When working on game design, I get stuck. A lot. That's reasonably normal for any creative endeavor, and how different people overcome it is always interesting to me.
When working on Phoenix, associated mechanics keep me afloat in challenging waters.
Definition of Terms
For those not aware, there are two general approaches to mechanical design theory in RPGs. This is my take on these definitions.
Associated (drama-oriented design)
Invent the drama first, then define the gamism.
Disassociated (rules-oriented design)
Invent the gamism first, then define the drama.
An example of a disassociated mechanic is something along the lines of, "we need to let warriors/tanks stop enemies from getting to the wizards. We'll let them 'mark' enemies, and build effects off of that, like free attacks when the marked character moves past the warrior." Game rule defined.
Inevitable player question: "What does a mark actually mean my character is doing?"
Dramatic answer: "Well it means he's keeping an eye on his enemy."
Got it? OK, now here's an example of an associated mechanic. "Warriors protect the back line. They do that by focusing less on striking their enemies, and more on threatening them to make them stay in place. They'll stand in a broad stance, block offensive movement with their shields, and actively move to stand in direct opposition to enemies. Sometimes they'll stand close to other warriors, creating a mobile wall." Drama defined.
Inevitable player question: "OK, how does all that work in the game?"
Gamism answer: "Warriors have a threatened space, and if their stance is defensive, then enemies can't move past them within that space unless they charge, rush, teleport, or do something else to forcefully bypass the warrior. Any adjacent warrior allies in the same stance give you a bonus to defending against charges and rushes."
Both of these are valid
Not everyone in the blogosphere will say this, but it's true. It all depends on what type of game you are designing. Tactical board games need a healthy dose of disassociated mechanics to create a challenging and fun balance between opposing strategic combatants. They might start with a few basic associated mechanics and then delve strongly into rules-design, confined in later stages by backpedaling to dramatic-design.
Likewise, good dramatic-design will backpedal to the rules-design. My personal feeling is that tabletop RPGs need solid rules, but they should be designed for drama. Why? Because that's the sort of game I want to play. I don't want to have to sit around explaining what marks mean and why you can only try to trip someone once per encounter (disassociated). I'd rather sit around and explain the rules on how to stop enemy movement and how to do a trip (associated). Just my preference. Other people can have a different answer and a different game.
I'm not trying to appeal to players who want a tactical boardgame experience with Phoenix. I don't need to be liked by everyone. Perhaps I'll make a tactical game next and the story will be different.
Case Study: Elementalists
Last night I got stuck on my Elementalist design, and had a good conversation with Baby Bat on it. It turned out I was stuck because I had this rule in mind that I really wanted for them - a way of balancing power between two elemental poles as a basis for casting spells. I saw a lot of room for behaviors I didn't like in play and I struggled to explain the concept dramatically.
I was guilty of disassociating, and that's why I was stuck.
So we had a good dramatic brainstorming session where we just talked about what we imagined our Elementalist would do in a movie or book. We started with some basic dramatic assumptions, like my concept of elemental foam, and went on to describe scenes of powerful figures struggling to contain their magicks. They would conjure raw elemental power, sometimes barely containing it, then let it erupt - hopefully in the general area of their enemies. Particularly clever/brave/suicidal elementalists might try to summon two elements at once for more powerful combined effects (magmaball!), but their investment of time and risk would be exponentially greater.
These are not quiet academic students studying arcane equations. These are aggressive and strongly emotional characters, not unlike magical barbarians. They might not know how to read, much less perform arcane calculus. What others view as careless, they view simply as a way of life. Arcanists use smart bombs - Elementalists use (tactical?) nuclear weapons.
Now I've thrown away the old elementalist rules - always painful after creative work - and have a similar but much more workable mechanics draft underway, that involves building up and discharging elemental charge. None of the problems that were present in the old rules are present in this draft.
So. Associated Mechanics. That's my anti-writer's-block.