Abstractions – When is a Bullet Like a Baby?

I was talking about damage and stress in the last post, and I wanted to continue to talk about the problem of abstraction and “damage” in a role-playing game.

I design games with pretty abstract mechanics. These mechanics generally model all type of conflict the same, whether one is hacking at another with a sword, trying to explain complex mathematics, or interrogating a prisoner, the mechanics are the same. And with a streamlined mechanic for “damage” – which I’m going to call Stress, the mechanic I am using in Dream Riggers – it doesn’t matter whether it is the sword, the mathematics, or the questioning, you top off Stress and you are removed from the scene – in D&D you would be dead, but I don’t kill off PCs in my game.

We all understand that a bullet can kill anyone, no matter how well-trained they are, so generally, people are okay with a system that accepts one-shot kills. What I think is difficult is accepting a melded Stress mechanic that allows a character to be removed from a scene due to mental or emotional fatigue as easily as that same character could be removed by a bullet.

How many people here have been frustrated to distraction by trying to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture or a new BBQ? Those of us with children, do you remember trying to get the kid to sleep or stop a baby from crying? I’m not saying it always affects you the same, but these do affect you. The crux is that without very good cause-and-effect modelling, it’s hard to say exactly HOW such failures will affect a character. Sometimes we can breeze through such situations, laughing off failures, sometimes you have to put the instructions down or leave the baby in the crib and just walk away for a bit – essentially, being removed from a scene.

And for those two challenges (Ikea furniture and baby) the actual level of the obstacle is minimal but can still inflict levels of Stress that can remove an average adult from a Scene (in game terms).

So how do we model this? The problem is that we are okay with a kid with a 9mm getting lucky and putting a bullet in the throat of a Navy SEAL but we are not okay with visualizing a crying baby defeating that same Navy SEAL unless it is in a situation in which lives are at stake or there is some other exceptional pressure.

I would argue that Navy SEALs and particle physicists, and super geniuses . . . genii . . . are sometimes defeated by their crying children or their new Ikea furniture. All the time? No. Sometimes? Absolutely. Further, I would strongly argue that after failing to get the baby to stop crying, if that Navy SEAL went to the gun range, the preceding failure would impact on the individual’s performance.

This is what the abstractions in my games model – not true cause-and-effect but the possibility of a catastrophic failure in even a simple task. What it asks in return is the ability to then narratively model the outcome.

I’ve seen really smart and capable people brought low by simple tasks at which they fail. There were almost certainly reasons for that failure, but I am not interested in perfectly modelling cause-and-effect inputs in my mechanics. Honestly, no matter how complex a system, you will fail to adequately model actual cause-and-effect in the real world, which has innumerable inputs into its system.

I’m pretty sure most RPGers could narrate a good scene in which you character is removed from a scene due to emotional or mental Stress. This is all that is really necessary. If you can conceive of how it might happen, than the resistance should subside. I think resistance may be because most people still equate removal from the scene with being physically beaten. The abstraction causes a disconnect – being shot by a 9mm and having to put a baby down in the crib and walk out of the room doesn’t equate in people’s minds. It’s a matter of wrapping one’s head around the abstraction and playing with it, just like many of the other mechanics we use to simplify replicating life with dice.

The difficulties of abstractions.

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