You Got Narrative in My Game Mechanics (Part 2)
Last time, we examined the issue of narrative design and rules design, and I promised it was going to get more involved next time.
Well, “next time” is now.
Let’s start by thinking about the purpose of mechanics. I’ll list three:
A game mechanic might exist for one or more of these purposes, and the purpose of mechanics depends entirely on the given game.
So, first and foremost, a mechanic might just be fun. It can be fun to roll dice and see what you get. It can be fun to watch a character succeed against all odds. It can be fun to see a character pushed to their limits. And so on. Since it’s a game, you might argue that a mechanic in fact has to be fun. While I see the general point and certainly think that a fun mechanic is better than one that is not, I also think there are some mechanics which in and of themselves aren’t any fun, but serve a different purpose. Rules that restrict, for example, are often not fun, but they exist for believability, or perhaps order. That said, if a mechanic isn’t fun—even if it serves other very valid purposes—you need to think long and hard about keeping it.
The second purpose is simulation. Simulation isn’t realism, because not every game strives to be realistic. Instead, a rule might capture a particular feeling or truth. It might emulate a kind of story or historical period. It grounds the story being created by the group in whatever agreed bounds of believability the game provides. For example, a rule might keep a completely normal human from leaping up to the roof of a five story building. These kinds of rules are often restrictions or parameters, but they also cover things like task resolution, injury, and so forth.
Lastly, rules that create consensus are the glue that binds the game together as an experience enjoyed by a group. These mechanics allow us to create a shared imaginary space. They keep things moving in a way that all the players can agree upon and understand. For example, we have mechanics to tell us when the enemy starship is destroyed so that the characters can take actions appropriate to that fact. The purpose of these mechanics can also be to give a nod toward “balance,” ensuring one character doesn’t outshine another. (Balance is a topic for its own article, though, because very good arguments can be made suggesting that it’s really just an illusion.) These kinds of rules are often procedural—like turn order, advancement, etc.—but rules that provide parameters or cover task resolution might also fall into this category.
The point here isn’t to pigeonhole mechanics. Instead, it’s more of a question to ask yourself: does the rule I am adding to the game fulfill at least one of these roles? In fact, a mechanic should fulfill at least two of them except in very rare circumstances. If you’re going to tell me that wizards can’t wear armor, I might argue that it’s not fun, and you’d better be ready to back up wizards without armor with simulation (Gandalf didn’t wear armor) or order (wizards in armor are not balanced), and preferably both. And even then, you’ll have to jump through some hoops—heavy-handedly dictating the way magic works, for example—to make this kind of thing work.
If a game mechanic doesn’t stand up to this kind of scrutiny, it’s likely an area of the game that can be handled purely by narrative. The designer should cut it from the rules and explain how the situation can be handled narratively. (Perhaps … some aspects of the game should be so intuitive or obvious that they shouldn’t require any explanation at all.)
But here’s the thing: there’s likely no area of the game that requires mechanics. In a combat heavy game, all verbal interactions might be narrative. But in a game focused on diplomacy and influence, maybe any combat that occurs is handled narratively.
If determining the success of a character’s action is not important for game balance, simulation, or anything of the kind, use narration. That doesn’t mean the group should ignore it, and it doesn’t mean auto-success. It just means the players and GM shouldn’t worry about dice rolling or rules. Narration means that the GM and players talk it through and end up with a satisfying result. If a character walks across the room and picks up a glass of water, a player can describe that action without the need for any mechanics. In a game with no mechanics for social interaction, entire conversations can be played out, the results of which are likely obvious by the end.
As we discussed in Part 1, what TTRPG design comes down to is shaping the play experience, and your tools are mechanics and narrative. Consider all the ways in which these two things might accomplish that.
For example, consider how the game parses out events that happen. In most games, a scene or encounter can be played out “round by round” with round really meaning “everyone gets a chance to do something.” In other words, every character gets an action, resolved one at a time, and then when that’s all done, the group does it again. And that’s the game mechanic involved. Except what if a game didn’t have actions? What if the designer created a game that focused on intent instead?
For example, rather than saying, “I run across the parking lot,” a player says, “I want to get to the other side of the parking lot.” Seems like the same thing, but the difference is, the first one is an action—it’s one thing the character does. The second one might be several “actions.” The character might have to dodge the gunfire from the bad guys, climb over an overturned truck, stop and bandage their leg after things went poorly, and then crawl across a lot of rubble and broken glass to get to the other side.
In a game focused on intent, you might follow that character through all of these actions rather than turn back to another character’s turn because it flows better narratively. Once they cross the parking lot, then another player states their intent and that’s followed through. Or maybe it’s even more dynamic than that—while the character is crossing the parking lot, another player states that their intention is for their character to provide covering fire to help the first person get to the other side. You need to resolve that new intention right then because it affects the remaining actions of the first character. In other words, you’re using narrative, not a formal mechanic, to guide “turn order.”
Just like I wrote last time, there is no absolute right or wrong here. It’s just a matter of what you want the play experience to be like. You don’t have to design a game the way other games work. Just because most games have a mechanic for handling a certain concept doesn’t mean that every game does. Don’t want to have specific combat mechanics? Initiative rules? Character stats? You don’t have to. (In fact, I can think of multiple games that don’t. You probably can too if you give it some thought.)
Perhaps even more surprisingly, just because most games don’t have a mechanic for something doesn’t mean another game couldn’t mechanize that thing. Look at character backstories for example. Most of the time, a player just narrates that, but some games have rules and you make die rolls to determine what happened before the game starts.
The dual instruments of mechanics and narrative can shape and build the game in a limitless number of ways. A good game designer recognizes this creative freedom and revels in it.
Part 3 of this series will be about combining all this together into a fun but kind of strange area I’m going to call Narrative Mechanics (which sounds like it goes against everything I’ve already discussed, but hopefully it will all make sense). However, with the holidays upon us, that article isn’t going to be available until January. Happy holidays everyone, and play some games!