When I mention mechanics in a roleplaying game, most people will think about attacking with a sword or using magic to blast their enemies off the face of reality. That’s not what we’re talking about today. Instead, it’s time to examine the rules that govern the ‘roleplaying’ part of ‘roleplaying game.’
These are the mechanics that make our beloved roleplaying games more than just board games with far too complicated rules. They facilitate the way players act in character around the table. They make roleplaying a part of the game, instead of something that happens off on the side in between bouts of orc murder.
Of course, just because roleplaying mechanics are necessary, it doesn’t mean they are automatically good, or that any old set of rules will work for every type of game out there. In my experience, there are three broad categories that these mechanics fall into*, and there are variations in quality for each of them.
Mechanics as Guidelines
Not so much rules as suggestions. These are the games that say your character should act a certain way, but provide very little in the way of enforcement. For some players, this is the way to go. They dislike being told how to play out their fantasy, and want the freedom to selflessly escort orphans to safety one day, then steal all the money from the teddy bear fund the next. For other players who may already have a definite idea of who their character is, guideline mechanics can serve as a helpful reminder without getting in the way.
D&D’s alignments are probably the most well known roleplaying mechanics in existence, and they fall neatly into this category. Even people who have never rolled a d20 often have some idea what lawful good means. Alignments provide the barest minimum of mechanical effect. The difference between being good and evil in a D&D game mainly comes down to whether or not a paladin can smite you*. Violating one’s alignment carries little to no penalty, according to the rules.
The flaws of the alignment system are well known. It is divided into completely arbitrary categories, it assumes a universal standard of good and evil, it assigns moral value based on species, and the list goes on. Fortunately, there are better ways to use this type of roleplaying mechanic, such as Honor from Legend of the Five Rings.
In Legend of the Five Rings, Honor is a stat measuring how closely the character adheres to the game’s somewhat romanticized version of bushido. There are a few mechanical effects, but for the most part, it’s just there to remind the player what kind of person they are piloting through a land of samurai intrigue. Someone with Honor 1 hardly cares about bushido at all, while those rare individuals with Honor 10 are paragons of warrior virtue.
A character’s Honor rises and falls based on what actions the character undertakes, so the entire system is based on a gradient, rather than the good vs evil and law vs chaos toggle switches of D&D. What’s more, Honor does not represent absolute morality. It merely measures how closely characters adhere to a code of behavior. Sometimes doing the “right” thing means disobeying one’s lord, which is an inherently dishonorable act.
Mechanics That Enforce Behavior
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this type of mechanic takes away some of a player’s control over how their character will act. You can’t ignore these rules any more than you can ignore a failed reflex save. Some players appreciate the structure this provides. It gives them a solid foundation from which to play the game. Others find it constricting, forcing one choice when they would really have preferred another.
The Sanity system from Call of Cthulhu is a perfect and well trodden example. Seeing/reading/tasting something that upsets a character’s view of reality causes them to lose sanity points, which in turn causes temporary insanities that the player must roleplay. This works pretty well in a Lovecraftian setting, where the horror mainly arises from knowledge that the universe doesn’t function like we think it does.
Losing Sanity can be a lot of fun in the same way that riding a roller coaster is fun. It takes the burden of choice off the player and lets them enjoy the twists and turns created by the mechanics. The fact that most Sanity losses are not the result of a character’s choice, but instead arise from the external stimuli they are exposed to throughout the session, reinforces Lovecraft’s central theme of humanity being a very small species in a very big universe.
Nothing is perfect, however, and the Sanity system does have some weaknesses. The first is that it can end up being somewhat arbitrary. The default way for insanities to manifest is by rolling on a random table, which means that the mind numbing horror of seeing starspawn brought into this world can result in your character becoming… a nymphomaniac. Many groups house-rule this, choosing appropriate insanities for different stimuli, which certainly helps. Unfortunately, it does not solve the other main problem – a lack of investment in the actual horror. Because losing Sanity is so rarely tied to player choice, it can be difficult to maintain investment. Many a CoC campaign has descended into a contest of who can go completely insane first, which is a bit outside the game’s original goal.
