Worlds of Design: Tabletop RPGs Are the Most Naturally Co-operative Games
  • Worlds of Design: Tabletop RPGs Are the Most Naturally Co-operative Games


    Although I design board and card games as a business, if I want to play a game for pleasure I play tabletop RPGs. They are naturally co-operative games but with human opposition, more or less unique, because computer RPG “GMs” cannot begin to provide the flexibility and freedom of action that a good human GM offers.


    Image courtesy of Pixabay.

    Although I design board and card games as a business, if I want to play a game for pleasure I play D&D. When I was 25 or so I gave up seriously playing games against other people - I didn’t like how it led me to behave. What I like about tabletop RPGs is that they are naturally co-operative games but with human opposition. In that respect they are more or less unique, because computer RPG “GMs” cannot begin to provide the flexibility and freedom of action that a good human GM offers.

    Cooperative games have become quite popular amongst tabletop game hobbyists, beginning with Pandemic. They are actually puzzles, a multiplayer equivalent of a solo game, because the programmed opposition has so little capability. The programming is usually achieved through a deck of cards, though you can roll dice against tables as well. It is inevitably primitive and predictable. Nonetheless, the games are popular because contemporaries often dislike to compete directly against others, and cooperation/sharing is a strong characteristic of the younger generation.

    “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” Bertrand Russell

    Cooperative games are becoming more popular in video, where programming of the opposition can be far more complex and sophisticated than programming for tabletop games, as in the “Director” of Left 4 Dead.

    RPGs are naturally cooperative: the most common situation across all kinds of RPGs is a group doing some semi-military task and needing to cooperate to survive. Just about everyone’s first goal in playing an RPG is to stay alive. My second goal is to make sure everyone in my party stays alive. However, if the GM arranges a campaign where the nominal opposition is not really dangerous, then the players can get into competing against themselves. (If the opposition is really dangerous the non-cooperative group is not going to survive.)

    Some game rules make it easier to be cooperative than otherwise. In 1e/2e D&D you had to be cooperative because the magic users were so squishy, you had to protect them the way a professional American football team protects its quarterback. The magic users do much more damage to the enemy than any other class; it is difficult to survive without them. 4e D&D emphasized character combat powers that benefitted other, usually nearby, characters. That made cooperation easier and obviously beneficial. On the other hand, when each character is more or less a one-man army (3e D&D), cooperation is much less necessary.

    Given the flexibility of tabletop RPGs, some people turn them into competitive exercises. I recall playing at a shop in London in the late 70s where the player characters spent almost all their time carefully watching one another, and didn’t worry much about the non-player opposition. I didn’t enjoy it, but some people do. I’ve been in all-neutral-and-evil parties that were much more cooperative.

    I’ve always thought it odd for Good-aligned characters to tolerate Evil aligned characters in their party, because it was inevitably going to result in “watch the other party members, don’t worry about the monsters.” I had a cleric cast Know Alignment on everyone in the party the day before we went anywhere (day before so as not to lose the spell slot), both as a means of trying to discover spies and doppelgängers, and as a means of making sure there were no Evil characters. We’d use ESP as well. And if we found Evil, we charmed the creep and used them as the “point man”. Let the Evil scum take the risks, there’s a war on, isn’t there?

    “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

    This draconian way of doing things came from my conception of heroic fantasy as a war between Good and Evil. I wanted to be the (heroic?) soldier fighting for my god(s), fighting to save good people from bad things. And “Lawful Good is not Stupid.” Your average FRPG player wants to be a chaotic neutral thug, able to get away with whatever they wish because they’re not officially Evil, even though behavior is sometimes evil. Those folks don’t survive very long when I GM, because they soon become officially Evil. And Good-aligned parties don’t tolerate Evil characters.

    Nowadays there’s a lot less black-and-white and a lot more gray relativism both in society and in RPG play. The entire idea of alignment, intended to discourage petty thugishness, is often frowned upon. Campaigns are often “All About Me” rather than about the larger situation of the campaign. So it’s more natural to be the chaotic neutral thug. And even “Howling Chaots” can be cooperative – or can they?

