There seem to be two opposing tendencies in role playing game design. Some games choose to add lots of mechanics for crunchy bits of detail. Others try to simplify the rules by making them more abstract.
Unfortunately, the same tensions that seem to pull games in one way or the other also seem to be mirrored in my own preferences. I’m painfully ambivalent on the two extremes. Each appeals to me, though usually at different times in a game.
Story focused as I am, I often like crunch. I like having lots of choices in character creation. Most of the time, I also enjoy the strategic aspects.
Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but I also find it interesting to run through combinations of options, looking for mechanical advantage. Some of my most interesting combats in D&D Fourth Edition were playing a Warlord; where I could position my allies and enemies to best advantage, and order (ok, “grant”) attacks where they would be the most useful. I really felt like a strategist at times. It was like a really complex game of chess surrounded by an RPG.
When you fail, there’s something reassuring about knowing that it was by the book. You failed fair and square. I trust implicitly everybody under whom I play, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. Still, when a GM (any GM) makes a subjective call against your interests, there’s that niggling voice in the back of your mind saying, “I was right, that should have worked.”
With games like Shadowrun, there’s also just something appropriate about the fact that you track every damn bullet. You might not know what your character had for breakfast, but you sure know what drugs she’s on, and what they’re doing to her. The mechanics, in this case, add to the tasty noir grittiness of the setting.
Finally, my wife has mentioned, much to my surprise, that she prefers games with an appreciable level of mechanics. Her example was D&D Fourth Edition. The well defined classes give her character ideas. The discrete set of abilities and powers give her concrete ideas of how she can interact with the game world. For her, the mechanics are sort of a user’s manual for her character.
On the other hand, I also like the freedom of abstract mechanics. I don’t need to look up answers in a table. Maybe I don’t need to know down to the centimeter where that grenade landed.
What happens when the answer isn’t in that table? In a crunchy game, you can usually extrapolate a guess. In a more fluffy game, however, it just doesn’t matter that much. The GM makes a guesstimate, and you go with it.
That means you save an unbelievable amount of time. There isn’t somebody searching through a book every five minutes for the exact wording of their character feature. Details are subjective, rather than being the product of a research expedition.
It also means that your character isn’t limited by a list of abilities. To be fair, that’s also generally true in a more crunchy game. However, it seems like players get distracted by the explicit abilities, forgetting that it’s a role playing game, and you can do anything you want… if you can roll well enough! Also, since so much else is a subjective call from the GM, taking such an unexpected action in a more abstract game feels less like you’re going off-road.
Case in Point
As Charlie wrote yesterday, we recently finished a chapter of our Dresden Files RPG campaign. In four hours, a good third to half of which we wasted in the usual gamer nonsense, we accomplished: three fights, some research, and a good amount of in-character role playing. That’s maybe time for a combat encounter in D&D Fourth Edition.
My Focused Practitioner character could cast just about any spell effect I could think of, as long as I could figure out a way to describe it within the parameters of that game’s magic system. I didn’t have to search through tomes of spell descriptions to decide which one to cast.
In fact, I think the Dresden Files RPG is a great example of a happy medium between abstract and detailed. I got to roll plenty of dice, and there were plenty of times I had to sweat over the way they would land. There were definite opportunities for “strategery”, as one of us drew the White Court fire, another threw the grenade we had swiped from their own thrall, and I threw up a barrier across the door. (Yeah, I’m kind of proud of that one.)
The difference, though, is that we had more control over the details. When my character had to take a Consequence to avoid getting knocked out from the mental strain of extending a spell to catch multiple opponents, it was my call to make it a “splitting headache.” When I cast my first Barrier spell using my character’s Dream element, I got to describe it as a stretching of distance, much like the sensation in a dream when you can walk or run forward, but don’t get anywhere. In other words, though the rules handled the numbers, I got to say what those numbers meant. Instead of rolling on a table to find out that he sprained his ankle, Bryan could just use that as his Consequence when his character got hurt tussling with a dire buffalo.
I’m increasingly coming to prefer this type of game. It has enough mechanics to satisfy that craving to optimize and strategize, but not so many that you need twenty expansion books to show how to use them in various situations. Finally, it leaves the descriptions and explanations where they belong: with the GM and players.
Are you caught between detailed and abstract mechanics? If not, which do you prefer? If so, what compromise games have you found? Let us know in the comments!