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Structural vs. Fictional Engagement

October 12, 2021

I’ve been thinking about a strong play preference issue that generally hasn’t had a good set of tools or common language to talk about.

The Tavern Brawl Example

Let’s say we have two different action-adventure fantasy RPGs and both are dealing with the classic tavern fight. In both games, the barbarian hero breaks a stand holding up a keg, causing it to roll and slam into some bad guys.

In Fantasy Game A; there’s rules for figuring out how hard it is to do the action, and what happens to the bad guys when they get hit with a rolling barrel – these could be charts and specifics, or a generic chart with some GM guidelines, but either way, there’s some kind of solid mechanics in there.

In Fantasy Game B; there’s a checklist of tropes – “Use environment in a fight” and the player just checks that off and describes what they’re doing.

In both games, the fictional events are the same, but the way the player and the group has to engage with the rules to get there is very different.

Structural vs. Fictional Engagement

In Game A, the players have to engage with the mechanics and some system mastery to figure out how to get the effect they want. It’s a very game-mechanics orientated way to get the outcome (which is not to be mistaken with Gamism as a goal). In Game B, the players mostly have to think about how to make something fit within the fiction – there’s very little system steps or strategizing around the process to get there.

Now, this is actually kind of a strong game preference issue, and it’s not necessarily that a game will be all structural or all fictional; rather, that different games choose when and where they want to do one or the other, and different people dig into them accordingly.

While I used the trope of the Tavern Brawl, you can see how this links to things like games with social “combat” or influence rules, or resource management, or political alliances, or romance, or motivation mechanics… So maybe a very useful tool would be looking at what subjects a player has preferences for structural engagement vs. fictional engagement? I need to develop this out more to build that, but it is helping me better understand what I like about certain games vs. dislike (which… isn’t the same as “the game is well/poorly designed” – someone can make a world class version of a dish you don’t like, you probably still won’t like it.)

It’s probably a good exercise to sit down with a couple of your favorite games, and note where they sit on that scale and what you like vs. wish were a little different for you and you might see some interesting trends/ideas about the RPGS you like and why.

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