One of the benefits about co-hosting an RPG Podcast and owning a small RPG company is that I get to talk a great deal about RPG’s with a lot of great gamers and game designers. One of those discussions has been about two facets of an RPG: the game and the fiction engine.

From Meta to Meat

I want to approach the discussion of these two facets of the game from a meta, or theoretical, position. At this level, my focus will be more on generalities, with supporting points. After that, we can get back to the meat and talk about how these two facets play an important part within the game you are running at your table.

The Game

RPGs are games; it says so right in the name. No matter what else you do when you are running or playing, you are engaged in a game. Games have rules and mechanics. This is true for RPG’s. There are games with a single page of rules, games with volumes of rules, and everything in between. Games have mechanics, such as: d20, Roll and Keep, or the Cypher System. We play these games with friends and strangers. We play face-to-face, online, and even by post/board/email.

The enjoyment of a game, arguably, is to use the rules and mechanics to accomplish some goal. In board and card games, our goal may be to bankrupt our opponent, get all the cures, or escape the temple. In RPGs we have similar goals. We make a skill check to unlock a door, or we use the combat rules to resolve a battle between the adventurers and the monsters.

In board and card games, there is often a win condition. This win condition is a mechanical, terminal goal which when met ends the game. With RPG’s there are is not a win condition in the same sense as a board game, but there are various win situations that can arise - such as defeating a roomful of Orcs in a cavern – but these do not trigger the end of the game. This lack of a mechanical, terminal goal is something that differentiates an RPG from other games.

It’s pretty easy to think of RPGs as games.

The Fiction Engine

Fiction is the description of imaginary events or people. A Fiction Engine is a set of processes and mechanics used to create and facilitate a fictional narrative. Fiction is different than just remembering the game. Anyone can talk about how they won a Pandemic game by recounting the cities they cured, the cards they played, etc. That is not fiction, those are just facts. Fiction is beyond the mechanical choices, it’s about the characters and the events in their lives.

Some games have strong fiction engines, with clearly-defined mechanics for advancing the fiction, while other games produce fiction as a by-product of their play. The level of importance that you place on the Fiction Engine will guide you into what games work best for your style. Regardless, there is the creation of fiction through the play of the game; the players talk to the NPC’s, they confront the mystery, they make discoveries.

The enjoyment that we derive through the fiction engine is the creation of those engaging experiences for the characters within the game. It is the memories we have of our choices, the feelings of surprise when a reveal occurs, the satisfaction of vanquishing an enemy, etc. They become for us the stories we tell when we remember the campaign.

Are these the same thing?

The same? No. They are different things, but they are intertwined by the unique nature of RPGs. The fiction of the game will drive the use of the rules, and the rules will create new fiction as combats and other checks create changes within the fiction.

At different times, a game session will place emphasis on one part or the other. A combat encounter tends to be heavily rooted in the game. Other times, we can have sessions that engage the rules very little but the fiction engine a great deal, such as when we have a night wandering around a new town, or a debate with NPC’s. Other times we have moments where the there is a balance, where we are going back and forth between the two systems and it appears that one cannot see the difference.

This may be the most important thing about RPG’s; the way these two parts interact and switch back and forth.

At The Table

So now let’s take that theory and put it into practice. What does this mean, and how can I use it to make a better game?

The first thing to consider is that your campaign is a game. So make your game mechanically interesting. Take the time to come up with uses of the rules that are exciting. Take combat scenes and put them in exotic locations so that you can use rules for ice or low gravity. Design little mini-games within your game, such as a countdown timer, so that the players feel the mechanical tension at the table.

Second, remember your game is a fiction engine. Make sure that your game is creating interesting decisions for the characters. Make sure you have a story that is compelling and logical. Create tough choices for the characters (and players) to agonize over. Give them a sense of the passage of time, and of relationships. Create drama through the fictional world and its inhabitants.

Finally, remember that the game and the fiction engine are intertwined. Let the outcomes of the characters actions have mechanical repercussions, and let the mechanical outcomes direct the flow of the fiction. Have combat scenes with dramatic stakes, and have dramatic scenes that hinge on mechanical outcomes.

This last point is really the key element. You already have the first two points covered if you have successfully run a game. Its through understanding the relationship between these two parts that one can leverage each to make the whole game more interesting.

Games of Fiction

The Game and the Fiction Engine are just one way to look at RPGs but it is one that addresses the unique qualities that make the RPG more dramatic than a board game, and more interactive than a good book. Understanding the duality of both the fiction and the game allows the GM to leverage each part, to make the whole gaming experience more engaging and memorable.

What emphasis do you put on the game? What emphasis do you put on the fiction engine? What games attract you more, ones that have strong game mechanics, or strong fiction engines?