The Alexandrian

Four years ago, in an effort to understand why I found so many of the design decisions in the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons antithetical to what I wanted from a roleplaying game, I wrote an essay about “Dissociated Mechanics”. At the time, I was still struggling to both define and come to grips with what that concept meant. I was also, simultaneously, quantifying and explaining my reaction to 4th Edition (which had just been released).

Ultimately, I hit on something that rang true. I had found the definition of something that was deeply problematic for a lot of people. The term “dissociated mechanic” caught on and became widely used. (And not just in discussions about 4th Edition.)

As a result, hundreds of people are linked to the original “Dissociated Mechanics” essay every month. They come looking for an explanation of what the term means.

Unfortunately, the original essay is not particularly good.

I say this both as a matter of self-reflection and as a matter of empirical evidence: The essay is unclear because I was still struggling to understand the term myself. And because it was written as a reaction to 4th Edition, it immediately alienates people with a personal stake in the edition wars. The result is that a lot of people come away from the essay with a confused, inadequate, or completely erroneous understanding of the term.

Which is why links to the original essay are being redirected here: I’m attempting to provide a better and clearer primer for those interested in understanding what dissociated mechanics are, why they’re deeply problematic for many people, and how they can be put to good use.

If you’re interested in reading the original essay, you can still find it here.


An associated mechanic is one which has a connection to the game world. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the game world.

The easiest way to perceive the difference is to look at the player’s decision-making process when using the mechanic: If the player’s decision can be directly equated to a decision made by the character, then the mechanic is associated. If it cannot be directly equated, then it is dissociated.

For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt.

The mechanic is dissociated because the decision made by the player cannot be equated to a decision made by the character. No player, after making an amazing one-handed catch, thinks to themselves, “Wow! I won’t be able to do that again until the next game!” Nor do they think to themselves, “I better not try to catch this ball one-handed, because if I do I won’t be able to make any more one-handed catches today.”

On the other hand, when a player decides to cast a fireball spell that decision is directly equated to the character’s decision to cast a fireball. (The character, like the player, knows that they have only prepared a single fireball spell. So the decision to expend that limited resource – and the consequences for doing so – are understood by both character and player.)


Dissociated mechanics can also be thought of as mechanics for which the characters have no functional explanations.

But this generalization can be misleading when taken too literally. All mechanics are both metagamed and abstracted: They exist outside of the character’s world and they are only rough approximations of that world.

For example, the destructive power of a fireball is defined by the number of d6’s you roll for damage; and the number of d6’s you roll is determined by the caster level of the wizard casting the spell.

If you asked a character about d6’s of damage or caster levels, they’d obviously have no idea what you were talking about. But the character could tell you what a fireball is and that casters of greater skill can create more intense flames during the casting of the spell.

The player understands the metagamed and abstracted mechanic (d6’s and caster levels), but that understanding is directly associated with the character’s understanding of the game world (burning flames and skilled casters).


On a similar note, there is a misconception that a mechanic isn’t dissociated as long as you can explain what happened in the game world as a result.

The argument goes like this: “Although I’m using the One-Handed Catch ability, all the character knows is that they made a really great one-handed catch. The character isn’t confused by what happened, so it’s not dissociated.”

What the argument misses is that the dissociation already happened in the first sentence. The explanation you provide after the fact doesn’t remove it.

To put it another way: The One-Handed Catch ability is a mechanical manipulation with no corresponding reality in the game world whatsoever. You might have a very good improv session that is vaguely based on the dissociated mechanics you’re using, but there has been a fundamental disconnect between the game and the world. You could just as easily be playing a game of Chess while improvising a vaguely related story about a royal coup starring your character named Rook.


The flip side of the “explaining it all away” misconception is the “it’s easy to fix” fallacy. Instead of providing an improvised description that explains what the mechanic did after the fact, we instead rewrite the ability to provide an explanation and, thus, re-associate the dissociated mechanic.

In practice, this is frequently quite trivial. To take our One-Handed Catch ability, for example, we could easily say: The player activates his gravitic force gloves (which have a limited number of charges per day) to pull the ball to his hand. Or he shouts a prayer to the God of Football who’s willing to help him a limited number of times per day. Or he activates one of the arcane tattoos he had a voodoo doctor inscribe on his palms.

These all sound pretty awesome, but each of them carries unique consequences. If it’s gravitic force gloves, can they be stolen or the gravitic field canceled? Can he shout a prayer to the God of Football if someone drops a silence spell on him? If he’s using an arcane tattoo, does that mean that the opposing team’s linebacker can use a dispel magic spell to disrupt the catch?

(This is getting to be a weird football game.)

Whatever explanation you come up with will have a meaningful impact on how the ability is used in the game. And that means that each and every one of them is a house rule.

Why is this a problem?

First, there’s a matter of principle. Once we’ve accepted that you need to immediately house rule the One-Handed Catch ability, we’ve accepted that the game designers gave us a busted rule that needs to be fixed before it can be used. The Rule 0 Fallacy (“this rule isn’t broken because I can fix it”) is a poor defense of any game.

But there’s also a practical problem: While it may be easy to fix a single ability like One-Handed Catch, a game filled with such abilities will require hundreds (or thousands) of house rules that you now need to create, keep track of, and use consistently. What is trivial for any single ability becomes a huge problem in bulk.


Another common misunderstanding is to equate associated mechanics with realistic mechanics.

This seems to primarily arise because people struggling to explain why they don’t like dissociated mechanics – often without a firm conceptual grasp of what it is that they’re dissatisfied with – will try to explain, for example, that it’s just not realistic for a football player to only be able to make a single one-handed catch per game.

That may or may not be true (I haven’t actually done a statistical analysis of how often receivers make one-handed catches in the NFL), but it’s largely a red herring: Our hypothetical One-Handed Catch ability is infinitely more realistic than a fireball, and yet the latter is associated while the former is not.

Conversely, of course, just because something is magical doesn’t mean that the mechanic will automatically be associated. And it’s fully possible for a dissociated mechanic to also be unrealistic. My point is that the property of associated/dissociated is completely unrelated to the property of realistic/unrealistic.


All of this is important, because roleplaying games are ultimately defined by mechanics which are associated with the game world.

Let me break that down: Roleplaying games are self-evidently about playing a role. Playing a role is making choices as if you were the character. Therefore, in order for a game to be a roleplaying game (and not just a game where you happen to play a role), the mechanics of the game have to be about making and resolving choices as if you were the character. If the mechanics of the game require you to make choices which aren’t associated to the choices made by the character, then the mechanics of the game aren’t about roleplaying and it’s not a roleplaying game.

To look at it from the opposite side, I’m going to make a provocative statement: When you are using dissociated mechanics you are not roleplaying. Which is not to say that you can’t roleplay while playing a game featuring dissociated mechanics, but simply to say that in the moment when you are using those mechanics you are not roleplaying.

I say this is a provocative statement because I’m sure it’s going to provoke strong responses. But, frankly, it just looks like common sense to me: If you are manipulating mechanics which are dissociated from your character – which have no meaning to your character – then you are not engaged in the process of playing a role. In that moment, you are doing something else. (It’s practically tautological.) You may be multi-tasking or rapidly switching back-and-forth between roleplaying and not-roleplaying. You may even be using the output from the dissociated mechanics to inform your roleplaying. But when you’re actually engaged in the task of using those dissociated mechanics you are not playing a role; you are not roleplaying.

And this brings us to the very heart of what defines a roleplaying game: What’s the difference between the boardgame Arkham Horror and the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu? In Arkham Horror, after all, each player takes on the role of a specific character; those characters are defined mechanically; the characters have detailed backgrounds; and plenty of people have played sessions of Arkham Horror where people have talked extensively in character.

I pick Arkham Horror for this example because it exists right on the cusp between being an RPG and a not-RPG. So when people start roleplaying during the game (which they indisputably do when they start talking in character), it raises the provocative question: Does it become a roleplaying game in that moment?

On the other hand, I’ve had the same sort of moment happen while playing Monopoly. For example, there was a game where somebody said, “I’m buying Boardwalk because I’m a shoe. And I like walking.” Goofy? Sure. Bizarre? Sure. Roleplaying? Yup.

Let me try to make this distinction clear: When we say “roleplaying game”, do we just mean “a game where roleplaying can happen”? If so, then I think the term “roleplaying game” becomes so ridiculously broad that it loses all meaning. (Since it includes everything from Monopoly to Super Mario Brothers.)

Rather, I think the term “roleplaying game” only becomes meaningful when there is a direct connection between the game and the roleplaying. When roleplaying is the game.

It’s very tempting to see all of this in a purely negative light: As if to say, “Dissociated mechanics get in the way of roleplaying and associated mechanics don’t.” But it’s actually more meaningful than that: The act of using an associated mechanic is the act of playing a role.

Because the mechanic for a fireball spell is associated with the game world, when you make the decision to cast a fireball spell you are making that decision as if you were your character. In making the mechanical decision you are required to roleplay (because that mechanical decision is directly associated to the character’s decision). You may not do it well. You’re not going to win a Tony Award for it. But in using the mechanics of a roleplaying game, you are inherently playing a role.


Ultimately, this explains why so many people have had intensely negative reactions to dissociated mechanics: They’re antithetical to the defining characteristic of a roleplaying game and, thus, fundamentally incompatible with the primary reason many people play roleplaying games.

Does this mean that dissociated mechanics simply have no place in a roleplaying game?

Not exactly.

First, dissociated mechanics have always been part of roleplaying games. For example, character generation is almost always dissociated and that’s also true for virtually all character advancement systems, too. It’s also true for a lot of the mechanics that GMs use. (In other words, dissociated mechanics are frequently used – and accepted – in the parts of the game that aren’t about roleplaying your character.)

Second, people often have reasons for playing and enjoying roleplaying games which have nothing to do with playing a role: They might be playing for tactical challenges or to tell a great story or to vicariously enjoy their character doing awesome things. Mechanics that let those players scratch their itches can be great for them, even if it means they have to temporarily stop roleplaying in order to use them. Games don’t need to be rigid in their focus.

An extreme example of this are people who play roleplaying games as storytelling games: Their primary interest isn’t roleplaying at all; it’s the telling of a story. (In my experience, these players are often the ones who are most confused by other people having an extreme dislike for dissociated mechanics. After all, dissociated mechanics don’t interfere with their creative agenda at all. For a lengthier discussion of this issue, check out “Roleplaying Games vs. Storytelling Games”.)

In short, this essay should not be seen as an inherent vilification of dissociated mechanics. But I do think it important for game designers to understand what they’re giving up when they use dissociated mechanics; and to make sure that what they’re gaining in return is worth the price they’re paying.

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108 Responses to “Dissociated Mechanics – A Brief Primer”

  1. Sir Wulf says:

    This discussion reminded me of the debate between those who favor Vancian spellcasting and those who dislike it. Some gamers (including myself) see the Vancian model as an interesting way to allow spellcasters wide variety in their powers (A wizard could be artillery one day, then load with utility or buff spells the next) without giving the caster overwhelming power. Others dislike the system, wondering why their wizard “forgets” his most potent magical abilities the moment he uses them. They see Vancian spells as a disassociated process, one hard to explain within the game setting.

  2. Foxtrot says:

    What do you think about the mechanism in West End’s Star Wars d6 system to spend character points or force points to improve success on a roll or rolls? On the one hand, this seems disassociated. On the other, I really like how it allows the RPG to incorporate the dramatic luck which plays such a large role in books and movies. For example: In D&D Bard wouldn’t have had a chance against Smaug – a normal arrow would barely hurt him and a crit is totally random – 1 (or at most 3) in 20 odds. Other examples might include Rob Roy winning the duel at end of the movie of the same name, Tom Cruise’s fights in the forest and against 5 assassins in The Last Samurai, and Luke’s Death Star shot in Episode IV.

    In Star Wars d6, when making that critical shot, or taking a desperate gamble with one’s last reserves, etc., the system allows you to stack the odds and pull off a dramatic success. It may be less realistic, but it makes for good story telling.

    In light of your essay, then, the d6 system contains a disassociated mechanic that contributes to storytelling. Perhaps a solution (for someone who wants to both enhance story telling and avoid disassociated mechanics) is to take teh decision abotu using the CP/FP options away from the players and give it to the DM, who would “activate/use” those rules when the character’s roleplaying justified it, or when it would be cool and contribute to teh story. An example of the former would be a PC defending their family or (sincerely) praying for divine aid.

