Which comes first: the game or the roleplay?

I discovered not too long along that I have two modes of play for rpgs:

The first mode is where I am playing a game and my enjoyment comes from using the assets and abilities I have to beat it. I am still playing and exploring a character, but if there’s ever a clash between “This is what my character would do” and “This is what’s best for the game” then the game wins out. I can roleplay my character in a game of Pandemic all I like, but I’m not going to head off to Madrid when I should go to London because I’m concerned about my family in Spain.

The second is where I am roleplaying and my enjoyment comes from embodying a character and discovering who they are along with other players who are doing the same. I’m still engaging with game mechanics, but I’m not concerned with beating the game (indeed, there may simply be no concept of ‘winning’). If there are assets to be accumulated then I may do so, but only for how they can provoke interesting new content for my exploration. When an opportunity arises to use these assets, I will happily do so, knowing that I am not ‘losing the game’.

When I’m playing an rpg as a game with an element of roleplay then anything that doesn’t engage the mechanics or the challenge within the game is optional. It might be pleasant and fun, but it is superfluous and often annoying if it delays or detracts from my engagement with the game.

When I’m playing an rpg as a roleplay with game mechanics then any mechanics that don’t provoke interesting new content or exploration of my character are unnecessary weight. There might be a thrill in amassing a particular asset or raising an ability in front of me, but when that asset or ability doesn’t impact my understanding of my character or impact the way I play then it is meaningless paperwork.

But when I’m playing an rpg as a game, I judge it as a game. Giving extra XP or bennies for ‘good roleplay’, giving bonuses or setting difficulty levels for the player smooth-talking the GM makes the game spongy. It’s no longer clear what rules we’re actually playing, and it confuses player skill with character skill.

And when I’m playing an rpg as a roleplay, I want to play as the character. If I am playing an officer in charge of a platoon of soldiers, I don’t want to be told that I cannot give one of them a basic order because I don’t have enough of a particular asset to do so. We’re no longer playing our characters, we’re now playing a side meta-game.

In neither mode does it necessarily depend upon the game I’m playing. I can play any rpg that supports it in either mode (though many lend themselves to one mode of play over the other).

In both modes, I can find enjoyment.

When I’m at a table with a group who are all primarily engaging with the rpg as a game with a challenge, or with obstacles to overcome, or a mystery to be unravelled – and our PCs are our tools within the game-world to try to accomplish this and the rules of the game-world are solid (because otherwise it’s not much of a game) – then that can be great.

Equally, when I’m at a table with a group who are all primarily engaging with the rpg as roleplay, to explore and develop the characters and their relationships with each other – and we’re trying to react as our PCs would react without worrying about our ‘progress’ through the game – then that can be great.

It’s at tables where there is a mix of these that I struggle. If I’m primarily engaging with it as a game, then I get frustrated with artificial attempts to inject roleplay to immerse those who are looking to roleplay while I’m trying to game, and it’s especially frustrating to have the rules of the games change under your feet because of it. And when I’m primarily engaging with an rpg as a roleplay, I’m baffled by those who only engage mechanically and look to ‘win’ without exploring the character. Why are you bothering trying to win a game that no one else is playing?

Tell me your thoughts on whether you play one particular way or does it vary? Do you prioritise the game before the roleplay or vice versa or an entirely different approach?

Epistolary Richard

Epistolary Richard is one of the co-ordinators of the London Indie RPG meetup. He’s a frequent game-runner at the meet and a variety of conventions and he hosts an annual year in review seminar for indie games at Dragonmeet.

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