I just recently read a post from someone who runs and plays games using “pure roleplaying.” They try to make no references to anything mechanical – specifically the players, but the GM is supposed to keep mechanical talk to a minimum. They only refer to things that happen in the game narrative. The idea is that it is the “purest form of role playing.” Now, I don’t think this kind of play is elitist hippy, New Age crap (well, the thought crossed my mind but I’m not a complete jerkstore) – reducing mechanical talk is a pretty good goal in my opinion. But the wording of “pure roleplaying” makes the needle on my elitism meter jump a bit. I freely admit I’m a bit overly sensitive on this front, and it’s worth examining why there’s a few issues with taking this goal too far.
The first thing is the whole “roleplaying vs. roll playing” thing, which has hammered itself in my brain as a code word for “someone I don’t really want to talk to.” But there is a new generation of gamers who have come into the hobby by way of free form message boards, unstructured roleplaying sites, etc. and they have slightly different expectations that don’t derive from the same place as the typical “rollplaying vs. roleplaying” argument. My own impression of those communities is that there is a lot of hen-pecking and jostling for status, and I can understand the appeal of more structured roleplaying games. It’s one of the most tried and true solutions to the “cops and robbers” problem portrayed in the introduction to roleplaying games a lot of books include.
The mechanics in roleplaying games provide a shared language that is used to communicate what’s in the imaginary space happening within our heads. That’s it. I’m totally on board with mechanics “getting out of the way” and being unintrusive, but if they served no purpose and could be ignored we wouldn’t have found a use for them. So, I don’t see them as a necessary evil – I see mechanics as something that actually help. They are a tool, used to communicate vital information that keeps everyone on the same page. Doing away with mechanics completely basically makes the experience improv.
Second, from a personal perspective, I don’t play roleplaying games because I want the purest roleplaying experience possible. If I wanted that, I’d do improv theater. I do it because I like games. I may not have a high tolerance for overly fiddly games, but I do enjoy rolling dice and figuring out how to work things out within the constraints of the mechanics. If that means having to use mechanical terms during play, as long as they aren’t completely jarring and mesh well with the game it’s a compromise that I think yields tangible benefits. Otherwise, using the mechanics while not talking mechanics just sweeps the thing that’s making everything work under the rug. And this isn’t even getting into the question of what is a mechanic anyway? If you’ve devised a system where you give hand signals every time your character uses a skill in order to avoid mechanics, you’ve just invented a mechanic.
In short, trying to not talk about the mechanics while using the mechanics is like roleplaying Fight Club (or saying that you don’t need programmers for Salesforce).