When Game Mechanics Matter

PolyhedralsGame writer James Cambias has a pair of blog posts on why game mechanics matter, and why game mechanics don’t matter. Both are sort of true, but both are a reminder that we’re still having these arguments.

There was a holy war in tabletop RPG land over this not so long ago.

One camp believed that everything that could possibly go wrong in a game session up to and including lack of trust between the players could be fixed with sufficiently advanced game mechanics. Even disruptive players could be dealt with by cleverly designing game systems to be as unappealing as possible to the wrong types of people. Fortunately that approach is largely discredited nowadays.

The other camp believed that the game mechanics didn’t matter at all, and any worthwhile group should be able to route around an unsuitable system. One manifestation was the idea that a one-size-fits-all system, usually some variant of D&D, should be forced on the entire hobby at glaive-guisarme point. Another was the idea that a competent GM should be able to patch obviously broken rules on the fly. Tell that to a GM who had to deal with a total munchkin of a player getting her hands on the hopelessly broken GURPS 3.0 Psychokinetics rules. I was that GM…

There is, of course, a position between those two extremes. For me, game mechanics matter when they get in the way of fun.

A couple of examples:

First, some of the baroque and obtuse dice-pool mechanics fashionable in the late 1990s meant it was next to impossible to have any meaningful idea of your character’s chance of success at any given task, which could be very frustrating in play. The worst ones had probability curves that were so screwy they made the numbers on the character sheet almost meaningless. It’s difficult to believe some of those systems were ever playtested as thoroughly as they should have been .

Another example is combat systems that bog down in play, especially when there’s a large group. If it takes four hours to resolve a barroom brawl that’s incidental to the main plot of the adventure, your system needs some serious streamlining. Or it’s just plain unsuitable for a game with eight players.

So, over to you. What game mechanics have fallen short for you in fun-obstructing ways and why?

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2 Responses to When Game Mechanics Matter

  1. “Even disruptive players could be dealt with by cleverly designing game systems to as unappealing as possible to the wrong types of people”

    That is actually hilarious :D

  2. Tim Hall says:

    It’s not 100% clear that they actually believed that, but they certainly did give that impression.