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October 15, 2006

Flavour mechanics considered harmful

Mash mentioned somewhere -- I can no longer find where -- that I was interested in aspects of roleplaying theory other than the anatomy of narrative.  Since getting an ear-bashing from Michael on Thursday night about the uselessness of anatomy-of-narrative theory, and having defended it only to see Michael's criticisms gloriously validated less than 48 hours later, I thought I'd write up some observations on ergonomic and usability aspects of roleplaying games.

Ergonomics?  The physical factors?  Are we really expected to concern ourselves with such mundane matters as how we roll dice and what is the optimum font size for character sheets?  Don't I realise that roleplaying games are about narrative, setting and character, not about rolling dice for heaven's sake?

I do, they are, and we should.  Those mundane matters can break immersion and engagement just as surely as good narrative, setting and characterisation can create it.  Every excursion into the realm of mechanics drags us away from the in-character experience, breaks the flow state.  The received wisdom on flow states in programming is that, once concentration is broken, say by a phone call or email, it takes 15 minutes to get back to the level of productivity one was at before.  Die rolls and such like aren't so blatant a break, because they usually relate to with the in-character experience, but the impact is still noticeable; and the worse the usability, the bigger the break.

I'm going to use Fading Suns as my case study, mostly because it's the only game I'm in at the moment which has been running long enough for me to fully appreciate the impact of the mechanics, but also because it has some interesting "flavour" features which look great on paper but work disastrously badly in practice.  In fact, it's my contention that the "flavour" features do more to harm engagement than they do to promote it.

Fading Suns' core mechanic is a pretty simple variant on White Wolf's Storyteller system.  You add an attribute and a skill, and try to roll the total or less on a 20-sided die.  If you succeed, then the higher the roll, the better, with a roll equal to your total being a critical success; if you fail, you fail, with a roll of 20 being a fumble.

Now this already has a few problems, but in and of itself it's pretty benign.  Now let's start adding in some of Fading Suns' "flavour" mechanics and see how it looks.

First, Fading Suns provides a character customisation system based on Ars Magica-style virtues and flaws.  This means that goal numbers are subject to special modifiers in certain situations.  The problem is that whether a modifier applies is not always obvious.  A particular offender is the Keen Eyesight virtue, which gives a bonus to perception checks involving eyesight.  The net result of this is that, whenever the GM asks for a perception check, the cry goes up, "Does it involve eyesight?"  This more than doubles the time spent on mechanics-level interchanges.  It's a good thing we don't have any more of these modifiers in our group, or every perception roll would turn into a game of 20 Questions: "Does it involve eyesight?  Does it involve hearing?  Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

Second, Fading Suns provides a mechanism called "accenting" to represent particularly careful or desperate actions.  The idea is that a player can trade off the chances of success against the quality of success: in a do-or-die situation, you can take a reduced likelihood of success but guarantee that if you do succeed it will be a high quality success; or if you can't risk disaster, but have plenty of time to get it right, you can increase your chance of success at the expense of achieving only marginal success.  This potentially turns every die roll into a lengthy odds calculation: "if I positively accent by 1, I get the better result table; but if I positively accent by 4 then I'm guaranteed at least a +3 success, but I have a 40% chance of failing; but if I negatively accent by 4 then I max out my chance of success... but I have a 55% chance of getting only a +0 or +1 which won't be enough... but I'll be able to try again next round..."  This is particularly poor design given that the accent system is meant to be used for moments of high tension -- do-or-die or can't-afford-to-fail -- just the moments when a lengthy excursion into mechanics is least welcome.

To add insult to injury, by the way, the positive accent (do-or-die) mechanism is broken, so the whole "how much should I accent by" calculation turns out to be meaningless anyway.  You should positively accent by 1.  End of story.

Third, in accordance with its idea of itself as a "futuristic passion play," Fading Suns allows players to invoke their character's Passion in order to improve their chances of success at actions their character cares about.  This is a nice idea, but has two problems which cause it to bog the game down.  First, the definition of a character's passion is very vague.  Players are required to supply a Passion attribute, but the direction of that passion is nebulous, so in practice any request to use the passion system results in great debate (either that or it becomes a general-purpose "I need plusses" system which rather removes the flavour).  Secondly, it is implemented as a Passion roll, the result of which gives a modifier for subsequent rolls related to the passion.  Because using Passion on its own for this would result in little chance of success and feeble bonuses, the game supplies a laundry list of modifiers of which any or all may apply.  Finding and trawling the list is a very slow process.

What makes the Passion system triply annoying is that it is usually invoked in response to the request for some other roll.  "Make your attack roll."  "Hey, I hate this guy.  Can I use invoke Passion?"  The smooth flow from the request for an attack roll to the attack roll itself is disrupted as the game detours to perform a completely different roll.  It is extremely noticeable, once a player has completed the "invoke Passion" mechanic, that they have to perform some sort of reset to get back to the task at hand.  ("Right, what was I rolling again?  Melee?")  A mechanic that should be in helper posture is so complex that it has forced a complete context switch.

