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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Engaging Dissociated Mechanics

There's been debate about an old essay at the Alexandrian, which has recently been updated. The original injected the catch-phrase "dissociated mechanics" into our community's arguments, and like other buzz-words (like "fantasy heartbreaker" and "game balance",) there are so many interpretations of what the phrase means that it's become practically meaningless, more like signal to start fightin'. Jeff Rients has raised a few objections to points made in the essay. I have my own objections, which I feel Jeff approaches but doesn't quite focus on in the same way I would.

The way I would define dissociated mechanics -- and the point of contention about them -- is: mechanics that make you engage with the rules instead of the fiction. The problem with some mechanics is not that they don't have an in-game explanation for what's going on, or that the explanation comes after the fact; it's that the activity at the table switches from what's going on in the fictional world to who's going to win this little mini-game.

 (This, of course, ties into my own peculiar definition of role-playing games, but I think people can grasp my objection without getting into that side-topic.)

In the Alexandrian essay, there's an example of a One-Handed Catch ability: once per game, a character with this ability can make an amazing one-handed catch. I think it's a poor example of a dissociated mechanic, even using the definition given at the Alexandrian, because people have analogous experiences in real life all the time. How many times have you witnessed someone do something amazing, and afterwards the person says, "Man, I wouldn't be able to do that again even if I tried!" There's nothing really dissociated about the One-Handed Catch ability as described.

Now, imagine instead that the ability, instead of being "once per game", is "once per action point spent". And you earn action points by reciting catch-phrases at appropriate times in the game, with the appropriateness being determined by popular vote among the other players. Or maybe action points are linked to a bidding/gambling mechanic. In either of these cases, you stop talking about the fiction (catching something with one hand) and start engaging with/becoming interested in the outcome of a non-fictional activity.
Those are dissociated mechanics, in my opinion.

Some people like that kind of thing. For them, the fiction is important, but not as important as the back-and-forth, game-like aspect, the gambling, the bidding, the deep knowledge of the rules or the masterful planning. Other people prefer the fiction, and the less of the other stuff going on, the better. This is what is being debated. Some people don't like deeply tactical, game-y mechanics, no matter how many times other people tell them "but that's what's fun".

It's like the idea of "simulating" fear or tension in an RPG using Jenga mechanics. Some people like Jenga and especially like the idea of tying fictional outcomes to Jenga. Me, I don't care for Jenga or games like that, so why would I want to stop playing an RPG in the middle of an interesting bit, just to play Jenga (or poker, or any other game?) Telling me "but it's more fun that way" doesn't convince me; if I thought Jenga was fun, I'd play it instead of D&D. The fact that someone else really enjoys something doesn't make me enjoy it, too. And the fact we're interrupting something I do enjoy to do something else entirely doesn't do much for the game.


  1. "mechanics that make you engage with the rules instead of the fiction."

    The more I think about this whole topic the fuzzier it gets in my head. As to the quote above, every mechanic is outside of the fiction, right? Because mechanics are places where we need to resolve something in the fiction in an agreed upon way. "Do you go berserk or don't you?"

    Going to Jenga blocks rather than rolling percentile dice to see if your pc has finally gone berserk are both trying to facilitate the fiction. I suppose Jenga blocks might take more time and feel less close to the fiction, but, no, I can't see how percentile dice resemble going berserk more than a tower of blocks about to tumble. I'm wondering if this is just a matter of consistency. Rolling dice is what we've always done. Other mechanics wouldn't be less associated with the world but more novel.

    1. I really think the dividing line here is whether the explanation comes before or after. The method of deciding whether or not something is successful seems like a separate issue. For example: I kick him (followed by some resolution system), okay he falls down. Or: I use my he-falls-down power (followed by some resolution system); okay, he falls down because you use your telekinesis, or you trip him, or he slips on a banana peel.

      There might not even be any skill (jenga tower) or randomness (dice) involved, while still having things that are associated and dissociated,

    2. @Telecanter: To a certain extent, all mechanics, even "drama" mechanics, are dissociated. That's kind of what I'm saying, although I got a little muddled and ranty half-way through the post. What I'm seeing as the distinction is that some mechanics fall more towards the "engaging with rules/mechanics" end and farther from "engaging with the fiction".

      @Brendan: I think the opposite. Whether the explanation comes before or after resolution is irrelevant if the resolution is very short and we don't have to think about it much. Simple die roll to beat a target number? Low interaction with the mechanic, less dissociated. Die roll after a series of calculations, or back-and-forth negotiations? Higher interaction with the mechanic, more dissociated.

      The reason I brought up Jenga is because it's a perfect example of shifting focus away from "how can my barbarian get the gem out of the idol's eye scoket?" to "which block should I choose, and how should I push it out of place, and how do I balance it on top?" There's a series of step involved which distract your thoughts from the fiction.

  2. I think "once per encounter" and that ilk counts as dissociated because the encounter is an artificial amount of time. Like, if you said it takes a night's rest to get back your spells, or an hour to recover your faith and heal again, that might be more - what? associated? Also, it looks dissociated if the once-per is blatantly a balancing mechanic out of line with the actual way the ability happens, like with the once-per-day one-handed catch which you should more realistically have a small chance to do on each catch opportunity.

    1. @Roger: "Once an hour" seems pretty artificial to me. It may be more or less dissociated than "once an encounter", depending on how the end of an encounter is defined. If an encounter ends when you are able to rest for the remainder of a turn, it's not very artificial at all, and "once an encounter" sounds like something taxing.

    2. Here's the 4E text describing encounter powers, just for comparison (PHB page 54):

      An encounter power can be used once per encounter. You need to take a short rest (page 263) before you can use one again. Encounter powers produce more powerful, more dramatic effects than at-will powers.

  3. If you can hack a bit of forge-y jargon, there's a very good discussion of precisely this issue on Vincent Baker's blog here: http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=456

    It doesn't map perfectly to the associated/disassociated distinction, but that breaks down anyway for lots of good reasons that folks have been pointing out.

    1. That thread's not really about the same issue, although you could describe some of the objections in terms of IIEE and FitM/FitE.

      In Forge Jargon, "dissociated mechanics" are Pervy Gamist or Narrativist (vs. either Vanilla G/N or any variety of Simulationist.) Ron changed the Pervy/Vanilla terminology, but I'm fuzzy on what the new expression was. Something about "points of contact"?

      There is an added complication that some people are objecting to Director Stance, especially if it's Pervy. That's the underlying issue Brendan is objecting to.

  4. Huh, Talysman-I'm not following your train of thought here. I mean, w/r/t to both "Points of contact" (Also my understanding of what the replacement for Pervy/Vanilla is) and director stance, it seems like neither of these map onto the associated/disassociated distinction. (The current body of theory also eschews calling any mechanic "Narrativist" or "Gamist" but that's not to the point). (I'm reviewing this thread: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=4299 in saying this, although I think the whole bit about specific mechanics not being associated with a creative agenda becomes more clear later).

    Director stance also seems potentially non-problematic along these lines: "I hit the goblin" [Dice] "You kill it." "Rahhh! Its guts are all over the floor and it's looking up like 'Why Maglubiyet why?'" (Whether that exchange might be a problem for any specific group, I don't think it's a universal issue nor associated/disassociated as such).

    Can you say more?