Themes and Mechanics

So, I’ve been super busy what with school and all, and so I’ve been neglecting this blog a bit more than I’ve been meaning. However, I’ve recently been doing a lot of driving, so I’ve had some time to think about the game.

I have the believe that mechanics that resonate deeply with the themes of the game and reflect those themes. I’ve had the pleasure of playing the Red Markets beta by Hebanon Games and the dice mechanics are so incredibly thematic in that system that it makes me drool.

For those of you who don’t know, Red Markets is a game about the crushing, grinding destruction of the self by the capitalistic processes by which our society functions. Also zombies. The mechanics are sa-weeeeet! The power of material possessions over the strength of the person who owns them. The grinding cycle of poverty inherent to the upkeep mechanics. Needing to literally buy love in order to stay sane. All of these reinforce the game’s themes about the destructive cycle of poverty, the ills of uncontrolled capitalism, and the pain one has to put oneself through in order to escape the ‘toxicity’ of the lower class.

I think that having thematic mechanics really adds a lot to the game. It tells what the game is about, and really, why you should be playing it. I’ve gotten a little bored with D&D’s d20 mechanic. I think there are a lot of statistical/mechanical problems with it, but I think that there’s a bigger thematic problem with it.

D&D seems to be a Heroic Fantasy game – beating up bad guys, saving the world, etc, etc. Maybe getting a little treasure on the way. Or maybe its just generic fantasy with a little bit of a heroic bent to it. Characters aren’t explicitly encouraged to be Lawful Good, but there’s lots of little implicit encouragement that the players should be the ‘good guys’ so to speak.

And the d20 mechanic really conflicts with this, I think. The huge swingyness of the d20 means that people who are almost incapable of lifting their own arms have something like a 25% chance to arm wrestle literally the strongest person alive. Not on Earth, anywhere. Even a 20th level Barbarian, who can have a strength that is higher than most humans can comprehend, still has like a 15%-ish chance to be out arm-wrestled by the crippled peasant. And even if we include the Athletics skill of the 20th level barbarian, the peasant will still beat the Barbarian 1 out of every 400 matches.

So, the d20 mechanics make the game about a world where randomness reigns supreme and all of your skills, training, and perseverance don’t matter. And while I love nihilism and dark comedy as much as the next psuedo-intellectual college gamer, the mechanics just don’t seem to match the themes that the base game promotes.

Back on track to my own game. I think I want to make the game having a lot to do with ‘battling fate’. Basically, I want mechanics that represent determinism, and the unyielding nature of reality, and then I want to give players ways to overcome those mechanics and triumph despite the odds.

Additionally, I think my game is going to have a big focus on the ‘adventuring cycle’ – getting a haul back in the dungeon, going to town with all of that money and blowing it on fat drops and sick magic items, and then realizing that you can’t feed your kids or buy a house without money, so you have to go out again, blah blah blah ad infinitum. And of course, breaking that cycle and ultimate self-determination and so on and so forth.

For the deterministic aspects of the mechanics, all aspects of the character themselves – skills, attributes, special abilities – would have ratings from 1-10, or something like that. Then, when the character has to overcome an obstacle, they compare relevant characteristics and if the character’s ratings are higher than the obstacle’s, the character wins, and vice versa.

Sort of like the following:

DM Johnny: Okay, Laura, your character is walking down the hallway. What’s your character’s Perception plus Danger Sense?

Laura: Uh, that’ll be a 3.

DMJ: Alright, well, your character doesn’t notice the pressure plate installed on the ground, and hear a ‘twang‘ sound only when it is too late. Sorry, the trap had a Conceal rating of 4.

Laura: Damn, that’s fine. I know what I was getting into when I made an orc anyway.

So, basically, you’d simply compare numbers. No dice rolling, no nothing, nada. I think that this would also help cut down on encounter time a little bit, if only marginally, so that would be an added benefit.

And of course there would be some way to defy the fates and capture back some sense of agency, because the PCs are special. Some sort of ‘Hero Points’ or ‘Perseverance’ or whatever bullshit I wanna use to represent the specialness of the PCs.

Side note: The PCs are special, whether you say they are or not. I hear a lot of grognards talk about ‘Oh, well, my players go through 27 characters every combat round, blah blah blah!’ I’m not saying that deadly games can’t be fun, nor that any individual character is particularly special. But as a whole, the PCs are special, because they’re the ones having the fun, exciting things happen to them. They are already, by the nature of them being characters played by people in the game, different and dare I say better than the rest of the characters in the world.

Alright, that’s all for now. Come join me next time, when I probably talk about how characters defy fate and maybe some dungeoneering rules!

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