Designing narrative mechanics

After creating the Warrior, Hunter, and Witch, and establishing the stat distribution structure of the classes, I had the relatively easy job of assigning the remaining three combinations (STR int, AGI str, and INT str) to flavourful archetypes. The Warrior was born out of a mechanical need (the Hunter too, but to a lesser extent), so I knew I wanted to approach the other Strength-based class from the complete opposite direction.

Let’s get a little technical for a moment. The term “narrative mechanics” typically represents light rules that attempt to ground a character’s interaction with the system when given completely free form input. They are notoriously tricky to get right, because they have to walk a very fine line between allowing that true freedom of input and working with the solid rules of the game. By freedom of input, I don’t mean that the player narrates what their character does and then translates that to mechanics – in RPGs, this is already the norm (to a degree, of course, based on individual play styles) and how regular mechanics work. In fact, the player narrating their character’s actions is the universal input for any type of RPG mechanic. Narrative mechanics function more like a trigger, and are ways to identify when a mechanical interaction is supposed to happen during the narrative that’s unfolding at the time. Essentially, it’s a way to turn the actual roleplaying into an effect, and the best part is that doesn’t favour one type of roleplaying over another (say, getting really into character and doing voices over dully describing with a few words what your character does), but the act itself. It’s a little confusing, but that’s the type of “narrative” that is meant here, not in terms of “narration”. Felt like getting this out of the way.

In my experience, the primary thing that narrative mechanics enable is extreme flavour – they allow you to support a very wide range of themes that the player can explore with their characters. By their rules-light nature, there is a lot of wiggle room and space for interpretation, which is the primary reason they are hard to do right. With too much room, certain types of players will constantly try to justify things to the GM and, ironically, attempt to constantly rules-lawyer their way out of situations. With too little room, the whole thing starts to become quite pointless, up until you’re better off with plain old hard-coded mechanics. The way I like to approach the subject is by grounding them in restrictions, which I can then tune to the desired range of “freedom”. There are two types of restrictions when it comes to these things – defining what’s possible OR defining what’s impossible.

Normally, and especially for word building purposes, I’ve always advocated to do the broader thing and define the impossible, leaving everything else up to the player’s imagination. It’s a very powerful tool in any type of design, because in a way it removes a lot of that ambiguity that players might bicker over. Note that this bickering can’t ever be completely avoided, however a designer can minimise it, and should, to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, even with space being a precious resource when it comes to the Balance book, I felt like I had to go the other way and define what’s possible. The primary reason is that by working from this side of the spectrum, I can better set player expectations in regards to the flavour of the class and what I want it to do. This is quite important, because despite all my advocacy for player freedom, I want to keep things relatively confined in this case. It’s hard to design adventures (which is the primary intended method of play for Balance) when somebody is doing a wild interpretation of a Knight – and even harder to design, they are even harder to balance when you don’t know what to expect. With all of this in mind, I designed the Knight’s passive (Chivalry) and built the entire class around it.

Chivalry, a.k.a. sticking to the Knight’s Code of Chivalry, are a set of soft rules that the Knight has to abide. Whether or not they do is something I leave for the GM and players to parse, since the game engine can’t possibly be bothered to slap extra tags on actions and check every time. Herein lieth the bulk of the narrative mechanics, in this class’ passive. It interacts with the roleplaying, and gives or takes mechanical power based off of that. Acting in accordance to the Code gives you Advantage on your actions (all of them), while behaving unknightly gives you Disadvantage on your actions (yes, yes, all of them). (Except it actually gives you permanent A/DA on the roll, which a special type that can’t be removed by any means… still going back and forth on this) I could have gone for a less binary approach, where it only does one or the other, but I really want to reinforce the idea of the Knight being stalwart paragon of values, in order to play into their themes more. This could be treated as a slight problem, because restricting a player’s roleplaying freedom is a bit of a sacrilege, but I think it works. There is a lot of power being handed out essentially for free here, so there have to be appropriate restrictions. In Balance I’m not just looking to make a balanced game – I want to explore all the ways a game might achieve balance, by giving and taking from seemingly unrelated places at times. This will give me the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t for future projects. But more than that, this little “problem” can be easily remedied – if somebody wants to play the “bad knight” archetype, all I have to do is give them a couple of higher end abilities that play off of breaking the Code on purpose, for some comparable and possibly larger benefit than the Disadvantage they will get. Which ties into:

The Knight’s paths were very easy to settle on. I knew the Warrior was doing combat for sure, which left stealth, tactics, and social for the Knight. Being a noble, social felt right, and between the other two I had a harder time imagining a Stealthy Knight archetype than I did Tactical Knight. Given that their secondary stat is intelligence, and the Warrior’s is agility, it came somewhat natural to put them on tactics and social in the end. Thematically, it all made sense with what I was imagining. The real design challenge with the Knight and his paths was the fact that from the get-go, gameplay was so heavily focused on the passive that they didn’t really need most skills I came up with. The best way to play a Knight was to stick to being chivalrous and pick up raw stats from your twilight path. I thought quite a lot on how to remedy that, and here’s my final solution – vows. Skills in Balance do two things; they let you roll dice in addition to your stats, and they are usually focused on giving you either Advantage or giving enemies Disadvantage, so that your rolls are better. Hence why Skills are relatively useless to a Knight – they already get that from their passive regardless. So any Skill they had would have to work with the passive.

What is the Knight’s Code of Chivalrous Conduct, really? A set of promises, from oneself to others and to oneself, that they will behave in a certain way and uphold certain virtues. What is a vow? It’s a promise one makes as much to someone else as to themselves, that they will behave in a certain way and/or uphold a certain virtue. I made most of the Knight’s skills work with Chivalry by expanding on the set of limitations they impose on themselves. The twist here is that vows are more limited in their scope, but on the other hand they also work more directly toward a goal. Since they aren’t as ever-present as the passive, and taken during gameplay, they can be more flexible too, since the Knight can choose their vows each time. Of course I also gave them some bread and butter actions, so that they don’t rely solely on neutral skills to get by when they have to act during an Event. Most of their skills have to do with enabling/disabling others, since the Knight himself can’t benefit all that much from them, but that just fits their theme.

Designing gameplay around such free-form passive was challenging, and I learned a lot from it. To think differently about the way skills can be useful to a class and others, and to understand what makes narrative mechanics tick. I further applied these lessons in the other less mechanically intensive classes, like the Rogue and the Witch. I was hesitant to take the more open-ended approach of defining what you can do (rather than what you can’t), but it worked out alright in the end. One of my biggest goals with the project was to see if a class can be balanced by the narrative surrounding the character, and so far I dare say it’s quite possible. There will always be personal opinions involved when it comes to these things, this is something I couldn’t quite find a solution to, but hopefully Balance does it in a way where those don’t come up very often. Overall, don’t be afraid of giving and taking power from weird and non-traditional places, because it might just work.

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