Worlds of Design: ďAll About MeĒ RPGs (Part 1)
  • Worlds of Design: ďAll About MeĒ RPGs (Part 1)


    Iíve played and GMed FRPGs since 1975, yet Iím sure Iíll never see all the different styles of play that are possible. I describe an immersion-breaking but popular style, ďAll About MeĒ, that differs greatly from the cooperative semi-military style.


    Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

    Iíve played and GMed FRPGs since 1975, yet Iím sure Iíll never see all the different styles of play that are possible. Iíve seen a fair bit of one style lately that Iíd like to describe, because itís so vastly different from the styles Iím accustomed to.

    Iím accustomed to RPGs as a more or less military matter, where thereís a war on between good and evil, or at least where the group of adventurers (sometimes religious heroes, sometimes mercenaries) is a group of soldiers that are sometimes on a mission against the enemy, and sometimes on a mission to gather more loot, but always in a military like setting, where if you donít cooperate with one another youíre going to die sooner or later. I have always used pieces for characters and a movement grid so that geospatial relationships can be illustrated, because group armed conflict is partly slaughter and partly maneuver.

    What Iíve seen lately is high school or college aged folks playing what Iíve dubbed ďAll About MeĒ fantasy RPG. The emphasis is on the individual actions of the player characters, not on the actions of the group as a whole. Each player wants to do his own thing, run his own story, often showing off to the others. Typically in this situation thereís a lot of customization of characters to begin with. And sometimes the whole group is a bunch of characters somewhere between quite neurotic and psychotic.

    Why is this important? Because many people cannot maintain immersion when things get silly. It becomes too obvious that youíre playing a (silly) game, not participating in an adventure. Some people donít care. I do.

    In these circumstances cooperation can be difficult. Typically the GM arranges the game so the players can survive and succeed without cooperating. In one of the recent groups Iíve watched the GM complimented the players because, despite the great diversity and psychological complications of the characters, they did cooperate. (Though I didnít see much cooperation while I watched.)

    What I observed was what you might expect from the situation, that is, several people blurting out what they wanted to do, talking over other people who were trying to say what they wanted to do. Now some people are used to this because thatís the way their families behave, but others are accustomed to people who take their turn speaking and maintain some modicum of politeness. The chaos is not too problematic when there are four players, but when there are eight players it becomes difficult. Itís up to the GM whether he or she does something about this, of course, and this particular GM (who has a stupendous voice and is slightly older than the players at age 23) has not tried to teach the players to behave in a less self-centered manner.

    RPGs are about having cooperative adventures, not about one-upmanship, as far as I'm concerned. But Third Edition D&D enshrined one-man armies and showoff characters in the game.

    I lay down the law pretty quick about behavior when I GM, but then again, Iím never going to GM this kind of game. To me itís unreal and unrealistic behavior in a situation where there ought to be a real chance that somebody might die. This is not to say that I require a grim seriousness from players, but the ďAll About MeĒ style doesnít fit with my semi-military notions of whatís going on.

    The result in this particular case is a game with not much combat, so much so that there are no actual pieces or figures for the characters and no movement grid Ė itís all done by talking. But even in games where figures and grids are used, the game can still mostly be ďall about meĒ in what amounts to a relatively safe environment.

    I wouldnít be surprised if many of the players are accustomed to single player computer RPGs, where thereís no one else to cooperate with and no one else competing for attention.

    As always, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. More next time in Part 2.

    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 17 Comments
    1. Philature's Avatar
      Philature -
      This read more like a rant then an actual article.
    1. RobJN's Avatar
      RobJN -
      ... I was waiting for the "...and these kids need to get off my lawn!" at the end. Maybe that's in part two?
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      This is a very superficial look at this type of play.

      When I GM a campaign, I make sure that, in addition to any campaign or story arcs, each character also has an individual arc. These do not necessarily detract from the group aspect of a game. I would even go so far to suggest that if it does hamper group play, it is the fault of the GM more than the player.

      TTRPG's are more enjoyable when a player has the opportunity to develop their character through play, rather than just the power increase seen in old school type play.

      A totally separate issue is the 'me first' type of play. That can be disruptive and no fun, but has been around since 1974 and most GM's figure out how to deal with it fairly quickly.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      The poke at 3rd edition seems to neglect the fact that, for characters with weird psychology and builds that make them one-person armies, White Wolf's World of Darkness games beat 3e D&D to the table by about a decade.

