Over the history of tabletop RPGs, there have been various game design and creative movements, along with critical theories about how to think about games and game design. While I’ve always found these movements and theories to be useful ways to think about roleplaying as a whole, I’m increasingly less convinced that these things matter. RPGs are sometimes described as having “narrativist” mechanics or “gamist” mechanics, but what does that even mean? How much does that really matter? I argue that while they may be useful framing tools, they don’t necessarily affect RPGs as much as, or in the way that, gamers often think they do. There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred game; I’m not here to criticize what you’re doing. I’m just saying, let’s think outside the box and challenge the common wisdom.
1) Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response
One argument for a “narrativist” vs. “gamist” way of thinking about RPGs, is that the game designers themselves often use these terms to describe their games. Books that use the FATE RPG tend to focus on framing scenes, simulating the feel of a genre, and focusing on character arcs and conflicts. On the other hand, games like D&D, particularly old school D&D (aka old school renaissance, or OSR), focus on dungeon crawling and deadly encounters, playing out more like a puzzle or challenge than dramatic storytelling per se. But what really differentiates these games?
In D&D, you have a set of physical and mental attributes which give you modifiers to a dice roll, usually a d20. Depending on the version of the game, you maybe have some skills, and some special abilities usually oriented around combat. In modern D&D such as 5e, rolls tend to be emphasized more since characters are more granular, whereas OSR generally discourages rolls and keeps the game rules light and loose. I’ll explain more about the effects of quantity vs. quality of mechanics in a later point, but because of their comparable mechanical depth, it makes more sense to compare OSR and FATE to demonstrate my current point. In FATE, you have a skill pyramid that gives you modifiers to dice rolls that are often (but not always) oriented towards combat or action, stunts with additional modifiers and aspects, a sentence or so each, which can be invoked with FATE points for additional modifiers.
Ostensibly aspects are better for “narrativist” play because they encourage the GM and players to think about the characters and the environment, and how they interact, in a way that lends itself to character development and cinematic action. I agree that this overt framing of the mechanics does make dramatic storytelling more salient, but it’s not actually the aspects that matter here. It comes down to dice probabilities, something I’ve discussed before. A d20 has a wide range and uniform distribution, so there’s high variability in whether a roll will succeed or fail. However with FUDGE dice used in FATE, there is a narrow normal distribution (bell curve), centered at 0, meaning the roll will have less variability, or in other words be more predictable, and thus even small modifiers (like the +2 you get from invoking an aspect) have a large impact. The motivation for invoking the aspect is that the modifier may be the difference between a near-certain failure and a near-certain success. In OSR, the motivation to be ingenious and “gamist” is because there is high uncertainty in the dice and few powerful character abilities as in D&D 5e. Both require ingenuity, i.e. “how do I solve this problem” or “how do I invoke this aspect.” The fact that one happens to encourage dungeon crawling ingenuity whereas the other happens to encourage narrative ingenuity is totally incidental with reference to the mechanics of the game itself. One could just as easily use D&D mechanics to do a socio-political “game of thrones,’ or use aspects to represent character combat classes or equipment loadouts. The “just as easily” part is critical here, but I’ll get back to that when I discuss DIY.
All of this is to say, regardless of the designer’s intent, or how the rules are described in the book, you can translate the mechanics into a shared language of probabilities, and once you do that, you see that it really has nothing to do with “narrativist” or “gamist” mechanics, but about probabilities.
2) Culture And Preconceived Notions
Related to the above point, cultures have formed around these games. While you should not make absolute assumptions about anyone, probably if you are reasonably aware of the greater RPG scene, you have some sense of what OSR gamers are like, as compared to FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) gamers, or modern D&D or Pathfinder gamers. This creates a feedback loop, where a game is designed for a specific audience, and the game or the mechanics of the game become associated with that audience, and that game becomes more associated with that culture, regardless of whether it is actually true that that game is better suited for the interests of that culture. This is why OSR games tend to be about dungeon crawling even though you could apply the same framework to a more social or dramatic scenario, and why FATE encourages aspects to be about character or plot when they could just be another way of simulating the physics of the world (a topic for another post), even though the vehicle of differentiation between the two in practice is just the probability distribution of the dice.
The trajectory of D&D 5e in particularly is an excellent case study in how an RPG and the game culture around it interact. On a basic logistical level, 5e tried to streamline some mechanics, but at its core it’s not so different from D&D 3e or Pathfinder. However, the designers chose to use language intended to attract narrative gamers, placed greater emphasis on inspiration points as a “narrativist” mechanic, and then the actual play series Critical Role happened (along with the general explosion of actual plays).
Despite the fact that D&D 5e is not what most people knowledgeable about the state of RPGs would consider a “narrativist” game, to many people whose only frame of reference are the official D&D 5e books and actual plays such as critical role, storytelling is what D&D is about. And while arguably the quantity and granularity of mechanics may sometimes get in the way (a matter I’ll talk about next), they seem to be doing quite all right. If the group lacks experience with collaborative storytelling, a game like FATE might be better at teaching them how to play dramatically, but on the flip-side, if they already know how to play dramatically and tell stories, mechanics like aspects might not be necessary for them from a storytelling perspective anyway, in which case, as previously stated, they’re really just a dice probability “gamist” mechanic.