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 23 Comments
    1. R Karan's Avatar
      R Karan -
      Good points. I find it almost as bad, sometimes worse, when a game turns into GM vs. players.
    1. Jeff Carpenter's Avatar
      Jeff Carpenter -
      This artical is unfocused. It starts as a artical about why RPGs are better than other Co -op games then shifts gears to a rant about player alignment. Not sure what the point it is trying to prove?
    1. Warpiglet's Avatar
      Warpiglet -
      One thing D&D has that few other games can match is variety. Let me restate that---one thing RPGs have is great variety. One type of variety is a party with evil characters! As I get older and see more and more that is harsh in the world, I find more and more reasons to play honorable if not good characters. But the fun of evil parties in the old days is hard to match! We even cooperated...to a point. We were always looking for loot, experience and trouble. If we fought feuds got revenge or cleared lairs, we generally did it a group for mutual benefit. It was quite different but still cooperative. The most trouble we ever had with PvP stuff was via a player that sought it out and played chaotic neutral every time...and even that was fun to a point...
    1. Xaelvaen's Avatar
      Xaelvaen -
      I like your comparison between alignments and cooperation many times being at odds, @lewpuls - it is often the case unless the campaign specifically revolves around the idea that evil and good must somehow work together for a greater goal. Lawful Good and Lawful Evil both want the world to remain, so it's good to put aside their differences and stop the big bad Chaos from wrecking the Earth outright, as an example.

      As far as player vs player, the only time I've ever encountered that was back during 2E - I was playing a rogue that my DM asked me specifically to be a former member of an assassin's guild - he knew I'd handle it with grace and not go about being a murder hobo. His own son was playing in the campaign as well, and at one point, his won was getting a bit big for his britches, so one night at camp my DM slipped me a note.

      The note said that I had been given a kill order by my old guild - something you didn't refuse, and I was to execute the DM's own son's character. Talk about dilemma - I had never attacked another player, but to be honest, the other player was being a bit of a jerk - kept trying to hog all the loot in the treasure, was playing a bit of a murder hobo himself - my rogue truly didn't mind the idea of that guy being dead in all honesty, so I did what my guild asked. Stealth being a percentile skill back then was pretty sweet, and backstab all the more fun. Would have never contemplated it... except his own father, our DM, asked me to...
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Carpenter View Post
      This artical is unfocused. It starts as a artical about why RPGs are better than other Co -op games then shifts gears to a rant about player alignment. Not sure what the point it is trying to prove?
      It's a point I tend to agree with - in games with concrete alignments, evils characters are usually defined by the game as not just "not working in common interest", but instead "actively working against common interest." Lawful characters are usually pretty low-key and ordered about the whole thing, but in the end such a character still approaches everything from the mindset of how cooperation and strict order benefits them with them coming out on top in a position of dominance over all others. Chaotic characters with evil mindsets will usually be exclusively out for themselves, and likely to betray even companions if the going gets tough for them. One might PLAY characters with these alignments differently, but by-the-book evil characters are usually defined in this light.

      Neutrals might be motivated by self-interest, but are not likely to sacrifice companions unless there is no other choice.

      That said, I don't think most game systems would consider a character "good" who charms or magically coerces another into being cannon fodder, no matter how righteous the cause. That's the kind of thinking the "good" last Kingpriest of Istar in Dragonlance engaged in - the nation who commited pogroms against Neutral churches, instituted slavery of evil beings, and instituted the Edict of Thought Control -- shortly before the gods of Krynn pulled a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-style cataclysm on the whole nation.

      (Que David Mitchell exclaiming, "...are we the baddies?")

      But that said, Evil characters are VERY hard to integrate well into cooperative games, primarily due to the overriding self-interest that evil represents.
    1. schneeland's Avatar
      schneeland -
      I'm not sure if I agree here - I have played in very enjoyable campaigns where all characters had evil alignment - we indulged in vices, spread corruption, deceived, poisoned and assassinated. The only prerequisite was: we all agree up front that we wanted to play a campaign where we are a team - just not a team of do-gooders. Everything else developed naturally from that - our characters would always put the mission first, and some intrigue was in order, but outright backstabbing never happened. Admittedly it helped that we were all friends and had played together for multiple years already.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      I've played in some evil or evil-ish campaigns before. It can work but it's tough and requires a lot of the participants. Of course, games like Vampire are examples where most of the PCs are evil and often have non-trivial issues with each other. I played a good bit of that back in the day but have lost interest.

