Thursday 25 April 2024

TTRPG Rules Reading as Play


Defining "play" in TTRPGs is a tricky thing. It's also sort of unimportant but as a naval-gazing game designer these are the things that keep me up at night (that and my youngest cat, Fox). 

Back in 1938 historian Johan Huizinga would publish his book Homo Ludens, a Study of the Play Element in Culture. In it, Huizinga would set out his theory on the magic circle of play, which would be expanded on by games theorists decades later. 

The magic circle delineates the boundaries of play and real life. The framework of the game's rules creates a temporary location where the ordinary rules of real life change and the edicts of the game take over. This is a vast oversimplification of the concept, but for illustrative purposes hopefully it works. 

It's easy to apply this to TTRPGs. We gather around a table, physical or virtual, and from that point of "curtain up" we understand the expectations and procedures that follow. We know players might be talking in strange accents. We know dice will be thrown and maybe the bigger number is better. We know there's an unfolding narrative. We understand that we need to modify our character sheets. 

But we can take this further. We're interacting with these expectations and processes when we create our character, whether in a group or sitting alone. We're also interacting with them when we come up with new strategies and builds, if those are the kinds of games we're playing. Me making a choice between choosing a Pathfinder dedication is, in fact, part of play.

Over on Rascal, Chase Carter wrote an article about how play itself can be expanded to reading the rules, which is what prompted me to dust off the old blog and write this. 

When the GM writes an adventure or a bunch of tables, they're stepping into the magic circle. Reading a rulebook isn't the same as reading a novel, as Cassi Mothwin says. Likewise, it's not the same as reading a rules leaflet for a boardgame. TTRPG rulebooks are often amalgamations of lore guide, mechanical procedure, art book, and self-help guide (genuinely). Considering what your character might be and how they interact with the world is part of play, and an enriching one at that. I've recently been re-reading OD&D and there's so much inspiration I'm drawing from the gameplay loop of going to a dungeon for a few levels before heading out into the wilderness, possibly to come across a necromancer's patrol of werewolves en route. This level of interaction with the game is play and it directly feeds into the group element.

What does this mean? Well, game designers should consider how to use this extended magic circle (if it can be even considered a circle at all) to enhance the play experience. In part, this is recognising that play expands beyond the session and designing for it by finding the fun in other sections of the circle. This could be offering more gameable material, having out-of-session mechanics for continuing the narrative, better understanding how bleed impacts players, or simply by making levelling up as fun, interesting or thought-provoking as you need it to be.