      Furthermore, WoD and Mind's Eye Theater popularized the idea of "troupe play" where The Group cannot really be considered paramount, because it is not a stable entity, encouraging players to think about individual story, rather than squad military tactics.

      This being back in the 1990s, it is hardly new, and did not arise in current high school and collage players.
    1. Xaelvaen's Avatar
      Xaelvaen -
      Individual character story aside (because my campaigns always include the evolution of character stories alongside the main story), the part I'm focusing on in the article is that there are people who actually act obnoxiously about individual authority, power, and the glory of the spotlight.

      In my years of gaming - friends of friends, FLGS public games, etc - I've never encountered a scene as described here; people shouting over top of one another with their own intent, not taking turns or showing respect to one another in an orderly fashion... and quite frankly I'm glad I haven't.

      Even perfect strangers (at least in my experience) take turns shining the light on other players, working together naturally and harmoniously, in a way as to ensure entertainment for everyone at the table. Then again, I haven't played with random strangers in some odd 5 years - only have time for my primary group lately.

      So regardless of game / campaign preferences, the attitude indicated by types of players is my concern here. Even if the game is entirely self-centered for each individual character, the players shouldn't divest too much into that, and recall the fact everyone's there for the same fun. Sharing is caring - or any other cliche you want to include.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      This did come off a bit judgemental, but just to run with it:

      D&D came from wargames, and set the stage for a large amount of the games that came after in that mechanically there was a lot of focus on combat. This lead directly that in terms of time spent on mechanics, combat has the #1 slot over any campaign. (Again, this is just talking about mechanics - spending half an hour roleplaying and 45 seconds of that were a couple of social rolls is 45 seconds of mechanics time, even though it may be both a fun and important half hour spent.)

      With so much mechanical time spent on combat, systems wanted to make sure everyone can contribute, so every type of character has ways to hep the team. Usually there are different focuses on how someone can help, which leads to synergistic team play. For example, a healer or buffer might not do well on their own, but can provide a larger force multiple in a group then another striker.

      But that's not the only way to do it, and with more systems out there that shift some of the wall clock away from combat, or the "need" that everyone be good at combat, you get less tie-together at that point. Less mechanical pressure to work as a team.

      Some genres and archetypes are also better represented when people can split off and recombine. "Lone wolf" is a classic archetype. Deckers from cyberpunk literally can't take anyone with them. A Leverage-type Heist game not only needs multiple moving parts all at the same time, but being seen together could blow the whole thing. Marvel Heroic Roleplay specifically has mechanics for every hero for best/worst when working solo, buddy, or team and expects you to go back and forth during play.

      So I can see how as mechanics open up to genres where "don't split the party" is counter-productive, that gamers who play in those games (or have learned how to play from those games) can act solo or split-group as well as the "traditional" full-party-only viewpoint.
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      Holy geospatial hex grids. He finally got to see a group of normal teenagers play with no military experience play. I just wish when I started in 1980 I could have played with his mature group. When I was in the Army and playing with military trained folks ( including military brats), most of the players did think tactical during combat. But a lot of players were "ALL ABOUT ME" also.
      And you forgot about "get off my internet and away from my table".
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      I came here for the picture. Then I realized V, like the storm troopers, was not "all about me."

      What Iíve seen lately is high school or college aged folks playing what Iíve dubbed ďAll About MeĒ fantasy RPG.
      This line had me thinking that the article was about whether RPGs encourage or discourage team play. However, this line
      The emphasis is on the individual actions of the player characters, not on the actions of the group as a whole.
      has me really thinking. How cool would it be for an RPG to let you design "a" character, not "your" character, and drop that character into a cohesive party. Then, probably mostly as a dungeon crawler, your choices focus on what the rules allow you to cause the Party to do, not individual characters? Or, you can affect any and all characters.

      Encourage team play by forcing team play. At least it would make a sweet video game...
    1. hawkeyefan's Avatar
      hawkeyefan -
      Some games are more about tactical combat, others are more about story. Nothing wrong with that.
    1. buda's Avatar
      buda -
      This isn't new at all. It isn't just teenagers, and certainly not all teenagers. It has frequently been the DM's wife, but not all, or always. The worst AAM players to take a place at my table were neither teenage, married, or female.

