Monday, December 20, 2010

Mechanics as Narrative

The point of this blog is to talk about games and story telling, and so today I felt I'd go back to videogames, and to a video post that has had me thinking very heavily about how important, and how much, mechanics can do in a game system. If you let them, and design them to do it, game mechanics can tell a story on their own. So, watch this video and then lets talk about it a bit.

Now, I don't know about you, but I for one never thought about Missile Command like that. Sure I saw the choices, and the efficiency, but I never thought of it from the perspective of what you are actually doing. That you are letting people die to protect other cities, that you are being forced to choose between which areas to defend, what to do with your limited supplies, and the fact that no matter what you can't win. Looking at it like that, it is a very compelling narrative, and I really think I like it.

So, how does that apply to RPGs? It isn't quite as easy to make mechanics there tell a story, but there is a lot you can do with them when running the game, or when designing it. Running the game, the idea of those choices can be very powerful. Designing the game, the rules you put in play are going to shape the decisions that people have to face. If you put in rules for dueling, then people will likely have to choose about dueling. If you put in mechanics to enable PCs to kill others casually, then that is something they may have to deal with.

The other thing to take out of this though? That no matter how you encourage or prompt people to come to these decisions, some people just may not see the importance of the decision, or everything that is going on behind it. There's no real way to drive these in to them unless you are GMing. Then, you may just need to point it out, or you may need to actually show the consequences to them once or twice.

Either way, just keep this in mind. Especially if you're playing Missile Command in the near future.


  1. I always viewed the rules of an RPG as a core part of the story. Each RPG has a balance between the player characters and the bad guys (or good guys in some instances). This sets the tone. Are the PCs gods to wade through this world, or do they have to struggle to survive? What is the likelihood of death? How hard is it to recover from wounds (mental or physical).

    Secondly the rules in an RPG (of which I include NPC stats and player equipment) set what characters will exist and become dominant in the narrative. They also define what dominant strategies will lead to success. Some of them the designer will realize, others emerge and are unexpected. Either way they can define the game and it's story.

  2. Good point Emmet, and one I think I missed up there. You can set the tone fairly strongly with your rules choices. A game with a high lethality rating will feel different than one with a low lethality rating. The same is true for giving the players "cheat death" cards (fate points in Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader/Deathwatch), and other things of that like. It is definitely something to keep in mind when making your game, or choosing a system to use.

  3. As far as I can say, while some of those mechanics and ideas are very obviously part of missile command, I question at some of the ideas as a mere grasping at straws. Some of the more intense ideas are clearly not created by the mechanics, but can only be created if they are dwelled on and considered, something the game itself never encourages. A similar thing can be said of books that claim to explain some deep meaning, but don't encourage the thought needed to understand that meaning.

    That said, I do agree that the mechanics can help set a tone. My example of top down mechanics that I love showing off is Dread. Through a very simple mechanic, the lifting terror of the horror genre only gets more and more urgent as the game goes on, leaving the players to question themselves and their abilities by the end, if they haven't ended up dead before then. The example of longevity is a good one, but those same assumptions can be rewritten to say different things. An example I offer usually is 4th Edition D&D's healing mechanics. Some people say it makes no sense, but if I point out healing surges as blocking and non-damage and then only Bloodied and 0 HP are significant wounds. Bloodied is only a superficial, but obvious, wound, and 0HP is something that could very legitimately kill you. Since HP are an abstract of your ability to keep fighting, even standing back up makes sense: you're not healing the wounds (Unless it makes sense narratively), you're grabbing the hole in your gut and finishing out your revenge in what could very well be your last breaths.

  4. I think some of what they say is reading into things, perhaps further than most people will go, but that is also just the subtlety of the game. The rank you have is very likely a reading into it, but the cities are clearly there. The people in the cities is just a simple extrapolation from that. Cities have people in them, why else are they worth defending really?

    Maybe they're looking in further than most people who play, but that doesn't mean that what they're looking at isn't there, and like I said, sometimes people just miss it. I know I personally didn't see it as about lives, just shooting rockets out of the sky.

    You also do have some good posts on presentation the GM does and the mechanics. I know that I for one never really understood how D20 combat was supposed to work narratively (despite playing it for years) until I played in a D20 Star Wars game my cousin ran. His way of explaining and describing the combat really brought it to life, explained where vitality/hp were going, and really gave me a new respect for the power narrative can have over mechanics.