What are mechanics even for?

Having just read a blog post by the extremely talented Chris McDowall, whose Into the Odd has been having a marked influence on my gaming thinking recently, I’ve got to wondering about mechanics. Unfortunately, I end up spinning out a little, and getting all tangled up with ideas about expression. So the article about mechanical kludge will have to wait; this one asks the question: What do mechanics do for your game? And do they achieve what you want out of a gaming experience?


Seeing mechanics

By mechanics, I largely mean rolling dice, and equations involving die rolls. Compare the following:

In D&D 5e, if I want to hit a town guard, I roll a D20, add my Strength or Dexterity modifier, depending on the type of weapon, add my Proficiency Bonus if I’m Proficient, and add any other modifiers from class or feats I might have picked up. I then compare my total against the guard’s Armour Class and, if I equal or exceed it, I roll a second die for damage, adding the same modifier as before (unless I’m dual-wielding with my off-hand and don’t have the relevant feat), but not my proficiency bonus, and take that off the guard’s hitpoints.

In Into the Odd (and Bastionland), I check what die my weapon has, and roll that. That come off the guard’s Hp, minus any armour they’re wearing, or, of they have no Hp left, off their Strength. If that happens, they have to roll on or under Strength on a D20, or they’re unconscious. Simple.

The first explanation drags a little, but believe me, it’s the absolute most concise format in which that information can be delivered. I know because I’ve delivered it to new players approximately five hundred times, and, like the machines in The Matrix, I’ve become very efficient at my task. And note that, strictly speaking, I cut some corners. Really, I first need to ascertain if I’m hidden, which might require its own die roll with its own modifiers, and make the initial roll with advantage if I am. Also ItO’s system incorporates a system for handling combatants who go out of action into the rules above; D&D’s are both separate and complex. Quick: how do you adjudicate someone firing a crossbow at a character who’s gone out of action this round?

(Answer, for those interested: Since they’ll be Prone, the attack, being at range, is at disadvantage – however, they’ll also be Incapacitated, granting advantage, so the attack is rolled as normal, except that if they’re hit it counts as a critical hit (Incapacitated again), so that’ll be two failed death saving throws against the three they need to actually be dead. Didn’t I say it was complex?)

I skipped computing the modifiers themselves because that’d be a little facetious, but the rules do require you to pare the numbers apart – it has never made sense to me why weapons training accounts for getting through someone’s guard, but only raw strength or reflexes dictate how much damage you can actually do. Nor, for that matter, why years of training with my favoured weapon counts for about half as much (less, factoring in damage) as just being slightly stronger or faster than the human average.

Now I am being a little facetious, but it leads me to my point: I actually do understand why these things are all true of the D&D combat system. The answer is, obviously, game balance. The reason the Bard can have “Expertise” in Performance, but the crossbow master can’t be an expert with, you know, crossbows is because performance doesn’t have a carefully balanced game-within-a-game built around it. Since D&D rolled Base Attack Bonus and skill bonuses into Proficiency Bonus for design aesthetics reasons (not to besmirch that, it’s an excellent motivation), there hasn’t been a simple way to make the fighter better than everyone else at the basic act of fighting, other than introducing class abilities that are conducive to fighting – but then, almost everyone’s class abilities are focused on that.

The point isn’t to poke at the design decisions of Wizards of the Coast. Rather, the point is to understand the motives behind them. Combat in modern D&D is very much its own rules-sphere. It’s a skirmish game within the roleplaying game that is D&D – in fact, it very nearly is the game that is modern D&D, hence the focus on combat abilities alluded to above. Within this context – essentially a tabletop wargame used to resolve certain encounters with a little more flair than a straight attribute test or save – it makes perfect sense to prioritise mechanical balance over narrative.

Think of all of the first-aid kits and floaty vials of health you see hanging around in Doom. Does it make narrative sense for them to be there? Absolutely not! Why would demons be keeping human first aid kits they presumably can’t even use? You find these things lying on the floor when you literally go to hell! But they’re allowed because they make the game fun to play. Without them, Doom wouldn’t be balanced properly, and wouldn’t be able to present the same challenges it does. Enemies would have to be weaker and fewer, because each level would essentially be a test to see how little damage you can take, and how many enemies you can avoid direct confrontation with, to get to the exit. (Anyone who’s played the Halo games on Legendary difficulty, or played the recent, and fantastic, indie rogue-lite Noita will know this mode of play, and how it differs from the Doom experience).

