Some of the mass appeal of D&D, OSR, and similar is that there you're playing two games. There's an over-game of roleplaying and improvised story generation, but there's also an under-game of tactical combat that would be fairly fun without the over-game.
I feel like this structure is fairly inborn for humans. We build stories and anthropomorphize things at a drop of a hat. This is the tendency to add the over-layer onto things we like.
Classic descriptions of roleplaying, "like playing cops and robbers" usually describe this act.
Most of what we do, really, is just taking disparate inputs and forming a story we can follow out of it. From percieving light and vibrations and other electrical signals as a sensory narrative of the world unfolding, to thinking of our past, to song, to marketing, to propaganda.
I feel like we naturally take inputs and weave them into story. That we can't just weave something with no threads. RP and story are used an enrichment of something else. It's something we do whilst we're doing something else that's maybe 90% fun but needs a little extra fun.
All these acts of story formation rest on some substrate. In the case of D&D et al, that substrate was a tactical wargame. RP was added. In some other RPGs it's puzzles, or mysteries.
In many many RPGs there is no intentional under-game. There is only the overgame of RP.
All RPGs have an under-game, but if it's not intentional, it's usually some vestigal collection of rules or prompts. Often the minimum needed to form story on top of. This under-game still exists, but it's not intentionally designed, and IT'S NOT FUN in and of itself.
I feel like this is *way* less natural for outsiders to wrap their heads around, and uses very little of our inbuilt story-generating brain. Or maybe it just completely overloads this story-generating part of us by running it full power with very little or un-fun fuel flowing in.
Given the assertion that your game has an under-game, whether it is intentionally designed or not, my questions are:
Old D&D had the undergame of combat but also of realm building. PbtA was popular as it added the undergame of prompt-answering to raw RP. BitD added character sheet prompts but also base building and tier climbing as undergame. Many worldbuilding games added the undergame of cartography. And many recent games added the undergame of random table interpretation for everything.
Taking the example of 3.5E, it seemed like a majority of players would play the undergame of feat-tree-optimising-to-level-20 fifty times over for every one time they played the overgame of actually RPing that character. It was fun and like a puzzle to solve or get high score (DPS output?), but it was only 90% fun. It needed the promise at least of RP to make it worthwhile as an activity.
@johnwsheldon that's interesting as it suggests 3 layers. My main thrust was a substrate and an overlayer.
It's not so much about mini-games which are a long standing way of viewing them. More about viewing them as scaffolding to hang the fun of RP on top,and greatly reduce the brainpower/creative work needed to get a story out.
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