Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hasty thoughts on mechanical difference

A thought occurred to me that D&D could be understood as a series of interlocking mini-games arranged horizontally and/or vertically relative to one another, and that these mini-games could be broken up into four general categories based on two binaries: possessing explicit predefined rules of play or not, and possessing explicit predefined victory conditions or not. The more I thought about this second part, though, the more incoherent it became.

-Let's start simple. Does combat have an explicit, predefined victory condition?
-Yes, of course. Kill the other guy.
-But what if I'm content with just escaping alive, or want to incapacitate but not kill the other guy?
-Okay, fine, so the victory condition is escape, or kill, or incapacitate, or convince you're friendly or worthy, or some related condition, or possibly several of the above, depending on the situation.
-But if it's so variable, is it really predefined?
-I suppose we could define victory as not dying.
-But that hardly sounds like victory. And not dying but being kidnapped would likely be seen as a bad result.

And so on. So I scrapped that theory. Another reason for scrapping it was the difficulty in explaining why different mini-games end up in different categories, even if we assume we can successfully categorize. This came up when I looked at combat and saving throws. I had these both categorized as "clear victory conditions, explicit rules of play." Let's compare the two.

*Combat takes a non-trivial period of time, and has elements of player skill.*A saving throw requires a trivial period of time, and has no elements of player skill.

These two both have clear rules, both have a clear victory condition (even if it's not predefined by the mechanics). Why this difference? Combat is capable of mapping in interesting ways, with an endless array of choices that can influence outcome. Who do you target first, which spells do you use, which weapons do you use? Saving throws don't map so well. Succumbing to poison or not, dodging the blast or not, resisting magic or not: these ultimately are discrete binaries. There is less capacity for building on them in interesting ways. Even if you come up with clever strategies ("I didn't jump away randomly, I jumped behind the statue so it would protect me from the blast"), you will need either an endless number of tailored rules to make each of these situations interesting, or you will need a single unifying mechanic that allows you to resolve any one of these situations. And that mechanic is a saving throw.

So what's the point of this? Well, it helps me frame my thoughts about mechanics when adjudicating situations at the table where the rules aren't clear. Is the situation more like combat, where an elaborate (though not necessarily as elaborate; combat is regularly life-or-death where other situations might not be) mechanic with elements of player choice is appropriate? Or is it more like saving throws, where the excitement is in crossing your fingers and rolling some dice?

Next post, I will try to apply this to a chase mechanic.

No comments:

Post a Comment