Mechanics as atmosphere

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Dream Pod 9. This game has amazing art… which is nigh-impossible to find online due to its age. It really is worth the hassle to hunt down the books to dive into it.

(Yet another roleplaying post. I have been running a lot of RPGs this year, what can I say… This is also a super short post as I realized it’s coming up on midnight on a Friday and I’m still at the office and I need a break from work.)

This is also yet another RPG mechanics post – there appears to be a lot to say about the relationship of mechanics with storytelling, even when lots of folks are saying their polarities reject each other.

We played a game of Heavy Gear last weekend. It’s my favorite roleplaying world and game, even if we haven’t played a ton of it. Easily worth tracking down even though it’s been out of print for years now.

I had a problem with nailing down the atmosphere of the game for the group. Heavy Gear is science fiction and it’s war themed, but it’s still anime inspired with over the top character archetypes, and all these watchwords and somewhat conflicting directions had my players’ heads spinning. I couldn’t think of a way to put it succinctly and cleanly – my long history with the game got in the way and I couldn’t see it from a newcomer’s perspective. (Entirely my failure, I realise it.)

This was all still bothering me when we got into the finale of the session. The players were portraying military intelligence operatives chasing two suspects in a desert. We finally brought the titular giant robots, Heavy Gears, on the scene and the players got into the whole power-tripping side of it, laying down autocannon fire at genetically-engineered supersoldiers and dominating the battlefield.

Then the first hostile shot of the game was fired, a hover APC gliding from cover and opening fire with a scatter laser cannon. Dice rolled and on an average result, on first contact, the players’ biggest gun, a Warrior Heavy Gear, blew into a fireball in the desert night, seriously wounding the player character inside. The mood at the table immediately shifted.

“Oh it’s that kind of game.”

“Now I get what you mean with the not-glorified warfare, albeit high action.”

With any other but the Silhouette system, this would’ve played out another way, and the players would still be guessing about the game’s direction.

Mechanics set the mood after human interaction and imagination had failed.

3 Comments

  1. This is the reason why I call for actual playtest before one writes a review. I at least have trouble figuring out the atmosphere of a game without actually trying out the mechanics. (Likewise I’ve got problems building a certain kind of atmosphere if the mechanics don’t support it.)

  2. Rob

    I think I could have understood the mood of the game by those three themes until the point that a single average attack seriously wounded one of the PCs.

  3. Joonas Laakso

    Yes, but that’s precisely the problem. I should’ve started by considering the mechanics – because I did know how they work and what kind of game they portray – and understood what they tell of the game. Instead of having it all be in conflict with itself.

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