Player Advice

Mechanics Versus Story

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.

Long-Distance Gaming

It’s hard being separated from friends and family. Your options for spending time together are limited: you become reliant on technology to maintain those bonds (or, like, old-fashioned letters, but let’s be honest with ourselves here). Using games to share fun experiences from afar is obviously not a new concept, but storytelling games lend themselves well to the physical disconnect. Role-playing is hanging out with friends without the perceived awkwardness of merely group video-chatting. You’re already transporting yourselves to a different world with nothing but your words. You have a goal; you have assembled a team from across the world; and you can conquer anything. Having been on a recent Catalyst Skyping kick, we wanted to share our thoughts on making the most of playing an RPG long-distance.

Let’s address the obvious: you’re no longer in the same room. Your voice and image carry into the video call, but not your gaming equipment. You can’t share books, dice, and other supplies. While digital versions of those work, get your own copy of the game and actual dice if you can afford it. Leave the screen displaying your friends, not text. The point of the game is the inter-personal interactions. Those are hindered enough by missing out on body-language and having everyone’s voice compressed through the same speakers. Have the game occupy space on your table instead of crowd out your friends.

Of course, many role-playing groups rely on maps, figures, or other visual cues to set scenes. Tools like Roll20 give you an online alternative. Your group may need this, but I personally forsake such systems. Drawing a map finalizes the world. In person, you could make this a joint effort on a whiteboard, bonding over the communal experience and equally contributing to the story. Online tools are very GM-centric, putting more pressure on an already over-taxed role. Instead of fighting a video call’s nature, embrace it. Focus on using your voices and imaginations to build maps.

Your storytelling ability should always trump a crude map with pre-generated textures. Describe the room players entered with enough detail for everyone have a similar mental picture. Talk about the lights, smells, sounds, and the feelings in the air. Match the tone of your voice to the scene’s atmosphere. Slow down and give sprawling detail to new and strange worlds. Speak in acute snippets when running through alleyways. Your players’ images are more interesting than a pre-defined tile set or character portrait, so encourage others to contribute their thoughts. Let them take cover behind a car they envisioned in the road or talk to the bar’s regulars you didn’t consider. Numerical details are harder to lock down in this format so let them be little vague. Being a stickler for exact character positioning over a conference call slows the game down. Enjoy the story instead of rote, mechanical details.

In line with focusing on vibrant setting descriptions, use the emphasis on voice to hone your characters. Group video calls only show a small gallery of your friends’ faces. Matching their voices with the story threads is harder online, especially as a GM who may be looking at a notebook while their speakers give no directional listening advantage. Give your character a distinct accent, speech style, or vocabulary. Action Steve should sound markedly different from Josh. These details naturally change your facial expressions too. Your video stream becomes that much more valuable with the added enthusiasm. The same goes for the game master’s stable of characters. Really make an effort for recurring or important people to sound distinct. Give them (dare I say?) character.

Speaking of character, let’s touch upon cheating. Dice and chance are a core component of most RPGs. Playing on your own table, out of sight of the camera, gives you ample opportunity to cheat. You could force everyone to point the camera at the dice (or cards, stones, etc.) That is fun once or twice for dramatic rolls, but is awkward and slow otherwise. You could use online dice rollers everyone can watch, but that takes up valuable screen space and removes the tactile pleasure of physical components. The obvious answer is to not cheat. As a player, realize every time you fudge a die roll you are stealing the scene for yourself and making the game worse for someone else. Exciting things should happen for you beyond a single success. As the GM, you should discourage cheating by making failing dice rolls equally exciting as winning them.  Failing a persuasion check should be a hilarious faux pas and failing an engineering check should trigger a huge explosion. Like we discuss in our Catalyst GM-guide, don’t make failing a check punishment. Make the story good regardless. If someone persists in cheating despite the outcomes, use your GM-power to skew the focus to other players. Reward those being disenfranchised by the overpowered dice.

Playing a role-playing game over telecommunication highlights some of the best parts of story gaming. Sure, you lose a bit of the personal touch when grabbing beers for the table or ordering pizza together, but you still have your friends. You’re telling a tale with the vivid descriptions of a radio drama; sitting by your speakers, weaving in your contributions. Forget about the rooms you’re all in and imagine the fantasy world your characters are destined to save. 