So, sure enough, you eventually stop seeing health packs. Or rather, you start seeing them only in terms of in-game goals – as something you have to get to, or save for later, or be on the lookout for. The rules of the game completely supplant the narrative in terms of the conceptual content called up by that distinctive image. This is the phenomenon people are getting a hold of when they talk about D&D combat as a game of chess. It’s not just that the many abstractions of the rules – initiative order, daily-use abilities, whatever the hell hitpoints are actually supposed to represent – jerk you out of seeing the combat unfold as a narrative; it that the focus and goal of the game itself shifts from “How do we achieve what our characters want to achieve?” to “How do we unravel this tactical problem?”

Mechanics and expression

And this is fine. If it sounds like I’m setting up to be pejorative about this sort of design focus, that’s not what I intend. What I am setting up to do is to be cautious. I think it’s worth examining whether this sort of focus gets you what you want out of a game. I personally love skirmish wargames: I’ve built several Mordheim warbands, I’ve played Rangers of Shadow Deep (yes that is apparently two words) by the inimitable Joe McCullough, and I’m currently solo-playing 5 Parsecs From Home to get my sci-fi fix. When I can get a D&D battle scene set up in front of me (an impossible situation nowadays, unfortunately), I’m perfectly happy to sit through the long, long 5e combats, immersing myself in the narrative and the scene as it unfolds. This is why, in happier times, I regularly offer to paint people’s minis for them – so we could treat that component of the game as the miniature wargame that it is, and enjoy all the spectacle and scene-setting that goes with it. But D&D’s combat ruleset runs a bit heavy even for my taste.

Here’s the thing. Expression comes in many forms, especially in gaming. Game Maker’s Toolkit’s Mark Brown (check him out on YouTube if you haven’t already) describes Mario’s jump as “expressive”. That doesn’t just mean that Mario displays emotion or moves like a dancer when he jumps (although he does) – it means that the player can express themselves through the use of the complex mechanics embedded in the (many) different variations Mario has to his jump. One way to do this is to display a mastery of advanced jumping techniques: When you first learn to ground-pound, you might find yourself doing it to add extra emphasis to your Goomba kills, even though it’s not strictly needed. It shaves off some time for completing the level, to the tune of a fraction of a second, but the real reason is that you’re displaying your new mastery of the details of Mario’s movement, exactly like a child does when they learn a new bit of vocabulary and use it all the time (yes, I was that child – can you tell?).

The important detail here is that it’s not what the mechanic represents narratively – presumably Mario’s hatred of Goombas intensifying – that makes the mechanic expressive; it’s the fact that you as a player are using the mechanics in a certain way. Ditto with D&D: The first time you figure out a particular class+feat build, for instance, that excitement you feel is you getting prepped to express yourself on the tabletop. Note on the tabletop“, not just “in the game” – I want to hammer home that this concept – call it “mechanical expression” – has nothing to do with what the mechanics are supposed to represent. The two can of course feed off one another, but I want to get away from thinking that the mechanics are only expressive in virtue of their ability to represent what goes on in the fiction. The sort of expressiveness I’m talking about is the sort that you get when you execute a particularly daring play in Go, or learning a particular combo in Super Smash Bros.

The importance of paring these apart is that you can have the fictional expression without the mechanical expression, just like you can have the mechanical without the fictional, as in chess. And while mechanical expression is brilliant for those who count that among their key engagements (if you have a stack of character concepts based around particular builds – like me – then this is you), you need to sit down and consider whether this actually is you, and, if you’re a GM, whether this is the mindset of each of your players.

Mechanical expression: A good reason for rules

Here’s an interesting thing about D&D 5e: It’s heavily geared towards character creation, to the extent that actually playing gets left out in the cold a little, at least as far as mechanical expression goes. Let me substantiate that claim.

