Dice Tales: Mechanics

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the third installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)

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In my original post for this series, I mentioned the role of rules, also referred to as “mechanics” or the “system” of the game. These terms get applied at several levels simultaneously, which can make them a little confusing for outsiders — let alone the confusion of the rules themselves, which frequently range from complicated all the way up to byzantine.

When we talk about a system, what we often mean is the macro scale: a set of rules or mechanics published by a particular company under a particular title. For example, Legend of the Five Rings (the game I used to freelance for) is a system used to run games about the secondary world of Rokugan, a fantasy empire based on several different periods of Japanese history. The word “system” can also apply to an even higher-level division, which is to say, the set of rules used in multiple different games. White Wolf put out a series of urban fantasy titles recognizable for the colons in their titles — Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Changeling: the Dreaming, and so forth — which all ran on the Storyteller system. One advantage of this is that it allows the different games to be combined without too much hassle, so that you can have your vampires and werewolves fighting one another in the back alleys of Chicago. Another is that it saves you from having to reinvent the mechanical wheel every time you want to make a new game.

The desire to avoid reinventing the wheel has sparked various attempts to create a “universal” system that can be used to run any kind of game. After all, there’s a learning curve associated with picking up a new system. Wouldn’t it be better if you could shift from L5R to V:tM without having to start over from square one? One of the more venerable titles in the genre is called GURPS, which stands for “Generic Universe Role-Playing System.” Steve Jackson Games, the company behind GURPs, has put out several hundred titles in multiple editions over the last thirty years, covering a wide variety of genres (science fiction, fantasy, horror, superheroes, noir), settings (China, Egypt, Greece, the Ice Age, the American frontier), and more. There are even ports of other games, like GURPS Vampire: the Masquerade. More recently, the d20 System, originally developed for the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, was released under a licensing scheme that allowed third-party developers to use its mechanics for their own settings and titles, so that there is a d20 version of Legend of the Five Rings.

The interaction between mechanics and story can be a profound one, though, and the problem with generic mechanics is that they make for generic results. You can tell a wide variety of stories with GURPS or d20, no question about it. What you won’t get, though, are those places where the mechanics actively support the kind of story you’re trying to tell. I’ll dig into this more later; it becomes an issue of everything ranging from character types to genre tropes to statistics, as the probability curve produced by a given dice mechanic can shape the story in directions where failure is quite possible and potentially catastrophic (Call of Cthulhu, based on the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft), or success is not only likely but has the potential to go shooting over the top (Exalted, designed to play godlike characters in a somewhat anime-flavored cosmos).

Fundamentally, though, what every system does is provide a way to represent what the characters are capable of, and then to decide whether they achieve their goal or not. This differs rather substantially from conventional storytelling, where the writer is the one who decides these things. As I mentioned in my first post, most game systems include an element of randomization, so that a character’s ability is not a simple binary of “yes, they can do this” or “no, they cannot.” Maybe they can do it. They might stand a really good chance — but the dice could still say, nope, not happening. Or the odds might be a million-to-one against . . . but even if you aren’t playing the Discworld RPG (where I believe there’s a rule that says those kinds of odds always result in success), your dice might love you that day and make it happen anyway. The effect this has on the shape and feel of the story is profound, and will be the subject for a later post.

The methods by which these games operate are as varied as the imaginations of the people who think them up. In the d20 System, for example, the fundamental mechanic involves rolling a twenty-sided die (aka a d20) and then applying some kind of modifier based on the character’s stats. If the total is higher than the difficulty of the task, the character succeeds; if not, they fail. In the Storyteller system, the character’s stats tell you how many d10s (ten-sided dice) to roll; any die that turns up a 7 or higher counts as a success, and the difficulty of a task can be adjusted either by raising that 7 or lowering it, or by requiring more than one success. L5R’s core dice mechanic is a complex but interesting setup called Roll and Keep, where the stats again dictate a certain number of d10s — but then the player chooses a set number of results to keep and adds them together to get the total. Some systems have modifications where a certain result (like a 1 on a d20) is always a failure, or a particularly bad result counts as a botch or catastrophic failure; others allow for escalating success, when a ten on a d10 counts as two successes or “explodes” (i.e. gets rolled again, with both results being kept). The Fading Suns system approaches it from an entirely different direction, where the difficulty of the task is the number the character wants to roll under instead of over, and the Chaosium percentile system operates in a similar fashion.

This does mean that participation in a role-playing game benefits from a certain mastery of the rules, quite apart from the skills involved on the more narrative side. A friendly, accommodating group can mitigate this for a new player, with the GM or more experienced players answering questions or even arranging things so the newcomer doesn’t have to understand the rules: all you have to do is tell them “roll six d10s; now tell me what the three highest numbers are” instead of explaining Roll and Keep. But a player who doesn’t master at least some of the mechanics will be hampered in their ability to play their character and affect the plot, because they won’t know what their PC can do, how to tell when something is fairly likely vs. a long shot, or what combination of actions might produce the most interesting result. RPGs as I said before, are a form of collaborative, improvisational storytelling mediated by rules: the rules are an integral part of the activity, just as much as character and plot are.

But they don’t have to be an obstacle. After all, learning how to use the rules to make cool things happen with them is part of the fun.

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