  3. Roger GS says:

    > character generation is always dissociated

    Except, perhaps, in Traveller and the like, where character generation takes the player through the prior history of his or her character.

    Great essay!

  4. Jack says:

    @Sir Wulf, I always thought the argument of “forgetting” spells missed a key point of Vancian casting, specifically that you need to *prepare* the spells. I supposed early on they may have used the term “memorize,” but the modern implications are that there’s more to a Wizard’s spells than the finishing touches of Somatic and Material components. That completes or triggers the spell, but the whole hour he spent in the morning is how he builds things up so they’re ready to fire on command.

    @Foxtrot, except that you’re assuming Smaug was a RAW red dragon and not one with a small-but-important weakness. Same thing for Luke. Neither Bard nor luke would have had any chance of success except that they learned their foe’s key weakness. I wish more role playing adventures would take that sort of thing into consideration.

    Amusingly, it reminds me of a Foxtrot comic strip where Jason can’t beat a guardian in a video game, and Paige just walks past it…

  5. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    Re: Vancian dissociation

    I presume the objection is focused on the “why should casting a spell cause me to forget it?” problem. A decent litmus test for dissociation on mechanics that have some limitation (uses per day, spell slots, etc.) is whether there is some expendable “ammunition” in the game world that you can tie the ability to. I’d grant that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but, pffft, “it’s magic.” It’s no more (or not much more) hard to swallow than spell slots for spontaneous casters — I know the spell, but I can only cast it 6 times a day? Why a day? What resource am I burning up that has to replenish? Here the ammunition is “mana” or somedamnthing. Maybe casting spells uses up mana that is generated by a brain, and it takes time to build back up again. But you could wave your hands and use a similar argument for Vancian casting, too. When you start arguing about the relative “realism” levels of different magical abilities, you are descending the slippery slope towards madness.

    At least magic is, well, magic. You can accept some hand-waving there. But actual human beings have experience at physical interactions with the real world, and when you start to put arbitrary limits on how often they can do things, that’s when dissociation really starts to stick out.

  6. Kyle Olson says:

    Individual dissociated mechanics may not significantly hinder roleplaying. “The Ranger can fire one magic fire arrow a day” will be hard to explain, but the player can easily ignore explaining it. The size of the dissociated mechanic and the number of dissociated mechanics is key to determining how much role playing is hindered.

    4E combat is a largely dissociated process, for example. Characters move in a fairly unrealistic fashion, fireballs are always square and axis aligned. The characters themselves have many one use a day or combat abilities, healing surges, of course. The DM has little leeway to allow a player to go off script and try something outside the list of powers. Additionally, some abilities cannot easily be explained in role playing terms. Why exactly do the Warlord’s abilities allow other characters to move around, for example?

    3E combat is less dissociated. The movement is more realistic, the description of the ability is more than just flavor text. There are abilities that aren’t easily explained, but they are an exception. The DM has more control if the players decide to go off script.

    In both games, and most RPGs, the role playing is dissociated by the start of combat. There’s the way the game runs out of combat, and the turn by turn action inside combat. In 4E the game is so separated and full of dissociated abilities and the details of combat so completely unrelated to roleplaying if the characters survive, the combat is nearly completely dissociated.

    Alternately, it may be a more interesting tactical game. There’s no special achievement from the universe for roleplaying, and while I don’t like what 4E has, for some people this may be the game they want.

  7. Josh W says:

    That seems plausible, the way I say it is that dissociated mechanics are those that operate based on player-level logic that is not automatically wrapped in world-level logic.

    A classic example of this is the bit just after traveller’s character generation mechanics, the moment when you introduce a new character:

    A character has died -> new character joins the ship.

    Why? Because a player just lost their character and wants another one.

    At this point you must be acting with author stance, going backwards from your intention to why the character would be there, possibly arranging other circumstances around it.

    In most of my games, all the players are involved in this kind of process, brainstorming excuses to get the show back on the road, or maybe just handwaving it if we think we can get away with never mentioning it again.

    These kind of mechanics allow broader player intentions to guide the world, and generally it’s only the GM who uses that kind of power, because of the way it can short-circuit the drama for players or damage identification with characters.

    Personally, I’m fine with dissociated mechanics so long as you use them in certain different frames of mind, like the character adding thing above, and so long as there’s information passing both ways between them and associated ones.

  8. Josh W says:

    Dammit I took all the controversial parts of that comment out, and ended up just repeating your theory back to you!

    Here are the bits where I’m saying something different:

    You can use associated mechanics and not roleplay, it just makes it impossible for other people to tell when you’re doing this.

    You don’t need to go round scraping up excuses, the excuse are baked in.

    Also, the relationship between associated mechanics and dissociated mechanics effects how the story is driven; if a gm’s mechanics (for example) don’t call back to the associated mechanics the players are using, then you basically have a one way river of information, from one player (the GM) and his interests to the rest of the players.

    This is a classic situation for railroading, when the GM pushes some set of cause and effect in total intentional ignorance of what the players are doing. The only way to solve this is to talk player to player, because there is literally no way that your character can affect the outcome, he’s sitting in game world mechanics that are downstream from the GMs mechanics. So it leads to a real world discussion, or argument.

    In contrast, even if GMs are trying to pull players to a certain outcome, there can be room for interesting behaviour if the GM always considers plausibility in their attempts to railroad, and the effect of “lightening the world” is avoided. In contrast, the world can get very detailed as both players and their characters set to fighting their fate. And it leads to an in-world conflict, but sometimes an uncomfortably intense one.

  9. Bill says:

    For Foxtrot:
    I would say that using Force Points to modify die rolls (or action points in D&D, Hero points in James Bond, Karma in Marvel Super Heroes, cards in Torg, or any of a host of other options, playing a clutch play card to get a one-handed catch in some football game) is using a dissociated mechanic. Frankly, I think that’s OK. It doesn’t matter that some of the things you do as a player for your character are dissociated from the the character’s point of view.
    The problem, as I see it, comes when they try to come from the character’s point of view. Daily martials in 4e really chafe me in that way. The character makes his choices in developing his fighting style and can choose to deploy a daily martial exploit (like the football player making a one-handed catch) when he feels he wants to do it. That just feels wrong to me. And I can’t buy into the rationale that he’s got some kind of finite resource driving it that is explained by him becoming exhausted. That works for me for 3e/PF barbarian rage – the explanation fits really well. It doesn’t for martial dailies in 4e, particularly since you may have exhausted one but have a few more you can tap in your repertoire.
    I think the dissociated mechanics in martial dailies could be salvaged, though. If all dailies were driven off a daily pool of tokens or points, but could be used in any combination, I would then be able to buy into the exhausted resources rationale. Even better, if each encounter power had a daily level of performance that you could get by the player expending a token, I could buy into that because then you’re really building a more integrated fighting style.

    Dissociated mechanics can have a place in any RPG. They can help a player influence a narrative FOR their characters (rather than BY their characters). But they need to be separated from the character point of view.

  10. Peter K. says:

    @ Justin:

    As a like minded gamer who has struggled in the past to clearly articulate this idea: Thank you for this article!

    @ Bill & Foxtrot:

    I think that with “spendable resources” an argument could be made for or against association, depending on the resource and how well characters understand it’s existence in the game world.

    For instance things I could see as associated:

    * Hit points (as health) – Not a perfect association on all fronts, but it’s believable that a character could gauge rougly how healthy they are.

    * Hit points (as luck/energy) – Possibly associative if luck is well established as a known quantity in the setting, or if a character can gauge how much strength they have to carry on.

    * Mana/Essence/Spell points – Probably associative in most settings. Casters are aware they only have a certain amount of inner strength which can be expended. In Exalted it seemed to be explicitly associative.

    * Force points – Maybe associative. This is shakier ground, since one doesn’t really “store up” Force. But conceivably a Jedi might feel that they were losing their ability to focus well.

    * Barbarian rages – Arguably associative but in a fractured way. In setting you could imagine that a barbarian gradually increase their stamina to rage more frequently over time, thus associative. But the ability is dissociated to the extent that this exhaustion effects only the rage

    * Encounter & Daily martial powers – Usually dissociated. It is possibly to imagine that a character could understand that if they use up their reserves of strength in an encounter or for the day and not be able to use a specific encounter or daily power. But if the strength is used up, then how can the character justify their ability to use other encounter and daily powers?

    * Spending XP/CP (for bonus to action) – Dissociative. How would the character articulate the idea that by giving up some of the expertise they’ve gained, they can influence the outcome of a situation?

    * Spending XP/CP (to create powerful magics) – Possibly associative. Sauron poured a bunch of himself into the One Ring.

    * Hero points – Something like this could go either way: In representing inner reserves that the character knows he can push himself a bit with it can be associative. However, here the issue is refresh rate:

    Does it refresh due to something that the character is or could be aware of (e.g. resting, refreshment, etc.)? If so then it’s associative.
    Does it refresh due to factors that don’t make sense from the character’s point of view (i.e. after a certain number of encounters, for adding interesting narrative twists on the story)? If so then it’s dissociative.

    Arguments could be made that systems which allow something like hero points or willpower points as a result of characters achieving or being frustrated in attempting their goals, are associative. Success means characters feel increased self worth and confidence. Frustration means characters feel more intense drive to overcome the obstacles in their path.

  11. Hautamaki says:

    I think you sold the original article a bit short, I found it very useful and insightful. This article is great too of course and timely given the playtest has begun. Hopefully they do away with dissociated mechanics in this edition.

  12. Seth says:

    Maybe this is why fantasy settings are more popular, it is easier to associate things.

    Barbarian raging X times per day? He is tapping into the rage energy source and is limited in doing so.

    Luck ability effecting your dice rolls? There is a Ggd of luck that you can call on X times per day and they stop listening after X requests.

    But this requires a divide between supernatural ability and natural ability. If the football game example was in a magic setting the character should always have a chance of catching one handed but if he sees that it will be a hard catch he can call on the god of catching once a game to grab the ball.

    So fighter powers could boost natural ability, but they can’t replace them. While a mage using magic is not relying at all on natural ability.

  13. Brad says:

    I wish you would have left in the bits about “explaining a dissociated mechanic creates a house rule”. Those really struck a chord with me when I first read your original post four years ago and really helped drive your point home for me. I actually just went back and re-read the original article for that extra bit.

    This go around, however, the article generally feels much more put together and objective, so kudos on a job well done!

  14. Kaldric says:

    I’ve been explaining this for the last couple years, thanks for the convenient link. As for those who find Vancian magic dissociated, the metaphysical bits that absolutely associate it to the game world are in the AD&D DMG.

  15. Mandramas says:

    Also, a mechanic is only associative o dissociative in the context of the campaign and the players assumptions. If a players feels normal that in the world you can only perform a disarm maneuver only once in a day, that is not dissociative. If the players assume that the characters feels tired after perform it. Maybe the powers are special magical maneuvers that can only be performed once since it stresses the fabric of the universe. Or maybe they know that if they perform the same maneuver twice, the second time it won’t work since the gods of war abhor repetition.
    The GM can cement those feelings explicit giving reason to a specific mechanics. But in fact, it allow the player to find new ways to circumvent the rules. (“I want to contact the clergy of the gods of war, and see if I can sign some kind of pact that allow me to use once-a-day maneuvers at will”).
    In fact, dissociation is a state of the mind. If you are not conscious that determinate mechanics is dissociate, you won’t feel it that way. It is a kind of suspension of disbelief contract with the rule set of the game (and the campaign world of the GM). If you are not willing to accept a dissociate mechanics, you will feel it dissociated. It is like those persons that don’t like fantasy movies since they are so fantastic for their prosaic minds.
    Of course, there are mechanics that are written in a fashion more prone to make you feel dissociated. But if you want you can reject every mechanics. “Why I can’t cast two spells at the same time? What is the rule of magic that don’t allow it? Why I only have a 5% to strike a knight, he is not wearing a Helm and I can trust him in the head ? How the strike of the giant don’t kill me down, since it is a 200 tons beast? Why do I get the same damage of the fireball since I’m in the edge of the explosion, not in the center? Why I can’t kill the bandit simply piercing their heart with the dagger? Why I can’t move 14 feets instead of 12 in the round? How I can learn a feat simple because I gained a new level? What is a level, in any case? Why I can’t get new followers?”
    So, the gauge of dissociate-associate mechanics is totally arbitrary, and it is a form of suspension of disbelief. You decide where to put it.

