The Importance Of Game Mechanics

This is my first post about game mechanics, also known as systems or rules. I’m probably going to talk a lot about game mechanics in a lot of detail here (I’m kind of known as the “rules guy” in my gaming group), but in this post I’m going to approach the topic from a very basic standpoint. In my opinion there are two fundamental concepts about game mechanics that need to be understood by players, game masters, and developers alike. They are:

  1. Game mechanics are not the most important part of the game
  2. Game mechanics are still very important

Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

Game mechanics are not the most important part of the game

This may deserve it’s own post, but I’ve found that, when meeting other gamers, my desire or lack of desire to play with them comes down to how well they understand this. Next time you meet someone who plays role playing games, ask that person about his or her character. If the response is a bunch of game statistics, like “he’s a 12th level barbarian with a war ax of +6 badassary” and nothing else, than that player probably doesn’t understand this concept, and by extension probably doesn’t get the “role play” part of role playing. On the other hand, if you get a description of the character’s personality, back history, goals and relationships, maybe even an anecdote of an awesome thing that happened in game without exclusively mentioning statistics, (in other words, you get a response that you don’t need to be a veteran gamer to understand) ask that player if there’s an opening in his or her group, or if he or she wants to join yours, because that person gets it.

One of the biggest things that separates role playing games from other kinds of games is the purpose of the rules. In most other kinds of games, board games and card games in particular, the rules are the game, and everything else, from the artwork to the game pieces, even story elements for those games that have them, just adds flavor. Because of this, if you change the rules, you’re playing a different game. All those different themed versions of Monopoly are the same game with a different paint job. If you actually changed the rules of Monopoly, you change how the game is played, and possibly what the goals are, thus changing the game itself. A great example is the Free Parking rule. Not everyone realizes this, but that rule that landing on the Free Parking space gives you all the money left in the middle of the board is a house rule. Go ahead, check the instructions that came with the game; the last time I did that they went out of their way to basically say “No, that is not how you play Monopoly”. Free Parking is just that, a place where, if you stop moving there (park) you don’t have to worry about paying rent to anybody (free). This house rule changes the nature of the game by adding a new goal (landing on Free Parking as often as possible) which actually subverts the original goal of the game (acquire as much property as possible, which necessitates landing somewhere that isn’t Free Parking).

On the other hand, in a role playing game, the rules facilitate the game, without being the actual point of the game. Role playing games are an exercise in group storytelling. Following the rules are not how you play the game, nor is that how you “win”. You play the game by creating a fictional character, throwing him into a fictional world where he will make choices that will interact with, and inevitably impact, an unfolding storyline, and you “win” by seeing the plot through to the end, whatever it ends up being. The rules just establish the details of how those choices play out. It’s because of this that role playing games can go through regular revisions to the rules, sometimes drastically changing them, and still be the same game. D&D is D&D whatever edition I’m playing. It doesn’t matter if my Wizard has to prepare each use of the magic missile spell he plans to cast today (as in 3rd edition) or if he can cast it once each encounter (as in 4th edition), the point is he’s a scholar of arcane spell casting and can shoot magical balls of pain out of his fingers.

With all that being said…

Game mechanics are still very important

As I mentioned up at the top, I’m known as the resident rules guy in my gaming group; when we need to know a specific system for a specific situation, the group usually asks me, and if I don’t know the rule off the top of my head I usually know where in the books to look for it. I’m not always right, but I’m usually pretty well informed on game mechanics. This reputation of mine was cemented when I got in a long, and ultimately pointless, debate with my GM over a specific rule (I won’t bore you with details). I say pointless because I ended up being wrong, and my arguing about a specific ruling certainly didn’t facilitate the game (and was therefore a bad thing, even if I had been correct), but I don’t feel like I was being a “rules lawyer” because of my intent. I wasn’t arguing the point because I wanted to “win” at knowing the rules, but because I thought this particular rule was important to both the story and the setting. I’ve been in the GM’s chair often enough to understand the importance of bending, if not breaking, the rules from time to time because, once again, they’re there to facilitate the game, not be the game. But I believe they’re still important to the role playing experience. Not the most important thing, but maybe the third most important thing. (Well no, safety is third, but game mechanics are still up there.)

A lot of times the importance of game mechanics is placed on fairness and game balance. While I agree that these are important things to keep in mind, I think the real importance of the rules is immersion, which is important anytime you’re telling a story, regardless of medium. Our characters, and the storyline they’re experiencing, exist in a fictional world which, like the real world, has it’s own physical laws, determining what’s possible or impossible, and how things work. These physical laws are often reflected by game mechanics. Let me give you an example of what I mean: In the real world, we know that a falling object accelerates towards the ground at a rate of (roughly) ten feet per second every second. Therefore, if you fell of off a 5 story building, which would be around 50 feet high, a person better at math than I am could calculate how fast you were moving when you hit the ground, and how long it would take you to get there. In a roll playing game, if your character fell 50 feet, we would have a mechanic for determining how much damage he suffered; the mechanic varies from system to system but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a role playing game that didn’t account for this. Granted, these are methods for determining two different things (rate of acceleration vs. degree of injury) but they both serve as an effective means of quantifying the phenomenon we call gravity in their prospective worlds. See? Physics explained via game mechanics.

Now, because the rules aren’t the most important thing, sometimes a GM will decide to violate the fictional physics of this fictional world to tell a better story. This happens in many different mediums of narrative storytelling, but when it’s not done right it makes the story worse, not better. The medium that makes the best comparison is video games, because, like in role playing games, the rules of the world are established via game mechanics. Many video games have items which restore health or bring back dead characters during game play, but those items don’t exist in plot advancing cut scenes (e.g. Arith and pheonix down in Final Fantasy VII). Done right, the player doesn’t notice the incongruity until later, in hindsight, but when it’s done badly you find players yelling at the screen.

In a role playing game, the GM is the “screen” that gets yelled at.

Another example: If “speed” is defined as the distance a character can travel and still take another action in a turn representing six seconds (which seems pretty standard across games), but then you as the GM let a player character (or worse, an NPC) move twice that far and still attack someone without some kind of special ability or power (something which should be physically impossible in this world), then the physical constraints of your world can potentially fall apart. When done well, your players will overlook it because the story developed in an awesome way. But if done poorly, they’ll start screaming “PHEONIX DOWN MOTHER FUCKER” at you (or a more relevant version of that), and they won’t be silenced by you just saying “I’m the GM so deal with it”. Games are entertaining. Role playing games entertain through narrative. Narrative must have immersion to entertain. If the players aren’t entertained because their characters’ world stops making sense, the GM has failed.

Of course, this isn’t a justification for rule lawyering, because concept #1 is still as valid as ever. The point is, there’s a time to bend the rules, a time to break them, and a time to cling to them for dear life. I’ve found that honesty is often the best policy here. When the GM breaks the rules and a player calls her out on it, if the GM just says “yeah I know, I’m doing this for a reason”, most players will accept that and move on. Another best practice is to keep the digression from the normal rules as small as possible; slight tweaks work better than reality shattering changes.

By the way, this is another point that deserves it’s own post, but the importance of game mechanics is also vitally important if you’re developing a game. No, I’ve never developed a game, but I have played games that were broken because the developers took the system too seriously or not seriously enough, usually the latter. I’m looking at you, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space! Not cool to make a Doctor Who thing I hate!!

Yeah, that definitely deserves it’s own post.

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One thought on “The Importance Of Game Mechanics

  1. Pingback: Whatever Happened to Skills? | Spelunking RPGs

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