Associated vs Disassociated Story Mechanics: How Gaming Invaded My Writing Worldview

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The other night I was having dinner with a few friends, one of whom is who is a big gaming fan. He had a copy of a magazine called White Dwarf (Aug. 2011), which, if I remember correctly, is published by Games Workshop and covers the Warhammer gaming system. I’ve never been into gaming, but I do enjoy flipping through these kinds of magazines because I love the photography; the exquisitely painted models and figurines shot in close-up is an art unto itself. Yet for some reason I found myself reading and enjoying one of the articles (no, not the best of dinner manners, but then I’m not the one who brought the magazine into the restaurant in the first place 😉 .)

I got the impression that the piece was a regular column–“Standard Bearer,” by Jervis Johnson– and it was about game mechanics and game design. And in this case there was an element to what the author was saying that I thought related exceptionally well to writing fiction. He was talking about something he called “associated game mechanics” and contrasting it to “disassociated game mechanics.” Disassociated game mechanics is “rules where the game mechanics is thought of first, rather than the mechanics being based on the game’s background.

“The alternative to this is to create the game’s background first and then write rules that are based on that background. This process creates associated game mechanics because the rules [of the game] are associated with the units that receive them.”

The column went on to say that “Disassociated mechanics are great for creating challenging yet rather abstract games. Because the rules are separated from the background, the designer can concentrate purely on the game mechanics, creating a clinically precise game system. Chess and bridge are two examples of games that use disassociated mechanics to great effect. Associated mechanics, on the other hand, are great for creating games where players become immersed in the story that is unfolding before them…”

I’m not sure why I started reading the column in the first place, but I do know that I read the whole thing eagerly and then borrowed a pen from the waiter so I could write the pertinent parts down because it was so easy to translate this columnist’s thoughts on gaming into good advice for writing. Basically it boils down to this: if you want a world/story/book where readers “become immersed in the story that is unfolding before them” you need build it in such a way that the pieces fit together, using associated story mechanics, rather than forcing things to go in a predetermined way. This is accomplished largely by knowing the background of the world you are writing about, as well as the background of the characters you are writing about. Then you write your story with the background providing rules that “are associated with the units that receive them”–in this case the “units” are your story’s characters. That way things grow organically, from the roots up. The background provides the rules that are those roots.

I know many writers hear the word “rules” and balk. “Rules stifle me,” they say. “They stifle my writing.”

Poppycock. The only thing stifled by these kinds of rules is laziness. Making things go in the direction the author wants them to and still adhering to the character’s past requires the greatest kind of and degree of creativity. It’s the difference between planting a tree into fertile ground and letting it grow, versus buying one at a nursery and putting it on top of the ground, still in its pot. It most certainly takes more time and work to properly prepare the ground, to dig a hole, and to cultivate around it, but which tree is going to stand up the best when the storms come and the winds blow and the rivers rise? (That’s a rhetorical questions; I know you know the answer.)

The alternative—writing with disassociated story mechanics—results in work that creates “challenging yet rather abstract stories… creating a clinically precise story.” You’ve read these kinds of tales before, where the characters seem to move in exactly the way the author wants them to. The problem with this approach is that the characters never really come to life; they are pawns and rooks and bishops to be moved about at the author’s discretion. I don’t know if there is a chess or bridge equivalent to literature, where it is used to great effect, but if there is, I can’t think of it.

And let me be clear, this isn’t a plotter vs. pantser argument. Regardless of which approach you favor, your stories will always benefit from having a well-thought out background. Knowing who your characters were will never impede you from discovering who they might become during your story, just as knowing the world around them will only aid you in discovering where they are going (literally and metaphorically).

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17 comments to Associated vs Disassociated Story Mechanics: How Gaming Invaded My Writing Worldview

  • Unicorn

    Interesting post, Edmund, thanks. Oddly enough, in my older WIP, the main character doesn’t really have any backstory at all (which is his problem. He’s never done anything important in his life). In the newer one, though, the main characters are all tied together by a massive event in their past, so of course they have oodles of backstory. Hmm, I’ll have to look into the characters’ pasts in that older WIP. Food for thought.
    Unicorn

  • Unicorn – I will submit that if you had a main character with no past, no backstory, no interesting or defining moments in their childhood that made the who they are today, then you have a problem. You have a block of Swiss cheese that’s more hole than cheese, and it’s going to be really hard to make a satisfying meal with that as your main ingredient.