The main form of mechanical expression in 5e comes from character building. This has been the same since mechanical expression became a part of D&D. In the early days, when combat – the most rules-heavy element of the game since forever – was simple, deadly, unbalanced, and something you tried to avoid, and when your character options were severely limited by the luck of the dice at character creation, there wasn’t much possibility of building a character that was interesting from a mechanical perspective. By 3rd edition, though, with 2nd edition’s largely optional feats and skills codified into the main rules, you could customise your character almost ad infinitum. And this meant every time they levelled up, there was a choice to be made about what to do with the new resources afforded you, be they skill points, feats, prestige classes or whatever.

5e does this differently. Now, all character choices are frontloaded. You have a lot of initial freedom regarding attribute allocation, class, equipment, race and race subtypes and, for “variant humans”, feats. Then at level 2 or 3, you have the choice of class archetype. And after that, nothing, apart from, optionally, swapping a feat for an ability score increase every few levels. This might not seem like such a bad consolation prize, but there are a few things to bear in mind. First, it’s optional; your DM may not allow it. And second, it’s not a very easily viable option; using the standard array of ability score values, ability score increases, especially for some classes, are usually a necessity if a character is to remain useful.

The weird thing about this is that it makes it more fun to make a D&D character than it is to develop their powers. This is the reason we see the classic “Bard 3/Druid 2/Warlock 1 sharpshooter” kind of character a lot in this edition; it’s not just that 5e appeals to people who like to make Mary Sues, it’s that people who crave mechanical expression are dissatisfied once they pass the watershed level in a certain class, because the options for expression by class choice vanish. This is also why 5e is fantastic fun to run for lighthearted one-shots; everyone can bring their dress-up doll character, have a play around with it, and then discard it when they’ve had their fun with it. For campaign play, 5e is mostly built on anticipation, rather than fun per se; mechanical expression is used as lure more than a straightforward component of the fun of the game.

The point of this is to ask you to think about the 5e system – about what it is, and what it isn’t. Think about your engagement with the game. Do you like playing dress-up with characters? Do you like playing combat-chess? Do you like that feeling when your Tabaxi Swashbuckler with Mobile makes an attack for 5D6+4 damage, then sprints away 120 feet up a cliff without provoking an opportunity attack?

If you’re a GM, you need to think doubly hard about this. Do you like coming up with mechanically interesting monsters and tricky, puzzlebox combat encounters? Think about each of your players individually. Do they each sit there wondering if there’s a good feat they could take, or combat stunt they could pull off, to manipulate the rules to get the upper hand? Are you all okay with setting up your characters and then making the best of keeping things mechanically interesting, with you shouldering the burden of new challenges in the face of which your players can get creative?

If your answer to the above is “yes”, brilliant! It sounds like 5e is pretty much the game for you. Go forth and have a brilliant time, and know that, to an extent, I count myself among you; I also love figuring out a character build like its a puzzle only I know the answer to, and working up to doing something on the tabletop that makes the GM grind their teeth, and the other players go “Wait, how did you do that?” Or, from the GM’s side, giving my players an encounter that makes them consider the abilities they thought they’d got used to in a new light, in the context of a surprising challenge.

But there’s one thing that turns me off 5e. It’s a personal preference, and maybe a temporary one – I might come back to giving it the preferential place I used to, in time – but I want to share it in case it resonates with anyone else’s experience, because it might lead you to play systems that you get more enjoyment out of, and that are aligned closer with your engagements. I favour narrative in my games. As much as I love a good mechanical challenge, the importance for narrative – emergent, player driven – trumps that. The reason I stare at fully painted tables of minis duking it out (or I want to; what I actually end up staring at is tables of fully painted minis fighting alongside colourless plastic statues and proxies, but we can’t always get what we want) is because the scene matters to me. I lovingly paint my characters because I want to see every glorious charge and every last desperate holdout. But this conflicts with the very heart of 5e. The game, to the extent that it is about combat – which is a very large extent – isn’t primarily intended to represent a narrative; it’s primarily intended to provide a balanced, tactical experience. What I want, whether in rpgs or miniature skirmish games (see the above) is to take part in a narrative playing out on the tabletop.

