Saturday, June 09, 2012

I think we're getting Dissociated Mechanics wrong

Justin Alexander recently updated his work on Dissociated Mechanics.  I suggest you go read that right now, because I think it's great work in the rewarding field of Trying to Figure Out Why Us Grumpy Oldsters Didn't Dig 4e and also because the rest of the post won't make sense without proper background.

Okay, let's get into this.  When Justin first rolled out this stuff I thought he was doing a pretty good job of describing one of the things bugging me about 4e when I tried it.  At the time I said "People have accused D&D of being a minis game or a video game in RPG drag. To me, it looks a little bit like a Euro style boardgame: an exquisitely balanced abstract game about nothing in particular with a whitewash to give it a little context."

But here's the thing: The more I think about it, the more I realize that our reading of this phenomena needs to be more nuanced than "4e has dissociated mechanics, and therefore it sucks".

Dissociated Mechanics aren't inherently wrong.  Like I implied above, Eurogames make use of a crapload of them.  I think a lot of popular crazy hippy indie RPGs employ them all over the place. And older versions of D&D probably have some dissociated mechanics that are invisible to me because I've been trained by decades of play to make connections that aren't really there.  Even my own house rules have some dissociation, as pointed out by Spawn of Edra at this Lands of Ara post:
Okay so Mr. Big Purple d30 Jeff Rients says a healing surge is a bogus abstraction, and you say it has no game-world logic, then what's the difference between a healing surge and a once per session d30 roll where you can have a damage surge once per session? And that's once per session, not once per game day? How dissociated is that?
The answer is because the d30 rule is awesome. But why is it awesome and the healing surge sucks?
I agree that both the abstracted heal surge rules bite the donkey's ass and that my own d30 house rule is pretty keen.   I also agree that both seem to be dissociated.

So what's happening here?  I think there are at least three important vectors at work:

  1. RPGs of the type I like to play need to lean towards associated mechanics.  For a good associated mechanic to work player intent, character intent, player action and character action need to be analogous.  You can map "I need to kill this fucking wizard" with your PC's thought "Damn, I hate this wizard. I think I'll stick my sword in his belly." and your action (roll to-hit) with the PC's action (poke wizard with sword).
  2. Dissociated mechanics can be incorporated provided they are infrequent, low priority and/or they give the players a fun special advantage.  One of the reasons players love my d30 rule is that they feel they are getting away with something other D&D players aren't able to do.
  3. A well-established play community will not take new dissociated mechanics sitting down, especially in the D&D community, where old dissociated mechanics can be tolerated or explained away with long, boring blog posts about Jack Vance.  Innovative dissociated mechanics are not tolerated, because they innovate away from that analogous play experience outlined in #1.
So I think I'm not against dissociated mechanics per se, I'm against dissociating things that were associated in previous editions.