Should stats and mechanics matter to narrative


This topic has probably been spoken of before, gods know I have broached it once or twice here. I just keep come back to it.

Should our mechanics, to start with our statistics (or the things we give numbers to) be as deep in the narrative of the game as the story itself?

I’ll explain. A person could use a system like ICRPG or DnD5e to run a Harry Potter setting game. That game would undoubtedly be super cool and fun. But, does it make sense to talk about characters in such a game from the context of Str, Dex, Con and so forth? Would it make more sense, and add to immersion, if the language of the mechanics were as inherent to the experience as the narrative elements of the story? I think it would, but that’s just me.

The more I play, run, consider, and hack games the more I hone in on what I want out of a game experience and what kind of experience I want to give my players. And I just keep coming up to: less mechanical weight and mechanics that are as much apart of the narrative as the storytelling and roleplaying is.

I don’t really have answers, I’m just kind of figuring things out. I like the sort or things that Blades in the Dark , and the Forged in the Dark products, has done with their action resolutions. They kind of draw you in and tell you what kind of game it is just by showing you the Actions section of the character sheet. It’s the same reason I feel weird about using normal ICRPG stats, other than effort, to do BEARCATS. The pieces ol’Hank wrote as kind of “placeholders” just make sense to roll with, they help inform the style of game BEARCATS wants to be. Hank did have a episode where he talks about making your mechanics matter. That has to go deeper than simple task resolution. At least that is my interpretation. (I am almost talking myself into thinking about Altered Stat with the same mind as I write this).

I know we have discussed the simplicity and the all encompassing scope of the traditional D&D stat block, but is it correct for everything? I know it is easy, because it is what a lot of us are used to. And some of you here have really helped bolster my understanding of using stats, which i am grateful for. But I feel the need to move beyond that. I feel like the whole table experience should be as much apart of the storytelling as the rp is.

Anyway, that’s all I got right now. If you have read this to the end, thanks. If you have thoughts or comments I would love to continue discussing. Ya’ll are seriously smart with this stuff.


I saw a post on Twitter a while back. Someone had written a Fast and the Furious one page rpg. The stats were Fast, Furious, and Family. Literally everything that could be in that type of story boiled down to those three stats. There was a Sexy Battle Wizards thing that was similar. So elegant, simple, and inherent it just blows my mind


The new Warhammer AoS RPG Soulbound only uses Mind, Body & Soul stat block. Skills are ranked under each of the main stats, super simple and stripped down but you can focus and improve skills.


I believe the game mechanics should always fit the narrative/game world the Game Master presents.

Say your group wants to play a game based around a group of warriors who ride giant beasts into battle. Well, it might be good to have a core stat like Empathy to use instead of Charisma and Wisdom. Keeping it as a skill (if we’re starting from a 5e perspective) would undercut how integral these beasts are to the game. We’re using them just as much as our characters, so why wouldn’t they have just as much focus?

Maybe to fix this you give MIGHT, MIND, EMPATHY stats for both the character and beast. The options for what you can do are pretty infinite but what really matters is how it feels to play. Do I feel like I’m playing a game about carnal beasts and axe-wielding warriors or am I playing D&D half-hammered and duck taped?

Feeling is key. If you feel like the mechanics don’t fit the game you’re playing, they probably don’t.


I’m not sure how the rest of the game works but just these stats tell me how the game is intended to be played.

The game designer should first decide what the game itself is about and design mechanics around that, then get rid of everything else.


I’m not 100% sold on the idea that the mechanics have to be retooled to fit the game. What you want is for the mechanics to fade into the background. Take, for example, good writing. When you’re reading a well-written novel, you consume page after page without ever getting jarred out of immersion and back into reality. In contrast, when you come across a poor writer, it’s easy to get thrown out of immersion and into your own head space as a grammar or syntax error breaks the flow. To me, it’s the same with game mechanics.

That being said, re-tooling mechanics to “fit the narrative” cuts both ways, and from a game design standpoint, I think you have to be careful. If you have a bunch of wonky terms, for example, “roll Edge, Slip, Break, and Toss,” then as players try to wrap their heads around those foreign concepts (like bad writing), they’ll spend more time in their own head space and less on the moment in the fiction — at least until they’ve played that game for hours and hours and hours and made it second nature.

