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In Defense of the Theory of Dissociated Mechanics

I think we're all pretty familiar with the basic argument of The Alexandrian's treatise on dissociated mechanics.

Namely, that a mechanic is "dissociated" when the character inside the game world--NOT the player rolling the dice and eating Doritos, but the avatar acting within the game construct--has no reasonable explanation for the in-game results of a particular rule mechanic.

He gives several examples in the essay, so I don't want to repeat them here, but his presentation of the premise is fairly ironclad--if you create a rule and the characters have no reasonable explanation for how and why it "works" inside the game world, the mechanic is dissociated.

(What isn't as ironclad is the effects of dissociated mechanics and whether or not it produces the type of gameplay players enjoy. Let me repeat--what I'm saying is that the theory itself is solid; opinions on the actual effects of dissociated mechanics vary wildly. It's entirely possible for players to ignore the effects of dissociated mechanics and still have a great time playing a game that uses them. And it's entirely possible that some players either don't mind them at all, or actually prefer them over other styles.)

I bring this up because in another recent thread, which one I can't exactly recall, several posters were complaining against the theory itself, stating that Justin Alexander's essay was little more than a pot shot at 4e.

Let's be clear--Justin Alexander is pretty up front with his opinion that 4e is his least favorite iteration of D&D. But that alone doesn't mean the theory itself is incorrect, or that 4e doesn't make liberal use of dissociated mechanics, as Alexander defines them.

The reason I bring this up, however, isn't to elevate The Alexandrian or excoriate 4e. The real point is that I think the theory of dissociated mechanics is important, because it makes apparent the difference between an RPG, and other kinds of games, which is at its core a sense of simulation.

We've all heard certain factions of RPG players claiming that RPGs either can't, or shouldn't try to "simulate reality," or that somehow "simulationism" has no place in a world of elves, dwarves, and Boots of Mighty Poopsmithing +7.

But here's the thing--if you take away the "R" and the "P" from "RPG," all you have left is a game, an arbitrary system of rules that control a limited set of outcomes. The second you attach "RP" to an existing "G," you are naturally, inherently, and necessarily attaching some form of simulationism to the game.

The reason roleplaying works at all is that it's founded in a simulation of human interactivity. When playing an RPG, we inherently accept that the characters in the game world have the ability to make choices, and the choices those characters make will be based on how they--through the function of the RPG rules being interpreted by the player--are able to react to the world around them.

You can have a crazy, off-the-wall, messed up world with flying purple dinosaurs, talking screwdrivers, and three-foot-tall shoeless people with hairy feet, but the point of the "RP" in an "RPG" is to simulate how a person/alien/elf/orc/sentient object of nebulous proportions interacts with that world, and to explore the consequences of doing so. If a game doesn't include that element, it's not really a roleplaying game, but a game of some other kind.

The Alexandrian's point is that dissociated mechanics can, when used in specific ways, inherently destroy that sense of interactive simulation. Even if your world DOES have flying purple dinosaurs and talking screwdrivers, it's still possible to create rules mechanics that dissociate from that reality.

If the rules force exigencies upon the characters and game world that have no connection to the world itself, but are arbitrarily imposed "because the rules say so," you're breaking the simulation of character interactivity. The character--again, via the rules being interpreted by the player--can no longer successfully say, "I see and perceive that consequence X will necessarily follow choice Y."

The Theory of Dissociated Mechanics is important for RPGs because it proves that it's never a question of whether an RPG is a "simulation" or not. It's a question of what the simulation is modeling, and how accurately or inaccurately the rules portray that model.

As a consequence, complaining that a game is too "simulationist" or too "gamist" is a bit of a misnomer. What people are really saying is either, "I don't like the simulation model you've presented for the game world," or "I don't think the rules model your simulation all that well" (and often both).

And at their core, the vast majority of disagreements about RPG rule sets can essentially be boiled down to one of those two things.
 
