When the Game Mechanics and Game Fiction Don't Match


This came up in another discussion and I thought I would move it to its own thread.

There is often a tension between the game mechanics used to describe elements of the world and actions taken iun it, versus how the fiction or fantasy of those elements and actions exist in the world of the game. One example is the terrible cost of magic in the sword and sorcery genre, but the failure of most versions of D&D magic mechanics to support that fantasy. (I know that not all D&D worlds are sword and sorcery themed, but some are and only one -- Dark Sun -- has every really embraced the trope mechanically.)

I don't want the discussion to center on just D&D or just magic, though, so another classic example is how characters in the old WEG Star Wars RPG were completely inept compared to the film characters -- even when those characters were written up at the beginning of their careers. People came to the table expecting to play Han Solo and would have been lucky to be Greedo or that guy at the bar that got his arm chopped off. That is to say: the mechanics of character generation did not support the fiction of the heroic nature of PCs in the Star Wars universe.

How do you feel when there is a gap between the mechanics and the world they are supposed to represent? Do you actively seek out games where that gap is small, or do you allow for the fact that aesthetic and description can go a long way to fill the gap? Does it concern you? If so, are you more likely to try and "fix" a game or find a different one?


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I play RPGs for the fiction they represent. If the mechanics do not make that fiction possible, then the designers screwed their game up and it's not worth playing.

So for example... in my opinion, a large part of the fiction of playing a Star Trek RPG is in each character having their own station on the bridge that they themselves are the master of, and when the starship goes exploring or gets into combat, each character has specific things they need to be doing to see those actions result in a successful mission. For a Trek game to succeed in my opinion... the mechanics have to give every station on the bridge a lot of meaningful things to do when that PC's turn comes up. If the game cannot supply that... then to me it's a failure of design and the game is much less worth playing. If the starship fights a Klingon Bird of Prey and the Ship's Doctor is now going to spend the next 30 minutes sitting on their hands because the game doesn't give mechanics on what the Ship's Doctor should be doing during that combat... then someone screwed up. The designers of a Star Trek RPG have to know that starship combat is an important part of playing in the fiction of Star Trek, and if they don't take all the different "jobs" of Star Trek characters into account when making their design of their game... then the game has failed.

This was the problem with a lot of the d20 conversions that occurred in the OGL heyday... the d20 system just did not have enough design mechanics to be able to accurately represent lots of different types and genres of game or the various character types that were a part of those different types and genres of game. And thus those games really weren't worth playing. "Generic" game system always tend to fall short in my opinion except for the two or three types of game the generic system was built for. In most other cases... give me a mechanical system specifically built for the genre and game in question. I'll take a game with meticulously designed Heist rules to play an RPG about doing heists over a game that says "Well, you can run heist games with this system with some changes and additions..." any day of the week.


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For a long time board games based on IPs were very unpopular. As in, folks would actively avoid them because the rep was so bad. A lot of it had to do with the fact that the mechanics didn't align with expectations of theme. This was tough because Galeforce 9 had a seriously good run of IP based board games that just wouldn't sell.

Anyways, folks have a specific experience in mind when they pick up something like Star Wars compared to something like Traveller. A generic do it all system doesn't make a perfect fit, but is flexible. A bespoke item has many expectations placed upon it that makes it a hard sell if it doesn't fit perfectly. I'll be honest and say RPGs based on IPs have not been good until the last decade or so.

The tough nut to crack with D&D is that its the grandaddy the big boss of TTRPGs. So, it needs to be generic, but also get a good enough glove fit for a number of archetypes. A hard spot to be in to satisfy everybody, but I think 5E approach satisfies enough. YMMV.


In D&D how high level monsters and NPCs are can be all over the place. AD&D Demon Lord Goddess Lolth has 66 hp in the Fiend Folio, her avatar has 128 hp in Monster Mythology, and 210 hp in Demihuman Deities.

1e top of the line non-lord demon is the Type VI - Balor which has 8 HD +8 hp, for an average of 44 hp.

The Lord of Blades in Eberron in 3.5 is a "fighter 2/artificer 5/warforged juggernaut 5" so a 12th level NPC who multiclassed into a partial magical class for 5 levels and has 7 levels of a warrior type.

This can feel really appropriate at specific levels or way off at others.


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I want the mechanics to support the fiction. That's why I don't want to try to homebrew D&D to fit any genre. I think that indie games that are not seeking wide popularity due it best. But even among popular systems in similar genres, the mechanics can create a very different feel for the game. Warhammer Fantasy players very differently than D&D. I love both systems but use them for different types of campaigns. For more cinematic style games, I like AGE and Cortex systems.

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