Saturday, January 3, 2009

This may be the most important post on this blog I will ever make.

I think I just nailed it.

I think I just made the breakthrough in RPG philosophy that I've spent years trying to articulate to myself- a process that started with me noticing a strange phenomenon, where the experience of playing a tabletop game would be compelling in this certain, undefinable way. I could wait to post this, write up the 2 or 3 posts I've meaning to write up which bridge the gap between my last post on game design theory and where I've just arrived. But this is too important, it defines the core thing that makes roleplaying games (in their broadest definition) special. It's a concept I bet alot of us have figured out to some degree, though probably without much apprectiation for (or interest in) the implications. Whatever else, I can be excited that I personally am treading new ground here.

Enough rambling. My personal epiphany is this: Game mechanics are a medium for storytelling.

Let's start by getting our definitions straight. When I say "Game mechanics" I'm talking the mechanics in and of themselves- the numeric bonus your Dodge feat provides, the amount by which the pouncing rat reduces your hp total in a computer game, the rules in a LARP for determining which swings of a padded sword represent body hits on an opponent.

Saying that something is a "medium for storytelling" means that it conveys a story the same way that air conveys sound. The standard medium for conveying a story is words, but a silent film or dialogue-free comic can also tell a story, and compared to words the mediums they're using have their own advantages, disadvantages, and most importantly: unique forms of potential. When exposed to a text description of an angry man, our minds get something out of it that differs from what we get out of the sight of an angry man's face.

I owe that concept of mediums to the insightful Robert McKee, whose book on storytelling also talks about how well-done stories express ideas, and then go on to *prove* them. A story is given meaning by how it expresses these concepts of what the world is and how it works, with a plot coming together to make an assertion like "love conquers all" or "crime doesn't pay".

Game mechanics can do this. When they represent abstract ideas, they can express and prove ideas in such a compelling fashion that I'm scared by their potential in the realm of propaganda.

I'll start with a blunt example: Say that I take a typical RPG and add a "Willpower" stat. This stat is added to all rolls you make, directly increasing your character's odds of success. With this action as a game designer, I use game mechanics to convey an idea: "Willpower always helps you succeed". By varying the degree to which willpower improves the odds, I can tweak what the message says regarding its importance- "With willpower, you can do anything!"

Of course, using such an overtly game-changing and poorly balanced variant rule to convey this message would be like having every character in a story stop and say "Willpower is the key to success" once every five minutes- one is the action of a poor writer, the other the action of a poor game designer. What would be a more complex and nuanced expression of an idea?

Let's say that we have a system that tracks a character's Anger. The stat can be both a curse and a blessing- it helps you shrug off negative emotions like fear and grief and lends you strength, but reduces your capacity for insight and self-control. Now, I mentioned before that your mind gets different things out of words that describe an angry man and an image that depicts him. By the same token, you're getting something out of your GM telling you that a man before you has 5 Anger Points. It tells you this guy is ready to snap, would be dangerous for you to fight when he'd normally be a pushover, and could be manipulated into doing something he'll always regret with a lie he'd normally see through in a second. These are all ideas about the nature of anger which the game has expressed to you via its mechanics- and they are ideas which you have unhesitatingly adopted in the process of learning how to play the game.

That last bit is what really scares me. Other mediums show you an idea. But games tap far deeper into our learning processes- we enjoy the experience of figuring out how to beat them and affirming that we've done so. We're actively participating in the story, making choices and facing the consequences, figuring out the wisest course of action- which is whatever the game designer has wanted it to be. Stories communicated through game mechanics immerse us far, far more than ones communicated through words and sensory imagery.

I mentioned before that this was at least significant to me personally, and it's hard for me understate the degree to which this is true. This is it, the crucial step that has taken me over the ridge and given me a view of what lies beyond: a chance to do something new and original on a large scale, to perhaps even someday be an honest-to-god pioneer. I'm poised to explore a medium that's been consistently neglected despite game designers having drawn on it as far back as the 6th century, when Chess's predecessor appeared in India with pieces to represent the 4 divisions of the military.

I also finally have a decent explanation for why I don't like poker, so that's cool.


Balthazarr said...

Hah! Gotta love the tongue in cheek joke there.

Donny_the_Dm said...

Good insight.