  • What a great way to put this principle! I really like that it works both backward and forward in writing, or at least in my writing process. I spend a lot of time day dreaming my characters beforehand, but I also discover their backstory as I write. If my character is haring off in a direction I don’t like or that I don’t understand, getting the story back on track (or reconfiguring what ‘on track’ means) often involves me having to sit back and ask “What in their past makes them act like this?” In my WIP I knew that my MC’s main antagonist was her brother, but I didn’t fully understand her reactions to him and how deep they went until I sat back and wrote several scenes of backstory explaining what their childhood had been like together, both the good and the bad. I was thousands of words into the story at that point, but taking those hours to write and think about the backstory more unlocked some plot points I just hadn’t been able to figure out before. What I feared was going to be a waste of time turned out to be invaluable.

    @Unicorn – you might try writing trivial events in your MC’s life. Sometimes I do that and find out midway through that they aren’t trivial at all. Instead they explain huge amounts about the character. My favorite childhood memory of my dad is sitting in the car, running errands with him. He gave me a hard candy called a rootbeer barrel. Boring, right? We’ve all run errands with our parents. Except, my dad is a diabetic and the candy came from his emergency stash of candy for when his blood sugar dropped. And I’m the oldest of 4 kids and for once, I got to be alone with my Daddy. I was too small to have my feet touch the floor. When he gave me that candy, I felt like the world’s most special princess, sitting in the front seat of a rattley old VW Rabbit, sharing a secret indulgence with my Dad. Rootbeer barrels still make me nostalgic. It’s what the moment meant, more than what happened that makes the story important.

  • Rhonda

    Different kinds of rules, I think.

    There are the “rules of writing” which are many and varied and depend mostly on who is telling you what they are. Many are broadly useful, none should be used indiscriminately. This is what most people think of when they hear “rules” and “writing” in the same sentence.

    Then there are the rules internal to the story and narrative, which is what I think you’re talking about here. Each story, and each character, has its own set, and they must be consistent from start to finish. These ones *must* be followed – but they can be adjusted as needed while developing the story, provided the adjustment is reflected in the whole story so that they are still consistent from start to finish.

  • I like it. 🙂 When I run games, I always ask my players to write me a one-page background on their character, then play a solo game with each person to get them set up to where they meet each other (or introduce them to the D&D system if they’re new). I generally give them a brief outline of the world and let them choose where they came from, let them develop a bit of their hometown if they choose, and continue to allow those characters’ past to shape my storytelling decisions. One of my favorite players was a first-time player who decided his character was a gnome cleric who worshiped “Elsie the Sky Cow”. It was funny at first, but he did an amazing job of working it into almost everything, building this gnomish culture, to the point where I eventually decided to take the game to the gnomish continent. Background can help take your story to exciting places you hadn’t intended.

    Loved this post! Thanks, Ed!

  • Lance Barron

    Is the associated mechanics more of a story and the dissociated one more of a case study type approach?

    Great post.

  • Personally, I can’t imagine writing a “disassociated” piece of fiction. I tend to agree with Ray Bradbury that it is the characters who create and drive the story. I usually have a rough idea how a story should end, but it is usually my characters who illuminate the path to that ending in recurring fits of inspiration. I suspect most writers proceed this way. But perhaps I am wrong. Charles Hall

  • Sarah — Thanks for the tip for Unicorn. You’re spot on.

    Rhonda – You’re correct about ‘rules of writing’ versus ‘rules of world-building,’ but I do know some people who are so determined to ‘discover’ their world and their characters as the go along that they also balk at the idea of knowing/developing backgrounds for anything.

    Lauren — I worship Elsie the Sky Cow, too. Whooda thunk it? 😉 Seriously though, your point that “Background can help take your story to exciting places you hadn’t intended” is 100% true and useful.

    Lance — Not so much a case-study, I think, but maybe more like literary writing, where the emphasis/point is more about the quality of the writing than the quality of the story. In my opinion that kind of literary writing all too often values its precision of construction over everything else.

  • I had no idea you drank the milk of life from the divine teet! How fascinating. Perhaps if you also have a near-death-experience, you will find yourself in the Sky Cow’s Second Stomach.

  • Unicorn

    Edmund and Sarah – thanks, I think the lack of MC’s background is a big, big hole in the story that I’ve only spotted now. Oh dear. Thanks for the help.
    Unicorn

  • Rhonda

    Edmund – there’s nothing wrong with discovering the world/characters as you go … in the first draft. Lots of people do it. I’ve done it many times, it’s how I usually write my first drafts. You just have to make sure you figure out what the rules are and make sure the story is consistent with them when you edit! I’ve never had much luck in the past developing the rules of a world/character without sitting down and writing a story.