      I have recently played in a neutral/vicious campaign. For instance, we did some mercenary work that involved us knocking over a pretty nasty cult but we did it for fundamentally selfish reasons that certainly didn't leave the people preyed on by the cult better off. Still, our characters cooperated with each other and weren't stabbing each other in the back, as they viewed each other as useful allies. However, due to campaign events really marked by us winding the Horn of Change, the PCs have shifted in a more good direction. Most notably, my PC, who was a Lore bard/Tome warlock pacted to the Deck of Many Things, abandoned the path of the warlock. As the player I really had this moment where I was creeped out by the temptations that the DM threw my way and had an "But... but... I'm an addict!" moment. After a good bit of questing and a trip to visit Moradin for advice, among other things, I'm now a Lore bard/Oath of Ancients paladin. Some of the other PCs had shifts as well, if not as notable.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Xaelvaen View Post
      I like your comparison between alignments and cooperation many times being at odds, @lewpuls - it is often the case unless the campaign specifically revolves around the idea that evil and good must somehow work together for a greater goal. Lawful Good and Lawful Evil both want the world to remain, so it's good to put aside their differences and stop the big bad Chaos from wrecking the Earth outright, as an example.
      As it is now October, take a read through Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October. The protagonist is Jack the Ripper's dog. Jack is a hero in the story.

      IMO an interesting campaign might be a Order vs Chaos oriented one, meaning devils and the lawful good dwarves might be on the same side vs. djinn, elves, and demons.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Funnily enough, my experience with evil parties has been ... odd. Because everyone at the table knows that someone else at the table might shiv them in the night, everyone became extra polite. I found the evil party to be much more effective and far less disruptive. Nobody plays a chaotic stupid character in a party of all evils because they know that unlike the good party, the evil party has no qualms about whacking your character.

      It was a bit of a weird experience.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Funnily enough, my experience with evil parties has been ... odd. Because everyone at the table knows that someone else at the table might shiv them in the night, everyone became extra polite.
      "An armed society is a polite society."

      It has to be or it won't stay much of a society.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      So what I am hearing is that Tabletop RPGs Are the Most Naturally Co-operative Games that Some People Play Incorrectly.
    1. S'mon -
      Liked the first bit, disliked the end. IME CN players are a small minority who tend to get thrown out of the group.
    1. Li Shenron's Avatar
      Li Shenron -
      Very good article.

      I am in general not so worried about evil PCs disrupting the party because by requirement in all my games the PCs won't try to kill, rob or betray one another, unless everyone at the table agrees that it's a good idea for the story development.

      On the other hand, I am more concerned about the "one man army" idea subtly creeping into the game. My hat for jack-of-all-trades knows no limit! But I find it more difficult to keep it in check because the isn't an extra moral motivation to back me up.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      I agree that certain kind of in-game behavior can disrupt the vibe of the game and the tend to cooperate. And not just PvP stuff. A little disruption or instigation can be entertaining. Going to far, or just doing stuff that is generally creepy, can definitely sour the game.
    1. Blackmoor_Film's Avatar
      Blackmoor_Film -
      Interesting ideas.

      It really points to the fallacy of the hobbes-ian everyone against everyone ideas American society seems to believe in. If you look at what primatologists are finding in the behavior of our close relatives, you see a much more flexible system that implies a polarity between everyone for themselves and cooperation. It all depends on the situation.

      So in response to the OP, I would say that RPG allow for cooperative play., which would seem to be the most enjoyable for many. I've played with groups where despite people saying "we're lawful good", the fights that would ensue over who gets the magic trinket, were definitely not lawful good.
    1. Jhaelen -


      just like the OP, one of my main motivations for starting to play RPGs was because I didn't like the tensions resulting from players being too focused on the competitive aspects of board games. When you're just 'playing to win' you're sucking all of the fun out of the activity.

      Mostly due to a lack of spare time, I've since returned to board games, but thankfully there's a lot of great co-operative games available these days.
    1. jedijon's Avatar
      jedijon -
      As your DM - I’m here to inform you writer that you’re also an evil character.

      Charming someone to put them in harm’s way? LE for you. Please write your current alignment on your character sheet. We can talk before the next session about realignment.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Quote Originally Posted by jedijon View Post
      As your DM - I’m here to inform you writer that you’re also an evil character.

      Charming someone to put them in harm’s way? LE for you. Please write your current alignment on your character sheet. We can talk before the next session about realignment.
      Nonsense. It's OK to slaughter who-knows-how-many creatures, but you become evil if you charm one and use it for advancing your side's purposes? How stupid is that? This is war, not sport.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Nonsense. It's OK to slaughter who-knows-how-many creatures, but you become evil if you charm one and use it for advancing your side's purposes? How stupid is that? This is war, not sport.
      Depending on the details, what you describe sounds like a war crime. So I'm not sure how that "war not spor" idea is meant to work.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Depending on the details, what you describe sounds like a war crime. So I'm not sure how that "war not spor" idea is meant to work.
      War crimes are defined by modern treaties, not by any particular moral standard. I assure you, for most of human history what we're talking about was not a war crime (IF anything was). Aren't you imposing your personal standard and supposing it has always been the way people think and act?Not even close.
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