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Elf Witch

First Post
Up until a few days ago I had never heard of this theory. But when I read the blog it was like a light bulb going off in my head.

It put into words one of my issues with how some of the things in 4E just turn me off.

I remember having a conversation with a friend who really likes 4E and asked him to describe a power, I don't remember which one, in story terms.

He really had a hard time doing so.

It makes it easier for me to say I don't like the dissociated mechanics then trying to go into a long explanation of I don't like these powers because they make me feel like I am playing a game instead of being immersed in the world.
 

Pentius

First Post
I wouldn't call this piece a Theory on disassociated mechanics. It's a term that he defined. The definition is correct in that he coined it, which it makes it quite a challenge to be wrong. He defines the term, and then he uses it to bash 4e. He actually goes on to blur the lines with his own term, using it to describe Wushu's disassociated mechanics before he decides, "Wait, no, I like Wushu, so in Wushu, they're scene-based resolution mechanics, and are good for the game."

I am going to end this post, because at this time of night, I do not have the temperance and civility to discuss it in a manner befitting ENworld. I may or may not be able to do it after a full night's sleep. Suffice to say, noting the date of this article, it is the Prototype Edition War Troll, freshly risen from the Primordial Internet, that no troll has yet to best, to my knowledge.
 

I don't deny that Alexander uses it primarily as a blunt force instrument to attack 4e's design paradigms--but if you read my post, that wasn't the point.

Do "dissociative mechanics" work the way he says it does? Absolutely. Do we all agree on what the effects of that are? Not remotely.

To me, the real point wasn't to evaluate the merit of the theory as applied to any particular ruleset, it was to point out the theory is a proof of a larger point that RPGs in general are by their very nature a simulation.

What kind of simulation, and how well the rules support that simulation will vary wildly from system to system, but the fact is, you're simulating SOMETHING, because you have to account for character choice and interaction.

Meaningful representation of those interactions means that the character--filtered through the player's mind--must have the ability to rationally make choices based on their understanding of the consequences.

The Theory of Dissociative Mechanics is thus more important than its application to any one ruleset.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
What a load of rubbish.

The reason I bring this up, however, isn't to elevate The Alexandrian or excoriate 4e. The real point is that I think the theory of dissociated mechanics is important, because it makes apparent the difference between an RPG, and other kinds of games, which is at its core a sense of simulation.

So, RPGs all have a sense of simulation at their core, and other games don't. Is that what you're claiming? You're actually claiming that every single computer flight simulater, tabletop wargame, and board game isn't actually trying to be a simulation, regardless of how well it matches reality and what the designers may claim.

We've all heard certain factions of RPG players claiming that RPGs either can't, or shouldn't try to "simulate reality," or that somehow "simulationism" has no place in a world of elves, dwarves, and Boots of Mighty Poopsmithing +7.

D&D has never taken simulation as it's primary objective. Other RPGs have. Toon, for example.

But here's the thing--if you take away the "R" and the "P" from "RPG," all you have left is a game, an arbitrary system of rules that control a limited set of outcomes. The second you attach "RP" to an existing "G," you are naturally, inherently, and necessarily attaching some form of simulationism to the game.

So, back to the "Only RPGs are real simulations" line. And they have to be simulations, with no alternative.

The reason roleplaying works at all is that it's founded in a simulation of human interactivity. When playing an RPG, we inherently accept that the characters in the game world have the ability to make choices, and the choices those characters make will be based on how they--through the function of the RPG rules being interpreted by the player--are able to react to the world around them.

You can have a crazy, off-the-wall, messed up world with flying purple dinosaurs, talking screwdrivers, and three-foot-tall shoeless people with hairy feet, but the point of the "RP" in an "RPG" is to simulate how a person/alien/elf/orc/sentient object of nebulous proportions interacts with that world, and to explore the consequences of doing so. If a game doesn't include that element, it's not really a roleplaying game, but a game of some other kind.

So, if you're going to interact with a world in an RPG it has to be in a simulationist manner.