      All I can say is, give everyone their fair time slice, and do not allow anyone to monopolize your time. Reward teamwork, and punish no one. You have a chance they'll catch on and turn into good players. If they bail, let them. If they explode, then it is imperative you give them the chance to have this discussion 1 on 1. If other players try to help, they will feel ganged up on, and this is not a good experience for anyone (especially if they expected a friend at the table to back them up).
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
      The poke at 3rd edition seems to neglect the fact that, for characters with weird psychology and builds that make them one-person armies, White Wolf's World of Darkness games beat 3e D&D to the table by about a decade.
      Yeah, when I read the original post I remembered many a World of Darkness type game back in the day. A skilled GM in that style can run a pretty good game, although some adjustments really need to be made to keep the PCs from flying apart too much in a way that the more "Plumbing the Depths of the Dungeon for Rightness and Loot" doesn't require. I played a good bit of D&D that way, too, especially using the original Lake Geneva style of ensemble cast small group of protagonists with henchmen.
    1. Lord Mhoram's Avatar
      Lord Mhoram -
      I have to say this is good about this article - in describing a playstyle that is not his own, the OP doesn't talk like it is the word of God from on high like previous articles have;
      We have "because itís so vastly different from the styles Iím accustomed to ", "Some people donít care. I do." " as far as I'm concerned" "doesnít fit with my semi-military notions of whatís going on. " - so that is a good thing.

      The Blame Game (tm) is well in force, as normal; noting 3rd edition (which as has been pointed was preceded by years by other systems doing the same thing), and of course, blaming video games.

      The thing I see continually is the conflation of "RPG" with "D&D" - what is described as the OPs preferred style is a common style of D&D. Many many major games/genres do not play like this - White Wolf Games (as has been mentioned), CoC (where combat is to be avoided), most superhero games (to be true to genre death either is very rare, or easily recovered from). This limited focus seems to indicate a lack of knowledge of other games (which I honestly don't think is what is going on, given the length of the OP's exposure to RPGs) or the dismissal of them, in which case the term RPG should be stricken from his articles and say "earlier versions of D&D" to more accurately focus on what subset of games that is being referred to.

      Getting past the biases and outright factual mistakes makes it difficult (for me) to discuss the substance of what may be in these articles.
    1. Elfcrusher's Avatar
      Elfcrusher -
      Tell those kids to get off your lawn.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      I am sure the author of this post would despise the kinds of campaigns my friends and I prefer; our ideal games consist of about 50% combat, 50% roleplaying, and never use miniatures, battlemats, or physical icons of our characters. It is entirely theater of the mind. Our last game session, the beginning of a new campaign, lasted 6 hours, 5 1/2 of which was pure roleplaying and only 1 1/2 hours of which was combat. This is because when maps and miniatures are used games descend shift from roleplaying games into tactical wargames, with players planning out moves and actions for their characters from a perfect omniscient god's eye view, at a level far above what a person in the midst of actual combat would be able to do, and end up making decisions as if they were moving game pieces on a board (because that is what they are actually doing) rather than trying to portray a character, and they stop trying to think in terms of what that flawed, imperfect character would do in that situation in favor of coming up with the most tactically flawless maneuver they can perform.

      Using miniatures on a map for combat adds yet another level of abstraction between you and your character, an undeniable physical representation right in front of you separating you even more from your character, and, however much you may believe you can avoid it, changes your mindset from one of roleplaying your character into one of playing a game of chess. Dimwitted barbarians and foolish thieves suddenly become tactical geniuses when the battlemat is laid out and the minis set up, giving a perfect overhead view of the action for all to see, the fog of war is completely dispelled, and every foolish or confused decision that would have been good roleplaying totally befitting the character instead becomes an inexcusable tactical blunder on the part of the player.

      I suppose our style of gaming absolutely could be described as "it's all about me," albeit for every character, sequentially. Ideally, every character gets the spotlight at different times, and yes, we absolutely do love to show off to the other players and do cool things to get our "check this out, look at me!" moments; this is one of the most important elements of the game for us, and we all love it, as it creates great, memorable scenes that are talked about for years after. We play D&D as working to simulate the characters and events of a great pulp fantasy novel, with each of the characters as the protagonists of their own stories, all coming together to share in each others' stories. We don't try to hog the spotlight because we know everyone will get their chance to shine, we appreciate seeing each others' spotlight time and accompanying joy almost as much as our own, sometimes even more, and we each actively try to enhance the spotlight moments for the other characters/players, as the best improv actors do.

