Discussing Layers of a Role Playing Game

Discussing Layers of a Role Playing Game

Proposed Layers

Narration: The story that is being told. A person not familiar with the system would understand what is happening.

Interface: How elements of the story are fed into the mechanical layer and likewise how elements of the mechanical layer influence the narrative layer.

Mechanics: Responsible for defining the interfaces used to access the underlying model. The mechanics layer implements the interface to the narrative layer through the use of sub-systems and abstraction.



Artorax took a hasty breath and expelled a fiery gout of ashen rage, bathing the mighty paladin Alexandar, but not before he had brought his shield up for protection. The withering attack was quickly sapping Alexandar’s strength, but he fought on…through excruciating pain…desperately trying to extinguish the flames while still trying to deliver a mortal wound to the ancient wyrm.

Interface via Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

The above could be modeled by the following: The dragon uses a standard action to use his “breath weapon” attack on Alexander. The dragon successfully hits Alexandar, so after damage is rolled, Alexandar takes 75 points of damage, and an “Ongoing 20 fire damage (save ends)”. That is a lot of damage, and the ongoing fire damage is going to make quick work of Alexandar.

Mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Hit points are a resource that can be depleted. If you take damage beyond your hit points, you are taken out of play. Ongoing damage is sustained each round unless you succeed at a saving throw.

Interface via Fate system, as per Diaspora

The above narration could be modeled by the following: The dragon makes a Health attack on Alexandar for 6 shifts. Alexandar only has 5 health boxes that can be checked off, so without a consequence, Alexandar will be taken out. Pete, Alexandar’s player character, doesn’t want Alexandar to be taken out of the fight just yet, so he elects to reduce the shift by one by taking a minor Consequence “My clothing’s on fire!”. Alexandar is certainly in serious trouble, but he’s not given up yet.

Mechanics of Fate system, as per Diaspora

The Health track is a resource that can be depleted. If you sustain shifts beyond your Health track, you are taken out of play. Shifts can be reduced by assuming Consequences; Those consequences will make future actions against you more dangerous.

Further Exploration

There are two common elements being described in the Narrative and Interface layer. First there is the initial pain/injury from the blast of fire. Second there is the ongoing affect of being on fire. In both system examples, the initial pain is represented by taking damage. The ongoing effect is modeled differently.

In the 4th Edition example, Alexander will continue to take damage each round until he successfully makes a save. In the Fate example, Alexandar opted to reduce some of the initial damage by adding a consequence of being his clothes being on fire. The dragon can, and most certainly will, take advantage of that in future rounds.

Obviously Diaspora’s incarnation of the Fate system and Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition are very different systems. Dungeons and Dragons models the “My clothing’s on fire!” as something that happens to your character, and keeps the narrative details vague. Fate models “My clothing’s on fire!” as something that you choose to happen, and the narrative details are quite explicit. Note, in Diaspora’s Fate, there are other ways for the dragon to set someones clothes on fire, but not also do damage in the same action.

Purely Academic Conjecture

Having played Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, and not having played a Fate system game, what follows is purely speculation.

Compared to Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition (4E 📖), the Fate system interface to the mechanics can more accurately reflect the ongoing narrative. This is due to the fact that the underlying mechanics of Fate knows how to handle descriptive text. “My clothing’s on fire!” has it’s own meaning in Fate, whereas Dungeons and Dragons requires translation of the narrative statement.

I suspect that the ability to provide english phrases to a situation will also help in recalling story aspects. Compare the following:

Remember that time your clothes caught on fire. You barely survived that nasty dragon.


Remember that time you took 75 points of fire and damage and were taking 20 points of fire damage a round. You barely survived that nasty dragon.

Certainly if you are well versed in the language of the mechanics you can remember the story just as vibrantly. But there is certainly something lost in the translation.