I read an article talking about how Monte Cook is wrong to suggest that giving a dwarf with an axe a +1 bonus to hit because dwarves love axes. Story, the article said, is not tied to giving bonuses for stereotypical racial traits, and in fact make it more difficult to build characters outside of those stereotypes.
Except, the person who wrote the article didn’t even really bother to read what Mr. Cook was saying. Cook wasn’t at all talking about story. He was talking about flavor, and those are two very different things. Story is certainly a part of flavor, it is the thing that carries the weight of a game’s narrative, whether it’s a role-playing game, a board game or chess. The story of chess is very simple, and mostly implied, but it’s there. More important, though, the flavor of chess is has nothing to do with that implied story. Knight, pawn, bishop, queen. Each piece is named for a figure of medieval Europe.* This flavor is divorced from the story of “You are a commander. You meet an enemy on the field of battle.” The two are not one and the same. See, I could make a game with all of the pieces from chess with a totally different story, but it would still have chess-like flavor because of the nature of those pieces.
Flavor allows us to make assumptions about a game. If there are dwarves in your setting, there are some concessions you need to make to people who know what dwarves are. In some cases, you’ll need to strictly adhere to the tropes of the dwarven people. In other cases, you’ll run counter to those tropes. But in both situations, you need to be keenly aware of what those tropes are, what people are expecting from your inclusion of this flavor, and how to cater to or subvert those assumptions.
What Cook was suggesting was not that story should be dictated by +1 bonuses to hit with axes. What he was asking is “Should the fact that dwarves stereotypically like axes be reflected in a game’s mechanics? How closely should the tropes of the epic fantasy genre affect the design of a game with that genre’s tropes?” And it’s a fair question, one that begs to be answered by Ron Edwards. System matters, and how a system ties to the flavor of the game is an important point in how the game will be played. The systematic concessions made to setting determine the texture of the game, how it feels in your mouth while you’re chewing on it. This is one of the biggest reasons I’m worried that the Assumed Setting of Fifth Edition D&D will be the Forgotten Realms. I believe that any system designed to specifically cater to the Forgotten Realms as a setting will by necessity play more like Second Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
And while I love me some Second Edition D&D, I’m not really looking to play something that feels like it right now.
So, to answer Cook’s question: Should flavor determine mechanics? Yes. How much should it do so? As much as it makes sense in your design. I mean, I don’t know what you’re cooking up yet, so I can’t really speak to any given set of mechanical curiosities. I don’t even know if we’re looking at a top-down or a bottom-up design yet. In a top-down design, it makes a lot more sense to try and capture the flavor of the game mechanically. In a bottom-up design, you’ll be looking much more closely at how you can crow-bar the flavor to the kick-ass mechanics you’ve built.
Which actually makes me wonder how much thought has gone into the overall design philosophy this late in the game’s design. From what I understand, there is already a playtest-ready version of the game floating around. If we’re confused about fundamental design questions regarding the depth of flavor’s influence on the rules, color me slightly concerned.
*Yes, even pawn. Etymologically, it’s linked to the word pedonem, or foot soldier, in Anglo-French.