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[1] 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.

– Ryan

[1] 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.


21 Responses to When Aren’t You “Playing” the Game?

  1. Adam says:

    Interesting points! I think planning a raid is a bit different because, as you say, you’re thinking about the mechanics. It’s like spending a session planning your heist in Shadowrun, you need to know what dice you’ll be future-rolling. Compare to, say, three hours spent sitting around a campfire “in character” during a basic D&D discussing background stuff and characterizing. Are you still playing the game if your interactions have no mechanical consideration at all?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Do those characters talk about what they’ve done, in the recent past or in their history?

      Do they talk about what they want to do?

      Do any of those violate the sense of imaginary physics? Then yes, you’re still engaging with the game.

      Is there a relation about recent previous moments that required what in writing is called a “sequel“? Or perhaps does anything said carry forward into future story, in moments that may be directly or indirectly engaged by the core mechanics? That’s where it gets fuzzy, but I’ll say that you might be playing Schrödinger’s RPG.

      – Ryan

  2. I would argue that in the ‘planning session’ game, you are engaging the mechanics, even if you’re not actively rolling them. It seems that your ‘validated by the game’s physics’ is another way of saying, ‘reflecting on the way the rules will address your actions’.

    You’d have to come up with an example that doesn’t engage those mechanics, if you wanted to posit that you aren’t playing the game. For some games, that’s harder than others.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yup. Different words, same idea.

      My wording is to push the idea that you’re always engaging in the game’s imaginary physics, either in the moment, looking backward, or looking forward. Partly because most arguments for “you aren’t playing” are solely about the moment without context.

      – Ryan

  3. Leonard Balsera says:

    I’m curious as to whether you chose the word “physics” because of, or in spite of, how loaded of a term that is when you’re talking about RPG systems.

    (For reference: “Story” is just as loaded.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      “Physics” was the best word in my arsenal. Not that it’s the best word period, but just the best I have. The rules of the game also reflect the world’s biology & (especially if there are social conflict rules) psychology as much as they do physics. We are constantly experiencing physics in the real world, even when not doing so in a challenging or hostile situation. (And I’ve been studying video game theory, where a game’s physics comes up often.)

      I avoided “story” because it’s too easy to see story as an instance of gameplay rather than the underlying assumptions of gameplay.

      – Ryan

  4. Trevor says:

    I was in one of these discussions, and you’ve probably said it better than I could Ryan. Even sitting down to create a character informs me to some degree how I’ll be playing. What kind of things are on my character sheet? What kind of things do I excel at; what am I bad at? How does this spell/power/ability work? Can I blow things up?

    Add on to that whatever rules and lore the world or setting throws in and I feel like I’m playing that game even if I’m not rolling dice, or even if I’m not using specific rules that the game provides. My mindset, my play style and the actions I choose are all touched by the rules and setting I’m in, and I can’t say I’m not playing the game or someone else isn’t playing the game because they’re not using a specific rule or set or rules that the game provides at any given situation.

    But of course, to each his own – I’m just a guy who plays games and gets to work with some awesome people. I would end with a request that people shy away from telling others when they are or aren’t playing a specific game though – that never seems to end well for anybody.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Your last bit ends up being part of why the argument pisses me off enough to be vocal about my counter. There’s a difference between saying “I don’t like playing a game and not engaging its core mechanics, so let’s not do that” and “You’re not actually playing the game.” That’s one of the uglier side of our community.

      – Ryan

  5. Where this argument truly hits home for me is when considering “are you really playing Dogs in the Vineyard if your band of Dogs suddenly break out into a lengthy in-character debate (with no dice rolls involved) around the nature of sin instead of shooting a sinner in the face”.

    Well, duh.

    Another example, more far-out. Let’s say myself and three others are playing Primetime Adventures. We make our characters and play by the rules, but we never frame any conflicts and the Director never spends any budget. We just frame scenes and play them out without engaging with the cards, the spotlight, the fanmail, etc. Are we playing PTA?

    I’d say we are, for two reasons:

    1) The goal of PTA is to tell engaging collaborative stories (and nothing else).
    2) While we may not make use of (most of) the system, it’s there for when we need it. Nobody is saying you /can’t/ frame a conflict and engage the mechanics if you feel it’s suitable or necessary.

    By comparison, if someone told me I had to spend session after session engaged in freeform in-character social RP with NPC nobility to play in their D&D game, I’d posit that they’re in fact not playing D&D, anymore than I’m playing Monopoly when I broil hamburgers. Just because the rules of the game /doesn’t/ address it doesn’t mean it’s fair-game to pretend it can be arbitrarily included as a /central/ element of play.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      In the PTA case, I’d argue we aren’t, because the underlying game is about that structure. Similarly, if you claimed to play D&D and never engaged in the mechanics, then you’re not reinforcing or fully referencing the physics (or structure) of that game. Budget isn’t ancillary, but integral.

