The Five Mechanic Game

There’s a wide world of games out there, but the ones that get played and talked about the most are more similar than you may think. In the realm of traditional games, most games have their rules structured the same way, at the same level of detail, to accomplish roughly the same goal. It means many of us that grew up among the bursting libraries of games in the 80s and 90s thought we were well-read, only to be waylaid by some markedly different ideas when the games of the Forge era like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World started becoming popular.

Last week, I talked a bit about the idea of complexity, and grounded it to the idea of how many mechanics a game has interacting at once. This makes a game like Blades in the Dark, with many overlapping systems, more complex, while a game like Dread, where there is only one mechanic and it’s essentially ‘Jenga Or Die’, is less complex. What’s more interesting, though, is what it says about the middle. Basically every traditional game, from the real bloats like Exalted all the way down to little digest editions like Savage Worlds, have roughly the same type and number of mechanics. That number is five: character creation, task resolution, combat, game mastering, and at least one subsystem of note.

“Now hold on,” you might be thinking. “That’s not what a game mechanic is!” Well, after last week’s article came out I looked it up (always ask for forgiveness, not permission), and it turns out there is no standardized or even commonly agreed upon definition for what a ‘game mechanic’ is. So while everyone basically agrees that ‘game mechanics’ in total are the rules and procedures which make a game work, a singular ‘mechanic’ is only concretely defined as a part of the superset ‘game mechanics’. So I’m putting my stake in the ground and defining a game mechanic as a collection of rules which, taken together, produce a consistent output. The one wrinkle here is the ‘subsystem’, which is about as complex as a mechanic but augments an output rather than producing its own. So, magic in D&D augments the outputs of the task resolution and combat mechanics, but magic without those mechanics doesn’t ‘do anything’.

So why is this important? Well, talking about how games are built gets us down to a level where we can look at discourse and understand what’s happening. One particular example here is the rather noxious ‘System Matters’ discourse. While ‘System Matters’ is a direct reference to a Forge essay written by Ron Edwards, the broader discourse is talking about whether and how much a game’s system, its rules, change the outcome of play. Now, of course they do, and nobody on either side is arguing the absolute version of this. One of the reasons there are two sides, though, is that when the broader structure of the rules of so many games are just so damn similar…well, within the choices we have, does system matter?

It was games that came out of The Forge like Apocalypse World that really started to show us that you could move beyond the five mechanic model. Apocalypse World has a task resolution mechanic, a character creation mechanic, and a game mastering mechanic. Combat was excised, for the most part, and the task resolution mechanic was broken down into discrete actions called (as you now all know) ‘Moves’. This was big, because now the task resolution mechanic defined the entire universe of actions for which there were mechanics. If a character wanted to do something that wasn’t a Move, they just did it. Oddly, Apocalypse World and other narrative games end up being thought of as lighter, or less structured, when in reality they have stricter rules, more concrete rules, and a much better understanding of when rules are relevant. This is mostly because traditional games are built up around smoke and mirrors, around the perception of a consistent ruleset which doesn’t really exist. For some people, though, the smoke and mirrors are their favorite part of the game.

A traditional, five mechanic game employs mechanics for character creation, task resolution, game mastering, combat, and then at least one subsystem of note. These five items fit together pretty loosely, which makes the role of a game master essential to keep information flowing between these mechanics; an ironic necessity considering how loose the game mastering rules of most games are. And while I give the example of Apocalypse World as one which has a tighter mechanic than most traditional games (the more robust, more complex task resolution system), it still has a pretty loose fit between the three mechanics it employs. And Vincent Baker, like many of his predecessors, identifies this looseness as a feature, not a bug.

Character creation mechanics in traditional games do not tell you what your characters are able to do (the character creation mechanic in Apocalypse World doesn’t either, but by defining which Moves you have it comes a lot closer). Characters are defined numerically, and what a character creation mechanic nets you, no matter what the mechanic actually is, is a collection of adjectives linked to rules and numbers linked to other rules which then tell you a procedure to see if, in a given moment, the task resolution mechanic outputs you a positive result. Character creation mechanics also tend to give the players statements. When you find out that you have an old lover as an enemy in Cyberpunk 2020’s Lifepath, there are no rules linked to that statement. That is a narrative fact that the character creation mechanic has generated, and for the most part it exists in a vacuum until the game master (or the player, should the system allow for that) declares it to be relevant. Some systems have mechanics linked to some of these statements; in Twilight:2000 you can get bonuses in combat if you’re trying to help the character you’ve picked as your Buddy. You having a Buddy, though, is a statement, which no one is required to use until either you help that Buddy in combat or you get XP for risking your life for your Buddy. The baseline, though, is that you get the statements that make up your character, and for the most part, that’s on you to make sense of.

This sort of looseness is why a lot of people push back against games structured like Apocalypse World. While Apocalypse World’s rules don’t enforce character actions any more than any other RPG, a player raised on traditional games which are so, well, squishy with their mechanical permissions are going to bristle at the Moves list. “Why can my character only do these things” was a very common misunderstanding about how Apocalypse World worked when it first came out; gamers were used to the idea that you could just roll for anything (although that has basically never been an enumerated rule). In reality, Apocalypse World was just reframing how the mechanics worked versus the set of what characters can do. Most RPGs don’t define limits to what characters can do; they mechanically define a certain number of things and then use subsystems to define where the game differs from reality. 

