CRB is a repository of all the creative things that float through my mind about the RPG Pathfinder. Two major features are random character generation and building characters based on the god they worship. Anything that seems like it adds to the creative aspects of the game will pop up from time to time, including location descriptions, adventure ideas and even short stories. CRB won't just be my own creativity, it will open the floor to anyone who has an idea sparked by what I present to you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mechanics Is Not A Dirty Word

Today we're gonna step away from the story and talk about mechanics. Not how to build things or how to get the best this or best that. We're just gonna discuss the very basic idea of mechanics and why they aren’t a bad thing.

For those of you who have been following along for some time, you all know I’m heavily into story. I do detailed backgrounds, find ways to immerse my players in the game world, and explore parts of preexisting game worlds that aren’t really fleshed out yet. Mostly I write about these subjects because I enjoy them, and there are already enough blogs out there that focus on “how to build.” But my focus on story and immersion does not mean that I don’t play with and enjoy mechanics.

I think there are two main issues with mechanics: One is this feeling that older school games had less of them than the current crop of games. The other is that some people see mechanics and story as polar opposites. I don’t agree with either of these two statements.

Now I’m not as old as some gamers, but I have been playing for three decades. I started with the basic box and played excessive amounts of 2e. I even went backwards and played some 1e with older gamers at the time who thought 2e was this new-fangled thing with too many bells and whistles. These games had a ton of mechanics as well, some of it poorly written and a lot of it completely ignored. If I never have to see THAC0 again I’ll be a happy man.

I think a lot of old school gamers look at the games of their youth through rose-colored glasses. And I still love a rousing game of 2e, again except for THAC0, but I don’t blow off new games because of mechanical differences. New games and new mechanics aren’t bad, they’re just different.

And then there’s the folk that think if you want to use a lot of mechanics, you somehow also can’t or won’t roleplay. I’m not gonna rehash the old Stormwind Fallacy debate, we’ve all read it and argued about it enough. If you haven’t, it’s easy enough to google. I believe the original post is no longer hosted, but it’s all over the web anyway.

What I can talk about is one of the reasons this view can come about. On Reddit, Facebook, Paizo’s message boards, and the old WotC message boards there are hundreds of thousands of posts on how to build a character, or what feats to pick, or what’s the best way to do this or that. So the assumption is that all people talk about is mechanics. The truth is that most people don’t need help trying to roleplay. I don’t need to make a post on how to play my investigator because I can do that already, but sometimes what I do need is advice on is a feat or class ability I can use to mimic something I want my character to be able to do. So in short you just see more posts on what people actually need help with.

But you ask yourself (or maybe you don’t but I’m gonna assume you do), why does this guy who obviously roleplays to tell a story also enjoy mechanics so much? The answer is I have an inherent need to build things. I enjoy searching through books and finding feats and archetypes and traits that fit the story theme of my character. I have an intimidation build I really love and I spent hours trying to find all the fun things I could do with intimidate.


I also feel that with a more robust set of mechanics, especially in character building, that each and every character I build is an individual, not just in its backstory, but also in what it can do within the game. Could you make a lot of different characters in 2e? In terms of story absolutely. However, I always felt--barring race--most fighters felt the same or similar, and most rogues, and most wizards. I think possibilities expanded once kits were introduced, but I like the choices I get to make in many of the newer games.

Admittedly all of this is just me, but I think a lot of people who complain about mechanics probably haven’t really given them a fair shake; they haven’t explored what they can do with them to help move the story along. Sure you will get people whose sole joy is the numbers and damage output, but with gamers now numbering in the millions, you can expect all different types.

And there’s something to be said for rules in general. I usually use the cops and robbers analogy, how we’ve moved past that. Sure we always came back and try it again, but after a while “I shot you,” “No you didn’t” gets old. Knowing that everyone is playing by the same rules, whether it’s the RAW or codified house rules, helps games run smoother. But you don’t just have to take my word for it check out this article on the Reason Rules Matter for some further details.

Anyway that’s it. As a disclaimer I say: Don’t take this as a condemnation if you don’t like mechanics. There are hundreds of different play styles and they're all valid as long as the whole group agrees.There are plenty of great rules-light games out there, and of course you can homebrew Pathfinder to be rules-lighter. Nevertheless, it is my hope that some of you will take a closer look at the mechanics and learn that it’s not against the “roleplayer’s code” to also enjoy the rules system.

6 comments:

  1. Good article. Like you, I have been playing some iteration of D&D since the 80s. In my case, that would be a little longer. I started in 1981 with the Red Basic set. I started playing AD&D 1st Edition the following year. Early editions of the game were heavy on mechanics, but the outlook then was that the rules were really guidelines to help a DM and his players sit around the table telling stories and rolling dice. There was an overarching rule principle, but the mechanics were cobbled together, patched up ad hoc as the need to resolve something that had never come up before arose at the game table. But this is the great thing about the old days: you could talk through a mechanic or a rule and determine whether maybe your own resolution might be better than the written rule without getting a bunch of crap from two or three players who game two to three times a week in the league game because it's not the rule they play on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the game shop.

