Using gameplay mechanics to support/tell your story

December 17, 2010

Hey everyone!  It’s been a long time, I know, but I want to get writing again on my blog.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written some of my thoughts on gaming down on digital paper, and I miss it so very much!  So, here’s to hoping that I can at least write a post once a week here… I’d like to get back in the habit!

So, I thought for my first post back that I’d tackle a topic of conversation that I was recently discussing on Twitter — using gameplay mechanics to support a game’s story.  My good friend and Avarice Industries co-author Xavier Fox Shandi pointed me to a video on The Escapist that started this whole conversation.  The video in question, “Extra Credits,” discussed how a classic arcade game could use only mechanics to tell its story.  Apparently, modern game designers don’t think that mechanics could be used in such a way.  If you have time, go ahead and watch the video here.  I highly recommend it.

So, apparently, some game designers still understand the correlation here.  Game mechanics, when used properly, can tell a story or support a game’s story on their own.  I find it to be a shame that some game designers don’t understand this basic concept — your game design/mechanics are the core reason you’re playing a game in the first place.  If they can’t be expressive enough on their own, then your game is missing a key component of what makes gaming, well, gaming.

This can even be done with the most simplistic mechanics.  Let’s use a first-person shooter for our example, if we may.  Shooting someone else is a pretty simple mechanic, right?  Can’t tell a story with it, right?


Let’s imagine a game with barely any graphics, no voice acting, no sounds, no nothing.  You start hidden behind a barrier with a few other AI players.  You have a pistol and only a few clips to reload.  There’s more ammo available, but it’s out  to the side from the barrier, visible to your enemy.  Your enemy is a group of red-uniformed men.  They are firing at you and your squad.  The goal of the game is to take out as many of these other men without dying yourself.  As you play, the waves of enemies don’t become harder, but there’s more of them.  More of them are firing at you.  It becomes harder to pop out around the side of your barrier.  Your AI compatriots are dying.  Eventually, you die, because it becomes too much.

That was all game play mechanics, but many of you most likely pictured a soldier making a last stand against an impossible amount of enemies.  You know you can’t win, but you’re going to do everything in your power to stop the enemy.  Your AI soldiers are useful because they’re helping you stay alive against the impossible odds, and you know that when one dies that the game is going to become a lot more difficult.  This leads to you almost “caring” for your AI buddies.  You know you need to keep them alive because they’re keeping you alive.  I didn’t need to give you a script.  I didn’t need for you to have explosions in your ears.  I didn’t need for you to have fancy graphics.  You got what I was trying to tell you because the mechanics are evoking imagery.

In writing Avarice Industries (the game formerly known as Wildfire Industries), I’ve been trying to do the same thing with pen-and-paper RPG mechanics.  Sometimes when playing PnP RPGs there’s a bit of a disconnect between playing the game as a story and playing the game with stats.  There’s no reason the two can’t collide to create something beautiful, yet our PnP RPGs are very frequently all about “tell story to a certain point, demand a check, see how successful check is, repeat process.”

While Xavier and I haven’t eliminated that problem entirely, I would say that our system does evoke the main themes of the game in order to create a better experience.  Let me lay it down for you all.

— Avarice Industries eliminates skills and attributes in favor or the Seven Virtues of Industry — Wrath, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Pride, and Lust.  These “Seven Virtues” are both statistics and skills.  They each encompass a domain that executives may use to get important tasks done.  The unique portion of the system is that we allow players to tailor the description of their actions to the GM so they may roll stats they are proficient in.  Basically, if you describe an action well enough that it falls under your preferred virtue, the GM will let you use that virtue in the roll.  Our favorite example of this is searching.  An intelligent character might pick through a person’s belongings carefully, which would lead the GM to use the intelligence stat — Gluttony — in the player’s roll.  A beefy tank character might rip through the apartment, tearing things apart to find what he wants to find.  This would lead the GM to use the strength/warrior stat — Wrath.

— Our other core mechanic is a character’s Motivation.  Motivation is very much like energy/mana/action points in that you spend it to use your character’s special abilities, called Traits.  However, Motivation differs from those examples in two ways:  You can only replenish it with good roleplaying and Motivation can be spent to improve die rolls.

At any point in the game, you may use a point of Motivation to “nudge” a die up or down a number.  In our game you roll d8s for your skills, and you get a success for every d8 that rolls a 6 or above.  Motivation can be used to “repair” crappy rolls, potentially turning horrible outcomes into stunning successes.  We did this because we felt that it was a perfect mirror for how business works — if you want to invest in a roll and put forth all of your character’s energy to make this work, then it will work.  How many times have we played RPGs where that one critical roll is botched and it turns the entire game into crap?

However, Motivation is a resource that should not be squandered.  That is something else we’ve done on purpose.  Investing Motivation is like any business investment — it carries risk.  Do you want to use that Motivation now, on this roll that you don’t want to fail on but can?  Or do you want to save your Motivation for when your character encounters a life or death roll?

We’ve noticed that players with high Motivation are a bit more carefree when they play the game — they take risks with their rolls  and spend Motivation freely.  But as the Motivation pool drops, they begin to seriously consider their actions, and each roll of the dice becomes a grim task.  The lifesaving net slowly evaporates as the game is played, putting your character closer to failure and losing everything if you don’t invest properly.  That’s the story of business.

And that’s how you use mechanics to support your story.

One comment

  1. Great points on how to use the basics to make your story compelling. I agree that many companies forget that the simplest mechanics can be uses as tools to help make a better story. I think of it like cooking. WHen you use the simplistic elements to make the final product work, it generally works out better than if you ignore those elements and forge a ‘fantastic dish’. Many times ‘perfection’ is simplicity. I’d love to see more companies using their basics to aid their mission.

    Great post. 😀

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