Monday, August 13, 2018

Mechanics That Help Tell The Story

One of the things that intrigues me about systems like Masks and the upcoming Legend of Five Rings release from FFG is that both games have mechanics that help tell the story. By this I mean they have mechanics that represent some emotional aspect of the characters in the scene, which in turn impacts how the player is expected to play that character. Most systems - at best - try to get out of the way of the story only showing up to help resolve conflicts. These systems though bring the conflict into play.

Being Emotionally Compromised
In both Masks and Legend of Five Rings you can end up emotionally compromised. In L5R this happens with the Strife and Compsure mechanic. In Masks it happens because the entire system is designed around social, so when you take a hit - physical or otherwise - you don't lose hit points, instead you become impacted emotionally.

This means in both games the system has ways to put the character into a spot where they are not in control of their emotions. Which also means both games have ways to bring conflict into play. You don't get to say your character has the patience of a saint, because the system can tell you when you're angry, or impatient, or otherwise just frustrated.

The Good Side
The good side to these mechanics is that they generate conflict. Social conflict is something that players tend to be overly cautious about. I can't tell you how many times I've seen players in L5R not react to horrendous insults - while leveling their own back - because both players wanted a duel, but neither wanted to let the other person determine the type of duel.

Masks is a game of super powered teens and all the emotional frustration and issues that comes with that. Legend of Five Rings is a game where everything is political - even fighting in the street - and how well you keep your emotions in check will determine how people view you. These mechanics bring those aspects of that type of story to the forefront, and they help you tell that story.

The Bad Side
The bad side to this is that it can mean, in some situations, that your character is having reactions that perhaps you as the player don't want. Both games have ways to mitigate this. Composure and being Compromised in L5R doesn't say how you are feeling emotions - just that you are. Unmasking also leaves it open for how you reveal that emotion. There are suggestions, yes, but the game doesn't wrench control away aside from to tell you that your emotions have come into play.

Masks on the other hand mostly lets you choose which status effect you take. If you take a powerful blow from an enemy you could end up feeling Insecure or Afraid, but if that doesn't work you could also end up being Angry. Of course, if you're already Angry then that is off the table, but you still have some say in what happens.

Still, it is important to realize that when the mechanics tell you what your emotional state is that it means the player does not have complete control of their character, and that could rub some people the wrong way.

An Example - The Duel
An example of how this can work in play happened in the L5R game I played at GenCon. At the end of the adventure our session was resolved with a duel between a Lion Clan NPC and a Crane Clan PC. The duel, mechanically, worked as follows:

  • Both players rolled initiative (and bid Strife to improve their roll)
  • The Lion won initiative and struck first
  • The Crane struck back
  • The Lion unmasked because between bidding and striking had become Compromised which gave the Crane an opening
  • The Crane struck and missed
  • The Lion struck and hit
  • The Crane had to unmask due to being compromised which gave the Lion an opening to strike
  • The Lion struck
  • The Crane did a "shattering parry" (spending a void point to negate a blow at the cost of their weapon to stay alive
  • The Crane struck and won the duel.
This was a duel to the death, and while the end wasn't as cut and dried as I presented due to other antics of other PCs, the duel itself played like that. Reading through it, from the mechanics alone that duel tells a great story. The Lion's passion gives them the edge in striking first. The blows go back and forth. The Lion loses composure first, and the Crane goes to captialize on it but somehow can't convert. Frustrated, the Crane leaves himself open and as the Lion capitalizes the only way to stay alive is to sacrifice his katana. Then, katana shattered, the Crane draws his wakizashi and strikes...

The narrative intrinsic to that story - just from both players treating the duel as straight forward as possible - tells a more nuanced tale than 4 previous editions of L5R duel mechanics combined.

I'm not sure if it's for everyone, but it's something I'm definitely interested in seeing how it plays out.

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