The old familiars of Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha work for a lot of games because they are almost so universally similar that they just fade into the background, like good writing. In a novel, you never pay attention to how many times the writer uses the word “said” during a piece of well-written dialogue. It’s there, but your mind skips over it to get back into the action. The same is true of the old faithfuls, which is why you can use ICRPG’s framework to run anything. And I can speak from experience, having run Aliens, Robotech, Starship Troopers, cyberpunk, and zombies (and lots of fantasy too) using stats and mechanics that are, at their core, old D&D fantasy stats. I’ve also played in Bearcats, a Vietnam war era game, and other modern settings. I think if you spoke to the players in those games, none of them would say they got hung up on making a Dex or a Str roll in the moment. The mechanics were silently in the background. So, my point is, I don’t think the basic stats necessarily detract from immersion. Moreover, specialized stats that are unfamiliar can definitely detract from immersion.

That being said, it’s also true that having stats or mechanics that are themed to your game can help the feel, if they are done right. For example, you could do a zombie game right now with just “Meat” and “Brains” as your stats, and those two terms would fit perfectly for a zombie game and be so inherently simple for players that everyone would instantly “get it,” and the mechanics would disappear into the background. But, as I said, I have also seen this done poorly. Right now, there’s probably someone who loves rolling weird dice with symbols on them and counting up the oddball symbols to determine a result, but I don’t count that type of nonsense as successful game design. It’s offputting.

A Harry Potter game might just have vitality, finesse, magic, dark arts, and potions as stats and be okay. But for some players, even those concepts might be difficult. “Wait, do I roll finesse or vitality here?” And… immersion just broke.

Anyway, then the next consideration is whether you need stats at all. Maybe your character is just a collection of tags. And maybe you don’t decide outcomes by random chance with dice. I have heard that there are folks who play that way, but to me, rolling dice means having fun. It’s those tiny dopamine spikes all night long that keep excitement high, imho (it’s also biology, folks), but proponents of more story-driven games would disagree with me. Although, my counter to that is, just go join an improv group if you just want a shared story-telling experience with no mechanics in the way. Or play Fiasco. :wink:

But I profess. I come from a strong belief that drama requires tension, and tension means the PCs have a problem (which is oftentimes
peril). And resolving problems usually requires some form of resolution mechanic that isn’t just the player or DM making up an outcome. And if you have a resolution mechanic, then it should be intuitive, but it doesn’t have to be “themed” to what you are playing for immersion to stay high.


You’re correct here Alex. In order for such mechanics to work they have to be intuitive to use and clearly defined or the immersion breaks. Which can be the hard part. And ultimately you are most likely correct on the rest. I’m just over thinking things, and should just be playing and running. Thank you for a well put reply.


I don’t know how “correct” I am, as much as I am offering my two cents. My two cents and a bag of chips are worth only a bag of chips.


but if its a good bag of chips…and besides you have a heap of experience here that itself should be telling.

Most of this thought process of mine comes from boardgames, video games, and these one-page rpgs that pop up.
Boardgame mechanic design is a whole other beast, but the immersion and narrative mechanic considerations I think can translate into rpgs. Video games is really the same as boardgames, there is just a seperate system that exists hidden from view, most of the time, that does all the work for us. -Which has always been my problem with Borderlands, the gimmick of it breaks immersion for me, though i suppose that is the point there-
The one-page rpgs are an interesting animal though. I feel like most are really meant to be one shots. But they generally do really interesting things with pairing down mechanics, making them match the narrative focus, and making them easy to use. I just think there has to be something there we can bring into wider game design.

Your thoughts on the old standby stats jives though. They are easiest for most people because they are in the zeitgeist and are good cognitive anchors. And don’t get me wrong I love and continue to play the games with these markers.

And maybe my thought work here ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, but I have to continue to wonder if there is a more concise way to tell our stories and play our games than the same way we have been…


6 stats work because they’ve been used for so long and 6 provides a level of granularity that fewer stats could. However, fewer can and do work well (Into the Odd uses 3).

Again, though, it comes down to what your game is about… most modern d20 games use stats (and their Modifiers) to test if your character can actually do many things, so that level of granularity 6 stats provides works (to an extent).

I’m going to compare to Into the Odd since I’ve already brought it up. It uses 3 stats but as Saves. Yes, your PC can lift the portcullis but Save to see if the strain is too much and he is injured.

Stats, and how you use them with the other mechanics, convey how a game is played.


