Okay there are lots of different ways to play and one thing that keeps getting attention is “fiction first” which, as far as I can tell, is only very weakly defined. If it’s well defined, I can’t find it. I think it’s a play style — the style where you follow the narrative and announce your actions within the narrative and then try to figure out the mechanical representation of that rather than surfing your character sheet as a menu of options to determine the best mechanical option which you wedge into the narrative somehow. It works great when failing is fun but it doesn’t satisfy qualitatively like winning does. It’s a style.
But can it be a mechanism? I mean it can be advice, obviously. You could even get draconian and write it as a rule (“play in this style or you’re doing it wrong!”), but mechanize it?
Well, let’s look at injury.
In a hit point system injury is mechanically represented as hit points. In some cases it doesn’t have any impact beyond measuring how close you are to death. It might have an impact as well. But it has a number.
And it has a way to fix that number. You get x hit points back from a rest. You get some back from a healing potion. There are strictly mechanical ways to get those hit points back and consequently heal the injury. This is mechanically “fiction last”. You deploy the mechanism. It is clear. It is unambiguous. It doesn’t matter if it’s weird that a first level cleric can save you from certain death if you’re weak but can’t clear up your acne if you’re powerful. The fiction is completely irrelevant. You make some shit up later to make sense of the clear mechanism.
That’s an extreme. Let’s see if there’s a fuzzy case. In Fate you have stress but everyone says they aren’t injury (fact is, they might be) so instead let’s look at Consequences. Those are injuries! You have a limited number of Consequences and when you’re out of Stress and Consequences (bad game show that) you are taken out. Maybe dead. Maybe something else. But you’re done. And there is a mechanical way to get stress back (end of the scene) and a way to get Consequences back (varies by variant but usually a fixed time or number of sessions or something else mechanical that fixes some time period for healing). The impact of the Consequence is manifold: first it eats up part of your limit of Consequences. Second it represents a negative aspect that someone can use against you — maybe at no cost! And third it’s true. That is, it has a direct impact on the narrative because it’s a fact. If you have the Consequence “broken legs” you cannot do things that people with broken legs can’t do. This is purely within the fiction: there’s no mechanism (-4 to do “things”) — you must weave it into the fiction and play it out.
This to me is a half measure. It’s almost there. The fiction is dominant and in some circumstances it’s first but, it’s also second (when called out for a compel, say, or when figuring out how to heal it).
In the Soft Horizon system injury is mostly narrative. It has a mechanical component, but let’s look at it.
You risk HARM and it goes bad and you get a WOUND. You describe the WOUND and put it on your sheet. For every WOUND you have, your physical abilities are reduced one step. You may be unable to function if you have enough of them. Well, unable to do VIOLENCE or RESCUE someone. You are no closer to death, but if you are sufficiently incapable you might want to narrate that as death. Your choice.
Like a Consequence, the text of your WOUND is true. You can only do things that are fictionally consistent with the text. The fiction is given primacy. It drives the effect.
But it’s in repair that we get closer to the fiction and further from mechanism: there is no mechanism to heal a WOUND. There is no amount of time to pass, no number of sessions, no particular potion. The mechanism give you nothing. You heal a WOUND by pursuing and executing action within the fiction that would reasonably heal your WOUND. You might go to the hospital and wave away six weeks; that would fix your broken leg. Or you might pursue a legendary artifact that replaces your leg with a god’s finger in steel and diamond. Or maybe you decide to trust the crazy surgeon and they just build a new join in at the break and now you have more joints in your leg.
Two things have to happen: you the player must pursue a narrative that would fix the WOUND and then you have to succeed in the process. Then your WOUND is gone. Pure fiction.
It feels to me like timed solutions to wounds (as with Consequences in some Fate variants) is groping at this solution but ultimately seduced by traditional methods: I mean, since it’s true and drives fiction by its truth, it’s only a small step further to repair it the same way. Find a fiction in which it’s not longer true. It’s so close. But we often fall back on familiar methods because they are familiar and they suffice because, well, they’ve always been good enough.
So while “fiction first” is mostly a style of play, there are ways we can weaponize the fiction to function first or instead of mechanism. Not in every case, perhaps, but sometimes. And I think we don’t largely because we didn’t think it all the way through, because we already have a familiar solution. But the fiction has always had the power to force play — it has always been the ultimate determinant between being able to use the car (it has no gas) or not. We don’t give everything some kind of point score to determine what it does when and how much (the car needn’t have zero fuel points for us to agree it will not run). We can leverage that power for other things since it certainly exists.