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Same As It Ever Was: Define the Players of RPGs, then Define the Theory of RPGs

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
EDIT. This is the First Essay on Peterson's book, The Elusive Shift.

Original review of book is here-

 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
There are a number of issues that are raised by Jon Peterson's excellent book, The Elusive Shift. But one that I am going to keep coming back to is that all the issues we keep discussing have already been discussed before. Now, I don't want to say that there isn't a purpose in discussing these things. Nor do I want to say that these issue can't be looked at with fresh eyes, and new attempts to make RPG systems cannot be devised- only that we keep forgetting this history, and seem doomed to continue the same arguments without the benefit of the knowledge that the parameters of these arguments were laid out decades ago.

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And I'm going to begin with one of the more interesting and controversial bits that can be gained from the book. First, however, I'd like to start by summarizing Evan Torner's work in the book Role-Playing Game Studies- in noting another attempt to provide a coherent RPG theory, Torner correctly notes that the same rhetorical tropes are consistently used- first, the person provides it in a semi-professional form (zine, on-line BBS, personal blog, forum, wiki, etc.). Second, it continues the same debates we are all familiar with (e.g., realism versus playability; task resolution; game design and play advice etc.). It will almost always do so through the utilization of player and system typologies (what players enjoy about different games and how different games accommodate those preferences). Third, the author will almost always claim to be a "big tent" and unbiased observer of the typologies seeking only to end the prior debates, while actually looking to continue the debate and, more often than not, delegitimatize other methods of play through the seemingly-neutral goal of helping people design and play 'better.' Fourth, and finally, the author will inevitably make the act same points that were made years or decades ago.

Now, imagine my interest when I saw the development of these same arguments in the historical context. While the book lightly touches on the wargaming antecedents (the use of player typologies, and how some different wargamers had different preferences. as typified by Thornton's typologies), and continued throughout the 70s with FRPs (or RPGs ... depending on who you talked to ... there was a community divide as to what to call these things), even continuing with such luminaries as Lewis Pulsipher (who would argue at some length, using player typologies, for a more skilled play / war-game-y style of game), the most fascinating passages to occur are, naturally, at the end of the book.

In the final chapter prior to the Epilogue, we encounter Glenn Blacow's famous model- sometimes called the ... wait for it ... Fourfold Way after, inter alia, publication in such sources as Different Worlds with handy guides. Basically, Blacow observed that ... oh boy ... different types of players had different types of goals. And that because they had different goals, there could be conflict at the table. And this was back in the Spring of ... 1980. He did make sure to note that most campaigns were blends, but the four "types" of players were ....
1. Role-players. (The PC is the most important thing - all considerations of tactics or advancement are secondary to the player inhabiting the PC)
2. Wargamers. (SImulationists- the rules and mechanics that simulate the world; encounters are tactical problems to be solved by players)
3. Ego-trippers. (Um, yeah. The term in currency at the time was minimax, which Blacow found too offensive ... so ... yeah. Anyway, when the article was re-published, this became "power gamers." The major driver here is, of course, power for the characters. Levels, magic items, and so on.
4. Story-tellers. (Players and the referee cooperate in writing a script)

Now, these distinctions mattered immensely to the communities at the time- the roleplayers and wargamers had been a long divide dating back to the origins of D&D, exemplified by the split between, for example, the usual MIT death dungeons and the more Sci-Fi/Fantasy LA style of play. While power gamers had always been present, the massive boom in popularity that had just started caused a massive influx of new, and young, players; by 1981, approximately 60% of TSR products were being sold to people between the ages of 10-14 (!!- I know, I saw that statistic in the book and I couldn't believe it). The story-telling contingent had also always been present, but had gained even more steam due to the efforts of individuals like Simbalist (in the Kismet essays).

But just as interesting as the creation of the typologies is the later application in RPG theory. Obviously, there is the initial typology, which both acknowledged that this was an unbiased look at the games and preferences of players, while also putting its fingers on the scale (acknowledging that a game like OD&D might cause some to gravitate toward powergaming, and that it is an element of any FRP, but implying that it was not sufficient to maintain the interest of a mature gamer).

But, as Peterson points out, what good is this typologogy- how is this any different than Kevin Slimak's comment in 1975 that different people like different games? How is defining people like this any better than just saying that the like what they like?