  16. Jack says:

    @Peter K, re: Barbarian Rages, I’m pretty sure they get the actual Fatigued quality after they Rage. They also can’t Rage while they’re fatigued. so the only thing left is to justify why a non-Fatigued Barbarian can’t Rage when he’s out of rounds-per-day. I think it’s simple enough to say he just can’t get himself worked up to that level of froth after a while; his body isn’t fatigued in a general sense but it’s fatigued enough that he can’t push the envelope.

    This is by far more associative than not being able to trip a guy more than once a day.

  17. Justin Alexander says:

    As a minor note, I think I’ve finally figured out why it bugs me when people refer to them as “disassociated mechanics” instead of “dissociated mechanics”.

    Although somewhat synonymous, the OED defines disassociate as “to free or detach from association; to dissociate, sever”. Dissociated, on the other hand, is defined as “cut off from associates or society; disunited, separated”.

    To disassociate something is to make it dissociated, but it implies that it was originally connected/associated in the first place. OTOH, it’s also possible for something to be dissociated without ever having been connected in the first place.

    In other words, the verbs “dissociate” and “disassociate” are synonymous. The adverbs “dissociated” and “disassociated” are not: If you are disassociated, it means you once had a connection and no longer do. If you are dissociated, that may be true, but it’s also possible that you never had a connection in the first place.

  18. Hautamaki says:

    Nice English lesson Justin but I believe “dissociated” and “disassociated” are adjectives =p

  19. Justin Alexander says:

    Re: Vancian spellcasting. Although I can see the potential argument that Vancian spellcasting is dissociated if you assume that the wizard in the game world doesn’t actually forget how to cast the spell, I’ve never actually seen that argument. Instead, people just argued that it didn’t make sense for a wizard to forget how to cast the spell: It’s a realism argument, not an associated argument.

    (And I would agree with Jack that Vancian spellcasting always made sense. Although I once argued vehemently on the “it doesn’t make sense” side of the equation and was much happier when they changed the terminology to “prepared”, in the wisdom of age I’ve realized that the old “memorization” terminology is actually far, far creepier: It implies that the act of casting a spell really does burn the knowledge of its casting out of you.)

    @Foxtrot: Force/Character/Action/Fate points. In Star Wars D6 we often played the use of these points as someone using the Force to “nudge” the results. In retrospect, I recognize this as being an instinctual desire to associate the mechanic.

    But in general, yes, those are dissociated mechanics. And they’re a great example, because they seem to be a dissociated mechanic that a lot of people who otherwise have problems with dissociated mechanics don’t have a problem with (including myself). I suspect there are several reasons for that: First, they are a flexible tool that can be used by many different creative agendas to alleviate moments of disappointment created by the random chance of the dice.

    Second, the decision to use them is not only dissociated from your character, but in fact completely separate from them. The mechanic offers the player a method of influencing the game world without acting through their character, but it is clearly completely separate from their character. By contrast, if such mechanics were to require the character to take an action in order to use the Action Point, people start to find the mechanic more problematic.

    Third, the influence on the game world is not so severe that it creates cognitive dissonance between the experience of the character and the experience of the player. (The easiest way to understand this, in my opinion, is to look at the act of exploration in the game world: If mechanics give me the ability to create or control what my character is discovering, then my experience is of a radically different qualitative nature from the character’s.)

    I think these can be valuable criteria to use in assessing whether or not a dissociated mechanic is worth the price (by either raising its value or minimizing its cost):

    1) Does it allow the player to satisfy a creative agenda or other goal in a way that an associated mechanic could not?

    2) Is the player’s decision to use the dissociated mechanic clearly separated from the decisions the player make while playing their character?

    3) Can the effect of the dissociated mechanic be limited so that the player’s relationship with the game world isn’t fundamentally different than the character’s relationship with the game world?

  20. Justin Alexander says:

    @Hautamaki: I hate it when I think one thing and type another. I was seriously staring at the word “adjective” in the OED while typing “adverb” with my hands. Stupid hands. 😛

    @Brad: I think you’re right about the missing section. It’s one I thought long and hard about including before finally deciding it could afford to be cut. Now that you’ve poked me about it, I’m adding it back in. Let me know what you think.

  21. Hautamaki says:

    Haha happens all the time. I’m an English teacher so I actually found the discussion of the difference between disassociated and dissociated interesting!

  22. Mandramas says:

    Realism and Dissociatism are indirectly related. A lack of realism make the player feels a mechanic dissociated, since he can’t relate it to the realm to their natural experiences. That’s the way magic can be used to easily handwave any feeling of dissociation, with “the laws of magic works in the world in the same way that X mechanic”. Instead, if a mechanic is a “strong swing of a sword”, a player can relate it to the world he lives, and he will feel dissociated any attempt to limit it to a certain number of uses.
    The problem is harder in Modern and Sci-Fi roleplaying, since it is nearest to the real world. Mechanics should be realistic, since it is expected that the player uses the same kind of reasoning that in the real world.
    Finally, realism is only important if the player can tell the difference. A normal D&D player can’t feel dissociation by the falling damage rule. But a student of physics will do.

  23. Jack says:

    Adding in the “Reassociating the Mechanic” section was a good choice; it fits well and fills a gap the previous version of the article glossed over.

  24. Telecanter says:

    I think dissociated mechanics are bad in another way, maybe even worse, that isn’t related to being able to play a role. If the rule is not associated with any kind of reality we are familiar with, even just common genre tropes, it becomes impossible to predict what the game’s rules will be. It becomes hard to know what I as a player can or can’t do. What choices do I have?

    The only way you can know what powers a 4e fighter might have is to memorize them from the book or have cards in front of you. A game like that is cumbersome whether you’re trying to make decisions in the role of an elf or just goofing off with friends.

  25. Peter K. says:

    @ Jack: re: Barbarian Rages

    “I think it’s simple enough to say he just can’t get himself worked up to that level of froth after a while; his body isn’t fatigued in a general sense but it’s fatigued enough that he can’t push the envelope.”

    True enough. In my mind though “fatigued in a general sense” is still a bit dissociated, because it’s not connected to other forms of general wearing out. Hit point reduction represents a form of general fatigue as well, but you could be on your last hit point and still rage your maximum number of times per day.

    On the other hand I guess you could claim that (as in White Wolf’s Werewolf games) that bodily health, determination, and rage, are fundamentally different commodities that aren’t simply interchangeable. This may in fact be exactly what the 3E designers intended.

    “This is by far more associative than not being able to trip a guy more than once a day.”


  26. Robert says:

    My issue isn’t with dissociative mechanics themselves; as you point out, they have their place in RPGs. My problem has been when they get mixed up with associative ones in the same “category” of play. For example, if a “feat” is defined as an ability that a character possesses, then One-Handed Catch is not actually any such ability; it’s a mechanic that is useful to the character, but not an actual ability intrinsic to the character himself. If every character had a class of features that were all dissociative then they would be defined in such a way that trying to explain how they operate wouldn’t be an issue: it would be a given.

    For example, I’ve been using an action point mechanic for my 3E games for many years. The action points are definitely dissociative but that doesn’t bother anyone, since all they can do is modify the 1d20 rolls. This means that the mechanics of the action points exists in the same mind-space as checks and attack rolls and saves: parts of the game that are about the game itself, rather than having anything to do with role-playing. There’s no explaining the effect of action points, since they aren’t a feature of the characters, but rather the players manipulating the already abstract randomizer mechanic. Meanwhile, all of the class features and skills and feats and spells are all elements that describe something that exists in the setting, and are part of acting out a character’s role.

  27. Picador says:


    Thanks very much for this essay. I feel a little bit bad that it was my whining that seems to have have sparked the thread that led to you feeling it was necessary. But I’m also grateful that you’ve revisited the topic in such depth.

    My original comment — that hit points seem to be a dissociated mechanic from day one of OD&D — seems to be addressed by the following paragraph from your new essay:

    First, dissociated mechanics have always been part of roleplaying games. For example, character generation is always dissociated and that’s also true for virtually all character advancement systems, too. It’s also true for a lot of the mechanics that GMs use. (In other words, dissociated mechanics are frequently used – and accepted – in the parts of the game that aren’t about roleplaying your character.)

    I do still think that hit points are a dissociated mechanic (and not just “abstract”), but I see why that’s not such a big problem for role-playing: since hit point adjudication is the GM’s task, the dissociation is only an issue from his point of view (i.e. it does not interfere with anyone playing their role). However, I think the ongoing debate over things like falling damage really highlight how this dissociated mechanic interferes with things.

    The fact is that hit point adjudication is a laboratory for house-ruling and always has been. This is because hit points really are a dissociated mechanic, and so they require constant house-ruling, for all the reasons you’ve set out in your essay. Cast your mind back to the days of “haha the executioner has to hit my neck fifteen times with his axe to chop my head off” or “why can my 3rd-level fighter fall three times as far as your 1st level fighter without dying?” or whatever. You’ve addressed these problems in your essay on hit points, but the fact is that your solutions are all house rules. Hit points don’t correspond to any stable mechanism in the game world; they’re a dramatic device that ensures that heroes don’t die easily. EGG’s paragraph about hit points being a nebulous mixture of luck, divine favour, endurance etc doesn’t really help when my 10th-level fighter falls 100 feet and is still in better shape than his unwounded hireling. How did he survive the fall? Did the gods actually swoop down and slow his descent? If so, does that reduce the chances that his potion flasks will break upon landing? And once we get into those kinds of questions, how is that any different from the various house-rulings on one-handed catches you outline above?

  28. Monkapotomous says:

    @ Picador: In regard to the falling damage issue I think the problem isn’t with how hit points work but with the falling damage rule itself. Hit points scale with level while falling damage does not. Just like the issue with healing that Justin points out, hit points themselves aren’t the problem. It is how these other rules interact with hit points. I would be more inclined to look at the healing and falling damage rules and ask why they don’t work well with hit points instead of the other way around.

    There are also a couple of other things to keep in mind. First, people have survived falling from great distances so why couldn’t your 10th level Fight? Second, the falling damage rule really hasn’t changed since the earliest versions of the game where characters had at most a d8 hit points per level and didn’t have all of the other ways of boosting hit points. So a d6 per 10 ft would actually work since it would be highly likely to kill characters.

    As for the executioners axe, why would you assume that he is doing hit point damage to the character? Is he rolling an attack role? Assuming hit points are a measure of your characters skill and physical toughness, how do either of those come in to play with an executioner? In my mind being hit with the executioner’s axe is more of a save-or-die effect than an attack role.

  29. Buzz says:

    Great post, Justin.

    I want to re-write the definition as follows:

    “An associated mechanic is one which has a connection to the fiction. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the fiction.”

    For me, this generalizes the definition a bit more, and, I think, removes the requirement of “making decisions in-character”. I honestly don’t see the latter as being a requirement for roleplaying; we know that there are all kinds of “stances” people use when making decisions for their characters. The key, for me, is that any decision follows from the fiction.

  30. Picador says:


    1. Yes, people sometimes survive long falls IRL. But what never happens IRL is what you get if you play hit points and falling damage as written, i.e. an experienced fighter falls 100 feet and is instantly ready to fight on. A 12th level fighter even in OD&D has a very good chance of this outcome. IRL, anyone who falls 100 feet is going to break a whole lot of bones, pass out from shock, and will probably never walk again, even in the best case “miraculous survival” scenario.

    2. Everything you said in the previous post is reasonable. But it’s all house-ruled. Save or die from executioner’s axe? House rule. If hit points represent “skill”, then why do they help against being shot with an arrow or burned by a fireball when you’re unconscious from a Sleep spell? We could house rule that too. But the fact is that hit points as written are what I said the first time: a meta-game mechanic to ensure that heroes don’t die easily.

    The fact that we can even have this argument between two reasonable people reading the same rules seems to me to be proof of the dissociation of the hit point mechanic from any stable game-world correlate.


    “Because [hit points] reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses – and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.”

    – EGG, DMG, pg 82

    “This power allows the character to catch a football one-handed once per match, through a combination of luck, skill, divine favour, magnetic gloves, magical tattoos, and old-fashioned gumption.”

    – Me, now, making it up

    Both descriptions require extensive house-ruling. Both are likely to create situations where the mechanics as written don’t make sense in view of previous house-rulings. Thus, both are dissociated mechanics, insofar as the inconsistency of what the mechanic means and how it works is unstable, meaning that a player cannot rely on previous house-rulings to tell him how things will work this time around, and the GM has no firm basis on which to issue future house-rulings for new situations other than his own intuition and whimsy.

