Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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Story vs(?) Mechanics

Every art form is good at expressing different things, and weak in other ways.

Paintings are a complex depictions of a frozen moment, designed to awe the eye with intricacy, coloration, theme, message, and content. In its pure form, there is no sound or movement, only the image itself.

Films are great at combining sound and visual elements to create an evocative experience, but they do not allow for the imaginative freedom or the great amount of background detail afforded to books.

Books can play unique tricks on the reader by taking advantage of the fact that the human mind fills in details based on limited information. Something that books do really well is change the entire perception of a scene by revealing a detail which was present the entire time, but the reader was not informed at first.

Video games, which are closest to tabletop RPGs in how they present their story, use mechanics in combination with sound and visuals to create an interactive and immersive experience. If the game is well-designed, the mechanics will work to inform the story. Examples include:

  • In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, looking at monsters causes Daniel’s sanity to collapse, reflecting his terror and guilt in the narrative.
  • In Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, the arcade-style high-octane shootout action, combined with stylistic bullet time, blood sprays, and responsive feedback, ties in with the nature of the narrative; it is a romanticized story told by an unreliable narrator.
  • In Far Cry 3, as the player learns new abilities, the sleeve tattoo visible on Jason Brody’s arm grows, reflecting his gradual transformation from helpless rich kid into a merciless survivalist.
Pictured here: representation of dozens of murders.

But in RPGs, it’s slightly different. Unlike in video games, the use of mechanics is less mandatory. You can choose to follow or bend rules at will, even ignoring them completely. You can, in a very short time, lift entire settings out of their native systems and run them using different ones. How many video games allow a player that kind of agency?

It’s as Gary Gygax once said, “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” Classic case of “wait, you said that?”

You can’t very well play a video game without engaging with its mechanics, but you can play an RPG with virtually none of the mechanics and still claim to be playing it.

Hence the “?” in the title. Is the interaction between story and mechanics in Tabletop RPGs truly a conflict?

“Nuh-uh! You missed!”

I’d say probably not. The story and mechanics in RPGs don’t often interact in direct ways beyond using attribute rolls to successfully move the story forward. The main way that RPG mechanics inform the story is through:

  1. Character Creation options which give mechanical effects based on the world (e.g. greater survival chance in less-gritty settings, special abilities which demonstrate tangible world effects, etc.)
  2. Mechanics designed to encapsulate specific world interactions, not just basic interaction (e.g. spell-casting in D&D, Morph transitions in Eclipse Phase, or the degradation of skills in System Shutdown).

That aside, the story is created by the GM and the players. The GM provides the framework, the players fill in the gaps. There are many micro-RPGs which have no stats at all, leaving the resolution of certain interactions completely up to player and GM discussion.

As I’ve said before, too many mechanics (usually represented by an intricate and tax-form-resembling character sheet) can often get in the way of the smooth flow of a game.

“Wait… what was I trying to find again?”

But still, some mechanics are warranted. Otherwise, we’d all be sitting around a table playing playground imagination games, except with adult rationality and less running around having fun. There have to be some boundaries, otherwise you might as well not claim to be “playing” anything.

Each system brings its own unique flavor from the writing and setting backstory, but the mechanics provide a more solid (for lack of a better phrase) grounding on which to hang the interactions of the game.

“Oh no! These bugbears are too strong for us! I know; I read the manual!”

We wouldn’t be as scared of a basilisk if we didn’t know how much damage it can deal in comparison to our character’s hit points. A magical belt of strength is more impressive when we know how much stronger it makes us, so that we can compare with other strength scores. Sometimes going the fairy tale route and just saying “he was deadly and dangerous” just isn’t enough. We want to know how deadly and how dangerous.

So is it a conflict? Certainly not. Rules and story do often exist in different realms, however; perhaps they cast an idea or two over the dividing fence, but that aside it’s mostly about the players and their imaginations.

“…as you enter the dungeon, you smell something: paper and ink! The Taxpayer’s Guild is nearby!”

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

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