A scene from Mutant: Genlab Alpha…
Player 1: “We need to talk this dog into giving back your stuff. I guess Dominate is the persuasion skill of this game?”
Me: “Yeah but it’s literally dominating. It’s not uh…a wide open social skill.”
Player 2: “I got this. Hey dog, come on man, just give us our stuff back.“
Me: “That doesn’t sound very dominating.”
Player 2: “Yeah. Um uh. Okay dog, give us the stuff and we’ll trade you something good.“
Me: “Ehhh. Is a fair trade deal really domination?”
Player 2: “Yeah, yeah, I hear you.”
Player 1: “This is ridiculous.”
Me: “Dunno man. Reasoned arguments aren’t a thing in this game. Dominate means dominate. Body language, threats, bared teeth.”
Player 2: “You’ll give us our shit because you’re weak and we’re strong and we’ll just take it anyway.”
Me: “Yeah! Domination!”
What Does That Look Like?
There’s this GMing thing I do, like, almost all the time. It’s my go-to instinct when I can feel player wheedling for advantage, exploring mechanisms for an edge. I stop them and I ask, “Okay, but how does that look in the fiction?”
Happens all the time in Burning Wheel, for example: the player will start throwing together a die pool out of whatever skills and wises feel right. But if I stop them and say “but how does that look in the fiction?” more often than not they can’t actually rationalize the bonus. Same with Cortex Plus, when we were playing Firefly, and it was one of my beefs with the game: the widgets and handles you can grab for dice are often not written in a way that demand they look like anything at all.
What does that look like in the fiction isn’t just a no-fun GM measure against players abusing bonuses, it is IMO the whole point of sitting at that table.
Fuck Your Fluff
Which brings me to one of my most-hated trad gaming things ever, “crunch versus fluff.” This is up there, maybe even surpasses, ye olde “roleplaying or roll-playing” thing. The fluff is bullshit, the crunch is what “matters.” The fluff is just there to rationalize the crunch.
Man…you want a quick lesson in how misguided this is, play a talky-talky freeform game. It’s all fiction. There is no angling for mechanical advantage because there are no mechanisms.
Sometimes I think about a world in which the assumptions are reversed. As in, the crunch exists to rationalize the fluff. But we wouldn’t call it fluff would we? It’d have deferential, admiring slang. It’d maybe be the meat. (Apologies to the vegans.) And the crunch would need to be slightly sneered at, right? It’d be something dismissable, like the homework.
“The homework does a pretty good job of really supporting the meat of the game” or somesuch. Or “the homework is okay, doesn’t get in the way of the meat.”
But of course this is equally silly, yeah? The one ideally supports and reinforces the other. Virtuous cycle, inextricably linked, procedures and fiction talking to one another. I don’t know about you, but that’s my personal ideal in an RPG (and why I binge on freeforms at cons, to help counterbalance my fiction-loving brain and heart against the inescapable procedural bits of my home games).
But if you don’t stop and ask just how it is a skill or an advantage is actually being deployed in the fiction, there’s no cycle at all. I’m just done with lists of mechanical advantages that look like nothing and mean nothing and require nothing. Math for math’s sake. The mechanics talk to the fiction but the fiction doesn’t get to talk back.
Don’t know that anything in particular triggered this particular rant. Just been thinking about it because it comes up like all the time. The trick is to deploy this technique without necessarily stopping up their excitement, their flow. Rolling dice and winning rolls is fun! And it’s so easy for that excitement to win to outrun the point of the whole exercise.