  31. Jack says:

    @Picador, I don’t think any of your complaints about Hit Points show it to be dissociated. It’s an abstraction and that abstraction breaks down in certain situations, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tied to a reality that the character can experience. Maybe the falling rules are unrealistic and maybe coup de gras needs to be re-evaluated — or maybe we just need house rules to fill the gaps in the abstraction — but it doesn’t change the fact that both player and character experience HP as wounds and a gauge at how near death the character is. The player sees numbers on a sheet, the character feels broken bones and cuts and bruises, but the two are associated.

  32. ProfessorOats says:


    I don’t have my rulebooks on hand, but I’m pretty sure he’d have to make an attack roll with a +4 to hit and his victim’s DEX would be treated as 0. The hit automatically does critical damage, and he can apply sneak attack damage. If the victim somehow survives, they must make a Fortitude save (DC 10+damage) or die

    Sounds pretty realistic to me

  33. Picador says:

    The player sees numbers on a sheet, the character feels broken bones and cuts and bruises, but the two are associated.

    But does the character feel “broken bones and cuts and bruises”? EGG’s passage above suggests that what they might feel is simply a depletion of, say, their “fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection” instead.

    You guys keep saying that hit points themselves are fine, it’s all the rules that USE hit points that are broken/dissociated. But this comes up all the time — at least as often as the problems Justin points out with the “one-handed catch” mechanic. Take poisoned weapons: obviously, if I suffer the effects of a poison every time I’m “hit” by a poisoned sword, then I’m actually being cut by that sword each time. That might be a lot of cuts if I’m high-level — an absurdly high number of cuts, in fact.

    The fact is that abstract hit points are fine until they aren’t. So much of the game turns on combat and life-or-death situations that we’re constantly being asked to determine whether a given hit point loss was “real” or just a depletion of magic/luck/skill/etc.

    And how is it exactly that “skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations” (per EGG) is something that depletes over time (in the form of hit point loss)? And how is this any different from a “once per day” or “once per game” power like “one-handed catch”, which is also ostensibly based on “skill”? Both are a form of “skill” that you use up over time, and which then recover over time. Really, the parallels are striking.

  34. Monkapotomous says:

    When exactly are being asked to determine whether a given hit point loss was “real” or just a depletion of magic/luck/skill/etc?

  35. Picador says:


    When exactly are being asked to determine whether a given hit point loss was “real” or just a depletion of magic/luck/skill/etc?

    This is exactly what we’ve been talking about, viz.:

    1. When we need to explain how my high-level character just survived a 100-ft fall.

    2. When we need to determine whether the poison on an opponent’s sword is in my character’s bloodstream.

    3. When we need to explain why a fireball incinerated the two unconscious hirelings but not the unconscious, more-highly-skilled PC lying between them.

    4. When we need to determine whether my PC’s wedding dress was ruined by blood from that lucky swipe from the orc on her way to church.

    5. When we need to determine whether drinking from a cool stream heals any hit points.

    6. When we need to explain why it takes a highly-skilled fighter ten times as long to recover from grievous wounds as a low-skill fighter.

    7. Etcetera, ad nauseam.

    Can these things be adjudicated by a good GM? Sure! Rulings not rules! It’s all good in the OSR! House-rule away!

    Ah, but then we have also said that “Rule Zero is no excuse for a broken mechanic” and “being able to house-rule a dissociated mechanic does not mean that it’s not a dissociated mechanic”!

    So which is it?

    My original plea for clarity, at the top of that previous thread, was that I was having trouble understanding how dissociated mechanics could be so toxic to old school play, when it seemed to me that they could be found at the heart of the very first editions of the game. I named hit points as one example, and saving throws as another. I am still unconvinced that I was wrong.

    Yes, they are both mechanics that are primarily adjudicated by the GM and do not routinely require player choice that are not also character choices. But sometimes they do, especially in the (many, many) areas where the nature of hit points diverges from the basic model of straightforward physical damage to the character’s body, and the player has to make a choice about how many hit points he can afford to sustain from a given course of action without knowing what the hit points actually /represent/ within the game world.

    Please go back and look at my proposed wording for the “one-handed catch” mechanic above. It mirrors EGG’s paragraph on hit points quite nicely. Both provide a wide range of /possible/ meanings for the two mechanics, allowing a GM to pick and choose which game-world explanation he wants to deploy in any given situation. But this is just another way of saying that both are mechanics that rely entirely on house rules and GM fiat. Having eight different associations between a mechanic and its game world meaning (“physical ability of the character to withstand damage”, sixth sense, “sheer luck”, skill in combat, skill in other life-threatening situations, divine protection, magical protection) is just as bad as having none: the player still has no idea what a hit point is going to mean /this time/ versus /last time/ or /next time/. He doesn’t know why his “sixth sense” or his “skill in combat” only works five times before having to “heal”, or why it gets healed by healing potions. Like I said, it’s exactly the same problem as the “one-handed catch” mechanic: it can mean anything, so its meaning is unstable and unpredictable, so it is dissociated.

  36. Mandramas says:

    @Picador Dissociated mechanic only are those that regulate a “decision” from the player/character. A saving throw is not a decision. Hit points are not a decision. There are mechanic that provide resolution to other actions. The choices are to attack with a sword, to cast a spell. The problem is with mechanics that grant the player a decision that is meaningless to the character in-world (like, to say something, use a action point to reinforce a attack roll) or to limit an action due artificial, mechanic reasons that have no correlate in the game world (like the 1/day disarm maneuver). This is stressful since it forces to the player to take choices in the world of the ruleset instead of the world of the game, and it forces to abstract the thinking to a different layer of the game, ruining the immersion in the setting world.

  37. ProfessorOats says:

    Maybe there’s a problem with Gygax’s description of hit points. I don’t recall 3e defining them in such a way, and some of those factors, such as luck, are accounted for in other ways. Instead, hit points are a combination of the severity of wounds you can take and your ability to turn a lesser wound into a greater one. I have found some problems with this, though, and have opted to drop that last part. Sure, it’s less realistic, but high level characters are basically demigods anyways

    Also, I checked the rulebooks. I was wrong about the coup de grace rules. I had most of it right, but there’s no attack roll. The executioner would automatically hit. This works in most cases, but I can think of a few weird issues involving natural armor. I’d probably give a larger bonus, since the character’s spending a full round action, or don’t have them roll but treat the attack as 30+modifiers (using the -/+ 10 variant for rolls of 1 or 20)

  38. Monkapotomous says:

    I wasn’t thinking about it in regards to 3.x but earlier versions of D&D. That said I am always impressed by the foundation and fundamentals of 3.0 edition and how well they work when you look at them carefully.

  39. Doresh says:

    @Justin Alexander:

    The “memorization” aspect of Vancian magic was nicely explained in the Discworld novels: spells are in fact somewhat sentient magical constructs residing in the wizards minds. Using a spell means it leaves the mind to take effect in the real world, and more powerful spells shouldn’t be prepared by weak minds…

    As for the modern “spell preparing”-interpretation: The wizard didn’t suddenly forget how to cast a fireball, it’s just that a new fireball takes time to prepare. After all, magic allows you to twist and turn the laws of reality and summon destructive fiery explosions, and the slightest mistake might drastically shorten the wizard’s lifespan…

  40. Justin Alexander says:

    @Picador: Every single one of your complaints about hit points is a complaint about abstraction and/or a lack of realism.

    I recommend checking out Explaining Hit Points. If that doesn’t satisfy you, then you have a problem with the abstraction of the hit point system and that’s perfectly OK. But it has nothing to do with dissociated mechanics.

  41. Picador says:


    I’ve read your hit points essay several times. It’s excellent, and I agree with the ideas expressed in it. I /like/ abstract hit points. Yes, they might require a conversation with your players before the start of play to make sure everyone understands how they work. But I think the way you conceive of hit points is dead on and results in exciting play and verisimilitude with genre conventions.

    That being said, if your example “one-handed catch” mechanic is dissociated, then so is your hit points mechanic. Which is to say, they are both mechanics that correspond to an unstable amalgam of game-world factors in such a way that a player never knows, from one incident to the next, what is actually going in-game with the expenditure of a [hit point/one-handed catch opportunity], until the GM tells him. Similarly, when the player is running low on [hit points/one-handed catch opportunities], his decision to take a course of action that relies on his dwindling supply of that resource is essentially a meta-game decision made by the player, even though it’s easy enough to build a corresponding narrative for the character’s decision: [“I was lucky to dodge the main brunt of that last blow — it would have killed most men. Not sure I’ll be so lucky next time.”/”I was lucky to make that last catch. Not sure I’ll be so lucky next time.”] Similarly, when the player makes the decision to replenish his [hit points/one-handed catch opportunities], the choice is essentially a meta-game choice made by the player, even though it’s easy enough to build a corresponding narrative for the character’s decision: [“I cheated death a few times in that last fight — best not to push my luck. I should take a few days off, or throw back some healing potions, or visit a cleric. That should get me back in top form.”/”I made some pretty lucky catches today. Best not to push it. I’ll be back in top form after a good night’s sleep.”]

    I’ve made essentially this same argument extensively above. I don’t think I’m being dense. Nobody seems to be responding with an argument as to why these two mechanics aren’t equivalent.

  42. Jack says:


    For your complaint to work you’ll have to explain to me why a healing potion replenishes luck or divine favor. I’m pretty sure you’re the only one trying to claim that part of the Hit Point abstraction — yes, you keep appealing to Gygax (may peace and blessings be upon him), but most of us have already discarded that explanation of the abstraction because, as you point out, it doesn’t make much sense when you examine it..

  43. Picador says:


    I’d like to sheepishly retract some of what I said in my last post upon further reflection and another re-reading of your Hit Points essay. I had, in fact, mis-remembered your position: your conception of abstract hit points does in fact avoid many of the problems I pointed out.

    Also, thanks to Jack for steering my in this direction. I was mis-remembering Justin’s position as being closer to Gygax’s, and Jack’s post revealed that mistake to me.

    So I now admit that my case is not as strong as I thought it was. I still can’t shake the nagging feeling, though, that the abstract hit point mechanic still manifests some of the same problems as the “one-handed catch” mechanic. We’re all willing to admit that hit points need a lot of specialized adjudication and house-ruling to work coherently with the various system that use them. If your complaint is simply about how the (hypothetical) one-handed catch mechanic is written up in the (hypothetical) rules — i.e. it does not provide a usable in-game explanation for how it works — then don’t we have the same problem when we read the 1st Ed. DMG and run across Gygax’s explanation of hit points? Justin has provided a great patch for the hit points system; wonderful. Couldn’t someone provide the same for the one-handed catch mechanic?

  44. Jack says:

    “Couldn’t someone provide the same for the one-handed catch mechanic?”

    Sure. It’s magic; football players can cast One-Handed Catch once per day because it expends a metaphysical resource they spent decades honing.

    But I think you’re still missing the point, and I think you’re still misunderstanding hit points. I don’t think there’s a lot of house-ruling needed to adjudicate hit points; I think occasionally there’s some house ruling needed when related systems don’t interface correctly, like Falling Damage or the various methods of Healing. A crappy healing mechanic doesn’t make hit points dissociated, it’s just a crappy healing mechanic (and that rather than HP needs to be adjusted or replaced).

    Also, as my ‘patch’ above implies, a mechanic needs to be considered in whole, I think, before you can say if its dissociated or not. “Is this choice the player’s making based on a choice the character is making?” If the answer is Yes, no problem; if the answer is No then you can fix it by changing the notion of the choice the mechanic represents. The math of “roll 2d20 and take the highest” isn’t intrinsically dissociated. Making it a choice that the player must make which the character can’t make is where the dissociation is.

  45. StarfoxSFX says:

    Sticking with the one handed catch example, the problem from my perspective is that it is modelling something that I can relate to in the real world. The ability to one handed catch a ball is something that I could go out into a field and attempt all day and even succeed at a few times. The idea that I would suddenly become physically incapable of one handed catching after one attempt doesn’t match my experiences with how a human works. When playing an rpg, I would expect people in the game world to be able to do more than what I can do in the real world, not less. The real world becomes a baseline expectation of what my character should be able to do.

