Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Unlearning Ampersand: Why Social Mechanics Aren't Bad Just Because You've Only Played Games with Bad Ones

So for quite a while, I have been thinking about the invisible assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons, and the way in which they have pervaded through many games because people just don't consciously think about them. And in that time, I've thought a lot about the idea of writing a series exploring those assumptions, why they were made in the first place, and their alternatives. And so, I present Unlearning Ampersand; an essay series which I'll periodically update wherein I explore the assumptions made by D&D and arguing for why to break out of them. As you might expect, this one is going to be exploring how it interacts with the concept of social mechanics.

So without further ado then, let's get into the essay:

A Short Break by Marby Kwong

Alright. So there's this truism amongst a lot of TTRPG folks that social mechanics are bad. If I were to break down the usual argument into the logic it tends to follow, it would look something like this:

Mechanics, by their very nature, place a limitation on something in order to function - they create a line between "mechanical" and "not mechanical", as well as a line between discrete mechanics. Social mechanics are mechanics which are placed upon roleplaying aspects of the game. ("Roleplaying" here defined as the act of speaking in-character or narrating the actions of your character.) Therefore, social mechanics necessarily place limitations on roleplay. This relegates roleplay to the realm of mechanics, and thus, social mechanics are bad, because they hinder the fun of roleplay.

If you've read the title of this post, you might guess that I disagree with this argument. And yes, I do. Its foundational assumptions - that is, what mechanics are and the definition of the concept of social mechanics - are things which would be difficult to argue. I will also be writing this essay using the given definition of roleplay above, as it'll make this discussion less clunky to read. That said, I do have two major qualms with this argument. Firstly, mechanics do more than just create definitions, they also create meaning, and that matters. And secondly, I disagree with the argument's ultimate conclusion, and think that it is revealing of the way D&D trains its players to view the mechanics of the game against the act of play.

So join me on this winding adventure through social mechanics, what makes D&D's bad, and why good ones do exist!


Point the First: Mechanics Construct Meaning

Let's start by diving headfirst into theory bullshit, eh? As I said, I agree that mechanics define the lines between themselves, other mechanics, and the non-mechanical; it's implicit to their construction. A mechanic has to have a definition in order to function, and that definition necessarily separates it from non-mechanics and from every other mechanic.

But here's the issue: that isn't all mechanics do. They serve another very important purpose in play - they construct meaning by defining what is and is not important. I touched on this idea briefly in both my overly-rambling subpar post about stats, and in my essay about genre in games, and I'm going to talk about it yet again here. Because to me, it is quite possibly the single most important bit of game design theory that there is.

So a brief recap on the idea: mechanics, by being tools with which to meaningfully affecting the game, define what is and is not important to the game. If something isn't a mechanic, then it doesn't hold the same weight and importance in play as something which is. For example, you could run identical coming-of-age queer monster games in D&D and in Monsterhearts, but they would be fundamentally different. One of those games has intensive mechanics for converting monsters into corpses for experience, and the other has mechanics for being messy, queer monster teens with power dynamics. Therefore, one of those games, Monsterhearts, mechanically supports the concept - it makes the story of queer monsters actually matter in play. Attempting to run that in D&D would give you a freeform roleplay game about queer monsters which has been placed next to a (bad) combat simulator - the mechanics of the game do not support what you are trying to do, so you may as well not even be using them.

But enough digression, let us finally turn our eye to the social mechanics of modern D&D (and of those games which follow its footsteps): Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate. What do these functionally do, and how are they used? Well, when you want to make another character act how you want them to and overwrite their autonomy, you roll one of these. I already know what some may be thinking - 'But Khan, the DM sets the DC for the roll, it's not actually as simple as brainwashing another character!' - this misses the point of this essay, though. This is not an essay about what individuals do at their tables, this is an essay about what the game's mechanics actually do. And the game's mechanics say that when you succeed a Bluff check, your target believes your lie. When you succeed an Intimidate check, they're afraid of you. When you succeed a Diplomacy check, they agree with you. That is their mechanical function - they exist to get what you want from someone who is, in some form, in your way. They reduce a character down to a puzzle for you to solve with a sledgehammer, regardless of how difficult an individual may choose to make that puzzle.

