Out of the box, Dungeons and Dragons’ major game mechanics are largely focused on combat and role playing, in that order. These game mechanics are how things work from a logical and consistent sense. In combat these are pretty rigid, following a step by step formula. In role playing there’s a lot more wiggle room, but there are still some basic mechanics that function under the hood for getting a sense of what your characters do in the world and how likely they are to succeed at any given action.
While these make up a large portion of the gameplay in D&D, there are also emergent game mechanics hidden in the world your players interact with. We’ll look at what those are and break down some vital rules about applying game mechanics to your sessions with consistency and clarity.
What is a Game Mechanic Really?
In the simplest terms possible, game mechanics are a consistent set of rules that gameplay derives from. Players play the game by making choices and following the rules to the outcome. For our purposes we are going to assume all game mechanics take some form of input that influences the outcome. Typically this input is player based. For example, a player chooses to use an attack and follows the rules for that attack option, rolling the appropriate dice. If the outcome was independent of input, then the mechanic is not really fun because it takes away player agency.
Okay, so why all this rule talk? Game mechanics are just rules, so why do we care?
We care about game mechanics because in a lot of D&D games there are rules in play that are unwritten, homebrewed, or optional. As the Dungeon Master you get to make a lot of choices about mechanics in your world and often have to do so on the fly.
You might have a player who wants to craft a mundane item. Sure there are some rules to help you facilitate that, but D&D crafting is notoriously light on rules, so you have to make a judgement call. Someone wants to try to create a new spell. Do you roll for that? These are just a few examples of the core idea that you need to make up rules on the fly all the time.
Lucky for us, D&D is flexible. The core rules give us a lot to work with. The Dungeon Master’s Guide tells how to make judgments and simplify things. We still need to take a lot of things into consideration to make good game mechanics work, but we have a great starting framework in D&D for managing all sorts of things. Health, stats, various magical effects – these things all have rules we can pull up, we just need to know when to apply them.
Game Mechanics on the Fly: the Good and the Bad
While you might be figuring out rules left and right as your players move through the world, you still have some obstacles to look out for. If you handle things more narratively without letting the dice guide your way, you’ll end up reducing player interactivity a bit. On the other hand, you can let fate decide a lot of what you do and have players roll for almost any interaction. This adds a twist in that your narration as a DM is heavily dependent on luck and rolls.
This is the good in D&D when it comes to mechanics; they’re flexible enough to give you options, but consistent enough that you don’t have to pause to look up everything. Any action is likely a roll or a narrative outcome.
The bad part of this creeps in with how you apply these options. Players are looking for consistency in their game. If you make someone roll for something one, they will expect to roll for it again in the future. The same is true in reverse. Players will look for you to apply the rules the same way each time and establish a working mechanic for everyone.
What’s more important is that any interaction players remember gets mapped in their mind as an option for later use. The reason this is bad is because it’s demanding of you to remember how you’re applying rules. Whenever something new is established you need to be sure to use it that way in the future as well or your players may feel cheated.
Clarity In Mechanics
New game mechanics come into play in ways that might not be obvious to players. Players might not necessarily know how to interact with a given object in a dungeon at first glance, but they can figure out the rules by experimentation. This is part of the fun of D&D. However, rules need to be more obvious than you think.
Let’s say you have a pile of wands in a room and players try them out. If the first 5 wands cast magic missile, it will be assumed they all cast magic missile. This might not be true, but in a narrative game you can’t leave this up to chance. If each wand had a different effect, then players would assume they could be anything.
This might sound trivial, but when you’re playing a game you expect the rules to be knowable and relatively straightforward. At the very least you expect the experimentation with a game mechanic will yield discernable results. Any interaction should clearly telegraph an outcome. The technical mechanics themselves may be hidden from player sight, but the player should still see that when they perform an action they get a result.
One of the easiest things to notice about game mechanics as a DM is when your players give up. If your players push a door and you say the door is unaffected, they might assume they can’t open it. Even if it was actually a pull door and they didn’t try it, you gave them a result that contradicts the expected action. If you wanted them to continue you need to take the meaning of their words into consideration and assume they are trying to open the door, regardless of the direction it opens.
Player Internalization of Game Mechanics
Being able to read your players is a critical skill for a Dungeon Master. You have to know if your players “get it” or not. When there’s confusion on how a rule works you can often tell by listening to players try different things after they’ve already stumbled across the solution or correct interaction for any given object.
Often this is because one of two things was unclear. The first issue could be that the player does not understand the desired outcome for the action. If the action was helpful or harmful it needs to be obvious to the players that they should or should not do it again. The second issue is that the player may be unsure how their action resulted in the outcome they arrived at.
In both cases players will fail to internalize the mechanic and it will make it hard to continue. In one-off mechanics this isn’t such a big deal, even though it’s not desirable. In mechanics that will be used over and over again it is a much bigger deal since players might end up derailing themselves each time they hit the mechanic.
To avoid these situations you need to take action in your game. Either your description needs clarity or you need to give the players a push. With descriptions it’s usually a matter of restating what is observable and what can be interacted with in greater detail.
If this doesn’t work, you can always narrate the Ah Ha moment for the player with something like: “You realize when you pushed the button the mechanism activates.” By telling the players explicitly what is happening you’ve bridged a gap to keep the game moving. This shouldn’t be your first resort, but it should be kept as an available tool to help clear up confusion.
Applying Mechanics in Game
Game mechanics are a thrilling part of any dungeon setup. How does this trap work? You decide! This part of dungeon design is about the interactions and options your players will take. Following the maxim laid out earlier, you should be consistent. If one door and key combo follow a certain set of rules, others in your dungeon should too. This will lead to players understanding what actions they can take without a long exploratory phase where they fiddle with everything in a scene.
The first few rooms of a dungeon typically take much longer than later ones because players have not fully grasped the dungeon’s mechanics yet. As players become more familiar with things they will explain their actions more succinctly. You’ll likely start skipping informational descriptions once people get how the mechanics work.
At this point you might think it’s all a simple task of cutting and pasting rules into the appropriate spots to fill in the gaps, but there’s more to consider. Mechanics in gameplay often interact with one another to allow players to do almost anything.
Overlapping game mechanics bring out emergent gameplay. In D&D this might come in the form of combat rules interacting with trap mechanics. Does a damage dealing trap that a Rogue can see coming count as an attacker and trigger Uncanny Dodge? You can make judgement calls for your game – just be sure you apply them the same way each time.
Rigid Rules Aren’t Necessarily Bad
Some players don’t like piles of nitty gritty rules to pour over. Others love them a bit too much. Neither of these stances is an issue, but overcomplication of your game can be. Rules in and of themselves are not a problem. Problems come in when the rules applied are not considered within the context of the game. Wizards of the Coast likely knew this when they introduced the Advantage/Disadvantage system. This one rule is easy, consistent, and fun to use. The rules before weren’t bad, but 3.5 often had a lot of steps just to calculate simple outcomes.
When you’re applying game mechanics to your world make sure the mechanics are designed to push the enjoyment of the game forward. Even if you’re just coming up against rules conflicts that need to be worked out, follow your gut towards simple and fun. Remember, if you apply your rules clearly and consistently you’ll make the whole gaming experience better for everyone.