    If one handed catch were a bonus to a one handed catch attempt that could be used once per day, then I wouldn’t see a problem with it.
    “In a match of Kung-Fu football (not to be confused with Shaolin football), players with deep spiritual connections know that in times of need they can call on their ancestral spirits to guide their hand.”.
    Now my character can keep trying one handed catch all day which is fine, but there is some supernatural aspect than he can tap (and choose to tap as a character) that will give him a bonus on that one all important attempt.

  46. Jack says:

    “and choose to tap as a character”

    That’s the key. You example was making me uncomfortable until you said that – if the player is making a choice then the character needs to be making a related choice (or series of choices in some cases) or else there’s a dissociation between the player and the character.

  47. Z says:


    “The wizard didn’t suddenly forget how to cast a fireball, it’s just that a new fireball takes time to prepare. After all, magic allows you to twist and turn the laws of reality and summon destructive fiery explosions, and the slightest mistake might drastically shorten the wizard’s lifespan…”

    Too bad there’s never been anything in the rules that has risks and consequences for trying to go beyond your total spells per day limitations, or your prepared spell limitations (like trying to use a haste prepared spell to instead cast a fireball).

  48. Mike says:

    In regards to the hitpoints thing . . . I think hitpoints, in themselves, may not fit the definition of a dissociated mechanic, if you’re a stickler about it, but they certainly create dissociated choices. As mentioned in the essay, healing needs house-ruling or else it is based on TOTALLY dissociated choices (I’ll use cure light wounds on this 1st level bleeding out fighter but cure serious wounds on this 10th level wizard). Rope is heavier than healing potions, so you might as well jump off of cliffs. You are also not at all impeded by loss of HP before zero, which causes you to make choices in a particularly bizarre manner (well, I guess I’m alright with triggering this dart trap. I’m a pretty tough, pretty quick guy. I don’t mind picking a few barbs out of my gizzard . . .)

  49. Jack says:

    @Z, I think that would be an awesome system to homebrew…

    @Mike, I’m toying with the idea of making healing a “percentage of HP” thing, and/or more based off the character’s CON score, but I’m not sure what the right figures to go for are. Does CLW heal 10% of a character’s HP? How much does a normal character heal in a day of rest? How much should a high CON contribute, other than higher hitpoins (and thus, bigger absolute numbers for the same %)?

  50. Jack says:

    And having just posed that… the other problem is that damage taken is flat numbers, so it seems to me that having flat damage numbers and percentile healing numbers could end up with weird effects.

  51. JB says:

    This is an excellent essay. Thank you.

  52. DaveL says:

    you said:
    “If you are manipulating mechanics which are dissociated from your character – which have no meaning to your character – then you are not engaged in the process of playing a role.”

    So rolling dice is a dissociated mechanic, by your definition. So a truly “pure” roleplaying game would have no dice, no mechanics, no hit points, it would have ONLY ROLEPLAYING, (according to your definition.)

    So, um, what do we do instead?

  53. Justin Alexander says:

    @DaveL: “So rolling dice is a dissociated mechanic, by your definition. ”

    You’re kidding, right?

    I say exactly the opposite of that. There is literally an entire section of this post dedicated explicitly and repeatedly to saying the exact opposite of that.

  54. dominic says:

    Most of what makes D&D appear dissociated in my view. Using a d20 itself (as opposed to 3d6 or some other bell curve generator). Hp have been covered. Levels. Vancian casting. The essence of d&d has some pretty unrealistic abstractions. Frankly, having swallowed those, I find it odd to quibble over encounters and dailies.

  55. Jack says:

    @dominic, but dissociation isn’t about realistic or unrealistic, abstraction or otherwise. It’s about whether you can make a given choice from the character’s perspective or not. D&D Wizards understand that magic works by Vancian casting, so the choice to cast a spell or not can be made from their point of view. Whether the odds of anything succeeding or failing is statistically realistic is irrelevant for this discussion.

  56. Gregory Huelsenbeck says:

    My take on “Martial” daily or encounter uses is that the number of times you can perform it within a specified time period is not because of some resource like fatigue or whatever … its just an abstraction of the odds calculation as to succeeding at such a maneuver, the circumstances have to be just right. You can try a one handed catch all day long .. good luck in making it under pressure with tacklers hanging off you … the abstraction odds says the circumstances for pulling that off is once per day. It is an oversimplification to just put the choice in the players hands of saying exactly when the circumstance are just right to pull off the maneuver. This is so we don’t have to keep track of several tactical temperature gauges. But a high power high damage move with cool special effects, cant be used every round. Maybe that’s the simplest way to replace it .. instead of daily abilities .. anytime you get a crit .. you can either do max damage .. or activate a daily maneuver .. which is really just a critical use of a complex martial tactic that takes special timing.

  57. Gregory Huelsenbeck says:

    But what I failed to point out .. if you look at it that way … the circumstances have to be just right to pull off a powerful and complex martial maneuver … then you can easily associate the players deciding to use it, as the character seeing the right opportunity to use a move that wouldn’t have worked a just a minute ago because the circumstance were not just right. So it is associative.

  58. starwed says:

    The second Zelazny Amber series also has a pretty interesting interpretation of prepared spells.

    I’ll just quote TV Tropes’ article on Vancian Magic, since they have a good summary:

    “Merlin, hero of the later novels, explicitly prepares and “hangs” spells to be used later. However, prepared spells decay over time and must be prepared again even if not used. There, it’s a matter of pre-constructed spells allowing more efficiency, and a [properly trained] sorcerer can use magic anywhere on a spectrum from Vancian magic to realtime improvisation with the raw forces of the universe. It’s not that a wizard can’t come up with a spell in the middle of a battle, it’s just that a wizard who comes prepared can spend less time worrying about the most elegant formulation of a spell and more time not getting fried by the opposition. The “hanging” spells take this a little further: if you want to use a highly complicated spell in battle, it saves everyone’s time if you’ve already cast most of the spell in advance. ”

    I believe that the “hanging” spells are described as geometric structures built on top of the magicians personal internalization of the Logrus, but it’s been a while since I read those.

  59. Muninn says:

    Gregory Huelsenbeck said: “But what I failed to point out .. if you look at it that way … the circumstances have to be just right to pull off a powerful and complex martial maneuver … then you can easily associate the players deciding to use it, as the character seeing the right opportunity to use a move that wouldn’t have worked a just a minute ago because the circumstance were not just right. So it is associative.”

    Nope, still not associative. The problem is that the player is deciding that the circumstances are right, when such things would be outside of the control of the character. Since the player is making a decision that the character would have no control over, there is a dissociation between player and character. Thus, the mechanic is dissociated.

  60. Gregory Huelsenbeck says:

    Your just being persnickety. The player also decides weather to grapple or strike or cast a spell or move or speak .. every decision is really made by the player. The only real question is can you transfer the players choice into the characters fictional perspective. And the answer is yes. The fictional character is “in the situation” who better to “see an opening”, recognize the “time is right”, that his “positioning is perfect for X maneuver”. The player just pulls the trigger.

  61. Muninn says:

    The difference is that when the player is “grappling, striking, casting a spell, moving, or speaking”, the player is only deciding things that the character would be deciding (ie. they decide to strike because the DM or the map tells them that they are within range of the enemy, but their position that allows them to do so is constant regardless of whether they actually take that action). You are proposing that the player should also be able to declare that the circumstances for such a move are correct whenever the player wants to use a particular move and unsuitable when they don’t, which is something the character wouldn’t be able to control.

  62. Gregory Huelsenbeck says:

    Muninn said

    “You are proposing that the player should also be able to declare that the circumstances for such a move are correct whenever the player wants to use a particular move and unsuitable when they don’t, which is something the character wouldn’t be able to control.”

    I’m proposing no such thing. You just keep trying to read it that way. The character does not control the circumstances, but the character observes for when the circumstances are right, and makes a decision to execute an appropriate move to the circumstances. I’m saying that to directly model complex maneuvers and all the things that must be in place for such a maneuver to work, would be so complex as to be unplayable. I can accept abstracting down all the complexity of when and where the circumstances are just right for a maneuver to work into a simple “you can use it once a day” rule. Easy simple.

    I could write a complex system of maneuvers that become available as base attack bonus hits a certain higher levels … maneuvers that can be tried any time you want but have a very high DC mod to the attack roll, so that they fail most of the time, basically requiring you to roll a nat 20 to get it to work. But I think encounter and daily maneuvers simplify it and work just as well.

  63. Justin Alexander says:

    @Gregory: “But what I failed to point out .. if you look at it that way … the circumstances have to be just right to pull off a powerful and complex martial maneuver … then you can easily associate the players deciding to use it…”

    Pro-Tip: Next time you decide to leave a comment on a blog, try reading the post first.

    The section you want to read is “Explaining It All Away”. You may also want to check out the “Realism vs. Association” section, since your first post was a lengthy restatement of a large chunk of it.

  64. DaveL says:

    @Justin Alexander, I wasn’t kidding.
    You define dissociated mechanics, then attempt to explain how this or that mechanic doesn’t fit your definition. (and fail, IMHO) However, I still don’t see a huge difference between the mechanics you say are “associated” and the ones you claim to be “dissociated.” In spite of the lengthy replies, I still think it’s a tempest in a teapot. For example, 4e tends to seem more dissociated because of all the endless “feats” and “powers,” which, IMHO, creates dissociation because of all the fumbling around with minis and charts and stuff. For a more immersive gaming experience, I have found minimalist rules to be less obtrusive, creating an atmosphere that lends itself to deeper immersion into the game, making the actual play more associative. All the rest is just hair-splitting over why so and so likes this rule and hates that rule. My two c.p., anyway.

  65. Gregory Huelsenbeck says:

    @Justin Alexander

    I did read the whole article, and your view on explaining it all away.

    I think your wrong. I think your seeing dissociation where I see abstraction. Most 4E haters, focus on Martial “powers”. Crying where is this limited times per day coming from on a physical action that I can do more often? you can attempt the action whenever you want, but it won’t succeed.

    I merely point out, that the daily or per encounter limit is an abstraction (ala hit points which you defend) of the odds of a highly complex, high power, high damage maneuver being successful. That’s not explaining it away, that is correcting your perception.

    If you can’t see the association, it’s because you choose not to.

    The whole attack line of “if it’s player initiated vs character initiated” is bogus. As The character is not real, the player initiates everything. If you can see a logical reason for the character to choose the action the player picks, then its associative.

  66. Muninn says:

    Correction: An associative mechanic is where the character’s reason for choosing an action is the same as the player’s. If the player’s and characters reasons differ, than the player is not “playing the role” of his character, thus the mechanic (called a dissociated mechanic because it creates a dissociation between player and character) impedes roleplaying.

    A player may choose not to use a martial power because he may need it later. Why would a character think “Oh, I shouldn’t try this now, I might need to succeed on it later and won’t be able to if I succeed on it now”.

    I don’t see how you think you can tell Justin what the definition of an associative mechanic is, since as far as I can tell he was the one who coined the term.

    Tell me this: If the limit per day of a martial power is meant to represent the low odds of success for such a maneuver, why is it that every time the character attempts this maneuver, it succeeds? Why couldn’t this be better modeled as an attack that the character can attempt whenever they want, but with a low success rate, rather than something with a guarenteed success rate that can only be used an arbitrary amount of times?

    The character is not real
    If you are incapable of comprehending the idea of a game that simulates an internally consistent reality, perhaps roleplaying games are not for you (since that is, after all, the purpose of a roleplaying game).

  67. Gregory Huelsenbeck says:


    “If you are incapable of comprehending the idea of a game that simulates an internally consistent reality, perhaps roleplaying games are not for you (since that is, after all, the purpose of a roleplaying game).”

    >>Your just being insulting now. No need to be a rude ass.

    “Correction: An associative mechanic is where the character’s reason for choosing an action is the same as the player’s. If the player’s and characters reasons differ, than the player is not “playing the role” of his character, thus the mechanic (called a dissociated mechanic because it creates a dissociation between player and character) impedes roleplaying.”

    >>I have already said this, but you keep imaging something else .. the player and the character are one and the same and they are both thinking the exact same thing ..” the timing to use this manuever is just right! i will use it now!”

    “A player may choose not to use a martial power because he may need it later. Why would a character think “Oh, I shouldn’t try this now, I might need to succeed on it later and won’t be able to if I succeed on it now”.”

    >>Your the one trying to impose these minute levels of distinction in the character / player thought process. In a fast moving battle relying on training and instincts .. long philosophical thoughts like that would get you killed. The character is thinking nothing more than what I said above. “Now!”

