... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Not All Pastimes Are Games

On the RPGSite, I posted my opinion that D&D, and many RPGs, are pastimes, not games. A game is a pastime, but not every pastime is a game, even if it's the kind of pastime that has a few rules. Without reposting every damn thing I said in that thread, it's the definite end point, win-lose conditions, and strictness of the rules (and fear of a lack of rules) that makes a game, a game. A pastime that isn't a game doesn't necessarily have that definiteness, that strictness, because the main goal of a pastime is to enjoy playing it, and keeping play going as long as you feel like playing. There doesn't have to be any other goal.

D&D originally was more of a pastime. You had a "scoring" system, based on treasure retrieved and monsters slain, but there was no end point which certified your "high score", and players had multiple characters, switching from one to another based on what they felt like playing. Characters started at first level and entered the "game" at any point; the "game" itself just kept going. Players set their own goals, and either met them or abandoned them, based on whim.

In summary, D&D is like Lewis Carroll's Caucus Race, where everyone runs around in circles until someone announces the race is finished and everyone wins.

Many RPGs work the same way, and are thus pastimes, not games. Some RPGs, or some adaptations of D&D, have a definite end point or at least a scoring point, with definite win/loss conditions. Turning D&D into an actual game means the rules must be stricter, because in a game, if a point comes up where you can't decide if someone is playing fair or cheating, or where it's not clear if someone has won or lost, the game breaks down. Everything must be accounted for, and ambiguity must be avoided.

The word "game" is used pretty informally; sometimes it just means "pastime", and other times it really does mean a game, in the strictest sense. Rational people would decide whether they want to play a strict game or just a pastime, then seek out other people with the same interests and enjoy themselves. This naturally applies to RPGs as strict games vs. RPGs as pastimes as well; if you don't like playing D&D as if it had a strict win condition, don't play with people who do, and vice versa.

Some people don't get this distinction. They like the game version of D&D, and they look at the phrase "role-playing game" and see the word "game". To them, all RPGs are strict games, and they can be judged based on how strict they are. People who don't play in a strict manner with intent to win are bad gamers. GMs who make stuff up without paying attention to fairness are bad GMs. And at no point is the hardcore gamer ever, EVER wrong for picking the wrong group.

I think every single argument about RPGs can be traced back to an argument about games vs. pastimes.

Rules vs. Rulings? Check.

Character Skill vs. Player Skill? Check.

Linear Fighter vs. Exponential Wizard? Check.

Cooperative Play vs. PVP? Check.

Character optimization? Check.

Edition wars? Check.

The munchkin is really just a hardcore gamer trying to win the game as quickly as possible, or pulling passive-aggressive nonsense because he's pissed off about the game not being very game-like. He doesn't get why the other players want to savor the whole fictional setting and keep playing as long as they want.

So here's my advice: decide whether you want a strict game or a pastime. Play one or the other, or change depending on your mood. But everyone: exclude the guys who can't tell the difference. they will only bring grief.


  1. "D&D is like Lewis Carroll's Caucus Race, where everyone runs around in circles until someone announces the race is finished and everyone wins." - every OSR clone/game that has a "what are RPGs" section should replace it with this quote.

  2. Adventure RPGs are tough to pigeonhole because you're essentially cooperating to simulate conflict. Hence the varied emphases on the "cooperating" and "conflict" sides of the equation.

  3. I've always looked at RPGs not as Games but as Toys. A Game has a "story" embedded in it, has rules and conditions for winning. A Toy is a thing that can be used in as many ways as there are people. Over the past 40 years, I've seen fewer and fewer pure toys on the market, and more pseudo-games, toys based on cartoons (or vice-versa) that include an entire "culture" that our children stick to, and our RPGs have certainly followed suit.

    Monopoly is a game. A ball is a toy. D&D 4th ed is more Game-like, and OD&D is far more Toy-like.

    1. For a while, I was actually contemplating creating my own RPG imprint called "Fiction Toys".