Today’s theme is “Engage.” (Yes, I finally got around to it.)
What does it mean to engage with the mechanics of the game? The simple answer is that anything that makes you look at the rulebook or your character sheet is engaging the mechanics. Deciding whether to roll dice can be as important to the outcome of the session as what dice you roll or what numbers you want to see on your dice. And some important rules don’t use dice at all. In my own game, Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, the most important rule of the game doesn’t use dice at all. Calling in a Friend is something that happens automatically when the player spends an Oz Point.
It’s tempting to say that the more complex your mechanics are, and therefore the more time spent looking up stuff in the rulebook, the more engaging your game is. As the RPGs of the 1980’s will tell you, there is only so much mechanical complexity that the human mind can stand. And the worst thing is putting engagement in the wrong places. If your players must make a lot of decisions and roll a lot of dice to do something, it should be an important focus of the game. If it’s not an important part of your game’s theme or story, it should be avoided.
Encumbrance rules are a good example of this. There aren’t many gamers that use them these days and they mostly hang out as evidence that the designers know how to build an equipment list. But there are some genres where encumbrance is actually very important. A heist or dungeon crawl (and it could be said that they are the same thing) could hinge on what they brought into the job with them and how much capacity they have to haul out the loot. But to use encumbrance rules in, say, a science fiction game of space piracy, doesn’t really serve the theme. Maybe there are detailed rules on what a ship can carry, but characters need only worry about how many hands they need to carry their weapons.