Partner Gaming

We here at CPG have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. Clearly, we do not care enough to remember the day is about Saint Valentine or to stick the apostrophe in our news post or social media updates. However, we love having fun with people. We want people who are dating to find activities that are both mutually enjoyable and let you hang out with other friends. It’s good to break up the stagnation of coffee, dinner, drinks, Netflix, and chill. Branch out and try playing a role-playing game with your partner and some friends. If you have trepidations about this experience, we have some advice to help get the most out of it.

First, let’s establish both of you really want to play the game. Everything from our “Introducing RPGs” column applies here: don’t force anyone to play, be helpful, and let the new person make their own decisions. This is important not only for your partner to enjoy the experience, but also everyone joining the session. RPGs typically rely on groups of four to six people to build a story and play off of each other and the game master. A couple acting as one person dulls the narrative and is either frustrating or boring for the others. If your partner is hesitant to join as a character but wants to observe and be with the group, consider having them co-GM. This tactic lets them learn the game with no pressure to succeed; doubly so if the GM is not their partner.

If your less-experienced partner is worried they will be bad at the game, assure them it is genuinely hard to play an RPG incorrectly. Now, if the inverse is the case and you are worried your partner’s incompetence will embarrass you in front of your friends, you should probably not play with them. Being positive and supportive is the only way to play an RPG in the first place. The less-experienced person should be welcomed into the group and helped along the way. We talked about bad player archetypes before, but the only applicable trait for new players is crippling indecisiveness. Making choices is the crux of the genre, but your group can ease your novice partner into the mindset. Provide context by explaining mechanics, past choices, or potential outcomes while avoiding quarterbacking (explicitly telling someone what to do). If you are leading the session, be careful about forcing your partner into a situation by themselves. They will feel more comfortable interacting with the game’s narrative if they have another player to work with and defer to. It also reduces the stress on your relationship by keeping the conflict between the GM and the players, not just between you two.

Once you are both playing a role-playing game together in earnest, make sure you are cooperating (or competing) in-character. Again, you should avoid direct antagonistic behavior, but do not bring your relationship into the game’s world. This is not for your benefit, but for your friends’ sanity. Parties usually cooperate, but many scenes rely on player choices between self-preservation and sacrifice. Do you head back into the fight to grab someone’s unconscious body? Do you distract the enemy army while the rest of the party slips by? Choices predetermined by your out-of-game relationship make for inorganic and predictable in-game decisions. Circumventing this by having your RPG characters in a romantic relationship is a dangerous move. Doubling down on the dating is like making out in a bar: it seems fine if you’re the ones doing it, but people around get uncomfortable and later you realize how amateur-hour that behavior really is. However, if you’re willing to test the in-game couple and not take a constant moral high-ground, that’s a different story. A plot about scorned lovers, betrayal, and redemption sounds like a fun time for all.

The deeper you two get into the game, the more you can benefit from the experience. I enjoy having post-mortem conversations will fellow players after a session. It lets you explore your characters and the story outside in an objective fashion. This is especially true when talking to your partner. Aside from the increased opportunity for these discussions, they will be more candid with you. Talk about how you should better portray your characters. Read the game manual together and decide how your characters should advance and level up. If one of you is the game master, you can get feedback on the campaign and better understand what players are taking away from the storytelling. The more immersed you get in the game’s world, the more enjoyable the experience is. Doing so with your partner amplifies this effect, bringing more energy and excitement to the table.

Like most of these advice columns, if you and your partner are having fun, you’re doing great. Relax. Enjoy each other’s company and the company of your friends. Tell a story. Get into character: not yourself, but a different one that’s appropriate for the game. Cheer your partner on as they win the fight for your group and join the booing of your friends when they take the loot for themselves. Do not make the game different because your romantic interest is there. Treat them like the rest of your group. Afterward, relish the shared moments together. Use the RPG as a way to bond; as a way to meet each other’s friends. Tell a fantastic story together and remember it with the fondness of a first date.