Where the Mechanics Meet The Narrative

A critical component of good game design is how the game’s mechanics mesh with the game’s narrative. If the these elements do not align the player’s ability to suspend disbelief is challenged.

For example, most games have mechanics which allow a character to attack at a range but the narrative, the explanation of how this is done differs. A game set in the modern era will have guns – they are the narrative – to explain the mechanics while a fantasy game may have bows. When the wrong narrative is used, e.g. a police SWAT team using bows or elves using assault rifles, even though the game mechanics are identical the narrative doesn’t fit.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot have SWAT teams armed with bows but this is so far outside player expectations there must be an explanation. E.g. they are hunting a supernatural monster which guns do not hurt. In fantasy games, the narrative is a lot easier as the game design can wave a hand and say “magic” but how the narrative and the mechanics of magic combine must be consistent.

In game design, the inclusion of narrative elements and mechanical elements is a chicken & egg situation. Sometimes the narrative require a set of game mechanics to incorporate elements of the backstory and setting into the game play. E.g. any game set in the modern world must consider rules for guns. More rarely a game designer wants to use particular game mechanic to induce a style of play but they need a narrative explanation of why the game works this way. The designers of Paranoia wanted a game where the GM could kill characters frequently but which did not penalise the players so they introduced the concept of clones to the setting.

One of the biggest dangers to the successful merging of narrative and mechanics is game balance. At times a power or ability must be throttled down (or up) to keep it balanced with the powers used by other characters.

An ability called “Giant’s Punch” should, narratively, be a mighty blow which knocks opponents flying away but game balance demands it is limited. Too often the inexperienced designer simply gives it the same damage as an ordinary melee attack for the sake of balance. Alternatively, the designer keeps it as a powerful attack but limits how often it can be used. Which opens another narrative problem – why can this ability only used once a day? In either case, the narrative doesn’t fit well with the game mechanics.

Good game designers realise that the narrative and the mechanics are both levers they can pull. A change in the wording of an abilities name, e.g. Boxer’s Punch instead of Giant’s Punch, can produce just as a good a result as changing how many dice damage it does.

Photo Credit – Manuel Cacciatori – READING A BOOK.. CC

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