Mechanical Dissonance and Rule #0

I often struggle to balance my desire for a narrative focused gaming experience, and the grand desire to have solid mechanical backing of that narrative. In my head, in the loftiest of my dreams, I see a game that I run in which i simply sit down, players describe their characters and at any given moment I simply tell people to roll a d6 and I tell the player the outcome. This is the dream.

After all, the OSR philosophy(or if you want to delve even deeper down the rabbit hole The FKR philosophy) tells us that we should have rulings over rules. That a GM is perfectly capable of creating an answer based on the narrative scenario and finding a fair way to adjudicate these moments that may not be covered by the game designers themselves. Which ultimately can be extended to “why have rules at all.”

This realm of thought brings me to what I call “The Flaming sword” problem. You hand a player a flaming sword. What does it do? Does it need a mechanical value beyond being a flaming sword? Can it not simply be an item that reads “Flaming sword: does the sort of things a sword does, but is also on fire”? One school of thought is yes. That is exactly where you should leave it. The other of course is that we need mechanical knobs on the flaming sword that say “Sheds light in 5″ around the wielder. Does +1d4 fire damage on hit. Ignites things.” What is the right answer?

I am of two minds here. On the one hand, I appreciate the elegance and simplicity that the flaming sword is just a flaming sword. Does a flaming sword need to grant a bonus to damage? Does damage as a concept need to have a mechanic at all? But I often get hung up on this idea. Something feels wrong about striving for the purely cognitive world of “You don’t need mechanics” and submerging yourself fully into that deep pool of narrative. After a great deal of time thinking about it I think I’ve finally figured out what it is:

The “Rule of Cool”. Recently there has been a lot of talk among many people in the RPG space that they want to run games RAW. That “Rule 0” or “The rule of cool” is bad and people that lean on it should feel bad. I’ve balked at those people, but I think this feeling comes back to something that pops up in various RPG discussion boards from time to time when a GameMaster is telling stories. These stories often focus on “The Bard” specifically in regard to “Charisma”. “Oh why, Why does charisma exist. The bard rolled a natural 20 on a single persuasion check when talking to the king, so now I had no choice but to make the bard the new emperor of all the lands, and the game is RUINED”. This is a story that has been told many times, and often those that hear it find it ridiculous. Why does a single roll mean the bard is automatically the ruler of existence? That is dumb, it makes no sense, but at the same time it speaks to a flaw with a fully narrative focused game in that sometimes GM’s don’t know how to properly balance the narrative. A gamemaster may get caught up in the moment and want to over deliver on a scene.

This is where mechanics can help. Well designed mechanics create a rigid backbone you can lean on to help craft the narrative. Its not always necessary, but it helps define limits. I think we can all remember that one kid in 2nd grade that would join a session of “lets pretend we’re super hero’s” and just say “Well, I have all the powers, and i can do anything, and i’m the best, and I cant lose, and I just snap my fingers and all the badguys are dead, and you all suck and i’m the best.” That. That stupid little dumb kid that didn’t understand how to use imagination within limitations, is the reason we can’t have nice things now. We’re scared. Scared players will ask for too much, scared that in a moment of peer pressure we might give too much. Scared we might give something away that we wont be able to take back when the consequences are known.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. I’m still looking for my answer. But they say admitting to a problem is the first step. So here I am, raising my hand and saying: Hi. I’m a GM…and I think sometimes I need to rely on mechanics even when I don’t really want to, because it makes it easier to keep the world running.







2 responses to “Mechanical Dissonance and Rule #0”

  1. Beau Rancourt Avatar

    There is this piece by vincent baker (the powered by the apocalypse designer) here: – “Roleplaying’s Fundamental Act”.

    Vincent concludes

    “Mechanics might model the stuff of the game world, that’s another topic, but they don’t exist to do so. They exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table. That’s their sole and crucial function.”

    And uses an example of “[let’s imagine that] an orc jumps out of the underbrush!” to motivate the conclusion.

    On one end of the spectrum, you just say it and folks either buy it or they don’t. On the other hand, you make an encounter roll, then an orc-showing-up-roll, a having-orcs-in-the-underbrush roll, etc.

    I think that’s largely what you’re exploring here with the Flaming Sword Problem. If the negotiation about what a Flaming Sword does is easy, you probably don’t need mechanics to model it, and if it’s difficult (people have different ideas about what the Flaming Sword does, and those differences are material), then the difficulty can be avoided by writing up some concrete mechanics.


    My main problem with this line of thought is that that’s not the *only* purpose of mechanics! They do that, certainly. They ALSO create a game that people can reason about and play with. There are people who enjoy thinking about probability, numbers, and outcomes. The mechanics of Magic: The Gathering don’t exist to ease and constrain social negotiation, they also exist to create an *interesting puzzle* for the players, one with enough depth that players can become skilled at wielding those mechanics.

    TTRPG mechanics do the same thing (though to a lesser extent than in MTG)! By providing mechanics for dungeon exploration, magic items, and movement, players can imagine and reason about plans involving those mechanics in the same way that a MTG player imagines decisions about how to play the board. It’s a different (but totally valid) kind of fun!

    1. Brandon Graves Avatar

      Thanks for the link and for the comments. I appreciate you taking the time to read and reply.

      You bring up an excellent point about game mechanics. The fact that mechanics offer players a concrete way to engage with the game is a very solid argument. There is a reason why 90% of player facing material for TTRPG’s are focused on games that have complex character creation and advancement that allow for character builds and the fact that it gives players something to engage with outside of the gameplay experience itself is definitely a big reason for it. A player can easily say to themselves “I want to build a castle”. and be done with it as far as planning in a purely narrative focused game, but having a concrete set of rules definitely helps give them more to crunch on in the long run.

      Finding the right balance between mechanical simplicity and mechanical depth is definitely a subject that keeps me up at night.

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