Rules and facilitation

August 11, 2009

After the last few weeks of playtesting a game, something crystallized for me.

Mechanics exist to facilitate fiction creation and/or force players to make choices.

Mechanics that don’t do either (or don’t do it in a way that a group is looking for) tend to fall out of play through drifting the rules.

It might not be reaching to also say that the range of ways in which a group would want to have mechanics do those things would encompass the entirety of their “Technical Agenda” (things they want/don’t want a set of mechanics and system to do).



  1. In some traditional games I’ve played, mechanics were there to help everyone agree about the fiction. Once the agreement had been established, those rules were used much less. (One character became powerful and killed tens of soldiers, taking barely any damage. We did not bother rolling much dice in similar situations after that.)

    “We didn’t roll dice even once” is a sign of good play because it indicates that everyone knows how the fiction works. Creative harmony of one sort.

    (This is not to be taken as explaining all traditional play or all comments regarding people not rolling dice being real roleplayers.)

  2. I had to mull this over for a while before I knew what I thought…

    I agree with Tommi, and I think that it generalizes beyond specific games. It reminds me a lot of things that Vincent Baker has been saying lately, that good conflict mechanics make people happy to win and happy to lose (Dogs has fallout, Capes has story tokens, etc).

    I think that “facilitating fiction creation” can be divided into (at least) “fostering imaginative consensus” (which includes both Vincent’s trickery and the old “Cops-and-Robbers-I-Shot-You-No-You-Didn’t” justification for rules) and (perhaps what the phrase was intended to signify?) “productively narrowing the options of imagination.” That is, the difference between “You can play anything,” and “Choose between these five interesting cultures, then between these seven interesting classes, then these 15 interesting skills.” Or between “It’s a fantasy world” and “Here’s a brief political and cultural survey of the world.” Giving specifics limits choice, but can spark ideas.

    • Actually I consider both types you mention to be kind of the same thing- they manage player input into the fiction.

      A second type I consider, is when the mechanics produce fiction results – whether we’re talking wandering monster tables, In A Wicked Age oracles, Trollbabe’s rerolls, or My Life With Master’s endings. In this case, the designer is setting up for fictional input that has a force upon the whole group’s input.

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