So that's what they do - but what do they tell us? Well, if the only social mechanics in a game are ones which, on success, bend someone to your will, then the game is telling us that the only interactions it cares about with others is to get what you want from them. It trains the player to see all other characters as obstacles, because that is the only way the mechanics have to handle their existence, be they the social mechanics or the combat mechanics. And again, I know what you might be thinking - 'but people roleplay all kinds of other interactions with characters in D&D!' - and yes, they do. Once again though, this is not an essay about what people do to make playing D&D fun for themselves, this is about what the text of D&D is built for. And that roleplay isn't happening because of the game of D&D, but in spite of the text itself.

Now let's compare those mechanics to, say, the Flirt move in Dungeon Bitches, a game about queer women forming bonds together and finding their place on the outskirts of a society that hates them. Those are the stories it is made to tell, and the Flirt move backs that up! So how does it work? When a player flirts with another character, they roll the move. On a failure, the flirt-ee gets a Bond (a big mechanical element of the game, allowing Bitches to use their connections to each other to change outcomes). On a success, the flirt-ee chooses whether each get a Bond, if they give the flirt-er something which the flirt-ee thinks they want, or both. If we look at what these mechanics tell us, it's that, for one, flirting with each other is a way in which queer women express care for one another, represented by the fact that they receive mechanical Bonds for doing so. They also, by giving the flirt-ee the autonomy in the resolution of the roll, tell us that this social interaction is a two-way street, that both parties have a say in how things go. This is not like D&D where someone merely now agrees or is afraid; rather, both characters have some control over the situation. And, through Bonds, these interactions have meaningful impact on the wider game, as those Bonds are later used to help, bribe, or hinder.

A game's mechanics tell us what matter in it, and therefore its social mechanics tell us what kind of interactions with other characters are important. D&D's social mechanics tell us that the only important interactions with others are the ones where they give us what we want - and this, I would argue, is bad. But there is a wide world of games which value other kinds of interactions out there, and they cannot be painted with the same brush as the Ampersand Game.

Point the First Gaiden: The Gameplay Loop

So, mechanics create meaning. But "mechanics" is more than just the rolls you make in a game. The term also includes how you go about making those rolls happen. And as it turns out, not every game has the same core resolution system.

The difference in resolution between D&D and Powered by the Apocalypse games is often a point of confusion for people playing a PbtA game for the first time. And when you're familiar with PbtA games, it's extremely obvious when someone is attempting to resolve its Moves in the same way that D&D reserves its Checks. Although for those first learning PbtA games it may seem like the difference is resolution systems is just a minor nitpick, it actually radically changes the game (often for the worse) when someone attempts to use its mechanics like those of D&D.

So what do I mean by resolution system here? Well, in D&D, when a player wants to accomplish something, they decide the roll they wish to make, ask the DM for permission, and then roll their dice and their outcome is resolved. Alternatively, a DM may explicitly tell the player to make a roll, at which point the player rolls their dice and the outcome is resolved.

Now, that's probably obvious to anyone who has played D&D or a game of its ilk. After all, that's the basic resolution loop of not just every version of D&D, but also Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and so many countless other games. But just because something is widespread doesn't mean it's not worth talking about - in fact, it's all the better reason to talk about it. Hell, that's why this essay series even exists!

