Role-playing games are games which involve role-playing, and that would only be a tautology if the category was consistently named. As it is, plenty of games termed RPGs can run just fine without any role-play to speak of, and plenty of role-play described in so-called RPGs lacks the structure which would allow it to fit the loosest definition of a game. Whether not an RPG is a game or involves role-play, it is certainly a product, and perceived experience sells a product as well as if not better than the actual experience that the product delivers. There is no other medium where the audience exclaims, quite positively, that they did not in any way engage with the experience as delivered to them.
When gamers state, often with happiness, that they went through a whole session without touching their dice, this is a tacit declaration that they did not engage with the game they were playing as intended; if the game did not intend for the players to roll many dice, or had no dice at all, such a declaration wouldn’t typically be made. This is not debatable, the experience of not engaging with the rules is special only insofar as the rules are there to be engaged. As much as it’s clear that the game isn’t being played as intended, what we cannot do in a blanket way is state this is a bad thing. RPGs are designed to deliver specific experiences and many of them, especially more rules-intensive games, deliver multiple specific experiences depending on the fraction of the game you’re engaging with. Looking at what players are or aren’t doing with a specific game requires which mechanics they are or are not engaging with, as well as what they’re doing in their game which isn’t in the rules and is done without touching any dice at all.
A Lack of Mechanics
Traditional RPGs are mangled wargames. This sounds dismissive, but looking across rulesets and their singular focus on combat it’s hard to phrase it more accurately. A typical five mechanic game has the systems to create characters, run the game, one catch-all for any sort of complex skills, and killing things. The fifth mechanic is a subsystem for flavor, be that magic, computer hacking, vampire stuff, or the like. Still, you have one cool thing, resolving pretty much every skilled task, and killing things all placed on the same level, and out of those three killing things will always get the most page count and detail (the one cool thing almost always leans right back into killing things, reread the D&D spell list for a good example).
All this focus on killing means that many of the conflicts that we love and love to lavish time on in our adventure stories have nothing mechanically going for them at all, things like intrigue, mystery, and romance. Now, whether or not social mechanics ultimately benefit a game is an entirely different article, and in this particular context my intent is not to say that social interactions in a game need to be mechanized. What does get a bit weird, though, is when you shift into games like Vampire:the Masquerade which are absolutely about intrigue and social plotting at their core…and they still have the same level of mechanical dedication to combat as, say, D&D. In the trad space, the amount of mechanical variance is remarkably small, and it made the upswell in indie games in the 2010s that much more noticeable. Apocalypse World has only a few rules which directly alter social interactions, but it doesn’t have a combat system either (at least not the first edition. Peer pressure is a hell of a drug).
So sure. Big social setpiece sessions don’t require rolling initiative. Depending on the group, though, these mechanics are almost never engaged. For some, ‘barely rolling the dice’ is the entire campaign. And in that context, the system of choice is acknowledged, defended even. Why is that? What is it, besides the mechanics you aren’t using, that keeps you running a game system?
What We Keep and What We Throw Away
I’ve already discussed the notion of wandering away from the game’s mechanical focus, either occasionally or for whole campaigns. There’s also groups which will engage the conceit of the system, but for the most part not actually use the math or play the game as written. I’m not just talking about ignoring encumbrance rules, I’m talking about making characters in Mage: the Awakening and then never using the magic rules. I’m talking about picking charms for Exalted characters and never calculating Essence. I’m talking about walking away from the core mechanics.
It is hard to ignore that my two examples are games which are widely recognized as unwieldy or, if you aren’t a fan already, bad. I’ve played Mage: the Awakening and mechanically speaking it is a mess, a disaster which will have you running for Rolemaster as if it’s Fate. And yet. And yet! The idea of Mage is incredibly neat. As much as the math and mechanics are way too much, they’re attempting to model this fascinating world of magic and a denial of its existence that’s literally coded into the fabric of reality. There’s a reason we were playing Mage, even if the rules were so convoluted and poorly executed that we literally dumped the entire thing into Fate to finish the game (true story).
It’s noteworthy that my personal stories about ditching mechanics are with games like Mage, but that’s not the norm and it’s because I’m not the norm. My role-playing hobby is old enough to drink, in a couple years it’ll be old enough to rent a car. I spent literally a decade playing GURPS as my primary game and am no stranger to complicated rulesets. Mage was the game that made me say ‘nuh-uh’, but to a less masochistic nerd than myself, someone who isn’t already attracted to complexity and number-crunching (I will admit that GURPS attracts a type, even as I stand by it), plenty of games provide an overwhelming surplus of mechanics to their intended experience. We see this in discourse about fudging dice and whether people follow the rules of D&D or just kind of make it up as they go. Adherence to the rules as written is not enhancing the experience for everyone.
The question I ask, then, and the question a lot of people in addition to me ask, is why the hell are you playing that game then? Sure, D&D does have an utterly asphyxiating monopoly, but considering the vast number of OSR games which look exactly like D&D and are both cheaper and require basically no additional learning, one has to assume there’s something there that makes D&D more appealing. I do think there is, and I think that, if I’m right, it also explains why Pathfinder is still the closest competitor to D&D, and a whole lot about the sorts of fantasy heartbreakers that have (and haven’t) succeeded in the market.
