Mechanics and Tabletop RPGs

[Games,Research] (04.08.08, 11:55 pm)

We had a longtime friend of ours come by and visit today, which went respectably well. He has graduated from his arduous job at the pizza place and is now intending to take up snowboarding (or something). Said friend is also been a lifelong gamer and was one of the shadow agents whose operations led me to discover gaming. Having spent extensive time in the “académie”, I’ve also gotten to know the Ludologists, the Narrativists, and now, Miashara. It feels like the stars have been aligned to make something really awesome happen. Unfortunately, it may take some time for that to amount to anything, so I grilled him about gaming and where he sees the relation of stories and systems.

Note: This is extremely paraphrased. This is my writing with Mia’s influence percolating through it. It’s not a real interview, it’s not even with permission, he doesn’t even know that I am doing this right now. So, that in mind, here goes:

Basically, it all comes down to mechanics. Mechanics is sort of an emulation of the real world. [And, since we’ve read the phenomenologists, we know that emulation of the real world must mean an emulation of experience.] It’s not just games that have mechanics, but stories as well. Most stories fall under many typical sets of mechanics. For instance, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy suffers loss of self worth, boy defeats legions of Satan to prove self worth to himself and girl, the two marry, etc.” Looking at this thought abstractly, we can say that it is mechanic because of two reasons: one, it can be used to structuralize existing things into the narrative form, or limit the possible choices of an existing narrative. Or two: it can be used to derive a schema of interpretation of common experience. Generally, people look at mechanics in the sense of the former, but the latter may open some doors.

Another example of a game with a strong focus on gameplay with no actual “story” is something like “Diner Dash”. Diner Dash clearly lives in and uses a fiction, in the sense of a backdrop for the actual gameplay action, but there is more to it than that. The game is still strongly evocative. Everyone has had a crummy job waiting tables, or making bagels, or filing records, or scanning photos, and has made some sort of game in their mind to see how fast it can be done. This is a common experience, and the game serves to evoke or bring out that experience, that bit that was fun about the imagined game, without carrying the drudgery that such a job drags along.

In this sense, mechanics are tools for structuring experience.
That’s actually a pretty neat and unorthodox way of looking at things. But, it can also be broadened out a bit. Experience does not necessarily need to be personal or direct or everyday. It can also be extended or metaphorical or fantastic. If we want to push boundaries a bit, we can say that our idea and mechanic of flight (say of a superhero) is grounded in the ideas of airplanes, physical knowledge, and the experience of vertigo on a rollercoaster, etc. This is a combination of personal and intellectual experience. That is the power of mechanics.

Okay, now let’s tie this in with gaming. Mia also told me earlier that he got into gaming by telling stories with his older brother, they would take turns telling the story and playing the protagonist. Subsequently, he got into tabletop gaming via some other nefarious influence in school. The essence of gaming seems to be a coauthorship, but with an explicit structure. Running a game or “story” without any rule system whatsoever is extremely difficult, and the reason for this is its intense degree of arbitrariness. In writing a story, with just one writer, starting from a blank page, anything goes. It is difficult to put down a world until the first word has been set. However, that first word and its subsequent followers leads to focus, restricts decisions, and takes on a life of its own. Coauthorship (namely in a fictional work, where both authors have simultaneous authority) is much more difficult because of the matter of interference. Where is the space controlled by one author versus the other? When text has been written, can the authors change each other’s text? It’s a bag of worms. No doubt it’s been tried, but I have no sources at the moment. To help, to focus this, rules need to be defined, boundaries need to be placed, and then things can happen.

Tabletop gaming, or just “gaming”, is a practice with a long history, and many manifestations and variations. It has defined its own cultures, its own histories, its own tropes and conventions, and, necessarily, its own mechanics. It’s not really possible to say what gaming is “about” because it is about so many things. It’s like trying to discern what novels are “about”.  But many games, beloved to me and to many, are science fiction epics with robots, or are fantasy with the forces that make up and are subsequently going to destroy the world, etcetera. These are big and frequent themes. Alternately, you can have psychic detective agencies, or monks investigating the paranormal in the 11th century.

Gaming defines rules to enable a certain coauthorship, which is a shared experience. Like oral storytelling, the participants sit around and speak. One of these participants is the GM, the Game Master, who runs the game and has ultimate control over what happens in the story. The rest, the players, control characters in the story and describe what their characters do, reacting to the circumstances of the story as they come by. Both have control and competing interests. The GM is responsible for producing a good time for all, and probably has personal goals of telling a cool story. The players have goals depending on play style and personality, these can range from power gaming, to method acting, to thespianism, to outrageously provocative, to outrageously sensible. The GM plans to make a story and situation set up to involve the player characters, develop an interesting plot, and the players try to derail or engage the plot through various means. The inevitable conflicts, actions, and decisions are meted out through some set of rules, which often involve dice rolling.

Dice rolling and written rules are generally what most might describe as mechanics, and, indeed they are. But, interesting things happen when a game system focuses on a genre, or gets to significant power levels. Namely, the capability and simulative limits of the rules are exposed. Instead of describing or representing a world or reality, they become numbers on a page.

This in mind, it reminds me that simulation and representation are necessarily two sides of the same object, and can’t really be easily decoupled.

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