Under the Hood – Opposite Mechanics

Opposite Mechanics
By The Warden

It’s April Fool’s Day today. Makes sense to start off with a ruse, hope you’re going to fall for it, then move on to the real topic of the day. I’ve thought about it, but something tells me you wouldn’t believe anything I have to say for the sheer reason that it is the Prankster’s holiday. So instead I’m going to say something you’ll probably think is a joke, but I’m super cereal.

Some of the biggest RPGs we all know and love are broken.

I got into a discussion with a friend and fellow RPG designer, Chris Dias, the other night as we got to talk about his latest post on Living Dice. If you don’t know his name, then you didn’t read the interview I posted back in January and I’ll ignore the shame you must be feeling. What struck us was the frequency of something I like to call opposite mechanics, or when a game uses multiple resolution systems for different effects in the same game.

The biggest example is spellcasting from the early editions of the world’s most popular RPG (AKA the industry’s current second best-selling RPG), as quoted from Chris’s post.

“The predominant trend with all these games, both RPGs and tabletop, is to place the responsibility of die rolling in the hands of the attacker and not in the target. If the attacker has six attacks, why does the target have to be the one laden with rolling that many times? You might think this to be a common assumption, but there is one noteworthy exception, D&D spells. Despite the rules regarding melee or ranged attacks, almost every edition of D&D has employed an opposite mechanic with spells. If a wizard casts a spell, he sets a fixed value and the targets have to all make save rolls. A wizard doesn’t roll any dice, but neither does he have to waste time or energy doing it. And people, especially gamers, are all about moving quickly with the least amount of energy. I had a player that would roll his attack and damage dice with the same throw, stating that he wanted to save time during the game. This same player was laden with numerous complaints during our previous game from him playing a wizard, forcing the game to grind to a halt whenever he cast a spell. Was he slow? No, but each time he cast a fireball, the GM, meaning me, would have to roll a save for each target. Then I had to adjust the hit points for those targets, full damage for fails and half damage for successes. Already dealing with the numerous opponents in combat, I was now responsible for rolling defenses as well. 4E alleviated this with probably the best contribution to the franchise yet, fixed defense values for Ref, Fort, and Will.”

– Chris Dias from www.livingdice.com

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal and many take it as versatility in the game’s mechanics, but think about it from another point of view. Building a house requires a solid foundation planned in advance and accounting for factors such as multiple stories, weight support, and more. A house needs to withstand the elements, exterior and interior, the ravages of time, and allow owners to redecorate and remodel as they go. If you found out your house won’t support the weight of six people in your living room unless everyone stands against the walls, that would seem a bit odd, wouldn’t it? No one’s telling you six people can’t be in your living room all at once, just that the only way you can do it is under these specific conditions. It’s the same thing with opposite mechanics.

Alright, this example may be a bit exaggerated. Let’s say your living room cannot support sixteen people at one time due to space. That’s more reasonable and it all comes down to whether or not you’re the type of person who would want to have sixteen people in your living room at one time. Some people do; others don’t. This is a factor when you’re buying a house. If I were shown this house and I knew I couldn’t have sixteen people in my living room at one time, I’d be fine what that because what the hell would I be doing with sixteen people in my living room?! Yet if you’re the type who likes to throw massive parties and wants that many guests in one room at one time, would you buy the house and find a way to modify it or turn to another house which can allow you to live the Playboy lifestyle or would you simply find a house which can already allow that number of guests at any given moment?

That’s my view on opposite mechanics. It seems like a quick fix after the core resolution system was set into place. A patch job to cover up an inherent weakness in the original construction. I recently did a review of the Supernatural RPG and this game uses two resolution systems: you can roll against a difficulty number to perform a non-combat action or make an opposed roll in combat. Don’t get me wrong, it works, but it does strike me as odd to have different means of resolving your actions. Either one on their own makes sense: target numbers allow the designer and game masters to predict difficulty and probability while simplifying the number of dice rolled per action, while opposing rolls create a situation where a targeted character (particularly a player character) has a chance of taking an active role in their survival at the moment danger strikes. Yet to have both working together seems counter-intuitive. Opposing rolls mean your character’s defense could end up being a measly 3 rather than the locked-in-stone 17 of a fixed target number. Fixed numbers mean you’d better hope you put on your bulletproof vest before leaving the house that morning or make your paladin sleep in his armor in case those orcs come back in the middle of the night.

From a design POV, opposite mechanics do make sense. An intelligent, moving target is less predictable than hitting a car driving forward and especially harder than performing a task against an inanimate object (such as climbing a wall). Yet mixing between different resolution mechanics still seems to defy the logic of developing a game of exceptions; to me, it creates a game of “insteads.” Exceptions allow certain characters to go above and beyond those of others within the same threshold, such as a rogue’s ability to cause massive damage when they have an advantage over their opponent. An instead creates an alternate version of the same game to account for a character’s abilities, much like psionics in D&D 4e. Instead of having encounter powers, psionic characters have more at-wills and can spend power points to augment them into encounter-like powers.

Its frequency and acceptance within the gaming community clearly demonstrates opposite mechanics are not deficiencies at all and there’s a very good chance my opinions are in the minor (hence my reason for posting them on April Fool’s Day – you don’t have to take them seriously). You may see psionics as an exception, you may not. I still feel it warrants looking at how games are designed and possibly why we find fault with them when they don’t work for us. Isn’t there some means of allowing spells to work under the same mechanic of every other action in the game? Sure, sure, magic breaks the laws of reality and works according to its own laws, but does that mean the wizard also defies those laws or that magic does? If we’re having targets roll to avoid being struck by spells as a counterpoint to the standard mechanic for physical combat, is that insinuating a spellcaster never fails in their ability to cast? To that end, is the choice to incorporate opposite mechanics for something like magic into a game sanctioned by the purpose of magic in your game or is it only there because that was the only way to make it work under the context of your core mechanic? That would then mean your system doesn’t work, wouldn’t it?

The game’s mechanics are the physics of the world characters inhabit. Just like physics, there must a core understanding of how everything works before you start stacking on theories, principles, and laws. Consider the possible ramifications when researchers thought they have discovered particles moving faster than the speed of light: if that law was broken, it would mean numerous others might be crumpled up like bits of paper and tossed in the divine wastebasket.

A game’s mechanics need to work off a fundamental principle and a core consistency in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief all fiction needs to entice and enthrall players. Without it, the ability to “do whatever you can think of” breaks down and brings the game to a halt when someone thinks of something the game cannot handle as-is. And without that, we’re just a bunch of people sitting around rolling dice to see who gets the bigger number.

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