Posted on : 20-01-2012 | By : Brian | In : dndnext, Game Design, Musings, Role-Playing Games
Today Monte Cook posted a short article entitled Mechanics Supporting Story. I clicked on the link immediately. One of the things I love about most indie games is that their mechanics are informed by the story and built around it, and they not only support the story but are often inseparable from it. I was excited to hear what Monte would say about this idea and how it applied to D&D. I thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if D&D actually did mechanically support story telling, rather than having it just be the thing that you’re doing when you’re not rolling dice?”
I was disappointed. If you haven’t read the article, go do so. It won’t take long; it’s only a couple of paragraphs long.
Why was I disappointed? Because Monte wasn’t talking about mechanics that support story; he was talking about racial bonuses. He was talking about dwarves that get a +2 to damage with axes, or gnomes that get a +1 to hit against kobolds, or bards that . . . get a +1 to being dapper in fancy clothes. Or something. Yes, these things do offer some mechanical support to concepts found within the established fiction of D&D. But do they support story? Not really.
Let’s take the example of dwarves getting a +2 to damage with axes. This is supporting the concept of “dwarves use axes”, which is a concept that I know is near and dear to all of our grognardian little hearts. Great, so my dwarf uses an axe and gets the bonus. Where’s the story? The story — the only story so far — is that I have a dwarf who uses axes like 99% of the other dwarves in his hold. Not very interesting, is it? I’d argue that this kind of mechanic actually runs counter to supporting story; it discourages making characters with interesting and unique concepts, like dwarven wizards or rogues, because if you take one of those classes you’re not getting the full benefit of your race. It may not be punishment per se, but it skirts awfully close to that territory. Beyond that, though, the fact that my character uses an axe or a sword or a ship’s anchor is an expression of who my character is, but it doesn’t tell me anything about his motivations or his story arc. It does virtually nothing to mechanically support any story I have in mind, unless that story is, “I like to hit things with an axe.”
Now let’s look at that second one: gnomes and their bonus against kobolds. That one’s a little better because at least it implies some sort of emotion. Gnomes hate kobolds. Great. Do all gnomes hate kobolds? Even the ones who have never met a kobold? Even the ones raised by kobolds? Again, we’re discouraging alternate character concepts by rewarding the stereotype, to say nothing of the fact that we’re basically mechanizing racism.
My point is this: if you want to support story, support story. Don’t hand out some stereotypical racial bonuses and call it a day; that’s a half-measure at best. Give the players tools with which to express their characters, with which to tell their stories. Give them ways to take hold of the narrative and steer it in directions they think are interesting and fun. Let’s not forget that the DM is not the only storyteller at the table.