The Theory of Dissociated Mechanics is important for RPGs because it proves that it's never a question of whether an RPG is a "simulation" or not. It's a question of what the simulation is modeling, and how accurately or inaccurately the rules portray that model.

The Theory of Dissociated Mechanics are a complaint that someone don't understand how a particular result is arrived at, and extends takes that to an assumption that therefore it is not simulationist. If the result is accurate to the action that is being modeled, then that result is simulationist even if you do not understand why.

As a consequence, complaining that a game is too "simulationist" or too "gamist" is a bit of a misnomer. What people are really saying is either, "I don't like the simulation model you've presented for the game world," or "I don't think the rules model your simulation all that well" (and often both).

And really, the vast majority of disagreements about RPG rule sets can essentially be boiled down to one of those two things.

Not every game, and I include RPGs in this, is written with the intent of being a simulation in the sense that you'll have a full understanding of how a result is arrived at. For that matter, a highly detailed system that makes it perfectly clear how a result is arrived at, when that result is patently inaccurate, is just as much a killer of simulation as any dissociated mechanic.
 

Pentius

First Post
Alright, I'm going to have another go at this.

I see what you're trying to start a discussion on, and it could be interesting(unless we get all edition wars up in here, which is a totally different type of interesting). There's something I think it feels like you miss in your layout of the issue. You define an RPG as a simulation of the game world, specifically with the rules modeling a game world, and I think that while that is a valid way of playing, it is not the only valid way of playing. Another way, which 4e works very well for(and was arguably designed around) is that the rules exist not as a simulation of the game world. The concept is that the game world exists(I use the term loosely, since the game world is fictional) outside of the rules. It has it's own physics, or lack thereof. The rules, instead of modeling the world, act as a set of tools by which the players interact with the world. The rules only really apply when the players are involved, because their existence is as those tools. A lot of things in 4e sort of 'snap into place' when viewed this way. It doesn't take the RP out of RPG, per se, it just changes the way the player, the rules, and the game world interact, with the end result still being that a player takes control of a character within the world, and guides that character through the game.

[/ramble]

EDIT: Wrecan, of the WotC boards, is more elegant in his phrasing than I. I think he says it best.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
What a load of rubbish.
So, RPGs all have a sense of simulation at their core, and other games don't. Is that what you're claiming? You're actually claiming that every single computer flight simulater, tabletop wargame, and board game isn't actually trying to be a simulation, regardless of how well it matches reality and what the designers may claim.

Um no I don't think innderdude said that at all. What he did say was that RPG are about taking on a particular "Role" within an "imagined world" and then modelling interactions within that world. A Flight simulator might also by this definition be an RPG whereas Chess is not (Chess I beleive is not a simulation)

However Pentius does bring up an interesting view about 4e mechanic as toolset rather than game model, which I can accept as a better counter argument:)
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Some might say that 4e's daily and encounter powers are more simulationist than 3e. In 3e a PC with min/maxed tripping could easily succesfully trip an opponent every round, whereas in 4e this would only be happening once per fight. In real fights we tend not to see the same maneuver used succesfully over and over again. Opponents take defensive measures, openings only occur so often, and so forth.

It's true that the 4e mechanic is more dissociated in the sense that the PC doesn't know he can do this only 1/encounter or 1/day, unless we enter Order of the Stick territory. But this demonstrates that simulationism is not the same thing as associated mechanics.

Another point is that D&D has always had dissociated mechanics/play:
1. Choosing a PC's race
2. Hit points
3. Saving throws
4. Xp for gold
5. Certain classes being banned from wearing particular types of armour or weapons
6. Handwaving the boring bits - travelling to the dungeon, shopping for equipment
7. Use of reported speech
8. Starting a PC's career on completion of his 1st level training rather than from birth

If a lack of dissociation is the key feature of a roleplaying game then we must accept that LARPing is a truer form of rpg than tabletop because in LARP the player is less dissociated from his character. Some LARPers do indeed take this view, I believe.