A solution for people who like enforced behavior mechanics, but are fed up with going mad because they saw a giant squid, lies in the Morality system from World of Darkness. Like Honor, Morality measures how well a character adheres to the values of our modern society, and like Sanity, there are mechanical effects for failing to do so.
A character’s Morality degrades when they do something that violates it. If your Morality is very high, relatively minor acts like shoplifting can do it. Killing another human, even in self defense, is enough to erode most people’s confidence in their sense of right and wrong. As Morality degrades, a character gains derangements related to their experiences. Burning down a building could lead to a fascination with fire, while killing someone in a gunfight often results in a phobia of violence. All of these derangements have mechanical effects that change how the game is played.
The key difference between Morality and Sanity is that WoD’s system is primarily about character choice. Seeing a werewolf tear someone to shreds doesn’t lower Mortality, but hunting that werewolf down and destroying it might.
Mechanics That Give Rewards
The third major option is to give players something they want when they roleplay properly. This has become very popular in recent years because it is a way to promote acting in character without the resentment that can arise from coercion.
The most common method is to hand out points of some kind which can then be used to improve die rolls or power special abilities. 7th Sea was an early adopter of this method with its system of Drama Dice. The idea is that when a character does something sufficiently cool or dramatic, the GM awards them with a Drama Die that can then be spent later when the character really needs it. Similar mechanics can be found in Serenity’s Plot Points, Spycraft’s Action Dice, and many others.
With the right group, this method can work very well. Drama Dice reward players for acting like heroic swashbucklers, something they were theoretically already playing 7th Sea to do. The main problem with this system is that it’s very vague. Players and GMs often have very different definitions of what represents a cool enough action to be worth a Drama Die, and this can leave some people disillusioned with the whole idea.
The other big issue is that most Drama Dice style rewards are handed out during play, which leads to what I call the comedy effect. You see, when a player does something dramatic, like swearing blood vengeance on the pirate captain who killed their father or what have you, it increases the flow of the game. Other players get fired up, they want to see where this goes. The GM forgets to hand out a reward. Doing something funny, on the other hand, causes everyone to stop and laugh. When this happens, it’s easy for the GM to remember that the amusing player deserves a Drama Die for their efforts.
A mechanic I believe neatly solves both problems is Artha, which can be found in games like Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard*, and just about anything designed by Luke Crane. Like Drama Dice, Artha is spent to improve die rolls, but it is earned differently. Players write down specific beliefs that codify how their character sees the world; what values they hold dear, along with what they find abhorrent. Players are then rewarded with points of Artha for roleplaying within their beliefs, or even against them if it increases the drama. We all love a story about a self-serving smuggler who, in the end, goes against his beliefs in order to help his friend make that one-in-a-million shot.
The Crane method removes ambiguity because the players choose their own style of roleplaying, rather than trying to interpret what the game designers had in mind. It’s much easier to tell when someone deserves a reward for their roleplaying, which cuts down on frustration around the table. Furthermore, Artha is handed out at the end of the session, which removes the need to stop the game right after something really cool happens. I don’t mean to say that Artha is without its flaws- sometimes we get to the end of a session and can’t remember who did what- but I do think it’s the best method currently available.
As players and GMs, it’s vitally important for us to understand what kind of roleplaying mechanics are offered by each system, because they are the foundation for much of what happens around the table. Combat and character generation rules are important too, but how a system promotes or does not promote roleplaying will have a huge impact. If your group consists of free spirits who don’t like being told what to do, then WoD’s Morality probably isn’t the best choice, but they could flourish under something more free form like 7th Sea.
This goes double for game designers. It’s easy to focus on the hacky parts and assume the roleplaying will work itself out- hell, Dungeons and Dragons has been doing that for 40 years- but those who wish to create a truly engaging experience must pay attention to all aspects of the rules. How we roleplay is what defines this genre of storytelling, and we should all be aware of it.
Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.