Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Palladium Rules Round Table 1: The Importance Of Mechanics

Gather round, friends and neighbors, as I begin this first discussion by standing on this conveniently placed soapbox. I promise the speech portion of this discussion will be short, then we'll get into the back-and-forth of honest Internet conversation. I just think that I should firmly establish a few positions, so everyone knows where I'm coming from as we begin this academic journey together.

If, when I eventually die of Diet Coke caffeine explosion, my game design and blogging legacy were to be summed up in a catch phrase tastefully displayed on a black t-shirt, I hope that phrase would be "Game balance is for suckers." That's pretty much my game design mantra. If I were to have a second, less popular spin-off phrase, it would be something like "Game mechanics are for suckers to a slightly lesser degree." That's sort of my basic opinion on the matter. Why? I'm glad you asked.

Obviously, game mechanics are important. While there are those out there who would tell you that truly having no mechanics is an option, I think we can all agree that having some system of resolving conflicts, resisting damage, and checking skills is vital to 99% of the role-playing games that are out there, and that you could totally do without them only in very specific, very controlled settings. When I say that mechanics are to some degree "for suckers," I mean that in the scheme of playing a game, the precise adherence to a system of rules is one of the least important components. Character building and immersion, an engaging story, an exciting battle, and the paramount keystone of fun are all far more important than adherence to whatever dice-rolling and modification rules are laid out in the core books.

The basic structure of the ruleset, such as rolling a D20 to beat a difficulty number, or rolling percentile to determine success or failure, establishes the method by which a Game Master can resolve challenges to the player characters. Tables of modifiers, difficulty charts, scaling damages, and other such tools are great additions to the core mechanic right up until they start to infringe upon the aforementioned more important items, particularly fun. At that point, I'd as soon discard these official mechanical tools and wing it. I think most experienced Game Masters do this regularly. I mean, honestly, who hasn't cheated a roll to help a key ongoing villain survive, or to allow a player to escape an unlucky demise? These are clear cases where we sacrifice mechanics to benefit higher causes.

I started to get into specific Palladium mechanics, but it was looking too broad to get into in this first installment. Let me close instead with some of my guiding principles in game design, and the standards by which I'll judge Palladium's ruleset as we move forward to discuss the current state of things, and how I would change them if I were magically put in charge of a rewrite.

Mechanics should complement the setting. If you're in a high-tech world of laser rifles and robot armor, the mechanics should skew toward facilitating sci-fi action-adventure combat. If the setting is in the mystery genre, rules and skills regarding deduction and perception will likely be more front and center than if it were a traditional super-hero setting. In short, while players are free to take their own campaigns in whatever direction they choose, the mechanics should facilitate the style of the game as written and not try to please all of the people, all the time. Trying to account for every situation leads to bloat.

Mechanics should be easy for the player. A player should not have to be an encyclopedia of gaming knowledge to play an RPG. Sure, the Game Master needs to have a deeper grasp of the numbers, modifiers, and stats, but a player should be asked to do little more than declare an action, roll a few dice, add a single modifier based on the character's level of proficiency, and then look up at the GM to learn the result.

Mechanics should not overpower the Game Master. When the player looks up to the man behind the screen to determine whether his or her total roll of 17 was enough to strike the Orc, the GM should not then have to spend two minutes looking up references. The mechanics should include guidelines to help the referee run the story, such as a range of modifiers for various ranges, covers, environmental conditions, and other situations, but ultimately the Game Master should be able to simply take a view of the situation, make a roll if necessary, and quickly determine the outcome with minimal consulting of charts and performing calculations. Ideally, this set up will be such that the GM can just make an arbitrary decision in a pinch (pick a modifier, adjust the difficulty score, etc.) and move on.

Fun fun fun. Most importantly, regardless of all other guidelines, the game mechanics should never be presented in such a way that they prevent fun. That's what this is about, after all.

So, how was that? Wordy and long-winded, I suppose? Keeping hitting me with specific topics that you want to see discussed and we'll dive in, using these principles and guidelines as our foundation. I think maybe we'll talk about skills in Palladium's system next. Pile on the suggestions and comments. I'd like this to be an ongoing conversation, so make your voice heard.


A.L. said...

I get what some people seem to be saying when they say Game Balance is for suckers. Namely, the GM is the final arbiter and can maintain balance even with unbalanced mechanics, but I still don't like the phrase. Believing Game Balance is for suckers, in my opinion, can lead to bad design. Is game balance the be all, end all? No, not at all. However, if your game has something in it that is so good you'd be stupid to NOT take it, it may need to be looked at and hedged down a bit. A player shouldn't be critically handicapped because they didn't take a certain talent. Which is what game balance can fix.

The rest of it, I agree with. Different power levels for players is fine, and easily managed by the GM. Rule sets should be simple. If possible, one core mechanic that can just be winged when needed, but provides depth when wanted is ideal. I dislike systems that can't decide if High is better, or worse, depending on the situation. Pick one. If I want to be rolling low, make me consistently want low. If I want to be rolling high, make that consistent as well.

Helmsman said...

I don't disagree with your game balance point, but I will offer one caveat. If the game mechanics create a situation where a particular course of action is vastly superior to all other courses, then it behooves the setting to recognize that. Also, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, or in simpler terms a counter-action. If there is no sufficient counter-action for something in the rules, then you run into a situation where the game violates your second last rule that the rules should not overpower the game master. (Also my favorite rule.)

Jason Richards said...

Just thought of a perfect line that I should have included:

"Mechanics exist to support the Game Master, not the other way around."

Anonymous said...

I am in full agreemetn with you Jason. Game balance is for suckers.

My first campaign in Rifst we had a Glitterboy, a techno-wizard, a bot rcc (me and with max budget to build) and a vagabond. The vagabond stole the show most games even when we WERE in combat. You;d think Myself and the GB would have been it but nope.

Just goes to show a good GM can in fact balance anything and everything to suit thier own needs.

andyou last quote is perfect. Indeed the mechanics/rules are there to support the GM not the other way around.


A.L. said...

Couldn't agree more on that last mechanics quote. I used to make a point of memorizing what page/part of the book had the line similar to "These rules are just guidelines and suggestions, the GM is the final arbiter and can change, modify, add, or remove them at will". It put a quick end to most rules lawyering when I ran in a shop.

"But the rules say I can"
"Turn to page 277, third paragraph in the right column."
"So, the rules say I decide what the rules say. Moving on"

Anonymous said...

Perfect :) *thumbs up*


Jason Richards said...

Agree with y'all, completely. Of course, the best situation is that your players don't worry about the rules, but with experienced players (especially those who have GM experience), it's inevitable.

Post a Comment