Are Arbitrary Mechanics Part of a Setting’s Feel?
Recently, Pinnacle Entertainment Group released Hell on Earth Reloaded, the Savage Worlds version of the post-apocalyptic western setting and sequel to Deadlands. It’s a pretty neat book, but to the surprise of many fans neither the Guts skill nor Fate Chips are used.
For those of you not familiar with them, both of these mechanics have been important mechanics of Deadlands since it was first released in 1996 and they have been part of every iteration of it and its sequel settings until now. The Guts skill is used to resist fear and keep yourself together in terrifying situations (of which there are many in the Weird West). Although some see the Guts skill as a point-sink, it thematically makes sense to use that rather than just plain Spirit because the average person should be terrified by the horrors on the high plains whereas the heroes need to steel themselves up to deal against them.
Ever since Savage Worlds Deluxe was released, the Guts skill has been reserved only for horror settings. Given that Hell on Earth has many horror elements and that previous iterations included a Guts skill, it was expected that Hell on Earth Reloaded would use one too. But to everyone’s surprise, it didn’t. The reason that was given was that unlike in the Weird West, everybody is exposed to the horrors of the Wasted West and people are generally jaded to all but the worst of it. Thus resisting Fear with a Spirit check was deemed adequate. Makes sense, but it was a strange transition and some people weren’t as happy with it.
Fate Chips are a special variation of bennies drawn at random during the start of the session and come in three types: the common white ones that work like regular bennies, the uncommon red ones that can optionally be used to add a d6 to the result of a roll (but the GM gets to draw a Fate Chip), and the rare blue ones that behave like a red one (but the GM does not get to draw a Fate Chip). Fate Chips make bennies slightly more powerful and also provide a bit of the “poker” feel of the Weird West.
But to the surprise of many, Fate Chips didn’t make it into Hell on Earth Reloaded. The reason given was that the powers that be weren’t there to help the heroes, as represented by the more powerful Fate Chips. Nonetheless, many fans disagreed with the reasoning and decided they would houserule in the Deadlands Fate Chips because to them it was an integral part of Deadlands. For comparison, an informal forum poll (started by yours truly) found that a supermajority of responders wanted to see the upcoming Deadlands Noir, another sequel setting to Deadlands, include Fate Chips. Ultimately though, the author revealed that they would not be used.
The strong feelings that came from this debate made me think: are there game mechanics that are actually “part” of a setting? Hell on Earth Reloaded and Deadlands Noir took away some of the integral game mechanics and there was some fan backlash, with many people wanting to houserule it back in to make it “feel” like a Deadlands game.
I imagine you would have a similar response if a new version of Shadowrun came out that didn’t use a dice pool of d6s or Savage Worlds dropped card-based initiative. Especially with the former, it’s a pretty arbitrary mechanic that has since become an integral part of the “feel” of the setting. You could argue that this is why why some fans felt that Dungeons & Dragons 4e didn’t “feel” like Dungeons & Dragons: because many of them viewed certain mechanics as being linked to the feel of the setting.
When I run Urban Arcana, I wouldn’t think of doing it for any system besides Dungeons & Dragons for this very reason. Of course, you could certainly try and come up with interesting situations like the Savage Worlds version of Greyhawk.
So, at the end of the day, I would say that yes, arbitrary mechanics are part of a setting’s feel. It probably has to do with how unique that mechanic is, how loved the mechanic is, and how long the mechanic has been around.