RPGs are about characters. Not stories, not combat, not dungeons, not dragons, characters. What every single breakout RPG of every era and every ruleset type has had in common is a strong, legible framework for creating potent, distinct, and interesting characters. Whether we elder nerds, with our decades nosing through books and rulesets, like it or not, character classes are the strongest way to establish a character that a player can understand and identify with. D&D, Pathfinder, and Cyberpunk are the three strongest properties in role-playing right now, and all three have strong, distinct, and memorable classes. All three have multiple ways to watch your character grow into their idiom, as well as solid ancillary and supporting material. How players engage with the mechanics beyond creating their characters is variable, but all three of these games also can easily fall back into ‘when in doubt, roll and shout’ half-measure play that, let’s be real, still works. The idioms are important, the tropes are important…but the rules? The GM can cover most of that just fine. The one chapter, the one process, the one mechanic they must respect, as it turns out, is character creation.
I’ve noted in other places that no one is making games like GURPS anymore, and I think that’s in part because designers are starting to understand what players actually want. There are still places where mechanical engagement is king, but it tends to be on the indie side where the rules are pared down to exactly what’s driving the game. PbtA is of course the current winner here, and kingmaker Evil Hat is ahead of the curve with Blades in the Dark, Monster of the Week, and recent entrant Apocalypse Keys. In the OSR, there is plenty of recognition of both degrees of rules engagement and the importance of character; Electric Bastionland won accolades because of its handling of both. Even in the typically anodyne trad world, Free League and Modiphius are slimming and aiming across their YZE and 2d20 portfolios.
But look. Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, these are tropes we understand. We know why bards are horny and why the D&D movie caused so much teeth-gnashing about what druids can turn into. In a medium where characters drive, the character tropes we’re driven by win. And yes, players want to feel like their characters have challenges and stakes, but the perception of these challenges and stakes are more important than the underlying rulesets that theoretically create them. Roll that d20, but don’t make me read the grappling rules.
No one’s actually figured out how to resolve this conflict yet. For the most part, RPG design (and criticism, I need to look in the mirror too) is dominated by nerds, nerds that engage with the rules, tear down the design, know what ludonarrative dissonance is and get in long, sprawling debates over what we mean by ‘play’. That’s more than fine, that’s good! We love our hobby and we drink deeply from its well. We aren’t the only ones here, though, and we don’t get to define what play is. If we don’t want to Twitter squabble ourselves into irrelevance, we probably need to pay more attention to the people who are thrilled when they don’t touch dice for a whole session.
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6 thoughts on ““We Didn’t Touch Dice the Whole Session!””
Rolling dice is fun. If you remove the random elements you’re no longer playing game. Yes, shared story telling is fun for some people, but those people aren’t playing a game. Which means they aren’t playing an RPG. Without the G, it’s not an RPG. Honestly, those people are fools if they’ve spent a bunch of money on rulebooks that they’re just going to ignore anyway…
Glad you’re here to gatekeep what a game is,
You don’t need dice to include random elements in a game, people do that automatically. I learned that from participating in playtesting Erick Wujcik’s Amber Diceless RPG. (Page 244.)
By the way, Amber actually does have a very strong Random element. He IS the King, after all.
Champions is one of the most dice heavy games around. Yet there was one game where we rolled dice *once*.
The GenCon Champions tourament is strongly roleplaying, yet there is always dice involved. One year, the super team was investigating a series of attacks on US symbols in an effort to destabilize the country, and the mastermind of the whole plot was about to be sworn in as President. The super team flew in to Washington, only to be attacked by the air defenses. That was when we rolled dice, and the anti-aircraft missile missed. (Sorry about diverting it to hit the Washington Monument.) We confronted the mastermind during the ceremony, accused him of the act, and he admitted it. (By the way, this whole event, the final round of the tournament, was before an audience of 30 or so people.) He did it because he was Perfect. We couldn’t hurt him because he was Perfect. And his final move?
He offered to make all of us Perfect, too.
We had to deny Perfection in character in order to defeat him. One of the players, running a former stuntman, accepted Perfection immediately, and started doing cartwheels across the White House lawn. I was playing a stoic martial artist, and the words just came: “You cannot give from without, that which must be earned from within.” Score one for us. Mister Perfect approached the player who ran Steel, a sentient steel statue. “Steel, I can make you human again. I can give you a family again.” I remembered one of the psychological disadvantages from reading Steel’s character sheet: “Big Mama Steel”. I clapped my hand on the player’s shoulder and said “Steel, WE are your family.”
That guy’s eyes lit up, and he lit into Mister Perfect something along the lines of “You don’t mess with the United States of America, and you Don’t Mess With Texas!” (The team was known as the Texas Rangers.)
Eventually we all refused Perfection. Even the former stuntman refused it, because in a world where everyone is Perfect, he’d never be the Best. And when we all denied Perfection, Mister Perfect doubted his own Perfection, and that was his undoing.
Scenario over, right? Villain defeated, back to the status quo, right?
That’s when one of the GM’s runs into the room to announce the President just died at Walter Reed Hospital. Mister Perfect engineered a vaccumn of power to allow himself to become President. There was no one who could be trusted to assume the office, so it was offered to the teams leader. The player accepted, and for the next couple of years, the super team was essentially the Federal government.
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