I have been trying to wrap my brain around it too, why in the hell do all these people keep coming to my house every weekend to sit around a table and play make-believe?

Because calling it make believe is a disservice. It is a story. A story they don't know, that they are a part of. It is a story with no ending, save the one that they pursue and bludgeon into submission. Every crit, every's THEIRS.

And the whole time, I thought it was free food...go figure!

Keep up the good work dagda.

SuperSooga said...

Great post, a topic I'm planning on going into over the next couple of weeks myself, infact. I'd even go as far as to say every single mechanic in your game should do something to further the type of story you want to encourage.

Dagda said...

Sooga: I wouldn't go overboard. Part of what makes game mechanics so potent a medium is the way a good game sucks you in; even if the story is your ultimate priority, good game design is still another vital thing to consider.

beastieboyed said...

I think you might actually have a very good point. It is the game mechanics to a certain extent that has made my characters so unbelievably awesome, and their epic deeds... well, epic, truth be told. Because of the game mechanics, I was able to harm a god-like being as a low-level artificer, I was capable of destroying a legion of drow as a simple angry bard, and I was able to rescue said bard's wife from the depths of hell using a blade he knew full well he shouldn't.

Because of the rules set in each of these games, they made these situations better. It makes so much sense. Many of the awesome stories we have to tell, as gamers, occurs because of that "amazing critical" or the "ingenious plan" that we developed. It's what draws some of us in, because unlike most other forms of gaming, these things are special and random. You could repeat that battle a dozen times, and not come up with the same amazing ending.

Just recently, I ran my players through an abandoned space station centered on Murphy's Law. With them facing off with one Edward Murphy. Who, by trick of the dice, wound up killing himself by sheer accident, and thereby subjecting himself to Murphy's Law.

It was not something scripted, however. And this is probably what engages both players and GMs alike so much. Most of these situations aren't scripted. The ones that are don't normally get talked about so much.

Ask a gamer some of his favorite gaming stories, and odds are pretty good they'll start talking about that amazing critical that allowed them to defeat the god-king or something.

You're probably right, Dagda. This may very well be one of the most important posts you will make.

elias said...

Beautiful. I agree completely.
I've been exploring this idea recently, particularly looking at design ideas used in indie games such as Dogs in the Vineyard (, Orkworld, and others from the website The Forge (

Thanks for the great thoughts.

vazor said...

Wow, this is a pretty stunning realization. I felt really enlightened by the words in bold there.
As far as them having more of an effect on people, I think that's more debatable.
Thank you for this amazing post.

Nicholas said...

I enjoy seeing good thought patterns similar to mine, Dagda. You certainly hit a very good point with this post.

I am also an amateur game designer, writer, and artist. Recently I have decided that the first game I wanted to come out with was a tabletop and have recently been researching tabletop design to compare to the concepts, stories, and mechanics I've created.

Sure enough, I found little competition (haha, that sounds arrogant), but I still search deeply for game design theory and those that actually pursue the answer for it. You, sir, have come across a very good point. Not the sole point, but a great point to be highlighted.

Other ideas that I have found whilst brooding this theory: Goal orientation; Character progression control; character outfitting; skill-based-creation involvement; ect.

I don't want to give away my ideas, but involving your characters on certain levels helps makes the player feel more involved and content with story resolve. I tend to like to make characters feel more unique and set them up to create their own fate. At the same time, I love collecting so I tend to create a lot in terms of material objects to collect and find. Lots of side-mission scavenger hunts and goose0hunt missions.

Dagda said...

I see? Well, I'll congratulate you on being able to come with relatively original mechanics- whatever they might be- and wish you the best of luck when it comes to translating those concepts to practical, effective applications.

Michael said...

Read it. Loved it.

It explains why I always feel like something is missing when I try to come up with 'rules-lite' systems: By trying to reduce the mechanics of the game to allow you more flexibility to tell a story, you are actually degrading the story, which is within the rules themselves. Not that I'm saying a good game should be a swarming mess of rules -more like a crystalline structure.

Its like the numbers, stats etc are a form of Gematria, and by wielding them well you create this cathartic experience in your mind that has so much to do with the subconscious and those basic ideas like Strength and Willpower and Intelligence and all those archetypal forms. The rules really do tell the story.

Thx for that, you just made my night/early morning :D