So one of the things I’ve noticed recently in games is the use of mechanics to try and compel or protect the themes the game wants to utilize. I’ve seen it more in ‘genre’ games like 7th Sea. The book not only tells you that this is a swashbuckling setting but tries to use the rules to enforce that. It rewards roleplaying that goes along with the setting and tries to curtail characters acting against it.
I suppose the important question is should anyone do this? On the one hand it rewards clever roleplaying which I feel is always a positive. On the other, it tries to shape what kind of game you’re running. Now it’s true that you don’t ever have to use the rules or setting as written. I’ve certainly lifted rules out of a setting and reapplied them elsewhere. But should a designer try to control the stories their customers tell? As a way to balance gameplay mechanics it can certainly be a shortcut. In the old West End Star Wars the Force was incredibly powerful but also opened you up to corruption. If you ever committed an act the gamemaster felt was dark side worthy you got a dark side point. Then you rolled a d6 and if you rolled equal to or below your number of dark side points you became an NPC that fell to evil.
That’s an extreme example but an important one. It gives the gamemaster an easy way to simply take your character away. One that they can wield by ruling an action as ‘evil’ which is an incredibly relative idea. You see the same thing in the old World of Darkness Vampire: the Masquerade books. Every character had a Humanity track that they were supposed to struggle with and try to maintain as they slip lower and lower on it over time. It wasn’t something that could take your character away in one bad dice roll but it was a central mechanic to the game. Usually when I’ve seen it used it ended in two ways, either it was largely ignored except in the most despicable acts or game stopped to debate whether something counted or not.
I find myself in the middle, leaning towards using the mechanics to support themes. I think you shouldn’t threaten to take a character away from one bad decision unless it’s not arbitrary at all. I also think it shouldn’t break the flow of the game. If anything it should help it. If you act heroic and with panache in a swashbuckling game, you should be rewarded. If you confront your character’s worse nature in a horror game, you should be rewarded. If you’re in an over the top anime game, you should be rewarded for giving an over the top dramatic description. Maybe that’s the answer then. Maybe it should only be positive reinforcement that is used to protect the themes of the game. It’s less likely to interrupt the flow of the story, the players are more likely to have more fun, and it still encourages you to get into character.