When Aren’t You “Playing” the Game?
There’s a Twitter conversation going on right now about whether or not you’re playing a given roleplaying game during the sessions where you don’t roll dice or otherwise engage in its core mechanics.
Naturally, most of the game designers are saying “no, you’re not.” And that’s tragically short-sighted. There is more to a role-playing game, by its very nature, than the rules behind it.
Before I go farther, might I point out what you see on the right-hand sidebar (if you’re reading this on my blog): Fighting For Gwen. If you have a little bit of spare coin and would like to help a sweet girl get the education she deserves, please consider donating.
The rules of a game create a sense of platform & expectation. For games that have a heavy combat element, through play I know how well my character will do when fighting, say, an orc or a hobgoblin. The experience of all those moments feeds into thoughts about how the game world works and what one should expect consequences to be for a given action — the imaginary physics of the world, if you will.
And I propose that a role-playing game isn’t the rules of the game, but the physics & nature of the world…which is necessarily executed and reinforced by the rules of the game. Those who see rules-first are putting the cart before the horse.
Thus, if we’re playing a session where we touch the dice little or not at all, we are still playing the game if our descriptions and actions are in accordance with the imaginary physics of the world, and expect that they’ll be validated by the mechanics in later play. The moment your play deviates from those imaginary physics, then you are no longer playing the game you were before.
Why? Because those actions & decisions will feed back into dice-play, and thus will be validated by the game’s physics as being true to the world your game’s protraying.
One example that was brought up by Gareth Hanrahan was a session about planning a siege in D&D. What he still playing D&D? Some argued no, but I very strongly say yes. Some argued that he might as well have been playing Warhammer Fantasy or Runequest, and I strongly disagree.
Why? Because those games have different imaginary physics. The actions you consider and decisions you make have different ramifications, however slight or subtle, that influences how you’re interactions are going. In addition, they also influence when to trigger dice-play — some games with a stronger sense of social conflict may trigger dice-play sooner, and some not — thus cause consideration on whether to engage the core rules or not.
And when you’re considering the rules, whether directly or indirectly, you’re playing the game.
To say otherwise is to forget that we’re not playing a board game and to not fully understand this medium & the full effects a ruleset has on fiction.
 Which is an interesting idiom in gaming, as it really means “to not engage the core rules of the game,” even in games without dice.