Monday, January 21, 2019

Understanding The Difference Between Story Freedom and Mechanical Freedom in RPGs

Today I want to talk about a particular way of describing games that I heard in a discussion a few weeks back. It neatly encapsulates a lot of the things I've been trying to say pretty much since I started this blog, and for all the other folks out there who haven't come across this term I want to take a moment to share it with you.

That term is mechanical freedom.


Story Freedom

Before we talk about mechanical freedom, you need to understand what story freedom is.

When most players hear the word freedom in terms of an RPG, they tend to think of story freedom. Story freedom is the ability to change, alter, or customize anything that doesn't actively change the mechanics of how the game works, or how your character works. Re-skinning, in other words.

The best example I have of this is the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons barbarian. At level one every barbarian's Rage cuts your damage from slashing, bludgeoning, and piercing in half, and you get some bonus damage, along with advantage on certain rolls that happen while you're raging.

Did somebody say Rage?
Now, you have total story freedom when it comes to how that Rage works. Are you going the traditional hulk/berserker route where you just lose yourself in battle fury? Do you grow cold and silent, showing no emotion and feeling no pain? Is your Rage a gift from the divine, or is it something that flows in your blood? Perhaps you claim storm giant blood, which makes your blows fall like thunder.

You know, the sort of stuff I talked about in 50 Shades of Rage: Flavoring the Barbarian's Signature Ability.

Let's take that last example for a moment, and focus on it. There is nothing in the rules that stops you from giving your barbarian gray skin and blocky features, as well as white hair to look like a creature descended from storm giants. If they have maxed-out physical stats, you can easily flavor their giant heritage to be the reason.

However, no matter how good this story is, it doesn't change any actual mechanics on your character sheet. Your character gains no special powers listed in the storm giant creature entry, and if a magical items requires you to be a storm giant in order to wield it, then by the rules as they exist you simply can't. You don't have any special resistances to electricity, and so on, and so forth.

Story freedom is good, but it tends to be toothless. Because no matter how cool the reskin you've made is, it hasn't altered the fundamental mechanics of what's just beneath that skin.

Mechanical Freedom

When you have story freedom, you are able to change how things look. It's the equivalent of giving your car a new paint job, but no matter how cool or sleek the exterior is, it will not change the engine that's running inside the vehicle.

Mechanical freedom does change the mechanics, and it tailors them to do what you want.

Now we're getting somewhere.
Let's go back to that barbarian who claimed they were descended from storm giants. However, instead of 5th Edition, let's switch over to Pathfinder. Because in Pathfinder you can mechanically show that heritage in a variety of ways.

The first is to take Rage Powers that allow you to deal electricity damage, or to resist it when you are raging. At higher levels you can even absorb it, healing yourself or letting it out in a burst to show that you and this element are one. Alternatively, you could make a Bloodrager whose entire affinity for electricity may, indeed, have been inherited from storm giant forebears. Or if you take the feat Racial Heritage (Storm Giant) at first level (provided you're a human, a half-elf, or a half-orc), then you have it in writing that your character counts as both a human and a storm giant for any and all effects that depend on your creature type.

So if you get hit with a spell that only affects storm giants, then it affects you. If you need to be a storm giant for a stronghold's enchanted lock to open, then it opens for you. If you try to lift the maul of storms, which can only be wielded by the hand of a storm giant... well, if you can physically pick it up, it recognizes you as a storm giant!

The Difference Is Clear

The problem with story freedom is that it's flimsy. Story is important, but you don't get to just ignore the rules of the game because you made up a cool story. Otherwise you end up with a playground game of make-believe where you have players claiming they should win because they have a better idea, or a cooler concept, or an everything-proof shield gifted to them by their half-angel mother before she died gloriously in battle protecting them while they were still in the crib.

Mechanical freedom, though, means the rules are on your side. This means that you make statements about mechanical facts, instead of asking for special treatment because of the effort you put into your re-skinning.

It's the difference between saying, "I shouldn't take any of that damage, because my barbarian is descended from storm giants," and saying, "I don't take any of that damage because I have the feat Storm Soul, a storm giant feat which makes him immune to any electricity damage."

That one down there! That's my grandson!
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with exercising your story freedom. If you want to give your tiefling big, curly ram horns, sharp hooves, black claws, and a spiny tail, you are perfectly within your rights to do so. However, you don't get two claw attacks, two hoof attacks, and a gore attack that all do 1d4 to 1d8 of damage because of your description.

For some players, that's fine. They enjoy just being able to exercise their story freedom on its own. But for me, and for a lot of other players, this simple term can now explain why story freedom on its own often isn't enough, and why you'd like a little more.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! Hopefully some folks out there find this explanation useful, and this term goes into a wider circulation for those of us who had trouble putting what we found lacking in a game into words.

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  1. As long as everyone’s a grownup about it and the Ref has final say, there’s nothing wrong with giving the barbarian player the perks of being a Storn giant kin.

    If it was Champions or Gurps then you’d have to pay the points. But it’s D&D and there’s way more leeway.

    I think it would be cool if one of the players had a storm giant kin. Just make sure it’s the Ref who gets to say what that means.

    1. The issue with allowing a player to say "I'm descended from Storm Giants" and just giving him bonuses for that is that it tends to imbalance the power level between players. It's not really a good thing to do, because then the player who comes up with the "most powerful" character backstory tends to just eclipse the other players and take the center stage more than their fair share. At least in Pathfinder, you have to spend actual resources on gaining these abilities (feats mostly), rather than just thinking of a cool idea and getting free bonuses from that.

  2. Thanks for clear our mind about the difference of stories pionts that the writer want to discribe the actual meaning of story if you want to invest in business as a side business with gold bullion dealers that help's you about your investment safe method to get high profit.

  3. The problem with mechanical "freedom" being that it defines set actions, and then holds you to set actions. This was one of the major problems with 4th edition; as now the fighter can't use sweep the leg until level 4, and then it plays out the same every time. Moves become static like in video games, playing out the same way every-time which leans away from the strength of tabletops, which is doing anything at any time.

  4. This is the core of the issue when it comes to caster and martial disparity that is so often mentioned. A wizard has the mechanical freedom to create entirely new planes, end a life of a creature with the snap of a finger, and resurrect loved ones from the dead. While any other nonmagical class is bound by the mechanics from ever doing such things.

    I call this "mother-may-I" or "ask and tell mechanics". The fighter has the story freedom to pursue such avenues if they so wish, but they do not have the mechanical freedom to do such things. They have to ask the DM if they may do any action that is beyond swinging a sword. Even jumping or climbing often require the DM's permission before they can be attempted. A wizard just casts a spell and does it, with no DM input. A fighter asks. A wizard tells.

    With that said, playing martials can be very fun, and with a good DM even more so, but on mechanics alone that is where the problem lies.

    1. Just a though I had: maybe that is why murder hobo is so common. When the only freedom and control you have is to swing a sword that is what you will do.

  5. Any competent DM can make mechanical alterations that allow a character to have creative agency, and I'd argue 5th edition's streamlined design (in particular, the elegance of "Bounded Accuracy") allows this to a greater degree than Pathfinder; a player shouldn't need to take four feats at level 1 to actualize a cool concept when simple changes to the base chassis of the race, class, or etc can give a player what they want without imbalancing play.

    Hell, I'd go one step further and argue that party imbalance is inevitable in Dungeons & Dragons (and by extension, Pathfinder) and that a cooperative group of adult friends either won't give a shit about party imbalance, or will be mature enough to work it out with the group -- which, again is easier to do via mechanical tweaks in 5th edition due to the uniformity of design.