I'd like to call attention to two aspects of this system: roleplay is never required, and you need to seek approval from the DM. In this essay we'll only be addressing the former - the latter is a subject for its own essay entirely. So firstly, yes, many D&D players do choose to roleplay. But regardless of what players may choose to do, that roleplay is never actually required - it's something completely separate to the game of dice at the table. And that separation of mechanics and roleplay turns roleplay into something which is fun, but optional, and it turns the mechanics, the game itself, into just a game of moving a figure around a board and rolling dice. With this understanding of how the game's resolution system separates these parts of play, it's easy to see why many might feel as though social mechanics cannot be done well. After all, if these games teach that roleplay and mechanics are separate, then the idea of mechanics for rolepay might feel not only alien, but stifling.

Not every game uses D&D's resolution system (despite the fact that there are many which do), so let's look at a popular resoltuion system amongst indie TTRPGs - PbtA. If we look at a PbtA game we find that every used mechanic - called Moves - each are triggered by certain things in roleplay. What is its resolution system for these? Well, players simply roleplay, and whenever their roleplay would trigger a Move, they then roll and resolve it.

Immediately apparent in this system is that the mechanics exist directly as a reaction to the roleplay. In this way, roleplay becomes not only a part of the mechanics of the game, but without roleplay there is no game. The mechanics exist here not to be something separate on the table, but rather, they act as a way to introduce interesting random elements into the outcome of your roleplay scenarios. It's easy to see how this resolution system lends itself much better to social mechanics, as roleplay is already a core element to play.

Social mechanics, by definition, straddle the space between roleplay and game mechanics. So, when a game tells you that the two are separate, it's easy to see why social mechanics might not work in it. But not every game's mechanics function like that - when roleplay and mechanics are in fact intertwined, when roleplay is the most important part of play, you have a game whose system is built in a way which is conducive to social mechanics. Ultimately, something like PbtA - which treats roleplay as the catalyst for its mechanics - is just a much better framework for building social mechanics than a system like D&D's.


Part Two: Guides, not Limits

Okay. We're through most of the theory now, you can take a breather. This essay still has a little way to go, but it'll be a little less obtuse from here ...


So a lot of folks argue that social mechanics limit roleplay for the players; it's a fairly common refrain. However, I'm not sure that I agree - not even in the case of D&D. I mean, look back at what we've seen about D&D's social mechanics: they don't involve roleplay at all. So how could they limit it? It's not a factor in the game whatsoever. 

And if we look at PbtA games like Monsterhearts or Dungeon Bitches, then once again, the social mechanics in these games don't limit the player. A player can roleplay whatever they want! It's just that only certain actions will trigger their moves to occur. If a player's character never gets flirty, then that player just never rolls Turn Someone On or Flirt.

But these PbtA social mechanics do influence the way a player might roleplay, and that, to me, is their greatest strength. Because your Moves only trigger when your roleplay causes them to, if you want to mechanically engage with the game, your character needs to play into the expectations of the game. And, especially in the case of games like Monsterhearts or Thirsty Sword Lesbians or Dungeon Bitches, where they are exploring a specific kind of queer experience (gay monster high school, light lesbian fantasy, and sapphics dealing with a hateful society respectfully), the mechanics rewarding you for playing the game as it's intended is a good thing, frankly. I mean, these games exist to facilitate a certain kind of experience and add complications to it, in a way that you might not if you were doing freeform roleplay. So their mechanics subtly guiding you to act like a character in their world is actually a really potent design feature, not a bug.

And that, to me, is the power of good social mechanics. By rewarding you for playing into the assumptions of the game, they make it far easier to embody your character and get into their head.


In Conclusion: Good Social Mechanics Are Good, Actually

Look, here's the thing. No game has to have social mechanics. No game has to have any mechanics! But if a game wants to reward certain kinds of roleplay through its mechanics, to intertwine the act of embodying a character and rolling dice, I think it should have social mechanics. And it should have ones which put roleplay first, and which serve the purpose of making roleplay more interesting, not less. Ones which respect the autonomy of other characters. Ones which communicate what a game is about.

So, yes. The social mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons are abysmal. But to then claim all social mechanics are bad would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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