Wonky Wednesday–Mechanics or Roleplay?

TL;DR: In the inaugural post of this new series, I discuss narrative support and cognitive organization, with examples from Fate RPG and Cortex Prime. The ideas are half-baked, but I got this. Probably.

In this blog, I’ve alluded to circumstances under which the Queer Clockpunk Campaign (QCF) I’ve been GM-ing since late 2021 had moved from Fate RPG to Cortex Prime. Part of it was a matter of convenience—the role of crafting in particular, see this post—but I also mentioned differences in narrative support from the rules.

Truth is, the transition from Fate to Cortex was a gradual evolution in roleplaying playstyle. But recently—at the time of writing, not publication—several players raised issues about Cortex’s mechanics getting in the way of roleplaying, both in the context of the QCF campaign and different ones.

So I revisited this history, to see if there was a point to make, beyond the “different strokes with different folks” and other generalities about there being no generalities. I gathered a few episodes of this history, which mostly speak for themselves, added some context, and half-assed a conclusion.

I should have about 11% of a point. I got this. Probably.

Fate RPG & Aspected Stories

Given the constraint of double-edginess (here in Core, here in Condensed), Fate’s Aspects can take time and effort to phrase properly. Aspect phrasing matters indirectly for mechanical reasons: it determines opportunities for invokes (bonus to rolls) and compels (metacurrency earning). 

Aspects only matter mechanically on failure (see that post; TL;DR: roll under a difficulty, invoke Aspects, boost the roll’s result, and beat the difficulty, after all). Then again, PCs can benefit from Aspects without dice rolls via narrative permission. The GM can waive a dice roll if an Aspect suggests that the PC “is good at [the task]” (here, 2nd paragraph after the bullet points).

Players may cash in on their Aspects investment with a generalization of the above: the GM sets a difficulty per standard rules, then the player tallies their PC’s relevant Aspects, and the comparison decides (post-length treatment, here). Below is an example, reconstructed from real play, with hopefully straightforward arithmetic.

Hedda Ohmdahl, Alderwoman of Winterhaven, and Brynjar Björnsson, engineer of the Corporation of Armorers, in pursuit of a (so far) noncooperative witness, are cornered by five members of the Iron Eels, a gang of local enforcers.

Justine: “Hedda slowly parts her winter coat open, then draws a short sword, with a grin showing that she knows how to use it—that’s my Words Cut Deep, Swords Cut Deeper Aspect, by the way.”

Jake (GM):
“Okay. Elias, what does Brynjar do?”

Elias: “Well, I guess Brynjar would just stand there, and look at them, and tilt his head side-to-side, to make his neck pop. And make his knuckles crack, too.”

Jake: “Okay. So it looks to me that you are both trying to Create an Advantage ahead of a potential conflict here. I’d say, Provoke for Hedda and Physique for Brynjar, does that make sense?”

[Justine and Elias agree]

Jake: “Okay, so, for Hedda, she’s opposing Good (+3) Dockside Enforcers, but in that case, their Know their Turf and Still Learning Diplomacy cancel out—they’re learning it, but it’s her day job. How’s her Provoke?”

Justine: “Great (+4), and she looks like a Shot Caller, and she actually says, ‘Are you sure you want to do this rather than talk, swords cut deeper than words,’ something like that.”

Jake: “Gotcha. So, with her Great (+4) skill, her Shot Caller and Words Cut … Aspects, that’s an effective skill of, like, Fantastic (+6), and I guess it’s for Shot Caller in Winterhaven, wanna take a roll?”

Justine: “Yeah, Shot Caller works. I’ll pass on the roll.”

Jake: “Okay, so, three above difficulty, that’s Success with Style, two free Invokes. For Brynjar, it’s on A Bear of a Man, I guess, how’s his Physique?”

Elias: “Oh, I thought more about creating a new Aspect, but yes, A Bear of a Man will do. His Physique is Great (+4), and I’ll pass on the roll, too.”

Jake: “Well, in Brynjar’s case, the Good (+3) Dockside Enforcers, they still have the Turf advantage, and they’re Still Learning Diplomacy so they’re okay with physicality. That’d be bumping the difficulty to—ouch! Superb (+5). With Brynjar’s A Bear of a Man and Physique, that’d be a tie—oh, he’s a Tavern Wrestling Main Event, that counts, too, they know his face! So, not that bad after all, Fantastic (+6), one above, regular Success, one free Invoke. Sure about those dice?”

Elias: “Yes, I’m happy with one free Invoke.”

Jake: “Okay, so, I’d say you guys are doing great, and you feel like you could get rid of them without a fight, … “

This playstyle amounts to rolling back changes Fate RPG introduced to Amber Diceless RPG, one of its inspirations. So, it’s a bit reactionary. The approach is not without issues (that I’ll return to) but on the upside, dice-less playstyle encourages “Aspect stories”—sketched by Justine explicitly or implied in Elias’ neck-and-knuckles crack-and-pop.

Cortex Prime: Dice Pool Stories

In Cortex Prime, almost everything narratively hefty is assigned a dice rating between 4- and 12-side. “Almost”: sometimes, a statement or a detail about a PC of GMC (Game Moderator Characters; the GM is a player too) does not have a rating. But if it’s not flavor text, it modifies one.

Like any system, Cortex Prime has pros and cons. I don’t put too much weight on arguments based on folks’ preferences, even mine, so I won’t give a list. But some facts about the system are perceived as cons by folks with particular preferences, and that I can list.