    The games weren't better then. Players' attitudes about the GM's rulings using the rules or his own reasoning were.

    When I, as an old school gamer, complain about the new-fangled gaming style, it's not the mechanics. They are much more unified and sensible. They were developed through years of development and testing. That said, there are still the occasional situations that arise that even the existing rules don't resolve perfectly. I love the mechanics principles behind Pathfinder, and that is why I level critique at the system from time to time. I like to mess with the mechanics to make them fit my imagination a little bit better. I don't accept that because a guy who got paid to write the rules, they are valid and my own design skills aren't. I tinker, test, and go back to the drawing board until I find what I want. And I level my critique on the Pathfinder RPG boards to the point that people actually wonder why I am on the board because I seem to hate the game. Nothing could be further from the truth. Another old school trait that is lost on many current-generation players is that we critique the game because we love it, and we try to make it better (or, more accurately, in the image of what we think works with our imaginations - different players accept different things).

    My love of the mechanics is not so much that I think there should be less. I am merely always looking for a way to make them better - for me and my my group. Our game tastes are more historical and simulationist. Therefore, we use the Pathfinder system with much modification to achieve that end. I see a lot of posters on the Pathfinder RPG board say "if we are so simulationist, leave the Pathfinder table and go play RuneQuest" in what seems quite derisive as I read it. I don't agree with that. The game mechanics of the Pathfinder RPG, at their core, lend themselves very well to simulation style play. Why go learn a completely new system when we are actually pretty happy playing what we're playing?

    Now, to clarify further on the issue of mechanics versus story: mechanics are very helpful in telling stories. However, the imperfect aspect of the mechanics is not in the mechanics but in players' attitudes toward mechanics. I run a game that is heavy on story and role-play. And my group plays that style. Story and role-play. The problem arises when we invite a player to the game who has no respect for that and wants merely to run over the world using the mechanics. Mechanics are like guns in that you can't blame game group destruction on mechanics but in players who allow mechanics or use mechanics to ruin your story. And I think that is what old school gamers really get upset about. Someone running roughshod without any respect for the work put into a game rather than immerse himself in it. No, mechanics aren't evil. Players using mechanics for evil purposes are evil.

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  2. I think Dixie has a good general comment - it isn't that early systems had less mechanics, it was that the players were less inclined to incorporate all the mechanics. Some of that was due to, as you point out, poorly written mechanics.

    I think the crop of RPG Computer games contribute to the rules approach we see now. Before, people created characters that they thought were interesting. Now, computer games have pushed the min-maxing idea (which, yes, of course existed previously) to new heights by recognizing that specialization would create more powerful combinations - tank, range attack, etc.

    As an aside, THAC0 was a great idea to unify the cross lookup tables into a coherent system. The cross look up tables were fine too, though I recall some weirdness in them.

    Essentially, mechanics wise, yeah, current mechanics are much better written. I tend to find however, that the games do tend to be mechanics heavy in that huge amounts of time are spent working through the mechanics (specifically combat in 3, 3.5, and pathfinder - haven't played 4 or 5) that I didn't recall being anywhere near as big a timesink previously. I find that is regardless of the RP aspect of the game being run.

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  3. Alrighty well, I saw these this morning before work but didn't have time to reply until now because things got hectic. First off that's some great insight, which I think is an important thing in understanding the games we play.

    So let me see if I can touch on some things.

    Firstly I am not against house rules, which it seems is what you are talking a bit about. I don't use them much but I'm not against them. But house rules are still rules and still a mechanic. When I speak about people calling mechanics a dirty word I'm mostly speaking of the people who see rules only as restrictions for the story or people who see rules only as ways for players to make power grabs. For the most part I agree with all of your post.

    "The games weren't better then. Players' attitudes about the GM's rulings using the rules or his own reasoning were."

    This statement however I think needs a little more talking about. I agree with the first part, but I'm not sure the problem is always with the players' attitudes about GM rulings. I think in the past when things were played the way Gygax intended GMs could just make stuff up and the players didn't realize they had any choice in the matter. Gygax was notorious for being a confrontational GM, he believed that the game was the GM versus the players which is a way of thinking I am happy most GMs have done away with. I think most players have no problem with GM rulings or reasoning as long as that reason isn't "I am GM what I say goes."

    As for statements that have to do with new players. I think that has less to do with mechanics and more to do with playstyle and integration. First with playstyles, sometimes they just can't coexist. This isn't an issue with the rules or mechanics of the game. Mechanics that allow for different playstyles are great. This has more to do with personality of the people which is a little beyond the scope of my article.

    And new players who are set out to destroy your game because they dislike the amount of story you put in. Again not an issue with mechanics but with problem players. Which I think is what you were hitting but I just want to make it clear to both myself and anyone else who is reading.