3) Quantity vs. Quality
I should start by stating my own personal bias here, but I am generally a believer that when it comes to tabletop RPGs, less is more, and I generally dislike modern D&D. That being said, I actually played in a D&D 5e one-shot recently, for the first time in a long time, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. Coincidentally, I’ve been trying to deconstruct my thoughts on D&D 3.+ games (D&D 3e, 3.5e, 5e, Pathfinder, etc.), which I’m somewhat attempting to do here, but I’ll start by explaining my current thoughts on these kinds of games.
Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3e, and the designer of Numenera and Cypher System, which is one of my favorite settings and hands-down my favorite system, has stated that he believes that 3e failed in certain critical ways, and that Cypher was an attempt to address those failings. If you take umbrage with this, see my first point about authorial intent vs. reader response! In any case, his claim is that D&D 3e added more mechanics to the game in order to minimize “rulings” that the GM would have to make (see my next point on DIY for more on that!), making the game easier to run. However, in practice, it was impossible to have a mechanic for every possible edge case, and instead the game became bloated and overly complicated.
Additionally, I am of the opinion that when you have so many granular mechanics, you aren’t defining what characters can do, so much as you’re defining what they can’t. As soon as there is a specific mechanic for some kind of combat maneuver that monks get at level 5, it means that nobody else can do that thing, because otherwise a level 5 monk loses its value. It becomes subtractive, rather than additive.
So what does all of this have to do with the theme of this post? Well, I think that quantity of mechanics ends up being a bigger differentiator between systems than “gamist” or “narrativist”. It’s a cascade, this is (part of) why homebrew and 3rd party content is often maligned amongst D&D 3.+ gamers; it’s really hard to change these games without it inadvertently interacting with some other obscure mechanic and totally breaking your game.
Importantly, I think it can be done, it just comes down to understanding the mechanics and being creative. You can treat race mechanics as a bonus package of stats, and make actual character race flavor. You can re-flavor a druid as an alien science witch, a fighter as a samurai, a paladin or eldritch knight as a power-armored superhero; you can spend inspiration points to do that cool combat maneuver even if you’re not a level 5 monk, or just do a regular attack and describe it as a cool combat maneuver. It’s only less suited to alternative styles of play because of the sheer quantity of mechanics. Swap your d20 for FUDGE dice and give your players lots of inspiration points, play creatively and take the mechanics as abstractions rather than physics simulations, and D&D 5e isn’t so different from FATE after all.
Several of my points have amounted to “Do-it-Yourself”, sometimes called hacking or modding. One could argue that because any game can be hacked, it’s meaningless to say any game can be like any other game if you hack it. The same person might argue that just because a game can be hacked to be more like another game, doesn’t mean it’s well-suited to that kind of game. To this, I have two counterpoints:
First, at least in regards to OSR, FATE, and PbtA, DIY isn’t just an option, it’s a core feature of the game! The defining characteristics of OSR amount to a whole topic in and of themselves, but one of the core tenets that most people agree on about OSR is that it’s about “rulings” over “rules.” Literally baked into the philosophy is that the mechanics should be left flexible and open to interpretation. This is, I think, part of why there have been so many DIY projects in the OSR space. I’m sure there are some people who play Original D&D strictly rules-as-written, but at least in the OSR space, most people are hacking the game anyway. Likewise, FATE encourages players to create their own stunts, practically demands they create their own aspects, and provides plenty of space in the core book explaining how it can be hacked, whether creating a unique skill-set, or bolting on entirely new mechanics. PbtA games are all basically just hacks by definition.
Second, among the examples I’ve given for how to make D&D more “narrativist” or how to make FATE more “gamist,” these hacks (if they can even be called that) are no more difficult to implement than any others, and the game is no more or less functional for it, just different. Dungeon World is basically just a hack of OSR with PbtA mechanics. It would be mostly trivial to swap a d20 for a 3d6, 4d6, or FUDGE dice to make it more deterministic, and giving OSR FUDGE dice is no worse a “narrativist” game than FATE. Likewise, give FATE a d20 or regular 4d6 or 3d6, and make the aspects character classes or equipment kits rather than personality or narrative traits, and you have a game that can be played just as “gamist” as OSR.
Wrapping this all up, I’d like to say that I recognize that I’m being very reductive and glossing over a lot of particulars with this critique. Anecdotally, I have found that because I have a strong personal gaming philosophy and style, my games tend to play out similarly regardless of what system I use. Depending on the GM or group, maybe swapping out a d20 for FUDGE dice in D&D or swapping out FUDGE dice for a d20 in FATE doesn’t have the same effect at your table, and that’s ok! My hope is just that this encourages people to think outside the box of what a game can be, and how to modify games conscientiously. It’s useful to understand authorial intent, to be aware of the broader culture and history, but I don’t think we should limit our interpretations of games, or mechanics, or personal play styles, to the preconceived notions and common wisdom that has developed over time. If you have other controversial or atypical ways of thinking about tabletop RPGs, please share your thoughts!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
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