Task resolution mechanics do not define reality! Most traditional games give you a die roll and a success condition. And while some fantastical things are defined (like casting Fireball or installing wolverine claws in your cyber-arm), the bounds of reality and what the target number for that is is pretty much just set by the GM. A difficulty class (DC) of 20 might imply things about the probability that gets the book to label it as ‘Difficult’, but how that plays out varies game to game. There is supposed to be consistency, and there is supposed to be a relationship between a character’s abilities and what the task resolution system enables them to do (A DC 20 Strength Save is easier if your Strength is 18 than if it’s 12). But, the game, for the most part, just gives you a qualitative best guess. Like that table in GURPS of difficulty modifiers that starts with driving in an empty parking lot and ends with driving with your feet, blindfolded, while shooting an M60 out the window in a snowstorm. I promise you, nobody was doing track tests of that modifier continuum.

The one truly weird exception to all this squishiness is combat. Combat is where everything melts down into a pure numbers game, and suddenly your argument about how much of a penalty you were taking for shooting your M60 out the window in a blizzard is replaced with a hex grid and to-hit rolls. What’s odd about combat is that now instead of using one dice roll with a bunch of discretion, everything is laid out and there are moves. Attack, Defend, Feint, Dodge and Drop, Rage, Autofire…yes, there were at least three different games in there, but that’s not the point. Combat systems are the last artifact of just how weird early role-playing games were, because the utter disconnect between combat and pretty much everything else goes all the way back to the first version of D&D. That is to say, the version of D&D where you had to pull out a different game to resolve combat. Combat systems are no longer sold separately, but it’s basically like playing a different game because that’s what it is.

The problem with the five mechanic game is that it’s vague. You can define and overdefine how things work in your task resolution and combat system, but ultimately it’s a bit difficult to make your game ‘about’ something without giving it a mechanic. There are a number of modern, still arguably traditional games that are shifting the paradigm and adding back more specific mechanics about things they want players to care about. Blades in the Dark has downtime mechanics because the designer doesn’t want the game to just be heists. The One Ring has travel mechanics because The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are ultimately about journeys, so travel is important. Mutant: Year Zero has base building mechanics because The Ark is a narrative center of the whole game, and differentiating between being home and being in the wastes is important. These differentiations work much better than more stats, more skills, more items, more classes…but that was how design often worked during the 80s. Don’t believe me? Just read Rolemaster.

Roleplayers like freedom. There’s a huge amount of history attached to the notion of saying ‘What Do You Do?’ and just rolling for it. There’s also a limit to what can be effectively done with just a task resolution system, a combat system, and GM mechanics for just those things. GURPS has figured out some really neat modeling tricks with just three d6s, but it still needs an engineer or an avid worldbuilder to finish writing the game and make a campaign out of it. D&D has a hundred and three wondrous character ideas for every single player, but there’s so little grounding to those character mechanics that horny bards and peasant railguns are equally valid parts of the D&D setting as any of the (equally inconsistent) published lore. What newer, less traditional games do, be they more narrative frameworks like Fate or PbtA, be they more mechanically intensive trad games like Twilight:2000 and The One Ring, or be they something in the middle, like Blades in the Dark or Burning Wheel, what these all do is step away from ‘roll to do stuff, combat has more stuff’ and build out a game around the parts they want to gamify. I want to champion games with more rules, I do. And to do that I need to point out that they don’t have to look or play like GURPS or Exalted. Write those games about brigands pulling off heists, or survivors clinging together in their own apocalypse, or adventurers setting forth as the Blood Mist lifts. The Five Mechanic game is a baseline, a start point…that weirdly assumes combat to the death as a prerequisite. Like I said before, talking about complexity, role-playing game systems are at their best when they push the narrative of your games into places you didn’t expect. One of the best ways to do that is by having more mechanical touchpoints, and one of the best ways to do that is either to design games which push the five mechanic baseline aside, or try to find games which have already done it.

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5 thoughts on “The Five Mechanic Game”

  1. Classic Traveller has, in the basic game (Books 1 to 3):
    – character creation
    – character training/experience/aging
    – starship creation
    – star-sector/system creation
    – world creation
    – task resolution
    – melee combat
    – starship combat
    – merchanting
    – patron creation/encounters
    – animal creation/encounters
    – psionics

    Some of these could get merged but all have distinct aspects to them. Some could be done away with in a particular campaign setting (I’ve been playing with my group for almost four years now and have yet to use psionics, starship combat, or merchanting). It’s a tribute to how well built the game is that it packs so much into a relatively thin set of rules, still being simple and playable. I can’t really think of another mainstream RPG that has this diversity of “mechanics” built into the standard game without acres of supplements and add-on books.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think there was a good amount more diversity of form early on in RPG history, and Traveller is a great example of that. Thanks for commenting!


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