    I don't thing min-maxing doesn't allow for interesting characters. And I don't think min-maxing is as prevalent as people make it out to be. I play a lot of online one shot games, I run a bunch of them and I find that most of the people I play with bring interesting characters to the table. Are some of them optimized? Yes, although not always for combat, but they are interesting none the less.

    We have seen specialization would make more powerful combinations since early gaming. The number of times I got forced to play a cleric because "we need a healer to survive" in red box and 2e were astronomical, so much so for years I hated playing clerics. I'm of the opinion that our more options in pathfinder allow us a greater ability to stray from the standard fighter, cleric, wizard, rogue must haves to a more diverse cast of characters. A blaster cleric, a wizard scout, a brute rogue and a ranged fighter, even just being able to mix up the standard roles for each class a boon of choice.

    Combat always took awhile in D&D. I was just reminiscing the other day with my body about a 2e Ravenloft game we had and an epic battle that took up most of the game session. I find that games that have combat that is too short tends to be deadlier for the player. And that D&D combat can be shortened by prepared GM and prepared players.

    Anyway thank you guys for stopping by. Comments are always appreciated. My goal is to incite conversation (preferably polite conversation which has been achieved here).

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  4. Good article. I also began playing way back, 77 infact, and I used to run DM workshops for TSR. My biggest push point was always the importance of story. In running demo games etc more recently I too have noticed a definate attitude change over Tha past five or six years towards, players expecting treating the mechanics as sold Rules to go by, and are less open to DMS altering theexhanics to better suit hame style. I also have seen a huge insurgency in players optimizing or min maxing their characters. My though on this is also that not only is much of this due to the Computer Gaming genre of fantasy and or MMOS in which YES you are expected to optimize, but also due to the attitude towards PRE BUILDING your characters future rather than makin a character and then seeing where the story takes you. Don't get me wrong "builds" have always been aroud, but now it seems to be more of an official idea and thing. Making a paladin a certain way, with points array and these feats at these.level etc PRE planned all the way to 20, to me is more of an issue with players having a different mind set due to what is promoted than what used to be.
    Not allowing a story to mold or shape your characters growth and having its future choices set in stone is (to me) a crying shame. Mechanics are valuable tools to be used to help facilitate a great story. It's in the chosen use and view of then that seems to be the problem, and the attitude of newer players. Not because older players were better, but because they were lead down a slightly different path.

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  5. Good article. I also began playing way back, 77 infact, and I used to run DM workshops for TSR. My biggest push point was always the importance of story. In running demo games etc more recently I too have noticed a definate attitude change over Tha past five or six years towards, players expecting treating the mechanics as sold Rules to go by, and are less open to DMS altering theexhanics to better suit hame style. I also have seen a huge insurgency in players optimizing or min maxing their characters. My though on this is also that not only is much of this due to the Computer Gaming genre of fantasy and or MMOS in which YES you are expected to optimize, but also due to the attitude towards PRE BUILDING your characters future rather than makin a character and then seeing where the story takes you. Don't get me wrong "builds" have always been aroud, but now it seems to be more of an official idea and thing. Making a paladin a certain way, with points array and these feats at these.level etc PRE planned all the way to 20, to me is more of an issue with players having a different mind set due to what is promoted than what used to be.
    Not allowing a story to mold or shape your characters growth and having its future choices set in stone is (to me) a crying shame. Mechanics are valuable tools to be used to help facilitate a great story. It's in the chosen use and view of then that seems to be the problem, and the attitude of newer players. Not because older players were better, but because they were lead down a slightly different path.

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  6. I build all the time and I see zero wrong with builds. The people I play with and the people I meet online all build too. The misconception is that if I come to the table with a build, is that it needs to be rigidly followed. In many instances interactions won't change my character from picking up X feat next level and staying the course on the class I'm in. On occasion something in the story will make me rethink my character and go in a new direction. Often I will change up which skills I invest in because of story points.

    The thing about builds is this they are a plan. A lot of people make plans. I wana do or be this when I grow up, so I need to get this and this and this done. Some people are rigid and don't let set back deter them. Some people go so far as to rewrite events in their mind o it doesn't break their delicate world view and push forward. Some people are bolstered by tragedy to try even harder. Others can adapt plans, make minor changes. Many will continue toward their goals, some may abandond them if the circumstances change drastically. And some people have no plan and stumble through life aimlessly.

    All of these are perfectly acceptable in real life. Although I find that the people with rigid plans more often reach their destination in life. So I see no reason this shouldn't happen in games. My character has a plan. Become the world's greatest duelist? Hunt down and kill all vampires because one turned my sister? Attain divinity? I outline the best possible way forward to succeed at my characters plan. I am not the rigid type so usually I will mae small adjustments, and I find most people fall into the same category. I did once played a character who was so tried to rigidly stick to his plan, it was hard as its not in my nature.

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