Well, Don Miller provided the answer in A&E 74, that "players and GMs are influenced in their FRP playing orientation by the particular set of rules that they are exposed to ... [players] may be permanently prejudiced by their first indoctrination to FRP. ..." He proposed that systems should have typologies (he offered two Manichean options; simplicity/complexity, and realtiy/abstraction). Stating that he was in the "creative vanguard," Miller then articulated that the rules could no longer be designed without thought or sophistication, and that "a game's underlying philosophy affects everything that the game's systems do or fail to do" and that designing systems can be aided with theory to serve the interests of particular groups.

Woah. If you've followed any RPG theory discussions, this is ... well, familiar,

This was, of course, immediately argued against. And from that point on, it was just rinse, repeat. People would advance slightly different typologies (for players, for systems), always careful to put a thumb on the scale, and the arguments would continue from there.

That might be the most interesting revelation, and I'm going to throw this out for comment now.

My next post will be about the constant battle between rules-lite (or rules-free) systems, and additional rules, and what the commercial impulse might have to do with that tension.
 

gorice

Explorer
OK, this is really interesting, and I see I'm giong to have to read this book.

Blacow's model is really striking, because it seems to be more like a taxonomy of 'agendas' (in the Forge sense) than the usual player activity taxonomies. Aside perhaps from the 'we want to win all the time' people (is that an agenda? A juvenile one, perhaps!).

Also, this:
Well, Don Miller provided the answer in A&E 74, that "players and GMs are influenced in their FRP playing orientation by the particular set of rules that they are exposed to ... [players] may be permanently prejudiced by their first indoctrination to FRP. ..."
is pretty much the foundational claim for the importance of system, and also for judging other people's fun. I'm intrigued by Don's opinion and want to subscribe to his newsletter.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
OK, this is really interesting, and I see I'm giong to have to read this book.

Blacow's model is really striking, because it seems to be more like a taxonomy of 'agendas' (in the Forge sense) than the usual player activity taxonomies. Aside perhaps from the 'we want to win all the time' people (is that an agenda? A juvenile one, perhaps!).

Also, this:

is pretty much the foundational claim for the importance of system, and also for judging other people's fun. I'm intrigued by Don's opinion and want to subscribe to his newsletter.

I know! I'm going to write only two more essays on the book (currently planning two more, one on system complexity, and one that's kind of a summary) simply because I would rather people read it themselves ... but I had repeated record scratch moments while reading it.

This was probably the most jarring though. By this point, I had grown accustomed to seeing issue we regularly hit on enworld (from railroading to agency to illusionism to DM authority to "what is an RPG" to the distinctions between players and DM (and the existence of DM-less games)) gone through pretty thoroughly in the first 5 years after D&D's existence.

But seeing what is, essentially, the original agenda argument, along with a whole "system matters" combined with "the first system you use indoctrinates you into bad habits" ... woah. And then the same arguments against it.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
In the final chapter prior to the Epilogue, we encounter Glenn Blacow's famous model- sometimes called the ... wait for it ... Fourfold Way after, inter alia, publication in such sources as Different Worlds with handy guides. Basically, Blacow observed that ... oh boy ... different types of players had different types of goals. And that because they had different goals, there could be conflict at the table. And this was back in the Spring of ... 1980.
Sooo...I can replace ENworld with 1980s literature? Ha! See ya, all!

(receding footsteps)

(returning footsteps)

Hmm. I felt like more of a bystander back with all those yellowing pages. Plus, we get Google ads/recording here.

Blacow's player types call to me - to the extent that I'd like to see games marketed to each type (and not trying to appease the others). Hey! This could work. WotC, if you're listening ::kneeling beside bed:: you can make four "modes" of sixth edition D&D, one for each player type. I mean, you're already making three "core" books anyway. Add a fourth. The HP-as-meat players can get the wargaming book. The HP-as-moxie players can get the storytelling book. HP-must-be-maximized can get the ego-trip book, and the what's-a-hit-point? players can get the role-play book. . .

". . . You may ask yourself, am I right? Am I wrong? . . ."
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Sooo...I can replace ENworld with 1980s literature? Ha! See ya, all!

No! Of course not!

It can be replaced with 70s literature!!!!!

I kid. Kind of. Look, the purpose isn't to say that the conversations are pointless; instead, it's to point out that so much of our discourse around TTRPGs is similar to the goldfish swimming in the bowl.

