relationship in unfamiliar ways – if you’re not used to thinking of the game as two separate threads it can be jarring to play a game which has that as its baseline assumption. (See also every blog post about ‘immersion’ and ‘dissociative mechanics’ ever.)

D&D 3.x

In D&D 3.x and other ‘trad’ roleplaying games most* mechanical elements are linked to a specific element of the fiction. The mechanics generate the fiction – when you make a trip attack, for example, your character is actually trying to knock down their opponent – but the fiction also generates mechanics to go with it. Creatures with extra legs have a mechanical advantage when defending against being tripped, and creatures with no legs (oozes) cannot be tripped at all. When the fiction seems like it should provide an effect but doesn’t – like enlarge person failing to provide an increase in movement speed – people find it incongruous.

You can also make the case that this is part of why games like this tend to get so rules-heavy: when you introduce new fictional elements, every element has to have a rule that goes with it and that rule has to interact with the rest of the system – if the system breaks, the fictional elements attached to that part of the system also break and the game suddenly becomes very surreal. You can see an example of this in core D&D with elementals: water elementals are made of water, yet have no special resistance to fire damage. This means that in the fiction of the game a spell like inferno can cause a water elemental to catch fire and burn to death. Which is a little odd.

*Hit points, of course, have never been linked to anything in the fiction except in the most handwavy way.

D&D 4e

The fourth edition of D&D takes a different approach: the mechanics still generate the fiction, but the fiction does not drive anything mechanical. When 4e was first released a lot of people took umbrage at the warlord’s healing word power (I forget what it’s called) because they could see no way to tie the fiction – the warlord says something – to the mechanical healing effect. How does a warlord shouting close wounds generated by an axe to the head?

The answer according to 4e is ‘however it makes sense’. Perhaps that axe to the head was just stunning rather than wounding, or perhaps the loss of hit points was panic and not a direct physical hit – in either case, having a drill sergeant get on your case can get you back in the fight. You’re expected to tailor the fiction of the game to reflect what the mechanics tell you has happened, but the fiction has no reciprocal effect on the mechanics.

For another example, consider a 4e character’s ability to knock a gelatinous cube prone**. The fiction – that a gelly cube has no legs and no real facing – does not create a mechanical imperative that the cube cannot be knocked prone. Rather, when you bash the cube with a prone-making power you are expected to justify the mechanical effects (-2 on attacks, grants CA, can’t move) with some other fictional explanation, like “I’ve disrupted its membrane!” or something.

**I have vague memories of this being fixed in the Monster Vault – but you can still grab swarms, so the basic point remains.


FATE doesn’t veer too far from the trad games setup in that mechanical elements and fictional elements are specifically tied together, but it does offer the interesting ability to translate the fiction into mechanics just by writing it on your character sheet. Is the dungeon collapsing? Well, now there’s a Collapsing aspect on the scene. Get hit by a hammer and suffer a broken arm? Well, now you’ve got a Broken Arm that affects how you act.

This neatly avoids the problem of D&D 4e where the fiction seems to demand something that the mechanics don’t support*** – the fiction simply becomes the mechanics – and also the excessive rules pile-up of D&D 3.x by allowing the mechanics to interact with plain English phrases rather than requiring the translation of those phrases into mechanical code that can be plugged into the rules engine.

***Just why are mindless undead still susceptible to psychic damage?

Dungeon World

Dungeon World also follows the trad games method of tying specific fiction actions to specific mechanical effects, but explicitly gives primacy to the fiction. It’s not quite an inversion of the 4e model, but it does create a situation where the results of mechanical dice rolls have to fall in line with the fictional paradigm already established – and if the fiction disallows a certain action, such as the frequent example of a dragon which is just too mighty to be fought with regular weapons, then the mechanical action cannot take place.

To be honest, I think this is what gives DW its ‘old-school feel’, since your Labyrinth Lords and your Swords and Wizardrys operate along very similar lines: declare fictional intent to stab goblin, roll to stab goblin, translate roll and damage back into fictional wounding of goblin; declare fictional attempt to climb wall, GM tells you wall is too slick, find another way around or break out some equipment; etc. etc.

So What?

Well, nothing really. But I have a post on D&D 4e skill challenges in the pipeline and I didn’t want to digress in the middle of that in order to a) explain what I mean when I say that the fiction in 4e is an epiphenomenon of the mechanics and b) defend that opinion when the post is about something else entirely.

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Dungeon World

I’ve been reading a lot of Dungeon World recently, and playing a bit of it on the internet. It purports to be a new-school system which generates an old-school experience, which I think is a pretty fair assessment. It’s definitely really good.

The other day I had an idea for a ‘tattooed monk’ sort of class and wrote it up – it became something very different in the writing, but I like how it panned out. So here! Have some content:

Compendium Class: Painted Brother

When you go through the initiation rites of the Painted Brotherhood, you may take this move when you level up:

Implacable Strength of the Earth

When you touch your initiation tattoo and call upon your inner strength, roll +Wis. On a 10+ hold 3, on a 7-9 hold 1. Spend hold 1-for-1 to:

  • Enchant your body for one hour to fight unarmed as if wielding a powerful magic weapon.
  • Enchant your body for one hour to gain an armour of 2.
  • Enhance one unarmed attack to do +1d4 damage.
  • Recharge one of your other magic tattoos.