Now, for the pros. Again, my preferences are irrelevant, but there are facts about the system that would count as pros for someone with particular preferences. Someone who would want to look at a character sheet to try and make a story out of it. And in that case, I happen to have an example from an actual play-by-post session, Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Benny “The Screw” Eldon vs. Sherriff Dipshit

There’s a lot to unpack here, so bear with me. The game is Cortex GRIT, a hardboiled/noir setting, my first try at Cortex Prime. The Prime sets are Distinctions, telling the PC’s History of Violence, here Benny’s Veteran…; Approaches (styled Shades of Grit), here Gutsy, with a trait statement that Paul challenges (hence the tripled die); and Attributes (Hardass, Smartass, Wiseass)One of each is included in every dice pool, so that’s three dice already.

Now for extras. Benny’s dealing with a Sheriff, so his Reputation (style Street Smarts) with The Law applies. Street Smarts come with statements, and Benny’s about The Law had been challenged earlier in the game, so the GRIT rule of Fig. 2 earns Paul metacurrency. Benny’s Signature Asset is a personal reputation (Killed…), and Paul is creating another Asset with metacurrency (The Drop) on the spot to reflect Benny’s fictional positioning.

Fig. 2: An optional Cortex: GRIT rule.

Now, that may look like a lot of dice, and if you’re not familiar with Cortex Prime, power-gamey. But:

  • that’s okay; Benny’s making a power play, Paul’s dice pool reflects that, and he only gets to keep two dice anyway (unless paying metacurrency for more); for the record, Paul’s chances of success were about .7 (70%) so good, but not huge, because:
  • the opposition is a Doom Pool (styled The Growing Shadows) with a bunch of dice, too—the PCs had rolled a lot of hitches (rolling a 1), and I bought them all for metacurrency (that’s how a Doom Pool grows); this generalizes, because:
  • more dice are more opportunities for drama because every n-side die has a 1/chance to hitch that the GM can buy to create a complication; with all those dice, the probability of at least one hitch was .44 (44%), and that’s how PCs earn metacurrency, anyway.

The TL;DR: is “Large pool, better chances of success, more potential drama.” That’s how Cortex Prime is balanced, a reason for Paul to pack his pool, and enough to justify a large one. But, as I just said, that is a reason for Paul to pack his pool. Another is to apply the optional rule of Fig. 3.

Fig. 3. The “Dice Pool Story” Optional rule.

Paul is a born storyteller, so Dice Pool Stories come easy to him. But you may remember Alice from that post? They rediscovered Dice Pool Stories on their own to “cognitively organize Cortex into text posts.” Fig. 4 (reproduced with their permission) shows the full context of the discussion. 

Fig. 4. Alice/Cygn’s rediscovery of Dice Pool Stories (with their permission)

I’m not as good a storyteller as Paul and closer to neurotypicity than Alice/Cygn, but I have issues verbalizing mental pictures (I’m fine with dialogues, though). So I use Dice Pool Stories to support my GM-ing and PC-ing because it’s easier on my brain—and for GM-ing, I abuse Cortex’s version of Fate’s Bronze Rule for environmental elements or effects I want to describe.

Back to Fate: Aspects everywhere?

Now, going back to Fate dice-less, it should be clear that the “role play, not roll play” or “mechanics hurt roleplay” is the kind of tree folks would miss a forest for. For instance, consider the dice-less play with Justine and Elias. Here are some issues with it.

  1. It’s not what Fate RPG is made for. It emphasizes Create an Advantage (CaA) action as a source of free Invokes. But CaA already gives more value than Fate Points (FPs, Fate’s metacurrency) because free Invoke’s bonuses stack, while you can only buy Invokes one at a time with FPs. So FPs become almost irrelevant.
  2. It’s repetitive without CaA. This reinforces (1): unless a player CaA a lot, they’ll reference their PCs’ aspects time and again, as there are not many usable on the character sheet— Trouble and Phase Trio (Core) or Relationship (Condensed) are quite constrained. Compare with Cortex that has sets of Traits.
  3. It’s powergaming. Players who CaA a lot to address (2) benefit from a large number of Aspects and succeed often. Also, no dice roll, no risk. Compare with Cortex, where a high chance of success can go hand-in-hand with a high risk of complication.

There is a massive caveat here: (1)-(3) are self-inflicted wounds, insofar as the Elias-Jake-Justine group is concerned because that’s a playstyle we chose. But we chose it for a bundle of reasons, which lead us to eventually pick Cortex because it is better balanced for that playstyle.

Wrapping Up: The other 89%

I’m sure that a dozen taxonomies of TTRPG systems and player types could be used to reframe all I’ve said in this post in terms folks would process better. Still, I feel that it would be baking the point in the wrong oven. But it’s the wrong oven for my kitchen, so if it suits yours, have at it. Me? I just take it as proof that “mechanics in the back seat, roleplay in the front seat” is not a general truth.

Sometimes, mechanics hurt roleplay. Sometimes, it’s the lack of appropriate mechanics. Some folks can pick anything within a range, and that will work for them (Paul). Others can’t (Alice/Cygn); and sometimes a game evolves from a mix of preferences and brain-wiring constraints (Elias-Jake-Justine).

Now, I need to figure out the other 89% of that point. 

And that will be all for today, folks.

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