I've always treated combat in rpgs as a sort of separate mini-wargame. In fact I had an epiphany regarding this while playing Champions in the early 90s, my exact thought was, "It's a wargame!" It's particularly noticeable with rpgs that have very rules heavy combat such as Champions, 3e and 4e, but it's true to a large degree of combat in all rpgs. I think this is because any time the players interact with the rules, talk about the rules, think about the rules, then they are dissociated from the game world. "The rules get in the way of the roleplaying" is a common saying amongst rpgers in my area, a criticism of rules heavy games, and I pretty much agree with it. One could even say that non-turn based computer games, by hiding the mechanics and operating in real time are less dissociated than tabletop rpgs, which are of a much more 'stop and start' nature.
 
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Elf Witch

First Post
I really don't want to get into an argument over gamist vs simulation. And which edition had more.

I don't think the example of a fighter who has min/max trip and having the chance to do it over and over breaks the 'realism" barrier for me. In my imagination I can see him doing it and each time he may have done this trip a little differently.

It makes more sense to me that a person who is trained and specialized in trips would be more successful than someone who is not.

This once a day power is what I have an issue with. If someone is the greatest martial artist ever why can he only trip once a day? That is the disconnect for me.

And that added to some other things is a deal breaker for me.
 

...It doesn't take the RP out of RPG, per se, it just changes the way the player, the rules, and the game world interact, with the end result still being that a player takes control of a character within the world, and guides that character through the game.

[/ramble]EDIT: Wrecan, of the WotC boards, is more elegant in his phrasing than I. I think he says it best.
Excellent link: I think that numerocentric versus protagonocentric discussion a very balanced and informative discussion on the issue at hand, while Justin Alexander's is equally informative. I enjoy 4e but there are things about it that drive me a little nuts; particularly when the flavour does not mesh with the mechanics used to represent that flavour. Essentially, I am a mathematician and will always be a mathematician. Numbers are how I find the game informs me most fluently and I will always prefer that style of play. That is how I get into my roleplaying mode most efficiently (as strange as that may seem). As such 4e is a little like trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole for me but heh... it's still fun and that's the main thing.

Best Regards
Herremann the Wise
 

ardoughter

Adventurer
Supporter
I went through a phase of looking for realism in combat back in the day, I never really found it and lloking back I am pretty sure that if I found it I would not have liked it.

I think that Doug McCrae's insight that all rpg cpmbat is a mini wargame is pretty accurate and wargame combat are abstractions. No-one has the time or patience to simulate it out at squad level if they are gaming at Army gorup level. Most logistical considerations are abstracted out more or less completely.

If hte outcome from turn to turn roughly matches what happedend historically people are generally satisfied.

I feel the same way about rpg combat, if the final narrative that emerges when the combat is resolved is some kind of the approximate match for what one would expect from the genre than I am happy.

I particluarly like 4e combat because one can map the power uses to what one might see in the movie of the scene.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
He gives several examples in the essay, so I don't want to repeat them here, but his presentation of the premise is fairly ironclad--if you create a rule and the characters have no reasonable explanation for how and why it "works" inside the game world, the mechanic is dissociated.

It is ironclad because it isn't a premise, it is a definition of the term as he's using it. "I'm going to call mechanics that don't have in-game explanations 'dissociated mechanics'" is not something one can poke logical holes in.
 

Aberzanzorax

First Post
You define dissociated as "the avatar has no reasonable explanation for the in-game results of a particular rule mechanic"

I think there are two levels of dissociated within that definition. The first is that no explanation is provided for the in-game results of a particular rule mechanic. 4e does this (and does it well) often. Some find this a nice feature of the edition, and prefer to create their own fluff for it.

