Mechanics & Fiction: A Love Story

As a young GM, I had a serious problem.

We were playing D&D 3.x, as was the style at the time, and my players had tracked the evil Count to his castle and were finally facing off with him in the foyer.  The battle was finally going in their favor and one my players turned to me and said “I swing from the chandelier, kick the sword out of the villain’s hand, and drop a blistering one-liner!”  My eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas day.  It’s just like that scene from the Three Musketeers (you know, the good one)!  Then, I turned to the rules.

As I read, my excitement slowly bled away.  First, they’d have to roll an Acrobatics check to swing from the chandelier (at some kind of penalty that I’d need to calculate, of course), which – as a fighter – they probably weren’t going to be able to make.  Next, that player’s character definitely did not have the Improved Disarm feat, so they’d end up taking a an attack of opportunity and make the disarm test at a fat penalty.  The only thing that seemed doable for that action was the one-liner.  I was crushed.

Instead of saying something along the lines of…

“Hell yeah!  You swing from the chandelier, catching the Count by surprise.  Roll a strength check to disarm him!”

I went by the rules.  And as I explained them to my players, I saw the creativity die behind their eyes.  I have no doubt that player’s creativity with his character actions was damaged for a good long time.  Worse, that’s certainly not the last time I committed that particular crime against creativity.  This, my friends, is why RPGs have boring combats.  You hit the monster, it hits back, rinse and repeat until someone falls down.  Boring.  All because one poor, inexperienced GM said “no”* once fifteen years ago.

A brief aside.  You can read on any two-bit gaming blog how a GM should never say “no.”  Frankly, that’s bullshit.  Your players will come up with all sorts of ridiculous crap that doesn’t even make sense in the fiction of the game (or that you just don’t want to deal with).  Feel free to say “no.”  Just be able to follow it up with “how about this, instead.”  And this is where mechanics come into the picture.  You want mechanics that inform the fiction you’re trying to create.  Your players should feel encouraged by the mechanics to try actions that write cool fiction.

A great example of this is the Stunt mechanic in Exalted.  By describing an action with extra style or by involving other elements in the scene, you get to add extra dice to your character’s die pool for that action.  It’s a simple mechanic (in an otherwise massively, excessively over-complicated game system) that encourages exactly the sort of over-the-top anime nonsense the game’s aesthetic is based on.

Through a fair bit of trial and error, I’ve discovered that the best mechanics for me are those that are lightweight, fast, and flexible.  For fantasy games, I’ve found that D&D 5e fits the bill nicely.  The core mechanics are simple, combat runs quickly, and the linear math of the new edition is easy to work in my head, which makes improvisation (my main mode of running games) significantly simpler than earlier editions.

However, for my new game, I’m going to be trying a few new things, all with the goal of tying mechanics into the fiction of the game.  The first big changes are to character creation.  In 13th Age**, each character has their One Unique Thing and and handful of Icon*** Relationships.  These two mechanics give characters a tangible link to the setting that they can exploit for both coolness and story purposes.

This next tweak is a bit more consequential and I’m not 100% certain how it’s going to work out in actual play.  I’m re-naming D&D 5e‘s Inspiration to “Hero Points,” giving them more effects, and changing the way in which they are earned.  A player can spend a hero point to do any of the following:

  • Grant themselves Advantage on a die roll.
  • Re-roll a failed test.  However, they must keep the second result.
  • Save themselves from dying.  Using a Hero Point this way puts your character out of harm’s way for the rest of the scene, but they can’t be revived until after the end of the scene.
  • Suggest an addition to the fiction.  This could be something like adding a chandelier to the castle’s foyer or retroactively having packed a bottle of anti-venom for the trek into the spider’s lair.  The addition must be approved by the table before it can take effect.

Spending a Hero Point to grant themselves Advantage does not preclude a player from spending a Hero Point on re-rolling.  They even get to keep the advantage!  A player can also give one of their Hero Points to another player.  This represents the first character helping out the second in some way, even if it’s only with moral support.

A player gains a Hero Point under the following circumstances:

  • Before a player rolls dice, he chooses to say, “My character fails.”
  • A player’s character takes an action in keeping with his personality traits (Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws) regardless of the danger involved in doing so.
  • A player rolls a 1 on a d20 roll and the GM decides to “buy” it.  The GM gives the player a Hero Point and takes a Villain Point for themselves.  The GM can use these Villain Points in the exact same way that the players use Hero Points, except on behalf of named NPCs opposing the players.
  • Whenever you feel it’s appropriate to give them one.

In the continuing account of the haul from my last hold-up of Ideas ‘R’ Us, these Hero Point mechanics are largely inspired by John Wick’s article on success and failure in roleplaying games and the Fate Point mechanics in games like Rogue Trader or, well… Fate.  I like the idea of my players being encouraged to fail when they think it’s dramatically appropriate and having the mechanical option to succeed whenever they don’t.  I think it’ll give the fiction a much more heroic feel.

Like I said before, though, I’ve got no idea how this is actually going to play.  So, if you give me a chance to run a few sessions with this rule, I’ll be sure to let you know how it works out in actual play.

M. Hamhock out.

*Anyone who tells you that gating a player’s cool action behind half a dozen layers of rules and die rolls isn’t saying “no” is a goddamn liar.  If a player perceives that they can be more effective in combat by walking up to the enemy and bashing away with a sword until one of them falls down, someone’s fucked up.

**If you’re not familiar with 13th Age, you should go have a look at the character creation rules in the SRD right now.  They’re pretty dope.

***I’ll probably talk more about the Icons I’m using for the Lich Kings of Avalon setting in a future post.  Stay tuned!

Mechanics & Fiction: A Love Story

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