Mechanics Guiding Playstyle

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Earlier, I discussed how certain roleplaying systems exemplified certain gaming orientations. To an extent, this is a very peculiar notion. More specifically, it’s a very basic shorthand. After all, mechanics can never force your actions. But the way mechanics are set up can really impact the way the players think about the game.

For example, D&D is very much a system that’s focused on simulation (a lot of very specific rules, even rules about social interaction – the famous sense motive/bluff checks – to make sure that every action is governed by a player’s stats) and gaming (it’s all about getting bigger and better weapons, abilities, spells, and killing bigger and better enemies). Is it impossible to run a narrative game in D&D? Of course not! Players can obviously do whatever they want, and narrative oriented players are still going to narrate. But as far as what the mechanics support? Well, D&D doesn’t really support narrative in a lot of ways.

Take D&D combat, which can be long and repetitive, and consist of a lot of “I swing my sword at the goblin”. This isn’t a result of bad player narration, but rather a simple result of D&D combat, which is often very long. When you repeat an action again and again, there are only so many clear ways to narrate it. You know that point in any LotR fighting scene where you start to think ‘how many orcs can they stab?’ That’s the point at which the troll comes in, or Frodo gets injured, or Gimli and Legolas joke about their kill totals. The point is, combat shouldn’t last for a long time (if you’re concerned with narration) because it inherently repeats and grows stale.

This is why a system like Dogs in the Vineyard, for example, lends itself to narrative. Without going too far into the mechanics, I will say that there are 4 stages of conflict: verbal, physical, violent, and murderous/gunfighting. This naturally sets Dogs up to have very strong narrative. Why? Because no given phase will last very long before the players run out of dice. This means that for a conflict to run long, it HAS to be escalated to another of level of conflict – that is, variety is inherently tied into length – which prevents long, repetitive conflicts.

Then there’s the way narrating actions works in Dogs vs in D&D. In D&D, you describe an action, and then the GM tells you whether you succeed or fail, based on your roll. This is very explicitly part of the mechanics, because the system recommends giving bonuses to roleplaying. But nothing’s more frustrating to a roleplayer than making an epic narration – a ridiculously solid bluff, a fantastic motivational speech, a meticulously planned shiest – and then rolling a 2.

On the other hand, in Dogs, you know what the strength of your raise is when you narrate it, and narrative-oriented players will excel at tailoring their narratives to fit an extremely high or low roll. Two of my most memorable moments in Dogs — putting forth a very strong pair of numbers for my trait ‘Hazy on the Dogma’, and rambling for 60 seconds with a very real-sounding, but most definitely fake quote from a religious text, and later putting forth a very low raise to convince a friend of mine to help me, and instead, narrating an action which I knew which intentionally antagonize him, sending the narrative in a more favorable direction – were rooted in this idea.

One might say ‘why not simply do this in D&D, rolling then narrating?’ The short answer is that nothing stops you. But the system doesn’t focus on those aspects of the game. In fact, the very way D&D motivates roleplaying (system-wise) is by offering bonuses for roleplaying: narrate well and get a + 2 bonus to your bluff check! These sorts of things make very clear what D&D is a system for. Narrating, instead of being an inherent good, is something you do to get bonuses. This is obviously an over-characterization; the authors of the D&D books must think narrating is a good thing or they wouldn’t be incentivizing it. But D&D’s system doesn’t teach you to narrate, it teaches you to seek bonuses.

That is not to say that D&D somehow makes narrating impossible. But it doesn’t necessarily make it rewarding/teach it as a skill, whereas Dogs all but hands it out on a silver platter.

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