    “I don’t see how you think you can tell Justin what the definition of an associative mechanic is, since as far as I can tell he was the one who coined the term.”

    >>He did not invent the words associative or dissociate. Nor did he invent the topic of “in character” vs “out of character mechanics”. He may have made using those term more common in relation to the topic, but in no means originated either. I don’t believe he gets to set the rules for language usage in regards to the topic. Especially when he seems to pick and choose when it comes to defending things he likes (ie.. hit points) as just as abstractions of logical things, while refusing to see where mechanics like the encounter and daily martial uses can also be defended as abstractions.

    “Tell me this: If the limit per day of a martial power is meant to represent the low odds of success for such a maneuver, why is it that every time the character attempts this maneuver, it succeeds? Why couldn’t this be better modeled as an attack that the character can attempt whenever they want, but with a low success rate, rather than something with a guarenteed success rate that can only be used an arbitrary amount of times?”

    >>I never said it couldn’t be modeled another way. As a matter of fact I suggested a couple different ways it could have been. but i didn’t write the game. They way they did it is simple and easy. Probably much easier and lees complex than some other way of probability calculation … hence abstraction for the sake of simplicity, same as hitpoints.

  68. Brian says:

    My question – and the question everybody should be asking – is, “what 8 pages of house rules does Justin use for his 3e games?”

  69. Justin Alexander says:

    @DaveL: Despite your claim to having read and understood the essay, you nonetheless misunderstood the basic definition of “dissociated mechanic” so completely that you said something that was repeatedly refuted in the essay itself.

    It’s difficult to have any sort of discussion with someone who doesn’t understand the most basic term of that discussion. Therefore, I’m not going to try.

    @Gregory: All mechanics are abstracted. Saying “this mechanic isn’t dissociated because it’s abstracted” is nonsense.

    You say: “I think your (sic) seeing dissociation where I see abstraction.”

    That’s like saying, “I think you’re seeing clouds where I’m seeing blue.” when I say, “There are clouds in the sky.” It’s a non sequitur.

    Not much more to say here. Like Dave, you have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the term — and a belligerent desire to cling to your ignorance — that I’m not sure further discussion will prove useful. If you can demonstrate a basic understanding of what the term “dissociated mechanic” refers to, of course, that assessment might change.

    @Brian: Someone else recently asked me that. Check out comment #8 over here.

  70. Eighteen Fourty Three says:

    To qote: It’s nice to see that you’ve graduated from “Dissociated mechanics are bad an thus not D&D” to “dissociated mechanics make it literally impossible to roleplay, only I, Justin Alexander, know the true method of roleplaying.”

  71. The Rot Grub says:

    Ehh… no. It seems to me that Justin is pinpointing why dissociated mechanics grate some people, including him. You’re ascribing a bunch of stuff to him and making this about him and not about the points he’s making..

  72. hogarth says:

    Obviously Justin can’t be opposed to all dissociated mechanics. For instance, take his Legends & Labyrinths version of Polymorph:

    It’s a good example of a dissociated mechanic. For instance, the caster can turn into a mule and his legs are strong enough to run like a mule, but they’re not strong enough to kick like a mule. Why? As noted in his essay, you can come up with all sorts of explanations (e.g. his speed is actually magically enhanced and he’s wearing some kind of insubtantial mule disguise), but each explanation comes with its own, in-world ramifications.

  73. John says:

    Actually the spell specifically states that it doesn’t modify strength. So, you could kick with the same hip geometry a mule would, but without Improved Unarmed Strike you’re not going to have a mule’s lifetime of practice with that movement, and unless you’ve naturally got the muscles to match it’s not going to hit very hard.

  74. Justin Alexander says:

    @1843: ““dissociated mechanics make it literally impossible to roleplay, only I, Justin Alexander, know the true method of roleplaying.”

    Yet again we’ve got somebody claiming I said something when I actually said the exact opposite of what they’re claiming.

    @Hogarth: “Why? As noted in his essay, you can come up with all sorts of explanations…

    Well, you could. Or you could just go with the explanation given in the article you link to: The spell changes the target’s shape, size, reach, and speed.

    There’s no logical reason that those changes must be accompanied by tack-on effects. That would be like arguing that expeditious retreat must be accompanied with a Strength boost. (I use the word “like”, of course, but that’s actually exactly what you’re arguing.)

    Insofar as you want to argue that expeditious retreat is unrealistic if it doesn’t grant a Strength bonus, you’re arguing realism not dissociation.

  75. Pinniped says:

    I don’t think the choice of “One-Handed Catch” is really a good analogy to the kinds of powers a 4e martial character gets. A “One-Handed Catch” is the equivalent of 4e’s bull rush or firing a ranged weapon at long range: something any character can do, but only certain characters can do well enough to make it worth attempting.

    I’d like to suggest an alternative to discuss. Consider the following Football ability, modeled after a 4e utility power:

    Incredible Stretch * Daily
    Trigger: The character attempts a catch.
    Effect: The character gains a +2 bonus to the catch roll. In addition, the character ignores the normal one-handed catch penalty (-4) for this roll.

    You might say it’s still not associated, because it’s still a discrete power for the player that isn’t tied to a discrete resource for the character. You could ask why a character who’s invoked his Incredible Stretch daily can’t do so again from an in-game perspective.

    I would say it’s associated, it clearly represents the character pushing himself beyond his normal limits to attempt a catch that is important. Both the player and the character recognized a situation where catching is unlikely but important and expended resources to try to make it happen anyway. Later in the game, a similar situation comes and, and both player and character regret not being able to try for a similar Incredible Catch because he over-exerted himself earlier.

    No, it’s not perfect. The player’s resource is incredibly discrete, whereas the character’s resource (“why can’t you do that again?”) is not (“because I’ll throw my back out” or “because sticking my arm out like that is a good way to get injured” or “I want to, but by the time I realize I should it’s too late”). But that strikes me a problem of abstraction, not association, since you’re still making the decision the same way your character would (“this catch is important, I’m going to make it count”).

    Basically, I want mechanics that let my martial character exert or pace himself as he himself would choose to exert or pace himself. I don’t think using a discrete resource (be an expendable power, a “x times per day” feat, a Fatigue pool, etc.) to stand in for real-life muscle exhaustion is enough to create dissociation and thus ruin roleplaying, at least not for me.

  76. Francesco says:

    While I also don’t care for 4e, I disagree with the concept of dissociated mechanics because:

    1.) most rpgs have pretty flimsy and arbitrary reasons for why someone can do something extraordinary and why there are limits on it. 3.5 was mostly ‘magic’ or ‘thing that is functionally the same as magic but has a different narrative flavor’

    2.) any time I have to stop and think about why my character can get stabbed so many times, I have become dissociated. It is just a part of roleplaying. I actually think 4e does a better job of getting the mechanics out of your way than earlier editions with huge numbers tables did.

    3.) the one handed catch ability used in the example actually sounds like it would be more of an offhand attack kind of mechanic. Most one per battle/day abilities actually do give some kind of reason why it can only be used that often (channeling/expending those energies is taxing, man). Now sprinting the entire field at max speed, for instance, might be a better example. You can only do that probably once or twice before things start to unravel.

    As I said earlier, I don’t care for 4e either. It bothers me. I think it’s because they took out the cool, oddball stuff and shaved away the anomalies. I am prone to nostalgia, though.

  77. hogarth says:

    Justin said: “Well, you could. Or you could just go with the explanation given in the article you link to: The spell changes the target’s shape, size, reach, and speed.”

    Justin, that’s the out-of-world (dissociated) explanation. What’s the in-world explanation? Who knows?

  78. hogarth says:

    John says:
    “Actually the spell specifically states that it doesn’t modify strength. So, you could kick with the same hip geometry a mule would, but without Improved Unarmed Strike you’re not going to have a mule’s lifetime of practice with that movement, and unless you’ve naturally got the muscles to match it’s not going to hit very hard.”

    John, take a look at the paragraph labeled “Reassociating the Mechanic”. As noted, that’s easy to do, but it’s still a problem.

  79. Sir Wulf says:

    While all games have some mechanics that don’t directly reflect reality, dissassociated mechanics become a problem when you can’t agree on answers for the questions “How does that work?” and “How could that be done differently?”

    Different systems approach these questions in different ways. A loosely-structured game like Feng Shui hands the decision to the players: If you ask “How does that blast ability work?”, the player can make something up. If you then ask “Can I use my telekinetic blast to knock down the door?”, the answer is generally “Yes!”

    Unfortunately, Fourth Edition D&D didn’t give that freedom to players or GMs. Because game balance was made a priority, many tactics were eliminated (unless a character’s power specifically allowed them). Grappling, tripping, and interrupting spells were all removed or made part of a specific class’ abilities. When asked if a character could do something, the GM was forced to ask if it was one of his powers.

  80. Pinniped says:

    I disagree, Sir Wulf. First, grappling is a standard combat maneuver. As for tripping, while knocking an enemy prone isn’t a standard action, there are guidelines in place for improvised actions. Between those guidelines and a look at the tripping powers that exist, it’s easy to make an on-the-fly judgement.

    For example, I know that a few classes can knock prone while dealing normal damage (i.e. 1[W] or ~1d8) as an at-will at level 1, so I would simply weaken that baseline for an improvised knocking-prone attack. Maybe it would be “melee basic; if you hit, roll Dex vs. Reflex to knock prone”, or an Encounter power, or deal half damage. Tripping is basic enough that it might be worth deciding on a houserule, but for most stuff an on-the-fly judgement works just fine.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but in 3.5e, wasn’t tripping something you had to be ultra-specialized in after the early levels to have any hope of succeeding? If so, I don’t consider the difference between, “You can’t do that” and “You have no chance of succeeding at that” to be especially meaningful.

  81. Sir Wulf says:

    My perceptions of 4th edition play have been influenced by the players and GMs I gamed with while using the system. Having encountered much better gamers while running 4e activities at distant conventions or other events outside my hometown, I know that some of the locals aren’t as reasonable or flexible as I would have preferred. Their inflexible mindset has definitely colored my opinions about the edition.

    When I first played 4e, I asked the GM if my character could trip. I was told that tripping was now part of some classes’ encounter or daily powers and was thus not available to other characters.

    Disarming or interrupting spells were disallowed as “unfun” limitations on classes’ abilities. “Why should casters be penalized and have their magic interrupted when other classes don’t suffer such a penalty?” To my frustration, the people arguing this were some of the same folks who claimed 3.5 wizards were an infallible “win button”.

    While grappling remained as a combat maneuver in 4e, it only limited an opponent’s movement. Grappling became insignificant because a grappled foe could still do everything else he might want to in combat. His targeting might be limited to his reach, but 4e is full of minor penalties that interfere with foes’ ability to freely choose targets. In all the games I played or ran there was never a time when the watered-down ability to grapple became relevant.

    When playing and running 3.5, I frequently found occasions when grappling, sundering, tripping, or disarming made sense. When I ran games, my players often hesitated to use up their attacks of opportunity: They knew that opponents would quickly move to capitalize on characters who had been “drawn out of position to strike” (by using up their AoOs). (I do prefer Pathfinder’s approach to combat maneuvers to 3.5’s.)

    For mid-level PCs to effectively make use of combat maneuvers, they needed to work as a team. Typically, one would deliberately draw a foe’s Attack of Opportunity, setting him up for an ally’s combat maneuver. Successive combat maneuvers would combine with terrain control spells to disable dangerous foes: Nothing is more pathetic than an enemy who has been flanked, tripped, tanglefooted, and grappled. If someone argues that 4e calls for a level of tactical complexity not seen in previous editions, they haven’t sat at MY table.

  82. tussock says:

    Justin said: “Well, you could. Or you could just go with the explanation given in the article you link to: The spell changes the target’s shape, size, reach, and speed.”

    Hogarth said: Justin, that’s the out-of-world (dissociated) explanation. What’s the in-world explanation? Who knows?

    He’s casting a spell that makes him run like a mule but not kick like one. If you’re suggesting that’s an odd thing for a spell to do, well, yes, and so are most of them. Sympathetic magic is not at all realistic in pretty much everything it does, that’s kinda the point. It’s still pretty obvious that preparing and casting the spell does what the spell does when you prepare and cast it, both for the player and the character. Which is the point at hand.

