At Emerald City Comicon, I was running games of Catalyst next to some story games. I typically use the terms “role-playing game” and “story game” interchangeably, but the Games on Demand crew see distinctions. To them, story games are single-session games with few rules and have the narrative constructed equally by each player (meaning game masters are either passive or non-existent). The implication here being role-playing games are GM-controlled, sprawling storylines with massive, archaic tomes defining every minute detail of play. To me, there are not two genres here, but rather a spectrum on which games focused on storytelling fall. Games tend towards particular points on this spectrum, but I will posit the group playing defines this placement more than the game itself. Moreover, in understanding the relationship between player, story, and mechanic, any player can tell a better story.
Mechanics drive gameplay which creates the story, but the players’ understanding of the mechanics from their story’s perspective dictates their application and overall effect. This is a cyclic relationship, but one ultimately driven by the players and the experience they want to have. The ubiquity of house rules is evidence of players’ impact on game systems. If mechanics controlled players, house rules would be rare and met with disdain. More to the point, house rules are a clearer manifestation of an inherent process in tabletop games: a game cannot concretely define its intent or actual play; players read rules and play based on their personal understanding of those rules. Like any media, a tabletop game is not complete without an audience. Uniquely though, a tabletop game can be interacted with differently between groups. A video game constricts your mechanical interpretation through code limitations. A book has to be read with the words in a particular order to be understood. A tabletop game does not stop you for playing it in a way the author did not intend. This rule flexibility is the most powerful aspect of a role-playing game. This is what groups latch onto to create their gaming experiences.
This flexibility in rule interpretation and enforcement directs games to a particular point on the number-driven-RPG-versus-purist-storytelling spectrum. Games with fewer mechanics defining play fill those gaps with player freedom and story-driven decisions. Games with more rules establish the outcomes of more scenarios, giving everyone less input into what immediately happens. In both Monsterhearts and Catalyst, turning invisible is a concept. Monsterhearts would define that as a condition that could be exploited given a verbal justification. Catalyst defines the effects on combat and stealth with established numbers. Both of these inform gameplay: the former leaves us with what we understand about invisibility, while the latter points out advantages in particular scenarios.
What does this information do to the story? An ambiguous mechanic presents an opportunity for creativity, but does not provide a verdict for disagreements. In the Monsterhearts example, two players may argue about being able to hear the invisible creature’s approach. There’s no mechanic in the game for such perception, so the group must resolve the outcome through discussion. This process can either be extremely rewarding and fun or tedious and annoying. Either way, play is primarily informed by the players.
A defined mechanic, like the numerical changes for invisibility in Catalyst, confines the interpretations of the concept. Hearing the invisible enemy attack is determined by that creature’s stealth check versus the modified perception of the detector. There is flexibility in the narrative to make this less absolute, but, with complete knowledge, the outcome is set (or pending a dice roll). Player discussion for an alternate resolution differs from the previous example: it’s no longer about inventing reality, but clarifying it. Player arguments shift from questions about the universe to specifics about the scene (e.g. “Werewolves have super smell” versus “Shouldn’t I have heard the demon come through the window?”) While players’ individual freedom to determine the scene’s outcome is limited, so is the ambiguity. Questioning the rules becomes an adversarial action instead of a necessary one. It would then seem play becomes more informed by the mechanics instead of the players.
With this invisibility example, it appears rules limit freedom. They certainly curtail what you’d call positive liberty: the freedom to take actions. However, they provide players negative liberty: the freedom from interference. No amount of discussion in Catalyst makes the bonuses and penalties for invisibility go away. Those effects are guaranteed to exist regardless of another player’s input. Damage mechanics in Catalyst protect players (and NPCs) from instant death in all but the most extreme circumstances. These restrictions inform play by establishing boundaries and checkpoints in the universe. Players can act more intelligently with emotional honesty to themselves, each other, and the world.
As a corollary to rules informing play, players often rely on defined mechanics to explore the game. Experienced story gamers may come up with clever character traits or unique solutions in the absence of mechanical systems, but new players will be lost in a purely free system. Giving them powers, spells, abilities, backgrounds, or other in-game tools with clear effects lets new players understand their place in the world and the impact they can have upon it. Mechanics let players branch out from their baseline behavior in unintuitive, but fun ways.
For one more example, let’s look at the Fabricate spell of Catalyst. This spell lets a character change a target’s memory, but only one memory and only a specified duration of the thought’s action (e.g.: rewriting five seconds of a guard’s memory so they didn’t see you). Endowing a character with the broad power of mental control may have been better for more creative players; they could think of powers the Catalyst manual does not include. However, most players would probably default to a standard mind-control pattern, a la Star Wars. That might get stale after a while. Worse though, without concrete limitations, players (and maybe GMs) tend towards excess. Boxing yourself in with limitations is a difficult exercise in willpower: your instinct is to be the strongest, most powerful character. By limiting the spell’s effects to a few seconds, we get some wonderful moments of people fitting absurdist memories into their enemies. The rule forces people to tell better stories.
Of course, an excess of rules restrict play. The blend of openness and mechanical limitations that’s right for your group is a hard balance to find. Luckily, any game can be tweaked to your group. Despite the name, rules are really suggestions in an RPG. It’s all self-enforced, so if you find a rule ruining the story, ignore it. The more seasoned your group becomes, the more flexible you can be with rules. Does using strict movement rules create tension and let players strategize or is it better for the experience to be ambiguous, letting the story determine what should happen. Do you need to clearly define what getting hit by a car does to a vampire before the game can progress or can that be dealt with quickly and in the moment? There’s no right answer, which is why games are spread across this story-driven versus mechanics-driven spectrum.
Next session, keep in mind what mechanics and rules do. Pay attention to the changes to the story done by players making something up from scratch or by using their predefined skillsets. Note how many times there are ambiguities in the world unsolved by the game and what effect that has on play. Analyze the GM’s hand-waving over mechanics or their precise application of numbers. With practice, you should understand when a rule helps or hinders everyone’s experience and navigate the game’s system accordingly. It’s your story to tell: be inspired by the game and driven by your desires.