Narrative-driven tabletop RPGs are awesome. Being able to tell a story with your friends is one of the best things that has come out of human civilization, full stop. Of late, there has been a trend among narrative-focused game groups to look for systems that cater specifically to narrative games. Thus, more and more systems are looking to streamline gameplay by removing mechanics to increase time spent weaving narrative. This has gone from a good idea to make gameplay more fluid to a potentially stifling aversion to number or dice-based mechanics in general.
Let’s jump into the climactic scene near the end of a 2-session long game of Dialect. Dialect, for those unfamiliar with it, is a TTRPG by Thorny Games about language and how it dies. It is a game with few mechanics, most of which revolve around coming up with the new words a culture develops and giving them meaning. It is an elegant and beautiful game driven by the stories surrounding the death of a language the players themselves develop. At the end of this particular game, a society of artificial intelligences was falling apart due to the introduction of alien artifacts that could add new code, and therefore experiences, to the society. Some AI embraced the new technology while others tried to destroy it. The different factions were headed by different players, and at the end, the ones who considered the technology dangerous—myself included—built a doomsday device to prevent the spread of corruption just as the other side broke through a wall in order to stop them.
Then, the flow of the game halted abruptly and jarringly. Our characters had said all they were going to say, and it was time for someone to do something. As the player who had made the doomsday device, I could have just said “and then I pressed the button,” but that would have felt cheap. Similarly, the other side could have said they incapacitated my character through a MacGuffin they had developed earlier, but that would have been equally unsatisfying.
The problem here was a lack of hard mechanics. While it is possible that the characters still could have talked it out, it is unlikely that we would have changed any minds or developed any arguments that had not been brought up before. Mechanic-less storytelling could only get us so far at this point, and while we were good at telling stories together, we needed an extra push to give the story an ending that it deserved.
Collaborative storytelling is one of my favorite parts of playing tabletop RPGs. Getting to craft something new, interesting, and extremely personal with the other players is one of the most beautiful parts of gaming. However, many designers and players have started to see story-driven and mechanics-driven games as being on opposite ends of a sliding scale. While this is definitely not the case (Fantasy Flight’s Genesys system is a prime example), I’ve begun to see groups who want a strong narrative lean away from systems with more mechanics than Apocalypse World.
Mechanically light games can make for really great stories, both as an introduction for new players to RPGs, and for veteran players who are looking for a streamlined experience. Bearing that in mind, there is still a place for mechanics-heavy systems even in highly story-driven groups for two main reasons: Conflict resolution and The Big Damn Hero (or Idiot) moment.
There are two types of conflict in TTRPGs: conflicts between PCs and PCs, and conflicts between PCs and literally anything else. Conflicts in the second category comprise most of the conflict in games, and almost every system has a way of overcoming it in a way that’s meant to be reasonable and satisfying to players. The more interesting conflict is when the PCs are at odds. Assuming none of the players is being a jerk, each PC will have similarly compelling motivations for being on their side of the issue. Having mechanics built into the game to resolve conflicts not only validates players’ decisions to engage with the story they’re telling, but also allows players to connect with characters who have strengths and weaknesses they themselves might not have. Without the restraints imposed by mechanics, players technically have greater control over what their characters can do, but those restraints can also force players to come up with more creative and compelling solutions.
Conflict, of course, eventually leads to the most climactic moment of a player character’s game: the Big Damn Hero (or Idiot) moment. Good stories give their principle characters moments where it’s all about them. The preparations players make—from character creation to amassing resources or experience—come to a head, and the character has a chance to either flare brilliantly or burn out catastrophically, and no one knows which will happen until the die falls. Whichever way the roll goes, it defines the character’s Big Damn Moment, and the more a player has invested in the moment, the more everyone will get out of it. Intricate mechanics can help players by providing a solid framework upon which to tailor their character’s actions in a concrete way, but more importantly, they introduce risk and sacrifice related to your character’s actions, which make them more meaningful.
The way systems can introduce risk is easy to understand: there is an element of luck in most more intricate mechanical systems, and the uncertainty makes critical moments more exciting. Sacrifice is a bit more subtle, but it is no less important or present.
Character builds have opportunity cost: when building a character or committing to an action, each decision a player makes cuts off the possibility of doing anything but the thing they have done. While opportunity cost is present in all roleplaying games regardless of mechanics, having mechanical consequences imbues players’ choices with meaning. The combination of in-the-moment risk, and the sacrifices that led up to it, makes the Big Damn Something Moment glorious. It does not matter whether the character is a hero or an idiot at the end of it; what matters is that it is going to be the moment you will remember most of all.
This is not to say all games need 30 rulebooks and each session should be at least half math; storytelling, narrative, and interaction are crucial for a good game. But having mechanics that players can work with to allow the players more meaningful control over how their personal story arc is oriented is not a bad thing either. The important thing with RPGs is to have a good time, and tricky mechanics can make your time great by making you the Big Damn Hero. Or Idiot.
Xander is currently spending skillpoints wildly and irresponsibly due to their complete and total lack of self control when it comes to picking up new hobbies. Someone should probably have stopped them before they picked up swords and literal witchcraft. You can find them @xanderthesane on twitter and in various scientific journals, various conventions (they are the very pretty one), and in long dead cities buried under the surface of the moon.