For instance, imagine a power that slides a foe 2 squares on a hit. The game may not provide the in game explanation. I can, as the player, decide that I've moved in such a way that the foe had to move back or get hit. Or I can decide that he was intimidated. Or I can decide that I magically pushed him. I can choose to be consistent (I'm always intimidating) or I can mix it up (sometimes it's a feint, sometimes it's magic). Some people really enjoy this freedom, some do not, but I do think it is a level of dissociation that is not damning in any way.


Then the second level of dissociated, I do think can be problematic. If a rule is such that one can't explain it, no matter how hard they try, then it is not a rule that promotes roleplaying. By definition, I am unable to roleplay it if I cannot explain what it does. The presence of such rules does not make a game not-a-roleplaying-game, but it does hinder roleplaying by definition. I'll agree with others that all editions of D&D have had some rules like this.


As far as simulationism goes, I don't think that's the right word here. Narrativism is equally useful for this discussion (and also isn't the right word). Without finding a single word, I think what is important is that when I do something in an RPG I need to be able to describe what I did, without using any rule in the description. That's not inherently simulation nor narration...it's, quite simply, roleplaying.
 

LostSoul

Adventurer
Namely, that a mechanic is "dissociated" when the character inside the game world--NOT the player rolling the dice and eating Doritos, but the avatar acting within the game construct--has no reasonable explanation for the in-game results of a particular rule mechanic.

I'm not sure that's a good summary of dissociated mechanics. The players can always decide what's reasonable knowledge for the character. The players can decide that hero points make perfect sense to the character, and that a melee attack roll makes no sense to the character.

I'd have to read the essay again, though.
 

Elf Witch

First Post
I think there are two levels of dissociated within that definition. The first is that no explanation is provided for the in-game results of a particular rule mechanic. 4e does this (and does it well) often. Some find this a nice feature of the edition, and prefer to create their own fluff for it.

For instance, imagine a power that slides a foe 2 squares on a hit. The game may not provide the in game explanation. I can, as the player, decide that I've moved in such a way that the foe had to move back or get hit. Or I can decide that he was intimidated. Or I can decide that I magically pushed him. I can choose to be consistent (I'm always intimidating) or I can mix it up (sometimes it's a feint, sometimes it's magic). Some people really enjoy this freedom, some do not, but I do think it is a level of dissociation that is not damning in any way.

Forgive me if I get this wrong I have not looked at 4E since six months after it came out and I don't have access to any books. But don't these things like the power to slide a foe a once an encounter or once a day power?

Which brings me back to the disconnect that I have of why don't you ever get better with it.

While I don't think the skill system is perfect in 3E I like the you can feint or intimidate. You can put ranks in them and get better at them.

When I played 4E with the daily powers on, it reminded me of chess and how the different pieces move. I felt like I was playing a wargame which I used to do back in the old days.

It really effected the experience for me. In mental health dissociation is a term used to describe losing touch with the real world. I felt dissociated from the game world by the rule set of 4E.

I can usually picture what is going on in game in my head even if we use miniatures when I think about the combat later I see it in my head as if I am watching a movie. I could not do that in 4E game.
 

Aberzanzorax

First Post
<snip>I can usually picture what is going on in game in my head even if we use miniatures when I think about the combat later I see it in my head as if I am watching a movie. I could not do that in 4E game.

I'll try to address your whole post, but I'm not really the person to defend 4e. I too have similar issues to you in this regard, but what I'm saying is that they're not necessary issues, in a sense.

The paradigm of encounter and daily powers is not an avatar issue, it's a player issue (and one that I share with you, please don't feel that I'm judging you). By that I mean the avatar does whatever they do and it can be described in the world. The player is the one who "knows" that the avatar cannot do it more than once. The avatar doesn't "know" that, in a sense...it just chooses to do it when cinematic.


I guess I'm saying that it's not the things you can't do within the rules that most matters, it's the things you DO do that need to be describable.


But, like I said, I'm hung up on this too, you'd likely get a better answer from someone who is not. [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] is an excellent poster who approaches gaming/4e from a different direction than I, and his style fits with a sort of "the rules support the story" approach rather than my "the rules define the story" approach.

