Under the Hood – Come for the Mechanics, Stay for the Story


Come for the Mechanics, Stay for the Story
By The Warden

StandardCoverImage-smlWhy do you play roleplaying games? It’s a simple yet incredibly diverse answer, akin to asking the world why they like a genre of novels or why they watch NASCAR and it’s because there is no one right answer. It’s also contentious because many answers are in conflict with each other and lead to heavy doses of nerd rage. For example, if an avid race car fan hears someone state their enjoyment watching car crashes at the Indy 500, a debate will likely ensue. That doesn’t make the crash nut wrong because car crashes are a fact of life on the track.

The same applies with roleplaying games. Saying you like playing with dice is not wrong, it’s one of many possibilities. I can completely identify with that view because I’m not much of a fan of RPGs without dice, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s my go-to reason for playing. If I had to pick one reason, it’s for the storytelling. As a player or GM. For me, roleplaying games facilitate the ancient tradition of storytelling and bring it to a group format. It’s not a surprise, really, seeing as I was so active in improv theatre in my youth. Roleplaying games are like improv and provide me with that emotional reward, without those annoying warm-up games like Pass the Word (or whatever that stupid thing is called).

Story has always played a fundamental role in roleplaying games, even if the story was as simple as “go in there and get that gold from the monsters!” Yet this foundation took a back seat to the mechanics, concepts, and character builds commonly sought by designers in their quest to build the right system for the right person… until recently. There’s been an ongoing trend to create story-heavy RPGs – simply referred to as “story games,” but the differences between what is a traditional RPG and what is a story game remains interpretive, so we won’t bother going there – where the elements of traditional storytelling are ingrained in the game’s mechanics. The objective is not to play the game properly, but to tell an evolving story.

Right off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Dungeon World, Robin Laws’ DramaSystem (currently available in the Kickstarted game, Hillfolk), and Spark by Jason Pitre, just to name a few. Each one offers players a perception of storytelling we’d normally gloss over in most other RPGs: conflict. Not with swords and bullets, but the kind where characters butt heads against each other over matter of perspective, desires, beliefs, and misfortune. Each of these three methods demonstrates a more modern twist on the roleplaying game’s ability to provide unique storytelling by embracing the standards developed over thousands of years in fiction writing.


To be honest, damn near anything from Robin Laws uses heavy traces of storytelling foundations and character interaction as mechanical function, but we’ll stick with DramaSystem for now. This one in particular focuses on character interaction and emotional content to direct the story, as described in the designer’s own words.

“DramaSystem sets out to create a substantially unguided experience, creating a very simple framework for extended dramatic storytelling. It doesn’t take you in a specific direction. Rather, it fosters a group dynamic allowing the participants to explore a surprising emotional narrative. The resulting story acquires a definite shape, but that comes from its use of dramatic storytelling techniques rather than a push in any particular direction, either by the rules system or the GM.

“Its rules structures arise from a study of dramatic scenes as they play out in drama and fiction. The process of finding these structures started with the analysis of Hamlet that began on my blog and wound up as the core of Hamlet’s Hit Points. If that book is the theory, DramaSystem is the practice.

“Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. The interaction can often be measured by a shift in power between the participants. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it.”

 “Introducing DramaSystem” by Robin Laws, from the Pelgrane Press website

In other words, roleplaying provides mechanical benefits and encourages players to interact and push the boundaries that may otherwise go ignored in other RPGs without stepping out of bounds or on another player’s toes. Characters are flexible creatures with needs and wants conflicting with those of the rest of their group and players are inspired to play with those desires to invoke an emotional response within those fictional characters and, in doing so, the players. When I first started reading about DramaSystem, I wasn’t entirely sure if this made it a story-based system until it was clear that without intriguing characters, there wasn’t much of a story to tell.

Compared to previous motivational techniques – such as the highly debated alignment system from most of D&D – it’s a far better method because it establishes characters as emotional people rather than weapon hungry warmongers and spellcasters. It not only embraces emotional conflict, the most essential element of interpersonal storytelling, and makes it a fundamental aspect of the game rather than an add-on.


Oh, must you hear even more about what may be the most popular indie game on the market right now? Yes. Yes, you must. What this adaptation of Apocalypse World has done is demonstrate the importance of complications to storytelling and roleplaying games by merging with the classic dungeon crawl genre. At first, I don’t think this importance factored into my reading of the game until I finished reading over a DW hack called Sixth World, which used the ENnie Award-winning rules to create a new style of Shadowrun game. Doing so opened up my interpretation of Shadowrun as I’d never seen it before, where runners face that most unfortunate of obstacles: mistakes and unforeseen circumstances. As shadowrunners are a type of futuristic bank robber, how boring would it be if Ocean’s Eleven had everything run according to plan.

When I first read these rules, I wondered about the frequency of complications in the game. Since any result between 6 and 9 resulted in success with a catch and all dice rolls required 2d6 + a couple of points, it seemed that the odds were typically in favour of success with a couple of bruises. After some time (a side effect of being unable to actually play a game in my busy schedule – hint!), it’s easy to see it now as a brilliant take on storytelling that many have begun to incorporate into many traditional genres. While other systems have made great use of complications, such as Cortex Plus, Dungeon World really takes the cake with this one.


Finally, I wanted to use a lesser known example. The Spark RPG can be explained with its simple, yet effective, tag line: challenge your beliefs. (http://www.genesisoflegend.com/spark/) Inspired by Microscope, a game where players built their own world and history (http://www.lamemage.com), Spark takes that and runs with it into something similar for the more traditional roleplayer. Except first you have to create the world you’re going to play in with your fellow players (with a little guidance from the GM to make sure it doesn’t get weird… or too weird).

For example, the last time I gave this game a try with its creator, Jason Pitre, each of us drew from a number of incredibly different sources: Pacific Rim, Star Trek, a matriarchal society, Cthulhu, and a Russian ballet. From there, we began to craft a world using the game’s step-by-step foundations where tyrannical gods were battled by a gothic society ruled by the beautiful using giant robots to hold the forces of evil at bay while simultaneously suppressing the downtrodden no better than the monsters who sought to enslave us. While we had yet to take this game further than the evolution stage (and I have to admit, that’s a bit of a shame), the core purpose of Spark is for players to maintain their values as they see them within this community-built setting and inspire others within the group to look at this world from another point of view. It’s a concept that can be difficult to explain in a short burst of text, but what Spark does is establish a conflict of belief and values by putting the setting in the players hands before letting them go out to play.

This is another example of storytelling at its finest, translated into the roleplaying format. It forces players to view what they may have considered traditional and static as a variable and flexible position within a field of endless possibilities. It’s the story of The Prince and The Pauper with dice as players discover more than they bargained for as the story progresses and players challenge each other to consider another point of view.


These are by no means the only – or necessarily the best – examples out there demonstrating how storytelling has begun to take centre stage in our roleplaying games and with the popularity of story games rising over the past couple of years, we can expect to see a greater evolution. While story has always been the gasoline pumping the engine, many designers are finding new ways to rebuild the engine so that story is not just the fuel, but the chassis holding the vehicle together.

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