Hey look, a castle!
...15 second later....
Hey look, a castle!
...15 second later....
Hey look, a castle!
...15 second later....
etc.

And it's been going on for a very long time. I think that a lot of people here, who like talking and discussing topics involved with RPGs, would probably enjoy reading about these conversations, and reflecting on how these same discussions were occurring at the beginning of the hobby (and maybe reflecting on the ways that these were either inevitable, or were created by the way that the hobby started).

More importantly, understanding that these same debates keep re-occurring might allow us to see that there is a spectrum of issues - that we aren't looking, necessarily, to resolve issues, so much as discuss the factors which necessarily end up going back and forth.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
To be fair, I think these issues might have cropped up more in TTRPGs more because a) there's been a dominating presence in the market for pretty much the entire existence of the game type, which creates a network pressure to engage with it; and b) engaging with a TTRPG is a long-term commitment, so a game with strong network pressure to engage with that also doesn't meet everyone's play preferences can push people out of the play space entirely.

For board games, it really doesn't matter if Twilight Struggle is too complex for you, you can always just play Cards Against Humanity the next game night. People generally play a single TTRPG for months or years at a time.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
....Fourth, and finally, the author will inevitably make the act same points that were made years or decades ago.

Well, yeah. RPGs are not like Literature, or Engineering, in which we go to school and learn stuff in an organized fashion. We have people perpetually reinventing the wheel, because there's no systematic approach to passing along information.

In the final chapter prior to the Epilogue, we encounter Glenn Blacow's famous model- sometimes called the ... wait for it ... Fourfold Way after, inter alia, publication in such sources as Different Worlds with handy guides. Basically, Blacow observed that ... oh boy ... different types of players had different types of goals. And that because they had different goals, there could be conflict at the table. And this was back in the Spring of ... 1980. He did make sure to note that most campaigns were blends, but the four "types" of players were ....
1. Role-players. (The PC is the most important thing - all considerations of tactics or advancement are secondary to the player inhabiting the PC)
2. Wargamers. (SImulationists- the rules and mechanics that simulate the world; encounters are tactical problems to be solved by players)
3. Ego-trippers. (Um, yeah. The term in currency at the time was minimax, which Blacow found too offensive ... so ... yeah. Anyway, when the article was re-published, this became "power gamers." The major driver here is, of course, power for the characters. Levels, magic items, and so on.
4. Story-tellers. (Players and the referee cooperate in writing a script)

@seankreynolds used to have an article on "The Breakdown of RPG Players" which was a result of the 1999 WotC market research. Unfortunately, the site that was hosted on has gone away, and I cannot find another copy of it.

However, my memory is that the cluster analysis of their survey data revealed 5 groupings - four of which mapped largely to the groupings you note here (I don't doubt that someone at WotC had read about the Fourfold Way), and a fifth, that was an admixture of the four. If I recall correctly, in fact the majority of players sat in the "mixed" group, rather than adhering strongly to any one aspect of gaming.

Which is a different statement form the majority of campaigns being mixed - the statement from the cluster analysis is that most individual players DON'T have a single strong "type".


Well, Don Miller provided the answer in A&E 74, that "players and GMs are influenced in their FRP playing orientation by the particular set of rules that they are exposed to ... [players] may be permanently prejudiced by their first indoctrination to FRP. ..."

So... that "may be" is carrying a whole lot of weight there. This speculative construction is something we see in the dissemination of misinformation. "Could it be that aliens helped build the pyramids?"

I can see why one would make such speculations - anecdotal observation suggests that people's tastes in, say, food, or music, is strongly influenced by what they are exposed to early in life. However, we can also observe a great many people can, and do, expand their palettes for various experiences over time.

Thus, I lack confidence in the "permanently prejudiced" part of that. It would seem to me that this assumption is part of what makes the discussions so heated - since we assume people will be permanently impacted, there's a "battle for the soul of gaming" going on.

Focus instead on how it is healthy to get people to try different things now and then, so that they broaden their palettes, and the territoriality can go away.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Well, yeah. RPGs are not like Literature, or Engineering, in which we go to school and learn stuff in an organized fashion. We have people perpetually reinventing the wheel, because there's no systematic approach to passing along information.

True, but what's so fascinating to me is the extent to which we keep discussing the same issues. Which makes me wonder if those issues are reflective of deeper structural poles that will always be there?

