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Designing mechanics to do things vs. not do things

December 30, 2014

I’ll repeat an idea: the easiest rule in RPGs is “I say it and it happens.”  That’s an easy rule because there’s not much to think about, not much to handle, track, no steps or procedures to take – it’s immediate, it’s simple.

While certainly there are groups that have made this the primary way in which they play games, while the rule is simple, consistently getting it to result in play you enjoy, is not.

Groups that dive into freeform spend a lot of time developing an aesthetic of what is and isn’t acceptable input.  This is why freeform groups tend to be very insular and focus very highly on “it’s all about who you play with” because ultimately their system towards making good play is finding people who can pick up on their chosen idea of good quickly and smoothly.

Mechanics, Systems, Doing Things

So at the end of the day, what do mechanics do?  They do several things together at once:

1. Draw boundaries of what counts as good vs. bad input for this particular game

2. Force players into making interesting choices

3. Help the group negotiate who gets to say what and how those ideas interact

4. Creating uncertainty in outcomes – whether that is dice or forcing the group to speak and choose input in new ways

Freeform play often encounters some common issues:

– conflicting inputs or unsure boundaries about how far you can, or should narrate something

– neutralized input – conflicting ideas cannot be resolved one way or the other

– repeating play patterns – the group always pushes towards the same results, for stagnation.  In worst case scenarios, conflict does not actually exist at all in the fiction, the characters simply spin their wheels, over and over.

You’ll notice that mechanics are basically structured ways of breaking out of those patterns.

“Rules should get out of the way”

Imagine if someone came to you and said, “The best food only makes you feel a LITTLE sick after you eat it, not too sick.”   You’d probably be wondering how far off their idea of what food is supposed to be, or do, is.  The idea that rules are simply a necessary evil mostly means we’re talking about people who have had to use rules that didn’t do what they wanted to do in the first place, but that doesn’t mean they have an idea of what good rules would actually look like.

To be sure, I think most RPGs would probably be better served by something more direct, and cleaner than what they get in terms of mechanics – which would make them easier to navigate and handle – “lighter” by that definition, but at the same time it requires a very different way of considering rules and what they’re here for.

If the rules are not helping your group communicate, organize and create the kinds of play that fits the game you want, then the answer is not only “the rules should get out of the way” but that you need a different set of rules altogether.

Ask yourself – “What do I want out of this game?  What do I want to see that ‘I say it and it happens’ would not adequately cover?” (there’s a lot in many cases, actually)

I’ve been seeing a new generation of game designers bringing up the same old “rules should get out of the way” thinking and it’s just a shitty place for design.

For a lot of people, I really do recommend checking out games like 1001 Nights, Breaking the Ice, Hot Guys Making Out, Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, The Drifter’s Escape – because all of these games will really show you some interesting dynamics in play.

Figure out what you want your game to do.  Make rules that do THAT THING.  Don’t make rules that don’t help with what you want your game to do.   Conceptually easy, hard in craft, but certainly better than “How do I make rules that do things I don’t want, work better?”

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