So, I wanted to write a little thing about some terms that I use, and a distinction that I’ve found.  It’s probably what underlies a lot of “rules light” vs “crunch” arguments.

First off, nothing I say here should be taken in a pejorative manner.  This is not some kind of “roleplay vs. rollplay” argument.  Screw that.  Telling people they play elf games wrong is dumb.  If I really want to say something is dumb, I’ll do that (kinda like I just did).  So I’d ask people reading this to take things in the most respectful manner possible.  That’s the intent, and if I’ve missed that, then please try to read it respectfully, and let me know where I missed that mark.

So, what do I mean by these terms?  Well, by “fiction first” I certainly don’t mean the story the GM has planned out.  I’m not a big fan of that style of playing.  What I mean by “fiction” is simple – it’s the stuff we’re imagining in our heads, as opposed to the numbers and minis and maps and other stuff on the table.

“Fiction first” just means that what we imagine takes precedence, and that the rules follow from that.  “Mechanics first” means that the mechanics take precedence, and are the initiator, and that we then describe what that looks like in the game world.

A simple example

Okay, so let’s look at a couple of examples, in some arbitrary pseudo-system.

The Orc, Mechanics-First

GM: “Okay, the orc comes up to you and does an attack.  You can see the spittle on his lips as he pulls back for a swing.  It’s a Power Attack.”
Player: “I do a full defense, parrying his attacks out of the way.”
GM: “Cool, I’ll roll attack, you roll parry with a +2”.

The Orc, Fiction-First

GM: “The orc rushes at you, his axe raised in the air, and brings it down on you.”
Player: “I fall into a defensive stance, and bring up my sword to meet his.”
GM: “Cool, it’s the orc’s attack vs. your parry with a +2.”

Well… that doesn’t seem very different.  The only difference here is that in the first example, we’re pretty much starting with the mechanics, and in the second one, we don’t really bring up mechanics to the end.  But in this example, as in real-life, usually a given action is somewhere in the middle.

A more interesting example…

The Ghoul, Mechanics First

GM: “Okay, the ghoul reaches out at you, trying to paralyze you.  That’s a touch attack.”
Player: “I don’t want to be paralyzed, so I’ll do a full defense.  I push the ghoul away.”
GM: “Okay, I’ll roll the ghoul’s attack, and do your defense.”

The Ghoul, Fiction First

GM: “The ghoul reaches out at you, trying to grab you and paralyze you.”
Player: “I push the ghoul’s arms away.”
GM: “As soon as you grab the ghoul’s arms, you feel a chill enter your body.”

Okay, so that was a bit different.  In the second example, the player didn’t even get a defense.  What the heck?

So this is the core of mechanics-first vs. fiction-first.  Ghouls paralyze on touch.  Attacks get a defense roll.  How do we reconcile these?

In the mechanics-first example, we look at the attack resolution procedures.  How it’s described is a secondary effect, as the mechanics tell us what happened.  So we do a defense roll on the ghoul’s attack.

But in the fiction-first example, what the character does is the important thing.  And the player described grabbing the ghoul.  Well if you touch a ghoul, you get paralyzed.  So, given that, why would the ghoul need to roll an attack?  You just gave it what it wants!

What’s authoritative?

This is the biggest difference between fiction-first and mechanics-first play.  In fiction-first, we start and end by describing our characters’ actions in the game world.  We refer to the rules when the result of that isn’t obvious.

However, in a mechanics-first game, the mechanics take precedence.  We can describe them however we want, but if there’s a mechanical action that specifies some effect, it’s considered to be a legal action.  How we describe it doesn’t really impact anything except how we imagine things.

These are very different ways to play!

The basic action resolution procedure

So, we can kind of look at this as a sequence of events that happen when we resolve an action.

Mechanics-First

  1. Pick an action
  2. Describe the action and declare it
  3. Opposition (if applicable) decides their action
  4. If appropriate, the opposition describes their action
  5. Roll dice or do whatever mechanical resolution is needed

Fiction-First

  1. Describe what your character does
  2. If appropriate, the opposition decides what they do
  3. Someone (generally the GM) decides what mechanics apply in this case, if any
  4. Roll dice to determine the outcome

For the ghoul example, the difference comes that in the “fiction-first” model, in step three the GM basically says “hey, no defense is really called for here, because what you’re doing doesn’t actually prevent the ghoul from touching you, which is what the ghoul wants.”  What’s “actually happening” is the driver here.

In the mechanics-first example, the ghoul makes an attack, and the player defends.  The description of these things is flavor – it helps paint a picture of what’s happening, but it doesn’t actually impact the mechanics.

Technically, describing your action in a mechanics-first model is optional – it doesn’t have any mechanical impact.  However, in a fiction-first model, it’s mandatory.  Without a description of what you’re doing, the GM can’t decide what mechanics to apply.

So, which is better?

Neither.  They’re both awesome ways to play!  But some people might prefer one or the other, and some games might work better with one or the other, even though any game can be played with either approach.

A mechanics-first approach is awesome because it can make the mechanics, and mastery of them, a lot of fun.  Some people really enjoy the complexity of figuring out the best way to overcome an obstacle, and they’ll probably enjoy this approach.

A fiction-first approach puts the emphasis front-and-center on what you’re imagining.  It pushes the rules to the back of the game.  This can be great if you’re uninterested in mechanical complexity, but are more invested in the idea of imagining what is happening.

Mechanics-first approaches also work better for people that like things to be well-defined, and not a matter of judgement calls.  Fiction-first approaches *require* judgement calls on a constant basis, and so aren’t good matches for tables that tend to be argumentative about rules and decisions.

If neither is better, why worry about it?

Because of expectations.  Some players may expect things to work a certain way, and others may expect other things.  Having an understanding of the difference is pretty important to make sure that things flow smoothly.

Also, to get an idea of other play styles.  If for no other reason, talking to people about RPGs can be a lot easier if you understand that people are coming from a different view, and are in fact running their games in very different ways.