      But in the nobility case you mention, if there is a conscious understanding of the game’s sense of consequences, then maybe you still are. It’s easy to dismiss from the outside if you don’t know what’s going on in the mental processes of those playing.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That said, that’s where there’s a fascinating divide between loosely-structured games that model a world and tightly-structured games that model a mode of fiction. That they’re both called “role-playing games” is a weird lump.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan, I think our opinions differ only on one fundamental point. You say the rules are present to communicate the “physics” of the game, and as long as that “physics” is adhered to, you’re playing the game. I agree with this, maybe to a fault.

      In PTA, the “physics” that the game’s rules communicate is that we’re creating a collaborative story similar in structure to that of a TV show. If the show we pitch ends up having very few – or indeed no! – conflicts, then budget is never spent, fanmail is never given or received, and spotlight only matters as a mental cue to the participants, not to provide bonus cards. I think that’s fine! PTA doesn’t /mandate/ that there should be a conflict in every scene, it just provides a theme-appropriate and theme-reinforcing rule set to use should they arise. If you can play the game without them, I’d say you’re still playing PTA.

      In D&D, the “physics” that the game’s rules communicate is that we’re crawling through dungeons, gathering treasure, and probably killing a whole slew of monsters. Here’s where it gets hairy; if we do crawl through dungeons, gathering treasure, and skillfully avoiding or outsmarting every monster and trap that comes our way (what some people would refer to as “skillful OSR play”, I suppose), then I’d say you’re totally playing the game. But if combat with monsters or skill checks for traps was just handwaved, I’d say you’re not; and if you’re not even engaging in dungeon delving (for some value of “dungeon”) but instead playing a freeform talkie game in a fantasy setting, I’d say you’re definitely not.

      This would all change if someone were to convince me that D&D’s relatively complex rule set was intended only to provide a moderating conflict mechanic that inspired people to tell fantasy stories, to be used only in situations where no other amicable solution is evident.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      My comments apply to a game with a loose structure. If you’re playing a game with a tight structure, disengaging with the structure means you aren’t playing the game.

      It’s comparing handguns to grenades. They’re both used in an arena of conflict, but they don’t do the same thing, work the same way, or rely on all the same principles.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That said, one could say you’re *hacking* PTA at that point, because you’re actually changing the functional elements of overt structure. Which is a legit and good thing to think about, because it’s in tweaking those dials, adding or removing components, that we explore how to make other games.

      – Ryan

  6. Stephen says:

    Absolutely agreed. The physics of the world is the precise metaphor I use when describing this. A game like D&D with an extreme power curve is completely different in non-system behavior than one with a grittier, collapsed curve, for example. It’s to the point that I had to completely revise a module’s narration of an assassination attempt because the players otherwise wouldn’t have found anything weird about the queen surviving a single crossbow hit (and this was meant to indicate that she had some unbelievable invulnerability).

    Similarly, a system with a lot of granular skills may strongly affect RP even if you never roll them: you can’t assume your character can speak on a subject if you have no points in the skill, out of worry that you might be called on it and required to make a roll. “Huh, I couldn’t afford to put any dots in Empathy. I guess I better not display much of it.”

  7. Rob Donoghue says:

    While I don’t disagree, I would prioritize this behind the lens of character definition. Just as those rules of the game impact my perception of the world, they shape my definition of the character. This is a D&D character, and so long as I am engaging that, I’m playing D&D.

    The proof of this is that most of the examples of “It could be runequest” speak to only the most generic elements of play – fighters, orcs and such – because the presentation of these things in these other games is similar enough to be potentially interchangeable. And, hell, if I _really_ am running a game where no one plays anything but a fighter who is so boring that he has no D&D specific elements to him, engaging only enemies and NPCs who are so mechanically bland that they could be interoperable with another game, then MAYBE there’s a point, but I think that’s a pretty serious edge case. And even in that case, nothing suggests that they’re not playing D&D, only that their experience would not change if the GM started using different rules without telling them.

    That’s actually a great litmus test – can the GM change rules systems, not tell the players what game or world their playing in, and everything proceeds apace? If so, ok, I’m totally willing to accept that the systems atre interchangeable for as long as that can be sustained. Which is to say, 5 minutes.