When the sun rises or sets, all your magic tattoos recharge.

Once you’ve taken “Implacable Strength of the Earth”, the following moves count as class moves for you. In addition to your normal list of moves, you may choose from this list when you level up:

Burning Hatred of the Flame

When you touch your fiery tattoo and shout your hatred for your enemy, roll +Wis. On a 7-9 choose 1; on a 10+ choose 2.

  • Your shouting does not attract unwanted attention.
  • Your next unarmed attack against your hated enemy gains Piercing 2.
  • Something precious to your hated enemy bursts into flames.

Ever-changing Nature of Water

When you touch your oceanic tattoo and seek insight, roll +Wis. On a 10+ you take +1 forward to your next Spout Lore or Discern Realities roll. On a 7-9 you take +1 forward to one and -1 forward to the other.

Favour of the Air

When you touch your winged tattoo and take a leap that no normal person could make, roll +Wis. On a 10+ you make it. On a 7-9 you make it, but lose something on the way.

Perfect Bastion of the Self

When your mind is assaulted, touch your enchained tattoo and roll +Wis. On a 10+ you remain untouched by the mental attack. On a 7-9 you still resist the attack but it takes a moment of concentration: an enemy can make an attack against you while you’re distracted.

Empty Heart of the Void

When you touch your silhouette tattoo and tell the world that there is no one here, roll +Wis. On a 10+ you cease to exist for a few moments, returning to the world close to where you left it. On a 7-9 you still cease to exist but when you return a creature of the void returns with you: it may not be immediately obvious, but its instinct is to return you to the nonexistence you flaunted.

Bonus Content! The map so far for the DW PbP game I’m running:

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Hint Hint

After reading this spoiler-filled but very funny dismantling of the Dark Knight Rises, I started thinking about foreshadowing in fiction. I’m comparing and contrasting three broad methods, here – there may well be additional ways to foreshadow that I’m not thinking of, but this is me just kicking an idea around rather than writing with academic rigour, so.

The Screenwriter’s Boomerang is the term used in the linked review, which I think is a fantastic description of what it is: it’s big, it’s heavy, and you know it’s coming back later. It’s the sort of foreshadowing so heavy it’s almost fourth-wall breaking – a little note to the audience that says “Keep an eye on this; it doesn’t look important now but it will be later!”

The Lego Mystery is a phrase I’ve coined to describe a lot of contextless detail, called out by the narrative, that you have to trust will be assembled into something coherent by the time the arc finishes. You get one brick at a time and no real guidance on how they go together, so you have to use your imagination. It sort of revolves around the question “Is this incongruity part of the plot, or is it just an everyday oversight? Is this plot hole meant to be here, or is it an accident?” I first saw this in anime, where you can be barraged from episode one with things that make no sense but will be explained later (you hope) but it also pops up in Inception, in pretty much every plot-generated-on-the-fly roleplaying game ever and (really badly) in Lost.

Chekhov’s Gun is the classic example of this sort of thing – a gun is loaded in the first act, not mentioned in the second, and used in the third. I think it incorporates the previous two, in a way: Lego mysteries are a hundred little Chekhov’s guns – Chekhov’s shotgun, if you will – while the screenwriter’s boomerang is more of a Chekhov’s elephant gun. But I’d like to keep Chekhov’s gun in its own category because unlike the other two it’s understated*. The setup needs to be simple enough that it doesn’t draw undue attention, but resonant enough that when the payoff arrives the audience immediately flashes back to the setup and realises how clever you were.

*I say understated. I might actually mean ‘really sodding difficult’.

The Sherlock Holmes Fuck You is how to foreshadow badly. The audience are presented with a mystery, a bunch of clues and invited to speculate on their meaning. Then the sleuth arrives and solves the mystery in an unexpected manner by using a clue the audience was never presented with. It’s shooting someone in the third act with a gun that has never been mentioned until now. I remember this happening a lot when I read the old Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories – hence the name – but that was fifteen years ago and I was on a lot of post-appendectomy drugs so I might be mistaken. On the other hand, the Hound of the Baskervilles episode of the modern Sherlock is a textbook model of this so I might not be mistaken after all.

There’s a principle in roleplaying games, which I think holds true in primarily visual media like TV, films and comics as well, that anything the narrator goes to the trouble of describing (or that the camera takes the time to observe) has to be important. In TV and film this is also reinforced by the soundtrack – if you watch CSI you can always tell when a detail is important because the music guy adds a sting when the camera sees it. This makes subtle foreshadowing really difficult – the question in the mind of the audience is not so much ‘is this important?’ but rather ‘how is this important?’ And that means that screenwriters and GMs need to adapt their foreshadowing style rather than just hanging lampshades on things which are going to make a return appearance later.

End Note: Kill Bill is a fantastic example of this kind of storytelling. Almost every single scene in those films is either a setup, a payoff, or both. Anything which isn’t, is an illustration of character. Which reminds me of a comic-writing maxim I once read: every panel should advance the plot, show character, or both. You can apply the same thinking to scenes in a film or locations in a dungeon adventure or pretty much any other form of entertainment. Advance plot, show character, or cut it.

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