Intent Precedes Mechanics

Posted on : 02-19-2011 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, Indie Games

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I was reading through the Dresden Files RPG, and came across the above phrase. It really made me sit up and think for a second because it’s an idea that I believe a lot of people forget about when they play many RPGs, most notably D&D and its ilk.

Here’s what I mean. Say you’re at the table, playing D&D. You’re fighting a frothing band of orcs, and you’re rearing to go. You take up your sword, and you say, “I activate Cleaving Stance, then I use my move to get over here. Then I’m going to charge this orc.” Notice anything? You’re describing your character’s actions in terms of the game mechanics. This is a clear example of mechanics preceding story, and while it might not be a terrible thing (it does have the advantage of making your actions mechanically clear and precise, and eliminating confusion), it’s not all that exciting.

Now, what if you instead said, “I draw my sword as a run over here to get into position. Then I barrel headlong into this orc, and my blade cleaves through his flesh to lodge into his ally over here.” That’s a little more exciting, a little punchier, and it says the exact same thing. The main difference here is that you’re leading with story rather than mechanics; you’re describing things from your character’s point of view instead of your own. Intent is preceding mechanics.

This is easy enough to do when you know exactly how you want to handle your actions mechanically; you just figure out how to describe what you’re doing narratively and you’re golden. But here’s the awesome thing about leading with story: you can do it even when you don’t know what powers or abilities you want to bring to bear on a given action.

This is a great tool to use when you’re unfamiliar with a character’s specific abilities, or even the game in general, but you have a decent amount of familiarity with the concept of your character (which you should, if you made him). When it comes to your turn, don’t worry about what’s on your character sheet. Think about what your character would do, how he would react, given the situation. Would he move to intercept an orc charging at one of his companions? Try to fry the chieftain with arcane fire? Cry out in defiance and lash out at everyone around? Think about what your character would do, and describe it in terms of narrative. Then, work with your DM to come up with a way to model it mechanically.

As a DM, try to encourage this kind of play. In general, I’m willing to bet you’ll see your players doing interesting things more often, like using the environment and taking improvised actions. Powers are great, but they can be a crutch, too. Most importantly, your characters don’t know what powers they have, or what they’re called. They only know what they would do, or try to do.

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Comments (8)

Not sure if I’ve mentioned it here, but this is exactly what I use my “awesome cards” for. If you do something that isn’t on your character sheet and its entertaining and works in the story, I deem thee, officially “awesome”.

Often, I just tell people, “Do whatever your character would do and we’ll use one of your powers to resolve the mechanics”

Then, as the DM, I’ll add any situational modifiers and/or skill checks that I think would be involved in the action.

Here’s an example of an “awesome” thing that happened in my game this weekend.

My defender had just dropped the enemy he was toe to toe with. He wanted to move and engage a separate group of enemies nearby on the battlefield. He didn’t have enough move to get into combat advantage AND attack. And the “chargeable square was already occupied by the rogue who DID have combat advantage.

He decided to charge the rogue (on his team and who DID have combat advantage) in the hopes of slamming the rogue into the bad guy. I resolved it as a bullrush against the rogues fortitude. The roll was successful and he pushed the rogue into the enemy. With a successful acrobatics check by the rogue, I allowed him to attack with one of his at-wills (also described awesomely btw) as he slammed into the enemy.

Everyone thought it was awesome and it allowed the defender to be the tank-style character he likes to be and for the roque to drop some more damage while getting to feel super agile.

Meanwhile, the rules lawyer was sitting there scratching his head trying to figure out how it was even possible because he had not read it anywhere.

I just think that if the idea sounds cool enough, you almost have to figure out a way to use the rules to adjudicate it with a little DM fiat thrown in for good measure.

The alternative was the defender doing a double move and not getting to attack. BORING!

That’s exactly the kind of thing I like to try to encourage in my games, but it can be difficult when you’ve got all those power cards laid out in front of you. Admittedly, though I have the ideas down, I’ve yet to really effectively put them into practice.
Brian Engard recently posted..Intent Precedes Mechanics

Yeah, its definitely hard. But I decided that I’d fight cards with cards. I took the power back by introducing my own cards that pull them out of the character sheet analysis paralysis.

First thing I do is ask the player what they would like to “achieve” with their turn. Sometimes its as simple as “deal a lot of damage” “get combat advantage” or sometimes it’s “help Player B get into position to use his daily” etc. Then I’ll start suggesting possible courses of action that are purely story based. They’ll usually latch onto something and then twist it around into something that makes sense for their understanding of the situation and their character. Then I explain how we can arbitrate that with skill checks and usage of their existing powers. Once they start visualizing the die rolls and what it would “look like” they start to brighten up that they’re doing something creative.
Then, after they explain what they want to do, I restate it according to my understanding and say, “Yes, Thats Awesome!”

For example. If they say, “I want to get over here without provoking and OA somehow and use my encounter, can I do a wall run or jump over THIS guy?”

I’ll answer, “Ok, so you’re going to sneak up behind this archer when he’s busy taking aim at Trioden, you’ll charge up behind him kicking off the wall as you leap to his opposite flank and plunge your Axe into his comrades back! Yes you can do it and Thats AWESOME!”

Thats when I bust out my “awesome” cards as my reinforcement.

My main awesome cards are:
1. Awesome CRIT! – You can use this card to turn a normal hit into a crit because you’re AWESOME! (At-will and BA damage only)
2. Awesome Side Step! – You can use this card to turn a normal hit (on you) into a miss because You’re AWESOME.
3. Awesome Reroll! – You can use this card to reroll an attack or skill check because YOU’RE AWESOME!
4. Awesome MEGA roll – You get to roll the MEGA DICE (in place of any D20 roll) because you’re AWESOME! (I have a really big D30 that I use for this, they LOVE it)

Plus for smaller amounts of awesome I hand out +1 tokens that can be used to modify any roll, including enemy hit rolls and damage.

I like those card effects, especially using a d30 in place of a d20. I’m curious, though; does all the explaining first and making mechanics fit the action slow down player turns? Or do they kind of get used to it after a while?

I think that one of the reasons people become so reliant on power cards is because powers and feats become an effective shorthand for what they want to do, allowing them to describe complex actions in just a few words. The problem with that is that, while it’s efficient, it’s a little boring.
Brian Engard recently posted..Intent Precedes Mechanics

Oh, yeah, it slows things down more at first. But eventually people are so into it that it gets really entertaining. Our average combat is probably between 1:15 and 1:30. That seems long on paper but when everyone is doing these ridiculous moves, sidestepping damage and rolling fun dice, the time flies by. In fact, the thing that slows down combat the most with this method is that everyone participates so much OFF their turn, enjoying the action that when their turn comes, they’re like “oh shoot, i was paying so much attention to the cool stuff that i forgot to think of my own!”.

I may have to steal this idea for my own game. By the by, do you have any interest in writing up a guest post about your Awesome Cards?
Brian Engard recently posted..Intent Precedes Mechanics

Would love to. I can even send them to you.

Great! My email address is engard at gmail dot com.
Brian Engard recently posted..Intent Precedes Mechanics

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