That term is mechanical 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.
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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