    In this vein, I will be switching my games to Burning Wheel whenever myplayers take a bathroom break, then switch back when they return. That way, ic an say I’ve run some BW.

    All of which falls short of the more important definition: If someone says they were playing D&D, they were playing D&D.

    -Rob D.

  8. narretei says:

    Some very interesting points and I think I agree with most of them. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this “discussion” before on various occasions and my perspective so far has always been: if you have managed to gather in one place with multiple people for several hours to role-play Shadowrun or Apocalypse World or Maid RPG without rolling dice and someone is telling that you’re not playing the game, that someone should first give me some pretty good reasons why you’re not playing the game while playing the game. But that approach is a little bit too.. rhetorical? philosophical, maybe? It’s one of those meta-problems.

    So I’ll throw in a different question that’s been going on in my head while I was reading: Do you think the exact opposite situation is possible? A session where you’re not playing a role-playing game while playing by its rules and mechanics, rolling dice and such?

  9. Cam Banks says:

    So of course the thing I was trying to get across today wasn’t quite the thing you’ve countered here.

    When somebody sits down and says “we had such a great time at gaming tonight and we didn’t even roll the dice!” and, in that sense, is not talking about “we were engaging with the system in some way” but instead “we were having a great time enjoying this shared fictional world we have all created” then I do not believe this is an endorsement of the game BUT RATHER an endorsement of:

    1. The group (they’re really on a groove)
    2. The fiction/setting (as opposed to rules or system mechanics)
    3. Something else that make that game great

    I would hesitate, in many many cases, to say “you weren’t playing Game X” but I will not say “wow, Game X sounds really cool based on your description of a session where you didn’t actually play it.”

    I hear “the rules get out of the way” or “the rules are there when we need them” and I think that’s awesome for some groups in order to support the fun they’re having. But I also think that doesn’t say much about the game proper, but rather the game experience, and I want to support THAT more often. In other words, I want to keep designing games that do more to support that game experience and not just be cool mechanics, dice or diceless.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I had a comment early on in the Twitter stream where I said how I hate doing this on Twitter, and misunderstanding your original bit is why. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one.

      I think there are cases where your breakdown works for some instances of play, but the shared world is formed by those mechanical interactions prior to — creating a sense of what is and isn’t kosher in that world — and of knowing what events will trigger the need for those rules again.

      People make that comment because it’s the exception. Where at any moment, maybe it could have gotten bloody and gone to dice, but didn’t. And that’s where I see it as endorsement of the game, because the game still existed both as the previously-created platform and the handrail that anyone could have grabbed onto if needed.

      – Ryan

  10. JDCorley says:

    I can’t believe people are still having this discussion. Designers will always scream at players about playing wrong: Gygax bellowed that house rules were ruining D&D, Rein-Hagen said people were filthy roll-players, Siembada threatened lawsuits over posting house rules, Edwards opined brains were damaged. There is something about designing a RPG that puts someone in dire peril of becoming unutterably, irrevocably wrong about the act of playing a RPG. There should be some kind of release one has to sign, surely.

  11. Jason, while a bit meta, I don’t find this topic meaningless at all. It’s of interest to me for two reasons:

    1. It neatly delineates what the rules are /for/, and what a good rule for a certain game looks like. It summarizes those neat Big Three Questions:

    1) What is your game about?
    2) How is your game about that?
    3) What behaviors does your game reward/encourage?

    into one even neater package – a challenge of “do your rules communicate the physics of the fictional world, and will the players’ descriptions and actions at the table be in accordance with those physics?”. So it’s a useful sanity check for game designers, and it’s a good guideline for modders who are trying to change an existing game to model different physics.

    2. While definition games might be nothing but pointless rhetoric in established play groups, it’s a complete travesty for a community organizer like myself trying to bring people together when everyone’s definition for what a game is and how it plays differ vastly from each other. It’s just as much of a faux pas for someone to organize a game of “D&D” and then grossly de-emphasize dice rolls and dungeoneering in favour of “story and RP”, as it is for someone to organize a game of “Star Trek” in which after session 3 the Enterprise enters a wormhole and the PCs find themselves embroiled in the Battle of Hoth; a bait-and-switch game that leads to nothing but bad blood.

    Clear expectations means you can form and retain a mixed group easily under the banner of a well-defined game. When people feel that “how RPGs are played” is so unclear that they stop pitching based on the game and its mechanics, instead falling back to crappy constructs like “roll-play vs role-play” or only evoke genre trappings like “fantasy vs sci-fi vs modern”, you cease being able to mix gamers up amicably. Fracturing the hobby into 4-5 person enclaves is not helping it.