I want to mention a fourth problem, which is not technically a flavour mechanic but which is exacerbated by this multiplicity of flavour mechanics.  As mentioned before, a Fading Suns goal number is attribute plus skill, plus modifiers from situational or flavour mechanics.  This results in a lot more addition than the plain attribute plus skill mechanism.  Figure in, say, a wound modifier, an accent and a passion modifier, and you've gone from one addition to four.  This causes genuine problems as people try to keep track of the numbers in their heads.  (Worse, alone of all modifiers, accents modify the die roll instead of the goal number.  So you have to keep track of which modifiers to apply where.)  This is particularly frustrating because the modifiers do not affect the quality of a success, only the goal number; so the modifiers don't matter unless they would change your die roll from a success to a failure or vice versa.  If your base goal is 13 and you roll a 2 -- or an 18 -- all those calculations to work out if your net goal was 9 or 10 were unnecessary.

The net result of all this is that Fading Suns is, mechanically, an extremely tedious experience.  (This is not to say that any given Fading Suns game is doomed to tedium.  I'm greatly enjoying the one I'm in.)  The heavy use of well-meant but badly-designed flavour mechanics, ombined with other infelicities such as poor character sheet layout and unpredictable skills lists, make every roll in Fading Suns a potential source of disruption; worse, the more tense and critical the moment, the more likely the disruptive mechanics are to intervene.  Flavour promotes engagement and immersion; mechanics disrupt engagement and immersion.  Mechanics that purport to introduce flavour need to be examined with great care to determine that their cost does not exceed their payoff.  Fading Suns' flavour mechanics fail this test particularly badly, but they're far from alone.

Yes, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's critical hit system, I'm looking at you...

October 15, 2006 in Games | Permalink


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Wow. I'm glad you got that off your chest. :)

And now I'm going to ignore the vast bulk of it to ask what you meant when you said:
"Since getting an ear-bashing from Michael ... validated less than 48 hours later"

Because that was a discussion I was reasonably involved in, and always value your perspective. I guess my main question is: what were his criticisms? Do you think that Steve's discussion was a waste of time?

"Yes, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's critical hit system, I'm looking at you..."

Amen. However, it is not actually an essential game mechanic, being easily tweaked and/or removed if you so desire. Dale just likes it. WFRP has been impressing me generally on how speedy combats are.

Also, just to nit-pick slightly, the Storyteller system isn't really like "add two numbers and roll underneath". Yes, there is a step where you add two numbers together... otherwise a bit different.

Posted by: mashugenah at Oct 29, 2006 7:32:29 PM

I'm sure Michael would be quite happy to share his criticisms of theory, but in summary he was arguing that theory was doing no more than giving jargon names to simple concepts. I didn't follow the subsequent discussion on Steve's article, so that may have been valuable, but I felt that the initial article did fall into the trap Mike described.

Agreed about the WFRP critical hit system. I was being a bit flippant here. The key difference, thinking about it, is that the WFRP critical hit system, although it requires much die rolling and much reading to do its job -- far more so than the "Fading Suns" flavour mechanics -- does not require players to ask questions, compare strategies or make decisions at the mechanical level. It's that "should I invoke mechanic X here?" analysis that makes the "Fading Suns" flavour mechanics so troublesome.

In retrospect the comparison to "Storyteller" was more confusing than helpful. The "adding two numbers" was indeed the only similarity I was thinking of.

Posted by: Ivan at Oct 30, 2006 12:18:23 AM

Ah, fair enough. The conclusion I reached wrt to bangs was that I was using them in my own game, but hadn't clearly seen what some of those scenes were before. It's just about clarity of thought, really.

Seguing back to your actual topic here. What's your position on mechanics such as the psychology/morality checks in Unknown Armies and nWOD? Are they flavour mechanics or something a bit more integral to the game? They don't involve the same degree of convolution as the Fading Suns one, but they do have an effect on immersion at crucial moments of character stress.

Posted by: mashugenah at Oct 30, 2006 12:20:49 PM

I have... reservations. I've argued in the past that psychology mechanics are a Bad Thing for immersion, because if they give results consistent with your characterisation, then they're useless noise, and if they give results inconsistent with your characterisation, then they destroy your immersion. You are forced to struggle to get inside the head of this character who is no longer what you thought they were, who may no longer make sense because of a few die rolls that are stupidly at odds with each other and with your deeper knowledge of the character. Essentially my view is that I know my character better than the dice do.

So my view would tend to be that these are flavour mechanics, whose purpose is to codify a customisation or atmosphere thing for people who don't feel comfortable winging it.

However, there is an argument that when you're dealing with situations that are deliberately meant to be beyond empathy, you need a mechanic. The insatiable bestiality of "Vampire," the coursing rage of "Werewolf," the eccentric geometry of "Call of Cthulhu"... (well, maybe not that last one)... a character exposed to these stresses is exposed to something beyond what we can hope to understand. Therefore it is arguably appropriate that we take the decision out of the hands of the player, and force the player-as-character to deal with the consequences of what they did when control was lost. Arguably an important part of "Vampire" or "Werewolf" is how to face oneself in the mirror after being overwhelmed by the inner beast; if you buy this, and you accept that we puny humans can't judge appropriate handling of this overwhelming psychological force, then the mechanics are integral. They represent the unrepresentable, they codify a struggle that cannot be roleplayed, just as combat mechanics do.

In most of these cases, I'd add, the ergonomics of the rules are pretty simple. There's rarely a significant optimisation/decision-making/planning element involved to slow things down. The main exception I can think of is "Werewolf" rage because of its role in combat; there's a danger players will get bogged down in deciding how many rage points to spend and when in order to get the best "bang for buck," especially when this ties in with regaining rage and with the danger of frenzy.

Posted by: Ivan Towlson at Oct 30, 2006 1:48:29 PM