The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘dissociated mechanics’

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.

Gadacro - Monster Manual VI’ve written about dissociated mechanics before. But it’s notable that WotC’s designers began unleashing these immersion-shattering monstrosities before the release of 4th Edition. The latter days of 3rd Edition are riddled with them, as well.

For example, I was trolling my way through Monster Manual V this afternoon when I came across the gadacro demon. These creepy little customers “relish their victims’ eyes, preferably plucked from the skull of a victim that sill lives”.

A little demonic creature that plucks the eyes from your head sounds pretty horrifying. Just the type of thing that can really instill a true sense of demonic terror in the hearts of your players. So I took a peek at the mechanics they’d given us for modeling this…

Eyethief (Ex): A gadacro can forgo its sneak attack damage or extra damage on a confirmed critical hit to instead blind its opponent for 5 rounds. A creature that has been blinded in this way cannot be affected again until it has recovered from the current effect. Creatures that lack eyes are immune.

Yup. They’ll steal the eyes right out of your head and then, 30 seconds later, your eyes will miraculously regenerate and you’ll be just fine.

Wait… what?

A mechanic that allows for the true theft of an eye needs to be carefully balanced because it can be so devastating, but this ain’t the way to do it.

Here’s a better way, one that’s actually associated with the game world:

Eyethief (Su): When scoring a critical hit, a gadacro can be choose to forego all damage from the attack and instead attempt to pluck out the eye of its opponent. The victim may make an immediate Fortitude save (DC 10, based on Strength). If the save is successful, the gadacro’s attempt has failed.

If the save is failed, the gadacro has seized the eye. The eye is immediately damaged, imposing a -2 penalty on Spot checks and ranged attacks. If all of a victim’s eyes are damaged in this way, the victim is blinded. (This damage is permanent, but can be repaired with a remove blindness spell.)

If the gadacro suffers any damage or if the victim succeeds on an opposed grapple check before the gadacro’s next turn, the gadacro’s attempt comes to an end.

However, if the gadacro is undisturbed, on its next turn it can attempt to complete the theft of the eye as a full action. The victim must make another Fortitude save (DC 10). If the save is successful, the gadacro’s attempt has failed.

If the save is failed, the gadacro has plucked out the character’s eye. (The damage to the eye can no longer be repaired with a remove blindness spell. It requires regeneration or a similar ability to correct.)

It should be noted that there’s nothing mechanically wrong with the ability as presented in the rulebook. The only problem is that the mechanics are, in no way, a faithful represenation of what they’re supposed to be representing. A demon that can mystically steal the power of sight from your eyes is otherworldy, strange, and evocative.

(Although I’d probably be tempted to go one step further and allow the demon to actually see through the sightless eyes of its victim. Such a demon would feast on its experiential theft.)

While putting together the compiled version of the Playtesting 4th Edition essay, I realized it probably made sense to compile the essays I wrote on Dissociated Mechanics, too. So I went ahead and did that.

As a reminder, these essays were originally written in May of this year, before the 4th Edition rulebooks were released. My general analysis, it turned out, was pretty much right on the money, even if there are a few individual mechanics which aren’t precisely the way they were previewed or the way I assumed in the final product.

And, of course, my general conclusion vis-a-vis dissociated mechanics (they’re bad and they’re antithetical to roleplaying) remain as valid as they ever were.

Dissociated Mechanics

May 20th, 2008


UPDATE 2: This essay is the original use of the term “dissociated mechanics”, but it was written during a time when I was still trying to figure out what that term meant. If you’re looking for a better understanding of the term, I recommend reading the improved and updated “Dissociated Mechanics – A Brief Primer” instead.

UPDATE 1: This essay was originally written in May 2008, more than a month before the core rulebooks for 4th Edition were first released. My general analysis of both the design ethos of the new edition and many of the new mechanics to be found in the new edition were right on the money, but it should be noted that there are a few individual mechanics which were either previewed inaccurately or which I made the wrong conclusions about.

But these differences have no meaningful impact on the most important points being made here. Most importantly, the central conclusions regarding the nature of dissociated mechanics — they’re bad and they’re antithetical to roleplaying — remain as true as ever.

You can might also be interested in reading my thoughts on actually Playtesting 4th Edition.


Go to Part 1

Okay, I’m almost done ranting about dissociated mechanics. This is the last post in this sequence.

But before I signed off on the subject, I did want to briefly discuss one area where I think the basic structure of a skill challenge works very well: Social encounters.

One of the reasons they work well is that human behavior is not easily quantifiable. If, all things being equal, a wall is harder to climb one day than the next, that’s inexplicable. If, on the other hand, I’m happy to take the garbage out one day and then get snippy with my girlfriend when she asks me to do it the next day… well, I’m just being grouchy.

In other words, the inherent dissociation of the mechanics gets lost in the chaotic intricacies of human relationships. In fact, things like the probability skewing we were talking about can actually end up being features instead of bugs when you’re dealing with social scenarios.

Of course, you’d want to sidestep the railroading WotC demonstrates in their own sample skill challenge. But once you’ve done that, even the basic skill challenge mechanics we’ve seen for 4th Edition offer a more robust — if still fairly simplistic — improv structure that is preferable to a situation in which the group is either left rudderless or in which the DM boils the whole thing down into a single opposed roll.

Ideally, however, I’d want to make the system more robust, dynamic, and responsive. A few ideas:

(1) Good guidelines for determining the degree of the skill challenge (how many successes) and the difficulty of the skill challenge (ratio of failures). Are the relationship and risk-vs-reward scales that I use for my current Diplomacy rules a starting point for such guidelines?

(2) Opposition. NPCs who are actively working against the PCs. Their successes count as failures for the PCs, but their successes can also be undone.

(3) Obstacles. These are tools for modeling more dynamic situations. For example, the main challenge might be 8/4 — but before you can start tackling that main problem, you first have to overcome a 2/3 obstacle or a 6/3 obstacle. (It might be interesting to define opposition as a specific kind of obstacle: You could eliminate the opposition entirely by overcoming the obstacle, or just deal with them complicating matters as you focus on the main challenge.)

(4) Tactics. These might also be thought of as templates or tactics. I’d be drawing generic inspiration from some of the material in Penumbra’s Dynasties & Demagogues (among other sources).

Over the past few years there has been an increasing move towards trying to figure out “social combat” mechanics in RPGs — with the general idea being that you’re bringing the robustness of combat mechanics to roleplaying encounters. In my experience, however, most of these systems end up categorizing all social interaction as a form of warfare. This has limited truth to it. And even when it is true, it usually ends up being a gross over-simplification.

In the ideas of social challenge mechanics, on the other hand, I find the nascent promise of a mechanically interesting system for handling social encounters that doesn’t try to ape combat mechanics.

I’m hopeful that something interesting might come out of this. If it does, you guys will be the first to know. (There’s also a part of me still hoping that I’m wrong about 4th Edition’s skill challenges and that the core rulebooks will, in fact, unveil something far more impressive than the lame and crippled examples they’ve proffered to date.)



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