Simulation: A bad reason for rules

Okay, so that heading is more there for symmetry than anything else – I don’t think pursuing simulation is inherently a bad thing for ttrpgs to strive for. But I think it is a bad reason to stick with 5e over other, lighter rulesets. Let me explain why, then I can close off this article.

As I briefly mentioned above, there are things that 5e fails at simulating. But I’m not going to harp on about those. Instead, I want to mention again the aim behind the 5e system, especially the combat system. 5e, with its weirdnesses like death saving throws for characters and rigid per-day magic use, is like Doom with its medkits. Neither one is intended to make full sense in terms of the logic of the setting, but both are intended to provide engaging play experiences that foster willing suspension of disbelief about those elements that don’t add up. It should be obvious that something with the aim to be fun enough that you forget about the details that don’t make sense, but are included to make it fun, doesn’t have as its chief aim to provide an engine for realistic simulation.

This, I think, is what the combat-as-sport vs combat-as-war discussion is really homing in on. It’s not that one approach is more realistic or tougher or more fun or more balanced. At its core, it’s that the focus is on mechanical expression in one, and on narrative expression in the other. Combat-as-sport is perfectly valid, and 5e does it impeccably. But the detail of 5e is there to support a mechanical system complex enough to allow for the sort of expression that it promotes, not because everything needs a realistic number attached to it.

I started of this (mammoth) article with a nod to Chris McDowall. He remains one of my all-time gaming inspirations. But let me lodge this small criticism against him: Insofar as his article is a critique of modern D&D for being too obsessed with minutiae for the purpose of simulation, it is attacking a straw man. I say this confident that the article is still important, because it’s addressing a straw man that a lot of people think is real – the idea that D&D needs to be complex because failing to take account of small details like +1 proficiency on skill checks for Lore Bards or disadvantage for Drow in sunlight would make the world less detailed and therefore less real. This is a misapprehension; these details are to support an engaging game system whose link to the world and its fiction is of secondary importance. If you think it would make the world feel less real to take out the detail, you need to try (play, run) a simpler system, like ItO or even the brutalist Landshut (props to Norbert Matausch of Darkworm Colt for this gem), and see that what makes the world feel real is consistency and player investment.


Wrapping up

I was going to get into Free Kriegspiel rules and GM fiat. In fact, I meant to start with that. But this article’s getting overlong, and anyway the topic has developed in a different, more substantive direction. So let me leave off with this: Why do we roll dice? It’s not because we want to simulate a world in which we can’t be sure of our actions, at least not straightforwardly; we are sure of the outcome of 99.9% of our actions, and we roll dice for a lot more than 0.1% of the things we declare that we do in rpgs. So what is it?

I think it’s simply that a story that unfolds exactly as any one person foresees it feels unsatisfying to play through. If everything was down to GM fiat, the game would feel, to a lot of people at least, like the GM telling a story. In terms of narrative, all the dice do is throw us the occasional curveball or tense, unpredictable moment. They aren’t there to make the world feel any more real – they’re there to make it feel more fun. And for that, you don’t need proficiency bonuses or even (citing Chris again) advantage/disadvantage. Consider that, just as in The Black Hack or ItO, 5e’s rolls all come down to probabilities in intervals of 5% – they’re just less transparent. If you really wanted to, you could, calculating each target number and each ability bonus, turn every roll into a roll-under roll just like those systems. Once you’ve made the roll, it doesn’t matter what bonuses went into it; the effect is the same.

So take a look at ItO, and at the “Free Kriegspiel Revolution”, where dice are used for unpredictability first, and realism is agreed upon by those at the table. Without at all meaning to delegitimize games where the mechanics, and mechanical expression, come first, if you value narrative over all of that, try games where the fiction comes first, where the dice exist to serve it by making it unpredictable, and where exact thresholds and difficulty classes don’t matter. Combat-chess is fine, but if you’re looking for something whose goal is to represent a fictional reality, that ain’t it.

Keep spinning those tales,


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