    You can totally make a game that does the same thing for Fighters, where tripping people is a martial “spell” they prepare and cast. People may complain you should be able to knock people off their horses without magic, which is true, but it’s still not a dissociated mechanic.

    I mean, 4e’s martial encounter powers could’ve just said you had -5 to do them against any group you’ve already used them on in the last day, because they rely in part on surprise. The martial daily powers could’ve run on a system of exhaustion separate from surges and so on, though that should’ve let you repeat the best one as desired. They’re not hard to fix, they just didn’t bother.

  83. OtspIII says:

    I’ve gotten into a few discussions over dissociation in mechanics with people recently, and these posts always get brought up, so I figured I’d drop in and see what people thought about my understanding. I think it’s close to what you say above, but it’s put in slightly different terms.

    Basically, I see the important factor as being keeping the and desires held and the choices made by the player/character in line with each other, and don’t see keeping the perceptions of things within the game the same as all that important until they start impacting the choices the players have to make. In other words, I don’t see a problem with HP as a mix of toughness and luck, since ultimately it’s a mechanic that promotes the same mindset for both player and character: “I should get in as little deadly combat as possible.” Maybe the player is looking at an actual number and the character is thinking “I shouldn’t press my luck any more than I need to,” but the impact that this has on their behavior is the same. Another good example is the old GP as XP system, where the reason the player wants to collect all the treasure (to level up) is very different than the reason the character wants to collect it (hedonism), but it doesn’t matter because the two completely unrelated desires still lead to identical behaviors. I feel like this goes a little beyond the abstraction not being dissociation stuff you talk about above, but it’s more or less a related concept.

    Of course, this does start to break down when you try to find ways to work with these concepts that go outside what’s specifically laid out for you in the game mechanics–Picador’s post # 35 does a good job of laying out a bunch of situations where this happens. These situations can all be more or less patched up with GM rulings/player negotiations and a bit of a gentleman’s agreement not to stare too closely when Godzilla’s zipper is showing, but it’s true that that’s not completely ideal. Still, though, I think that these motivations that exist for both player and character, albeit in very different forms, have the potential to add enough to the game, even to the specifically roleplaying side of the game, that they’re worth it.

    I actually feel like 4e isn’t too dissociated, although I think that it did a really bad job of making it obvious what many of the mechanical forces were meant to represent in the game-world. Healing Surges make perfect sense if you think of them as stamina: most hit-point loss is more wearing people out, hitting their shield so hard their arm goes numb, and so on, with the final hit being way more meaningful and lasting than the previous ones, but you can only exert yourself so much in a given day before you’re just completely exhausted/martial daily attacks put a lot of strain on a specific joint or set of muscles, so using it again without letting it rest for a bit will just injure you/etc. The problem is that they generally got presented purely as mechanics and not as character concerns, even if those character concerns aren’t that much more hard to work with than in most other editions, forcing people to figure out how to represent each mechanic themselves. I don’t think it’s too hard to maintain those connections once you build them, though.

    Is what I said above more or less compatible with your understanding of dissociation?

    Oh, I also read a series of posts on another site that I think have a lot of relevance to all this: and more specifically . It’s a fairly concrete example of why it’s dangerous to encourage a style of play where the choices players make are too far removed from anything going on in the game world.

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  87. Michael Pureka says:

    In general, I agree with the definition as set forth by this article, but I find some of the conclusions drawn from the definition to be unsatisfying. The most troubling is the conclusion that anytime you make a decision that “is directly equated to the character’s decision” that that is always roleplaying. To me, deciding to cast a fireball is about as much “roleplaying” as deciding to buy Boardwalk. This, I think, is where the talk of “only I, Justin Alexander, know the true method of roleplaying.” is coming from – people perceive you as asserting that “Hey, as long as you’re using associated mechanics, you’re roleplaying! And if you touch a dissociated mechanic, now you’re not.” The combination of these two assertions is very incendiary, especially coming from someone who states elsewhere that he’s not interested in “raising a fence so that people can tack up crude “KEEP OUT” signs”. It seems like you are saying that people who are making strictly mechanical decisions based on associated mechanics (“I waste him with my crossbow!”) are roleplaying, but people who are agonizing over in character decisions but then use a dissociated power to act on those decisions are not (“I lost my younger brother to orcs when I was young, and there’s no way I’m going to let this kid die! I spent a Fate Point!”). I think you can probably see the frustration this causes.

    I’m also not sure Dave L is wrong about all mechanics being, in some way, dissociated. Because you say “If you are manipulating mechanics which are dissociated from your character – which have no meaning to your character” and dig that hole yourself with your secondary clause. All mechanics “have no meaning to your character,” by definition, because they’re not playing a roleplaying game. The fact that those mechanics might be “associated” with your character in some way is not the same as “having meaning to your character.” And indeed, I fear that the argument you are setting up – essentially “When I’m not doing something that maps directly to what my character is doing, I can’t roleplay” turns into something of a slippery slope towards “Why are you using rules at all?” Because fundamentally, if you define roleplaying as “making decisions that map directly to decisions your character makes” then reaching to pick up some dice immediately takes you out of that state. You are, in fact, not making a decision at that point at all. The decision is made, and now you are resolving that decision – and during that time, you are, by your definition, Not Roleplaying. If you “truly” wanted to play a “roleplaying game” as you are definining it, you would eliminate all this stuff that stands between your making the decision and your making the next decision based on the consequences. The way the games you are trying to define as “roleplaying games” work is by switching back and forth between “roleplaying” and “resolving consequences”. And you are seldom if ever doing both at the same time. Therefore, it seems incorrect to assert that games in which you use dissociated mechanics and therefore briefly stop “roleplaying” are “not roleplaying games.”

    So, I guess what I’m saying is: I agree with your definition of dissociated mechanics, but disagree with your attempt to use it to define ‘roleplaying games’ because I find your base definition of ‘roleplaying game’ to contain faulty assumptions (namely, that you are roleplaying all the time when playing one, because I perceive this as impossible in a game that has rules for resolving actions.) You could take a step back and say “Roleplaying games are games in which you make decisions based only on associated mechanics” but A) That’s not really true of any RPGs, as you yourself point out that advancement systems, for example, are generally dissociated and B) That seems like an artificial distinction because your reason for why dissociated mechanics are bad has been shown to not be valid. (If “Prevents you from RPing at that exact moment” is bad then “rolling dice” is bad, because at the quantum moment when you pick up dice, you’re not roleplaying.) In effect, we are very close to a useful definition, but I don’t think we’ve quite made it.

    Oh. and Postscript – Where on this scale does a hypothetical mechanic where a power/effect has a “game world” mapping but not a “direct to the character” mapping fall? Say, a character who is a Chosen Hero Of A Diety and who has a pool of “Divine influence” that they can spend to Accomplish Stuff.. but which represents the intervention of the Diety, not any action (not even so much as a prayer) on the part of the character. I suspect there are mechanics out there like this.

    Thanks for your time reading this long and rather belated comment. I hope it is more clear than those that went before.

  88. Justin Alexander says:

    “…but people who are agonizing over in character decisions but then use a dissociated power to act on those decisions are not.”

    It may seem that way, but only to people who refuse to read what I actually wrote and instead insist on putting words in my mouth. I could write a lengthier response to such people, but what would be the point? I’m forced to assume they wouldn’t bother reading it.

    There, is in fact, an entire section of the essay dedicated explicitly to talking about roleplaying that happens around dissociated mechanics. Pretending that I’m claiming such roleplaying doesn’t exist is nonsensical. It’s as if I said, “The sky is blue.” And you replied by saying, “How dare you claim that the sky doesn’t exist!”

  89. Lior says:

    Michael: Of course, the players make all the decisions of the game. But the sometimes they make decisions based on the considerations the characters they are playing would have made, had the characters been real (do I buy a new sword, or do I keep the cash for later? do we fire the arrows now, or after the opponents come 20′ closer?) Some decisions are based on considerations which exist outside the world of the character (let’s end this combat because I want to go home). These are obviously dissociated. But the key problem is with decisions that manifest in the world of the character, but ought to be out of the character’s control.

    Suppose that, on average, our football player will make at most one successful one-handed catch per game. There are two ways to model this in the game world:

    1. (associated) One-handed catches are harder than ordinary catches; you will try them when you have to and occasionally you’ll roll a 20 and have an amazing success.

    2. (dissociated) One-handed catches occur at most one per game; it is at the discretion of the player to decide which attempt is the “lucky” one.

    What is the difference? Unless your imaginary game world is radically different from the one we have here, the character (assumed to be always trying his best) can’t unilaterally control which of this attempts will succeed. The dissociated mechanic, however, gives the player this power. This forces the player to take considerations that the character would never do. Note that mechanic 2 is an attempt to reflect the statistics of the game world; the problem is not that the resulting chain of events is imporbable, but that the decision making in using the mechanic is dissociated.

    Why is this different from fireball? Both the player and the character (if it existed) know that the character has memorized the spell only once, and must judge whether now is the time to use it. Both do so by comparing the possible risk (no fireball available later) with the reward (damage to enemies now). You argue that, on the reward side, they conceptualize the information to themselves a little differently (the character in vague terms, the player in the precise terms of the simulation, of d6 counts), but the difference is largely irrelevant: both the player and the (notional) character basically agree on both what the risk and what the reward is, and they go the same way. The difference in conceptualization is purely an artifact of the simulation (the player is not actually living in the game world, only interacting with a simulated one, so he is vieweing a simulated risk/reward profile), but the simulation is fine-grained enough for the difference to be small. So: (1) even though you think of fireballs by counting d6s while the character has no quantitative measure, deciding to case the fireball is an act of roleplaying, and (2) yes, some of us find it more fun to only precisely calculate the expected HP of damage caused if we think our character would actually be making decisions at this level of precision.

    Now go back to the football example. There, the risk/reward profile facing the player (“when during the game should my character succeed?”) is not the simulation version of any risk/reward profile faced by the character.

    Consider your “divine intervention” mechanic. It would be associated or not, depending on who (in the game world) is supposed to decide when the deity intervenes. Note your use of the word “spend”. In the beginning it is the character who gets to “spend” the pool; persumably he actually needs to call on the deity for help, but knows that the deity will only help him so much before becoming displeased. That is associated. By the end of your paragraph it seems you think player is the one who will “spend” without any act by the character. That can be dissociated — if the character gets no choice, then the player shouldn’t either. However, your particular scenario isn’t clear-cut because presumably the deity (like the player), will choose to exercise his influece optimally for the character. The player is then role-playing the deity rather than the character, but since their interests coincide at that moment it’s not a problem. I personally wouldn’t model deities as having a “sharp cutoff” to their patience — which is why I’d have the DM administer the influence rather than the player.

    Finally, a point about “rolling dice”. Assume for the moment the game world to be 100% deterministic. Even so, some factors in it are outside the control of your character. The dice are the place where, instead of exactly simulating the movement of every atom in the game world, we encapsulate are lack of knowledge into a statistical statement and model that. Your character will try hitting the orc; because we don’t want to model exactly which armor scales on the orc are damaged, and exactly in which angle you swing your sword, and where the orc’s big toe is located, we instead say “you have an 65% chances of depleting between 5% and 29% of the orc’s ability to fight, and a 35% chance of not affecting it at all”. “Rolling the dice” amounts to the character doing his best while the rest of the game world happens around them — it is that part of the roleplaying where you and the character discover how the rest of the gameworld reacted to whatever you tried. Sometimes (saving throws) the roll also encapsulates ignorance about the character.

    You may want to read about Elo ratings in chess and what they model to understand the point better. Elo ratings model chess exactly as an ability check: in this model every player has a base ability (called their “rating”), at game time they add a random component, and the higher combination is supposed to win. This is the model of course — not the way the game works, but the relation of the model to the world is exactly the relation of hit and damage rolls is to D&D combat. The only difference is that D&D is a simulation (so ratings are part of the description of the simulated world, and used to calculate outcomes in the simulation) whereas the reverse is true for Elo ratings, where the ratings are adjusted after the game so they better track reality.

  90. Michael Pureka says:

    Justin: Well, I’m glad I wrote that whole long post that I went back over, doublechecked against what you wrote, and proofread repeatedly in the hopes of stimulating a little more digging down on this topic, only to get back a somewhat irritable sounding “I could explain that, but people who think that clearly aren’t reading what I write.” post about one small facet of my concerns.