    So far my usual first draft process has been to start with a set of writing exercises (5 random words, 10 minutes, go!) then pick one that looks like it has potential and run with it in NaNo to find out what’s going on. (Most of the exercises don’t have much potential, of course.)

    Generally, I find that partway through the first draft the rules of the world and the characters are settling down and I try to keep them in mind as I go – but if one of those rules needs to change for the story, I change it and make a note to edit the earlier parts to suit.

  • I’ve run games for so long that I’m equally good at free-forming a story, for those times when people want to game but nothing’s planned. Still, while I’m running I’ll be jotting down notes for other things that I’ll want to happen, so even when I’m free-forming it, I’m still scheming in my head. Something a character does will spark future repercussions, or something somewhere else will have a future effect on their adventure (no game goes on in a vacuum and the world doesn’t stop because the characters do). And like LScribeHarris, I always make my players write character backgrounds. It’s fun to use those backgrounds within the story (or use them against them, as the case may be 😉 ). I also write a background for every one of my characters when I’m playing in a game too. It always helps me understand the character’s motivations and enriches the experience for me and the other players. Yet, my most successful and fun games have been the ones I’ve been able to plan out. Sure, players don’t always do what you thought they would, but that’s when you wing it, finding ways later to weave them back into the original story when they’ve gone off on a tangent.

    But just like anything else, world building for gaming come through experience. The more world building you do, the more you’ll begin to see those holes in the structure and find ways to fill them in, and see places where the world can evolve and move on even while the characters are sitting still waiting for that broken bone to mend. 😉

  • As one who knows next to nothing about gaming, I found this post fascinating. It all makes sense intuitively, but I love having a new way to look at these things. “Disassociative” and “Associative” storytelling. Now when I go to cons, I can sound intelligent, or at least have a fighting chance of doing so…. Seriously, very cool post.

  • Edmund I had no idea where you were going with this, but I love where the post went! I think back to a lot of the spec fic I read as a kid, and I can most clearly the asso. and disa. mechanics in them.

    When starting a new series, I think soooo long about my characters and worlds, but I seldom put anything in writing before I start the rough draft of book one. It is the only purely pantser part of my writing process. It’s all in my head, but that first 10 pages is where all the planning and thinking crystalizes and finds itself in a voice I can love. In later books in a series I don’t have that pure freedom, sadly. The world and the characters are already formed, and the plot in them is created totaly differently. The difference between the two methods is easily encapsulated in the asso and disa methods.

    But then, I started writing the role playing game (with Christina Stiles and Raven Blackwell) from the Rogue Mage series, and I had to design things I had never thought about before, answer questions I had never considered before. It made me look at my world and my writing process in a totally new way. I had to take the world (which I had loosly created around a character) and expand it and tighten it and cut it, and … hmm, disassociate myself and my characters from the background. And that just turned it all on its head. Thinking like this makes my head hurt. I think I’ll stop now.
    🙂

  • This sounds like it ties in with suspension of disbelief to an extent. It is possible to write pretty much anything without breaking losing that suspension so long as that event flows from what is expected based on the world and its backstory.
    For failures in associated story mechanics watch Terminator: Salvation. It really looks like a couple of scenes were written despite the characters and plot in order for the story to move in the direction the director wanted.
    eg: Skynet wants to kill Kyle and John Conner, but refuses to do so at every opportunity just so John can fight the T-800 and get saved by Marcus. arrgh.

  • TwilightHero

    Hi everyone. First, let me say I just found this site, and I LOVE it. The articles are well-written – I guess that goes without saying since you’re all pros – interesting, and particularly informative for people still working on their first book, like me. (Perhaps for successful authors on their umpteenth novel as well?) I suspect I’ll be coming back here quite often XD

    Having said that, as both a gamer and someone trying to pull a decent story together, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Without some sort of background, personal, political, cosmological etc. driving the characters’ behavior, everything devolves into (indulge me here) the author playing puppet master to his or her own little – or not so little – troupe of marionettes. The best stories are the ones that make you feel for the characters, marvel at the world(s) they inhabit, and most importantly, forget that none of it is real =)

  • TwilightHero — Welcome to the party. I’m glad you found us and I’m glad you’re finding the site useful. We have a rotating cast of characters (well, authors, really…) so I hope you;ll feel free to ask one questions at any time.