      And I really can't imagine what at all is wrong with that style of play.

      To do otherwise, to my mind, makes it really inexplicable why one would even bother playing Dungeons & Dragons at all rather than a tactical wargame. Instead of a roleplaying game, portraying a D&D party as simply a military unit in a series of military engagements turns the game into a wargame with a bit of roleplaying tacked on. It just baffles me.
    1. machineelf's Avatar
      machineelf -
      One of the things you mentioned, about players talking over each other: I try to emphasize to my players that in combat, they only have time to utter a short sentence on their turn, not have drawn out strategy discussions. I also emphasize to them that having strategy discussions other than a short phrase a character can make while swinging a sword or casting a spell is a bit of meta-gaming, and it's a good practice to let other players make their own decisions about what they want to do without telling them it's a bad decision or suggesting another.

      In terms of the loner, nuerotic player tendancies, I ask my players to think about why they are traveling with this group, and why they are untied? I encourage them to have their characters grow as friends and become a kind of family as they adventure together, because that would be the only reason they would stay together through all the hell they will find themselves in (sometimes literally).
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      One of the biggest insights I've had to how games play I've had in the last 20 years is that the number of players matters.

      AD&D was written with the idea of 8-12 (or more!) players, but more often played with 3 or 4. It ran fine with 3-4 but the author had assumed more and given advice and guidelines accordingly.

      I find that almost every game I read lately is actually written for at most 3-4 players, and more often just 1-2.

      I think the style the OP refers to as "all about me" is greatly encouraged by most modern RPGs, which privilege knowingly or unknowingly the aesthetic of self-expression (or what you might call 'exploration of character'). Unfortunately, these RPGs simply don't realize that the style that they are calling out only works for small numbers of players, and perhaps works best for a single player. It's a perfectly valid style to adopt with a small number of players - and maybe even the most interesting style to adopt in that situation - but it grows rapidly dysfunctional as the number of players increases.
    1. nickostopheles's Avatar
      nickostopheles -
      Iíve been RP gaming 30+ years and I find your categorizationfar too simplistic and inaccurate. Granted Iíve been doing mostly PBP the lastseveral years and only recently have tried some live events again so my observationsof ďyoungerĒ players is limited. But still I do have some experience.

      I think you are mixing up several categories, lumping all ofthem together and calling one Ė your way, and the other ďAll About Me.Ē I wouldargue there arenít two categories but many.

      Tactical vs. Story
      Cooperative vs. Individualistic and/or selfish
      Dangerous vs. Safe
      Öwhich is very related toÖ
      Serious vs. Comedy

      Secondly these arenít either/ors, but actually spectrums.That creates even more variations in gameplay style, thinking of them as dials.And Iím sure there are more vs categories I didnít think of.

      Personally, I like to mix up those knobs. I donít want to doone thing over and over. Sometimes I want to do a light comedy adventure,sometimes I want to Walking Dead it (nearly die all the time due to tacticalmistakes). Regardless I tend to be a very cooperative person and design cooperativecharacters, but I want the PC to do what s/he would do, not necessarilytactically optimal. If another player plays an interesting jerk, Iíll go alongwith it to some extent, but if s/he getshim/herself in trouble I met just let them die depending on what I think my PCwould think.

      As for selfish players who do whatever they want, well I hadat least one in every campaign from 1987 to present. This is not remotely new.

      The increase in story/character is due to overall trends intaste and popular things like the Critical Role podcast.

      The increase in comedy/safety is due to things likeAcquisitions Inc on youtube and The Adventure Zone podcast.

      Thatís aside from general story oriented RPG games that havebeen happening for ages. As well as people trying to simulate the vibe ofmovies/books/tv shows/video games they like within the imagination engines ofRPGs.

      You basically just seem to want to wargame, so when you joina group ask if thatís the tone of their game or if youíre running one,emphasize you run a very wargame-like D&D game. That should pretty muchsolve everything.

      You donít want to be special ops guy walking onto the set ofScooby Doo with swords.
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