Fiction and Mechanics: what limits a players action

My discussions with Lexx about Apocalypse World have me thinking about mechanics, and what they are about. Lexx was talking about how he feels constrained by the mechanics, as if they arbitrarily are saying “you can do this, but you can’t do this.” If you want to get your gang to do something, then you have to roll and hit or your gang is going to turn on you. If you want to read a person, then these are the only questions you are allowed to ask. Try to ask anything else is impossible.

To a degree, I can see why he sees the game this way. This is a problem if it is in fact the mechanics that limit what is or is not possible. I’m not sure that it is, or maybe I’m not sure that it SHOULD be in a cohesively designed game. In the end, it really should be the created and accepted fiction that truly limits your choices.

Here are a few examples, both good and bad.

  • Mage:The AscenscionThis game describes a world where magick was the ability to mess with reality itself, to reshape it to your beliefs and suppositions. As such, the rules would let you do anything imagineable with reality, taking in to account how hard or easy it is to do magick dependent on your current situation. The rules say “consult these stats, spend these points, roll these dice versus this difficulty” and off you go. But just because the rules allow any type of magick, it doesn’t actually mean you CAN do any type of magick.

    Consider a Verbena, a mage of the blood-and-sex variety: primal forces at work, the flow of life. Imagine that character trying to do something highly esoteric or uber-christian: summoning an angel, calculating the internal geometry of the soul, etc. I would say such a thing is impossible, in those terms: while the rules exist for someone to do those things, it makes no sense that this person would do it.

    In this case, the limit is not capability, but description: A verbena could very well accomplish the same goal that was being sought by summoning that Angel, or by all that delightful math, but would not do THAT to do it. A different description, and the very same goal could be completed (unless the fiction has established that it can only be done this one way).

  • D&DIn Dungeons and Dragons, magic traditionally takes a few different forms, but one thing is clear: This is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. In order to do something magical, the spell needs to exist, you need to know/have access to it, you need to be capable of casting it, and you need to cast it. The mechanics show how one goes about completing those steps, but what is actually limiting those mechanics is the world they are trying to describe: In this world, this is how magic works.
  • Vampire: The MasqueradeThis is a game that I consider as a bad example. In Vampire, I am a supernatural being, hell-bent on whatever the fuck I’m hell-bent on doing, powered by blood to do crazy supernatural things. Mechanically, I have a set list of supernatural things I can do, as well as ranks of those abilities. This list is this way because… well, because. Possibly there is some justification in terms of you only can use powers that were those of your sire or some shit like that, but in my experience both reading and playing the game it definitely felt like the list was just set. In this way, the rules were proscriptive, and bogus because of it.
  • West End Star Wars.Here I’m going to focus on Force Powers, by far the worst example of mechanics being used to limit. West end gave you a very specific list of force powers which acted as a very severe limiter to what you could do via the force that did not match up with the source material. Or rather, one could argue, it used the source material as a limit to what you could do: you can only use the force to do things that are done in the movies, books, and comics. If you try to do anything else, you can’t. Not because it doesn’t make sense in that world, but because we haven’t seen anyone else do it.

    Now I can hear the screams saying “well, you want to do something else, then write up the power and take it.” But what if I want to do something on the fly, but I haven’t “taken” the associated power or it was never available to me? Having a list of “spells” consider what the Force is portrayed doesn’t feel right at all.

Hopefully these examples make some sort of sense.

To me, what makes the first two examples right is that neither feels like it is arbitrarily making rules as to what is or is not possible. In both, it is the fiction that determines what is possible. For the second two, the mechanics are setting the terms of what is possible, or provide opportunity to act based on nothing relevant to the fiction.

But if fiction defines the limitations of possibility, what is it that mechanics do for you?

In essence, the mechanics inform you as to how you might do things. They give you tools, opportunities. You live in a world where magic is strongly patterned, being based on rote learning and prior knowledge and preparation? Here is a list of known spells in the world, and here is how you cast them. Magick is freeform, taking the shape of your conception of it as well as the environment you are in? Here are rules as to how that translates leveraging your stats, your currently held beliefs and worldview, and the nature of said environment.

Which brings up back to Apocalypse World, and the importance of approach. If your approach is “I want to do something, let’s find a rule that allows me to do so,” that system can seem very limiting. You’re looking to the rules to tell you what you can do, so a set list of answers to questions will appear arbitrary and frustrating. But if your approach is “I’m going to do something that works within the established fiction, now how does that look/what does that involve/what does that look like in the set fiction,” the rules provide ways for you to do it while adding colour and thematic elements. It’s not saying “these are the only things that you can do” but rather that assuming you are in a place where you want to do this, this is how you do it and this is what doing that means and looks like.

In the end, I think this really is key to games: the fiction is king, properly enthroned and held up by the rules, NOT vice versa.Of course this isn’t news: GM’s have been ignoring the rules in favour of the story for years already. After all, what is GM fiat if not story trumping mechanics? Yet that is another beast entirely: it’s rules at war with story, rather than helping us to tell it.