If it's not clear, I'm having trouble putting concepts to words. :)
 

Imaro

Hero
Some might say that 4e's daily and encounter powers are more simulationist than 3e. In 3e a PC with min/maxed tripping could easily succesfully trip an opponent every round, whereas in 4e this would only be happening once per fight. In real fights we tend not to see the same maneuver used succesfully over and over again. Opponents take defensive measures, openings only occur so often, and so forth.

I'm going to disagree with this. Take boxing, a boxer doesn't kick, trip grapple, etc. and they are trained specifically to dodge and block punches. Yet in most (because someone may know of an exception) boxing matches more than one punch is landed over and over again. Now you could claim they are different punches, but then I never imagined a character using the exact same way of tripping over and over again so they are different trips as well.
 

Njall

Explorer
I'm going to disagree with this. Take boxing, a boxer doesn't kick, trip grapple, etc. and they are trained specifically to dodge and block punches. Yet in most (because someone may know of an exception) boxing matches more than one punch is landed over and over again. Now you could claim they are different punches, but then I never imagined a character using the exact same way of tripping over and over again so they are different trips as well.

That's precisely the point, though. During a match, you're not just throwing punches: you're formulating a strategy, looking for an opening and throwing a jab when it's appropriate.
Why aren't you just punching the other dude in the face over and over, since that first jab landed so easily? Because now you won't catch him off guard again with the same feints, and you can't just throw another punch with the same effect.
So, you have to try something else: maybe trip him, or try some different feints, or keep your guard high while you wait for another opening, and so forth.
That's something that AD&D or 3e can't simulate at all, for example: most combat oriented characters have a few select tricks that they're good at, and that they use over and over because not doing so would be suboptimal when not outright suicidal.
In such a system, combat is fairly repetitive ( I won't say that it's boring, because that's another matter entirely ), unless you're just using suboptimal options for the sake of it.
That's why "I'll use an encounter power that blinds my opponent now" ( or, if you prefer it, "I'll throw some dirt in his eyes and try to stab him while he's recovering, and next turn I'll try to trip him") feels closer to actual fighting than "I guess I'll just disarm him again, this round" for some of us.
It's just a matter of perspective, I suppose.
 
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Elf Witch

First Post
I'll try to address your whole post, but I'm not really the person to defend 4e. I too have similar issues to you in this regard, but what I'm saying is that they're not necessary issues, in a sense.

The paradigm of encounter and daily powers is not an avatar issue, it's a player issue (and one that I share with you, please don't feel that I'm judging you). By that I mean the avatar does whatever they do and it can be described in the world. The player is the one who "knows" that the avatar cannot do it more than once. The avatar doesn't "know" that, in a sense...it just chooses to do it when cinematic.


I guess I'm saying that it's not the things you can't do within the rules that most matters, it's the things you DO do that need to be describable.


But, like I said, I'm hung up on this too, you'd likely get a better answer from someone who is not. [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] is an excellent poster who approaches gaming/4e from a different direction than I, and his style fits with a sort of "the rules support the story" approach rather than my "the rules define the story" approach.

If it's not clear, I'm having trouble putting concepts to words. :)

I understand the whole avatar being different than the player. The avatar does not know they can only do this once a day, the player does.

For me as a role player I find it difficult to reconcile this.

I know there are rule things in 3E like say power attack. I am making a player decision to choose to do this because I am hoping to set up a cleave. My avatar doesn't know this at that point I am being very gamist.

But for some reason a gamist approach like that does not pull me out of the game.

I have a hard time putting this into words. I very aware that you have to be careful because there are certain buzz words that just ignite edition wars.

I know this buzz word sets off people but the daily powers feels like a video game or a board game. The daily powers kind of remind me of Cosmic Encounters and how each of the races has a special power to bend the rules. I love Cosmic Encounters but I don't play it the same way I play RPGs.

I would prefer a game that had less dissociated mechanics.
 

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