Wednesday, 11 April 2012

GM Tips - Story vs Mechanics

In recent years the obsession with better and better graphics in video games has hit a bit of a wall. The more prominent games have been the ones with in depth stories, like the Fallouts, Skyrim, Mass Effect and even the traditional shooters  attempt to have rich campaigns. It seems now a days a game needs that captivating story in order to succeed and in a lot of cases it takes precedent over other aspects of the game. This is even more important in  your table top games.

Many RPG systems out there have a lot of rules and GM's and players alike can find themselves bogged down and restricted. This however doesn't have to be the case. Lets take a quick look at D&D 4E for a moment. In each round of an encounter the players can each take a Standard Action, a Movement Action, a Minor action and some Free Actions. This works well for the tactical game play that 4E wanted but what if your players want to try something a little different one round?

Lets say, as a player I wanted to run up to a table, jump onto and leap off grabbing the chandelier on the ceiling swinging across the room and plant my heel into the bandits face near the door.

This would require a Move Action to get to the table, a Free Action to get onto the table, an acrobatics roll to swing on the chandelier which is a Standard Action and then some kind of attack which would be another Standard Action, not to mention by the rules this would probably be an unarmed melee attack, which is going to be less than useful.

So to do this pretty awesome thing I would either have to take two turns or use an action point all to achieve a payoff that within the rules would not be worth it at all. That isn't fun, so as a DM you should rectify this. Instead of having your players try and figure out how to fit out-of-the-box actions like that into the rules just have them describe what they want to do and then you can work it the best you can. For example, just have the player move to the table, make a acrobatics test and then let them use an attack which makes sense and don't worry about what the rules say.

This way the player will have a much better time and that is better for everyone. My point here is that just because the rules say one thing it doesn't mean you can't adapt them when it is needed. That is true when you are playing any game. My example was of just one action in a fight but whatever the situation is you shouldn't let the mechanics of the game get in the way of telling your story and having fun with it. Your playing a Role Playing Game after all, the Role Playing should take precedent with the rules working as guidelines to resolve situations that arise.   


  1. Great post, but if I may, I'm going to respectfully disagree :)

    I think that the « Role Playing should take precedent with the rules » approach is going to break the game pretty fast if you are playing a very tactically-oriented rpg (like D&D 3.x or 4) with tactically-oriented players.

    In that context, a cool description becomes another way to bend the rules in your favor, another way to tactically play. If your players are really the tactical types, soon, you'll be swarmed with this kind of description. You'll have the problem of deciding when you have to apply the rule and when you can waive it more often; maybe you could make a rule to decide when it's ok to make an exception to the rule... Plus, players could be frustrated if they believe that the DM is more flexible with one player than another : rule-wise, it is unfair.

    I know that it sounds like I'm making a slippery slope argument. Maybe I am, a bit. But I think that, when players have fun with a tactical rpg, making exceptions to the rules kind of break the fun. You either end up losing some fun or giving tactical players another tactical tool to beat their opponents. Imagine doing that kind of « awesome exception » playing chess when one payer describe awesome stunts done by his pawn (or any other game : Risk, Monopoly, etc.). It breaks the game and makes it a lot less enjoyable because, in a big part, playing with the rules is the game. Of course you are playing a Role-Playing game, but in a tactical rpg, that role is very tightly defined by it's character sheet, where you can see exactly how good he is at doing this or that and exactly how you can know if he succeds or not on any given occasion (rolling a d20 and adding bonuses); his personality may be super interesting, but at this mechanical level, he is not much more than a very complex pawn on a very complex (sometimes imaginary, but often quite litterally) board.

    I'm not saying that it's a bad thing to try to make descriptions more vivid and actions more creative in a tactical rpg. I just believe that making rules exceptions is not the way to go. You have to convince or encourage your players to be more interesting in their description without any mechanical effect.

    It is kind of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole (or is it the opposite?). A tactical gamer (playing a tactical game) thinks first in abstracted rules term (in this situations, within the rules, what are my options?), and gets his fun from being the more efficient possible; cool and immersive descriptions comes second and are at best facultative to succeed, and at worst counter-productive rules-wise (by making the action less effective than a regular action).

    For these reasons, I stopped trying to modify the D&D 3.5 rules to make them more flexible and narratively interesting a while ago : I did not get want I wanted and I removed or broke parts that others liked. My better decision was to try rules-lite, less tactically-oriented rpgs.

    1. Hey Jordan, thanks for your reply. You bring up some good points. I suppose at the end of the day it comes down to your players and what type of game you are all wanting to play.

      I still hold to giving a certain amount of slack with the rules if it is fair and makes the game more enjoyable. After all it is a role playing game and some times the rules work against that. But I agree with you that doing so can cause problems if not done carefully.

      My 4e campaign is coming to an end now after a really long time and I and I think the others have grown a little bored of the tactical element and want a chance for more roleplay with more abstract combat. So a more rules-lite game may be the way to go from now on. I guess this post was born out of my frustration and growing disinterest in 4e.

    2. I get that, yeah. That's why I stopped DMing a D&D 3.5 game with very fine people... Plus the prep time is ridiculous if you want to play by the rules; I'm not 14 anymore!

      I'm trying to start a Marvel Heroic RPG (actually, a gritty low-fantasy hack of my "making"). The system is rule-lite, but still gives some tactically relevant options, and is made to let players describe awesome stuff happenning. If you can, try it. It just rocks. And no, I don't make any money out of that game :)

    3. Marvel Heroic RPG is actually on my list of games to play (it's a long list). I've been hearing great things about it. I imagine I will post about it once we get around to giving it a go. Hope you manage to get your game started!