I got asked my opinion on this…truth is I don’t have have a strong one.

I think the 6 stats are not crunchy enough if we are going that route and too crunchy if we are going the simple route…

So for me, D20 based systems represent an unhappy medium, ICRPG is in my opinion the best choice in that unhappy medium to play what I want…
It’s quick to teach, intuitive if the person already played D&D or Pathfinder…

But it doesn’t come close to a crunchy skill/powers system.

5E and Pathfinder get into their weird crunchy level by adding limited skills and a slow accumulation of agreed upon powers.

As to variable, I think d20 is too variable unless we are talking stats of 30+ and TNs of 20~50…but we scratch our gambling itch with the high variable.

But if we are going for high endorphin drama…high variability is key.

I’m just finding combat boring, at the moment…and that is where I am sitting with RPGs. If combat is the high drama…”I’m a gamer, I have many lives!”

Exploration seems so much more fascinating to me at the moment! But ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably change my answer.

As to the real answer to your question…no, mechanics and stats shouldn’t matter…but if I am playing Harry Potter, an exp leveling mechanic detracts from the game. Physical stats mostly detract from the game. I don’t want to reduce cleverness to a random roll!!!

Loot works, but so do Tags…so I can adapt ICRPG more quickly than D&D, but Champions or Savage Worlds would fit better…but character creation in both of those games is torture for some.

A custom game with any dice mechanic would work…but what adds to the feel, you are trying to project???
Confidence, competence, friendship, do good by others, always be curious…are the foundations of Harry Potter…how would you represent that in stats?


Its all a matter of what do you test, and what is a given. You are right about the building blocks of HP. I would propose 4 stats; Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryfyndor. Each has a defined set of characteristics both mental and social. In HP testing physical stuff only seems to happen for narrative effect, its never a test. Duddley is gonna dominate Harry physically, no question. When Neville has the sword he is gonna beat Nagini, again no question. So spell duels are the tricky bit. I’m not there yet.


Also, yeah…TAGS. they totally can fill the gaps and give narrative color. Hell, they may even be the answer to my woes.


I honestly would do Tags choose 3 from a list of 15, bio-forms are the Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor, each gets their own tag with a mechanical meaning. As for saves!!! Body, Mind, Heart…
Put points into the tags you choose…a D6 for having the Tag, an additional for each point in it. Same With Body, Mind, and Heart.

Test it see if it runs…see if it simulates the type of theme you want…adjust in whatever way you want.

20 minutes…I was having a conversation with the neigbor about other neighbors.

You just replied…

Yes Tags!!! The ultimate duct Tape in this system!!!


I love it. The funny part is that the Harry Potter inclusion was just an example. But we ran with it.


It was a great example!!! It’s not combat focused, but high levels of drama and danger!!!


Stats belong to physical stuff. Mind, intelligence and spirit and such should not be stated.


Mostly I agree with you, but if the narrative of the game is such that physical expression is a narrative given then other things need to be tested.


Are we talking all RPGs or the Harry Potter example above?

If speaking generally, I don’t agree, or I do depending on the game? Is the character only measured/ challenged on Strength, Agility, nimbleness, physical fortitude, Constitution!!! Not on Bravery, WillPower, Intelligence, Craftyness, Emotional Volatility, gullibility, mental fortitude, stuburness, knowledge and so on…

This puts incredible limitations on how the world can influence the characters.Physical Stats only has it’s place, but believing that Mental stats have no place…makes it very hard for people who are not quick on their mental feet, to keep up with others at the table who have done this for years!!! Or the person who has committed to memory every Stat set in the Creature Catalog, means all their characters share that knowledge, regardless of back story or concept.

Or the Person who knows how to charm the GM, can charm all the NPCs!.

That said, I generally would rather use Attributes as a saving throw and skills as an actionable activity. But I don’t get the Blanket Statement:

I can play in those games…but how are illusions or hallucinations countered? How do they take hold in your game worlds?


I’ll agree to this for sure. In a game, like d&d, where anything is possible and encounterable we need to be able to test for everything. But in a game where only certain things are testable we should only have to test for those. The only i am against testing on is how my character reacts. You can give me inputs…all the best ones or the worst, but it needs to be up to me to (hopefully in character) respond accordingly. But if a game needs to test bravery, like HP might, then we test it and the role can help determine which way a reaction swings…or something. Its all up to the intention and feel of the game