The Mechanical Museum: How rules affect the story you want to create

I started role playing when I was a teenager: as usual to most neophytes for the medium, I started with Dungeons and Dragons, specifically fourth edition (which was new at the time). It was a fun game, but it wasn’t really what I expected when I thought of role playing games: I’d always been told that tabletop allowed for more creativity and off-the-wall solutions to weird problems. D&D played like a turn-based strategy game with cut scenes: we’d punch the monster good, and gear would come out like some sort of gore piñata. Not really my idea of a good time.

I didn’t really know any better, though, so I stuck around: I tried running my own game based on the weirdo setting that got me interested in D&D in the first place, Planescape. It didn’t work with 4e’s mechanics, and I didn’t understand why: everyone knows Dungeons and Dragons is the tabletop game, shouldn’t it be able to work as advertised? What was I doing wrong?

Time passed, and I gave up on that campaign: I ran a few more D&D games in my own homebrew settings, but they all fizzled out. There was something wrong: I couldn’t get the mechanics to hit the right notes for the setting. Too much emphasis on combat, or the rules for social interaction fell flat. It wasn’t until I found Don’t Rest Your Head that I realized where things went wrong.

D&D is a great game for what it does, and what it does is very specific: you wander a fantasy setting and you kill things for their stuff. You get better at killing things and taking their stuff as time goes on, until you become so good at killing things and taking their stuff that you need to move on. The narrative is a window dressing to the killing of things and taking their stuff. Meanwhile, the Planescape setting is very cerebral: it’s a game that should reward solving bizarre puzzles or dealing with knotty moral problems. A player character in Planescape isn’t a bad ass because they’re good at killing things: they’re bad ass when they can manipulate the world, affect the powers and mechanisms that run the setting. That’s not a good fight for a game based on tactical combat.

Don’t Rest Your Head is also a great game for what it does, and it is also very specific: You fight nightmares with your own insanity, and it wears you down. The more worn down you are, the stronger you get, until you’re too worn down, and you die or something worse happens. It is a game that is about the death spiral, and it weaponizes that death spiral: the farther along the death spiral you are, the better you are at holding it off for a few more moments.

This is silly, but I hadn’t really thought of these sorts of games as separate systems: I didn’t really understand that rules affected the way games are run. Learning about DRYH, and then countless other indie games made me understand that each system has its own strengths and weaknesses, and made me rethink how I run games. Instead of trying to fit the stories I wanted to tell into a specific framework, I started looking for the systems that would let those stories flourish. A fantasy game based on combat can use D&D really well: a fantasy game where you try to talk your way out of problems and has no violence at all does much better with Dying Earth. If I want a scary game where nothing matters, I can switch between Kult, Call of Cthulhu, or Unknown Armies depending on how I want nothing to matter. If I want a goofy fun game, I can always lean towards Dungeon World or Monsters and Other Childish Things or even Risus.

The role playing hobby is full of cool, fun, weird, and crazy ideas: if you have an idea for a story that you want your friends to mess with, there’s probably a few games out there catered to your specific ideas. Shit, there are games based on Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog. And even if your idea is new and unique and utterly strange, there’s always someone out there willing to help make it a reality. You can hit me up any time.

Contributed by Chris Hamann

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.