On Mechanics, Fluff, Tone and the Influence Thereof

Once again, I troll the Penny Arcade forums for content. This time I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to generate some visual aids. Some weeks ago, the user Vaguard made what I thought was a rather innocuous and reasonable claim, that the D&D 4e system exchanged flavor for a unified mechanic that simplifies building encounters. Even if you don’t agree that 4e traded any flavor for mechanics, certainly the idea that mechanics can and do influence the tone of a system just like the fluff does. At least, this seems to be a truism for OSR folk for whom, as Roger at Roles, Rules and Rolls said, “in Old School play … fluff is crunch.”

Apparently it isn’t such a universally accepted concept though. It inspired some 5 or 6 pages of argument over whether mechanics played any part in defining the tone and flavor of a system, eventually ending in everyone agreeing to a tautology that mechanics reinforce an already decided upon flavor. Obviously mechanics, fluff and flavor are all very intertwined, and every bit influences the rest. The flavor you want for your game influences the mechanics you choose to put in (or use as a player), the fluff you include (for at least some types of players) impacts the flavor of your game, and the mechanics that you chose alter the flavor as well. And to prove it, I made some pictures.

Imagine for a moment, that we’re creating a game. In this game, the effect of every swing in combat is determined by a dice roll mechanic which produces a result from 4 to 24. Why such an odd range? Mostly to make illustrating my point easier. In this range of results, the success or failure of the attempted swing changes along that continuum, such that the worst possible results (say killing yourself or a teammate) are down around 4 and 5, while the best possible results (critical hits, one shot kills) are around 23 and 24, with the more mediocre results (basic hit, basic damage) being centered around the middle numbers 13, 14, 15. So the higher the roll, the better your attack.

Now, if you buy the idea that mechanics don’t influence flavor, then I could declare a bit of fluff and flavor at this point that in our game, plug in any mechanic I want to generate those numbers between 4 and 24 and the flavor and tone wouldn’t change at all. I could say that combat in our world is fast and very quickly lethal for each side, and something people avoid at all costs, and it wouldn’t matter what mechanic I stuck in, it would work the same because my fluff and flavor declare it to be so.

I don’t buy it, and here’s why:

Let’s choose the mechanic of 1d21 + 3 to generate our numbers, this is what it looks like according to AnyDice:

Sure, I can say combat is quick and deadly for each side, but really, our system is going to play out mostly randomly. Sometimes it will be really deadly, other times it will be mediocre and each time it’s an equal chance to be either. No one is going to be great or lousy most of the time because each number in our sequence has an equal chance of coming up. D&D players should be intimately familiar with this probability feel because that’s how most d20 rolls work.

Now, let’s chose something else, maybe 2d11+2, or even 4d6:

Again, this really won’t do much to give my flavor of quickly deadly combat much of a boost. In fact, this would actually give us a flavor better described as “combat is generally average and uneventful as combat can be, awesome successes or failures are not common, and most attacks will be average. In fact, average is exactly what this mechanic gives us, which is why D&D uses it for ability score rolls in the form of 3d6.

Now let’s go really far off the beaten path. This time, we’re going to roll 4d6 + 11, if that result is greater than 24, we’re going to subtract 21 and use that for the result, otherwise we’ll keep the roll as the result, then we will add 11 to whatever that result was:

How’s that for a mechanic? In fact, this one is ideal, and the one I would want to use for fast, deadly combat best avoided by all parties. Using this mechanic, you’re not likely to ever be average, either you’re going to kick some serious ass, or you’re going to have yours handed to you when you swing. So here’s how they all look stacked up against one another:


Does anyone seriously think that each of these mechanics would not impart a vastly different flavor and tone onto their game, regardless of what the fluff and other flavor said? Of course game designers generally choose mechanics to model the flavor they’re aiming for, but that doesn’t mean that the mechanic chosen doesn’t help or hinder that flavor.

  1. #1 by micahblackburn on May 19, 2012 - 12:48

    Nicely put. I’ve had this debate with people over and over again. It’s nice seeing it plotted out…with MATHS!

    • #2 by tpmoney on May 20, 2012 - 18:19

      Thanks. It sort of amazes me that this is a controversial idea.

  2. #3 by LS on May 23, 2012 - 16:44

    Thanks for the impressive breakdown. I agree with you: I’m not sure why (or even how) anyone views this idea as controversial. None the less, it’s nice to have hard data demonstrating the importance of mechanics on a game’s fluff.

    • #4 by tpmoney on May 23, 2012 - 17:02

      Yeah, but then again, the more I read around, the more impressed I am at just how completely and insanely diverse RPG players are, and how differently they approach different ideas.

Roll for diplomacy!

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