    Is it that difficult to believe that perhaps, since a number of people assert they have read your writings, and yet have come away with the wrong conclusion, that perhaps somehow in there, you did not communicate clearly? because I promise you, I have read what you have written several times and thought it over at length. I’m not even sure you are addressing me in your response, since you seem to be railing against some third party who supposedly did not read your posting thoroughly enough?

    Lior: I appreciate your well thought out post, but I’m afraid I must not have been clear about my concerns here, since it seems like you went over a lot of ground on which I already agree. The definition of the “dissociated mechanic” is not really my concern here, I think we agree on how it lies.

    The thing that primarily concerns me, upon rereading is that the definition of roleplaying maps directly to “anytime you use an associated mechanic”; I don’t think this is a useful or accurate definition, because I don’t think that making a decision for strictly mechanical reasons, regardless of whether that mechanic is associated or not, constitutes roleplaying. However, that appears to me to be exactly what is being said with “The act of using an associated mechanic is the act of playing a role.” If we are to believe this definition, then any game containing associated mechanics becomes a roleplaying game (Megaman switches from Quick Boomerang to Mega Blaster, because he’s low on Quick Boomerang Ammo. Associated mechanic. Probably not a roleplaying game. Actually, all the mechanics in Mega Man are probably associated.), and the whole definition falls apart. While it’s safe to say that a game with no associated mechanics is not a roleplaying game, that seems like a woefully short conclusion to draw from this article.

  91. Justin Alexander says:

    This is what the essay says: “You may be multi-tasking or rapidly switching back-and-forth between roleplaying and not-roleplaying. You may even be using the output from the dissociated mechanics to inform your roleplaying.”

    This is what you claim it says: “It seems like you are saying that people who are making strictly mechanical decisions based on associated mechanics … are roleplaying, but people who are agonizing over in character decisions but then use a dissociated power to act on those decisions are not…”

    What you claim I said is literally the exact OPPOSITE of what I actually said. Not a slight misinterpretation or a point of confusion. But literally a complete inversion.

    Now, there are three possibilities: The first is that you didn’t read what I wrote. The other two are less polite.

    Michael wrote: The thing that primarily concerns me, upon rereading is that the definition of roleplaying maps directly to “anytime you use an associated mechanic”…

    This would be another great example of you putting words in my mouth. I never said anything remotely like that.

    The essay does, in fact, contain a definition of roleplaying. That definition is “making choices as if you were the character”. You’ll note that neither the word “associated” nor the word “mechanics” appears anywhere in it.

    I’m sorry that you feel insulted because I won’t engage your strawmen. But when you so completely and absurdly misrepresent every single thing I said, there’s really no point in attempting some sort of deeper discussion. Until you get your facts straight, the only thing I can say is: Your facts are wrong. Get them right and then we can talk.

  92. Stephen Ayers says:

    Your entire premise stands on the fact that a wizard prepares a spell ahead of time while let’s say a power strike by a fighter isn’t “known” by him to be limited? Why not? Just like it’s not a given that ALL wizards everywhere prepare limits spells ahead of time maybe in 4eland fighters know they only have enough strength in them for one power strike a day just like only in dndland the wizard has his situation. This is such a minor, flimsy stance you’re taking. You just don’t like tactically driven DND which is its roots and would rather play pretend you’re some character than board game it. The tactical side is JUST as much DND rooted as the roleplay, actually more so. Stop trying to find stupid arguments to defend your preference. Go dress up as a wizard and play.

  93. Stephen Ayers says:

    It truly amazes me how intelligent sounding stupid arguments can try to be

  94. Justin Alexander says:

    Stephen Ayers wrote: “Your entire premise stands on the fact that a wizard prepares a spell ahead of time while let’s say a power strike by a fighter isn’t “known” by him to be limited? “

    No. I actually said absolutely nothing about wizards preparing spells ahead of time. I have no idea where you got the idea that spell preparation had anything to do with what I wrote.

    Stephen Ayers wrote: “You just don’t like tactically driven DND which is its roots and would rather play pretend you’re some character than board game it.”

    Once again, I’m forced to note that I never said anything about miniatures or “tactical-driven” rules being dissociated. You appear to just be making up nonsense and spewing it onto the internet. (In point of fact, I play 3.5 with a battlemap and miniatures all the time. The tactical component of the game is hugely important to me.)

    Stephen Ayers wrote: “It truly amazes me how intelligent sounding stupid arguments can try to be.”

    That’s true. But I’m sure that, if you try, you can make more intelligent arguments in the future.

    (I’m kidding, of course. Nothing about what you wrote sounded intelligent.)

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  96. Justin H says:

    D&D is played by a player describing his actions and the DM narrating the results. Sometimes the action is an automatic success and no roll is required. Sometimes it’s an automatic failure and no roll is required. However, sometimes the outcome is uncertain and a roll is required.

    So in 4e if a player decided he wanted to attempt to make a spinning attack against all the enemies around him the DM gets to decide what happens and narrate the result. If the player has a spinning attack power that lets all enemies around the player be attacked then the DM may decide to count the action as an automatic success and have the player roll hit and damage against each enemy around him.

    So since the first attempt worked so well the player may decide to attempt it again this combat. The DM gets to decide success failure or call for a roll. Maybe this time he tells the player it doesn’t work as planned (failure) because the monsters have caught on but you still managed to hit a single monster (as if you had attacked regularly). Or maybe he makes an exception this once allows it again because the monsters are dumb and haven’t caught on.

    If handled this way is it still a dissociated mechanic? The player isn’t determining success and failure. The character is making the same decision as the player: “I think I see a good opportunity to try to attack everything around me all at once” and the DM gets to narrate success or failure or require a roll to see if the attempt succeeds or fails.

    If played that way would the powers still be considered dissociated? It doesn’t seem that way to me. If I am right this means 4e’s mechanics were only dissociated because how most people approached the game.

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  98. DanDare says:

    Let me see if I can define an associative “luck” rule for a game, to see if I have understood correctly.

    Allow the player to have a limited luck point resource that can improve over time.
    Mechanically it allows the player to re-roll a skill check (only one point per check).
    Exhausted points recover 1 per hour of rest.

    From the character point of view they are drawing on a reserve of focus and nerve to do better than their normal skill would allow. They draw on it when they feel they need to double down on a task they are performing. They know when their luck is running out and can keep on pushing their luck until they feel they have lost their edge and need to rest.

    From this description its more of a “force”, “adrenalin push” or “sustained concentration” attribute than “luck” per se. The point being that it is a resource that the character is aware of and can decide to use, with an understanding that they only have so much “in reserve” at any given time. The player is aware of the exact nature of the mechanic but is going to make choices identical to those of the character portrayed.

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  103. Straybow says:


    Abstraction tends to be dissociative because associative effects are specific. The character doesn’t have an abstract quantity of a potion. The potion doesn’t have an abstract effect, it has a specific. If struck by a weapon there wouldn’t be an abstract wound. A wound has a specific location, it has dimensions, and other quantitative and qualitative characteristics. The abstract damage doesn’t.

    When my daughter has an imaginary boo boo, it has a location and it is cured with one kiss. That’s more associative than hit points.

    If one character cannot ask another, “Hey, did that cut sever the artery?” and get a meaningful response, then the abstraction is dissociative. It is exactly the same as one character asking another, “Hey, that trip was a cool. Why didn’t you trip the second guy?” The character can’t answer, “For some reason I have to wait for another encounter to do it again.”

    One character can’t ask another, “How many hit points do you have?” A character can’t ask oneself, “How many hit points do I have left?” The answer lies on a sheet of paper beyond the fourth wall. Yet, these abstract quantifications form the basis for decision making in the game, in some cases the primary decision making criterion. That is the very definition of a dissociated mechanic.

    Dissociation of the singular action with clear physical descriptions is different from dissociation of the damage done by attacks with no clear physical descriptions. The singular action needs an immediate explanation for why the special attack can only be done per encounter or per day, whereas the abstract hit points are at least consistent across the entire game. All creatures have hit points, and the exceptions to the basic mechanics are few.

  104. Justin Alexander says:

    The term “dissociated mechanics” is not a synonym for abstraction.

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  106. Airlock says:

    I would disagree that hit points are dissociated.

    While they are certainly -abstracted-, and thus unrealistic in a major way, they still have an association with the fiction. You can’t ask yourself “how many hit points do I have left”, but you can absolutely ask yourself “how wounded do I feel? How much more of this can I take?”, which makes it fundamentally different from the question “why can’t I trip another enemy after the first?”

    The first instance has an association to the fiction. The second does not. Hit points may not be specific, have a specific location, but they still -mean- something in the fiction. If the second instance were changed from “I can trip only one enemy per encounter” to “I feel exhausted after performing this maneuver, so I need to rest before I can perform it again” it would no longer be dissociated. But no attempt is made to ground these dissociated mechanics in the fiction. It’s more wargame-y than roleplay-y for this reason.

  107. Airlock says:

    (I apologize for double posting and also for not reading most of this thread because HOLY JESUS there are a lot of very lengthy replies.)

    I personally was always chagrined by DND because of the surplus of dissociated mechanics, both in ADnD and DND3. But I played it because it’s the most common game around (as we all know). I know that I’m not alone in wanting a game that is mostly associated (both through personal experience and because Of this thread).

    In the end there are always gonna be dissociated mechanics because we can’t completely emulate the real world (or we can, but it would take so long and so much math as to be obnoxious), but we should always try to stay true to the fiction. Not necessarily to reality, but to the fiction for sure. That’s why I like Dungeon World so much (shamelessly plugging a game I like, how novel! :P)

  108. Matthew says:

    I think a lot of the arguing between whether something is “dissociated” and “unrealistic” depends on how you view the setting. Dissociated mechanics are defined by how they’re divorced from the game world, which naturally depends on how the game world works.

    For example, the above “one-handed catch” is assumed to exist in a lifelike setting, which would make it dissociated. But if this theoretical football game existed in some weird setting where the mechanic was actually true, where it was actually natural law that well practised footballers are able to perform a heroic one handed catch once per quarter, then it would be associated. Of course that’s a pretty ridiculous setting so it would be much more reasonable to assume the former.

    But this example of HP and falling damage is less clear cut. There are two ways to look at it:

    The first is that the world of DnD is a world in which highly experienced fighters are able to jump off tall cliffs with little trouble, this is the result of allowing the setting to be dictated by the mechanics. Whether you choose to accept this or not largely depends on how much pulp-fantasy nonsense you’re willing to accept in your fiction (seeing as you’re playing DnD, I hope the answer is “rather a lot”). In this version, the player thinks “Grognar’s tough enough to survive that”, and Grognar thinks “I’m tough enough to survive that”. The setting and the mechanics agree, this is associated, and all’s right with the world.

    The second way of looking at it is that DnD exists in a world where a highly experienced fighter’s bones are just as susceptible to hundred foot drops as anyone else’s bones, but because of the weird HP rules of the game this isn’t actually the case in play. In this case the player is thinking “Grognar can survive this”, and Grognar is thinking (correctly) “No one could survive that”, but for no good reason he jumps anyway and for no good reason he survives. In this case the setting and mechanics disagree, which is leading to this ridiculous behaviour and results. The first example was only ridiculous compared to our world (as in, the setting itself was ridiculous) but this time this is ridiculous within it’s own setting. So is this dissociated?

    There’s some important distinctions to be made compared to the footballer. Firstly, if this is dissociated then it is an accidental dissociation caused by an oversight of the games abstract health mechanics, whereas “one-handed catch” is an intentional part of the design. Secondly, this example is not totally divorced from the game world. The concept of jumping from a high place and surviving because you are tough still exists in this world and any world, just not to the degree that the rules represent. I guess you could say it’s more of a bend than a break. On the other hand, catching a ball one handed does not make the catch easier at all, and there is no reason at all that doing it once means he can’t do it again. Thirdly, this at no point gives the player control over something that the character does not have control over, nor does it removes the players control over something that the character does control. It’s still the characters choice to jump, it’s just a choice that is stupid within the fiction but sound within the mechanics. Whereas with one handed catch the character should have control over how often they attempt each quarter, but the player only has the choice of never and once.

    I don’t know what the word for this would be, but it’s not quite the same thing as dissociation (at least not in the way Justin uses it), and I don’t think it’s useful to lump it under the same category. Language is, after all, primarily a functional thing, so in the case that we get to define a word we should make it as useful as possible. In this case, I think we should only use “dissociated mechanics” to refer to mechanics that are completely divorced from the fiction.

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