Telling Stories: Letting the mechanics speak

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.The down side of roleplaying in any sort of game with solid mechanics is that the mechanics creep in around the edges.  You don’t get complete control over your character concept – once your abilities start tying into mechanics, you have to start parsing what the larger mechanical implications of your choices are.  Even if you have a perfect concept, it might either be overpowered or underpowered, it might not be easily possible, and so forth.

This is also the bright side.

Roleplaying forces you to fling your character concept not just against the stories you want to tell but also the realities of the mechanical environment you play within.  In fiction, all you need to do is write a story wherein your characters are presented with choices and challenges that they can overcome as appropriate.  In roleplaying, all of the ideas about what your character will be run up routinely against the reality of what the game finds acceptable and what the mechanical implications of those choices will be.  And that usually serves as a great way to refine your character concepts.

And if not... well, you have some fun games to play, my friend.

You have probably faced a lot of these if you are anything like me.

In its simplest form, this is what I like to call the BioWare choice.  Your character is faced with some sort of decision that’s pretty permanent – a sub-class that can’t be backed out of, breaking a contract or honoring it, something along those lines.  You know what your character up to this point would do.  You also, as the player, know that the decision you want to make is objectively a terrible one, not in terms of character development but in terms of what it means for the actual game that you’re playing.  Which means that you’re suddenly forced to choose between what is conceptually right and what is mechanically right.

You can take this as reason to do a whole lot of hand-wringing, or – more productively- it can be the impetus to make the choice that you know is better and then start working that choice into your character.  Because obviously what you thought your character would do is at odds with what they actually did.

Say you’re playing a character in Star Trek Online, and you know you want him to be a Science captain for mechanical reasons.  You also know that you want him to be a military sort, though, which would push you toward Tactical.  You can look at this as a chance to refine the concept.  Is he a field medic?  A biowarfare researcher?  A tactician who discovered his affection for military things after he was out of the academy?  Did he have some event in his past that pushed him from being an innocent xenobotanist into a more military role?

The reason I call it a BioWare choice is that a lot of BioWare titles allow you to make choices that are perfectly ethically consistent and also completely screw you later on in the game.  It can be totally consistent to make choices in such a way that you march into the final battles of the game without any mages in your party in Dragon Age: Origins.  It is also a great way to completely screw yourself.  You want to avoid that… and that sometimes means re-examining what you think your character will do.

For entertainment or just because this character is already murdering enough people.

You know that your character really ought to kill someone, but sometimes you as a player would rather have them around for the long haul.

Mechanics are not uniform across all games.  In one game, a character with a greatsword deals damage; in another, she’s more durable and serves as a tank; in yet another, there are no clearly defined roles and she could do almost anything.  Just like when you adapt a character from other sources, you need to decide which part of the character is most relevant.  So you want her to be a more aggressive sort rather than the tanky sort, but you also want her to have a greatsword, and you can’t have both.  Which need dominates?

Maybe you just don’t enjoy tanking, maybe it’s wrong for the character, maybe lots of things.  That’s not the point.  You have a limitation.  How does it fit in?

This can also work the other way as well.  My main character in Final Fantasy XIV runs a casino.  Why?  Because I was making a lot of money when treasure maps were first released by selling the maps to other players, since they’d open the maps in hopes of finding one of the rare drops that sold for tons of money.  In other words, they were gambling.  I was selling them scratch-off lottery tickets.  Profession deciphered.

On the one level, sometimes it’s frustrating.  You have a perfectly solid character concept, but the mechanics don’t work.  You want your character to crusade for her home nation, but the only mechanical way to do that is PvP, which you hate.  You want a character who is a mechanical genius, but you can’t stand the game’s crafting.  Your guy is supposed to be an expert marksman, but the only ranged class in the game doesn’t suit him.

But it’s the only real conflict you face in roleplaying, making the mechanics work.  A particular combination isn’t viable, and you’re not playing at a level wherein you can realistically avoid power concerns – or it’s so viable that it deforms the landscape of the game you’re playing.  Your character should start a fight now, but there’s nothing in the game to facilitate it properly and the other person isn’t going to roll over and accept that you ought to win.  (Correctly or no.)  Your concept relies on a combination of class and race that don’t fit.

The beauty of mechanics is that they force you to filter your ideas into reality, to refine the conceptual into the actual.  When done properly, they work less like a blockade and more like a lens; you have to work to get them through, but the result is more focused.

Next time around, I’d like to discuss the rules to start an argument that ends with only in-character tears exchanged.  The installment after that will be about why you shouldn’t be so hard on your characters.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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