In other words- do we keep having the same conversations because we do not remember, or do we keep having the same conversations because they help define the primary issues that people tend to care about? I'm not sure I have an answer, but I'm prone to the second.

(This isn't an argument about not having these conversations, by the way, so much as it is a recognition that there's a reason that some of these issues define the boundaries of the discourse).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
In other words- do we keep having the same conversations because we do not remember, or do we keep having the same conversations because they help define the primary issues that people tend to care about? I'm not sure I have an answer, but I'm prone to the second.

So, I wouldn't say we keep repeating conversations just because we do not remember. I think there's a stack of reasons, several of them not so complimentary, that contribute, and lack of a formal effort of teaching is only one of them.

You talk about how they, "help define the primary issues that people tend to care about." That brings us to a chicken-and-egg position - do we talk about these things because we care abut them, or do we care about them because these are the only things that get talked about? If our game preferences are strongly influenced by our first exposure to games, then it follows that our takes on game theory will be strongly influenced by our first exposure to game theories. As you yourself wrote previously - our language strongly influences our thoughts - it becomes hard to speak about other things, because this is the discussion we have language about!

I specifically call out that you didn't say that these discussions help us DISCOVER what we care about - and you are correct not to say that, because they don't. Theory discussions around here are not about exploration. If they were about exploration, and we kept coming back to the same points, then I'd agree that we'd solidified around what really mattered. But, since we aren't really exploring the possible theory landscape, we aren't going to find anything in the discussions.

(This isn't an argument about not having these conversations, by the way, so much as it is a recognition that there's a reason that some of these issues define the boundaries of the discourse).

And mine isn't an argument that, say, the Fourfold Way doesn't represent the basic real issues of RPGs. It is just that repeated internet argument about one set of things things doesn't itself indicate that those are THE THINGS that matter at our tables.
 



innerdude

Legend
I specifically call out that you didn't say that these discussions help us DISCOVER what we care about - and you are correct not to say that, because they don't. Theory discussions around here are not about exploration. If they were about exploration, and we kept coming back to the same points, then I'd agree that we'd solidified around what really mattered. But, since we aren't really exploring the possible theory landscape, we aren't going to find anything in the discussions.

I disagree with this. Prior to 2015 or so, I was completely blind to any theory that didn't directly play into my preconceptions about "the way RPGs are supposed to work"---rules had to "process simulate" the game world. Dissociated mechanics were "bad" and "wrong", and not only that, were going to be the ruination of D&D and roleplaying as we know it. Anything that goes against these maxims is no longer even categorically "roleplaying" at all, etc., etc.

I was on the absolute forefront of arguing against fiction first / "Story Now" play. RPGs can't possibly work the way this is being described. This is completely against the way things work, and I can't believe that there's any valid theory that would support this.

But finally, after hearing over and over that no, this stuff really does work, I went out and read some of the Forge theory on GNS. And even though I think a lot of the particulars are lost and muddied in the Forge discussions, the main idea that stuck through all of it was finally recognizing that, yes, all of the fiction of an RPG is constructed by a participant, it's only a question of by who and when.

I couldn't conceive of "Story Now" play before that realization, because I had simply not accounted for the fact that "traditional" RPG play merely prioritizes RPG fiction generated by the GM participant, prior to its public introduction to the rest of the play group.

"Simulationist" play merely prioritizes one form of fiction introduction, by one particular participant, over other forms of fiction introduction.

The "theory" of "Story Now" play suddenly became clear --- it becomes wholly possible by altering the placement along the related spectra of timing of introducing elements to the fiction + participant authority.

So you're correct in that my initial declarations around "RPG theory" were not "explorations." They were declarations of "Story Now play doesn't work, and can't possibly work, and it's bad to even try."

And the responses from many posters who rightfully disagreed were, "No, it works great. Here's why, and here's some related game theorizing that supports the premises."

So is that an exploration of the theory? Not per se. We're not exploring the nuances and ins and outs of the theory. We're not poking holes in it, making new extrapolations, etc. For all of its flaws, that's a lot closer to what the Forge was really trying to get at.

Discussions about theory on EnWorld more gravitate toward elucidation and education than exploration. It seems most participants aren't trying to build upon game theory. But they are trying to provide context and perspective.

And believe me, I will now 1000% go out of my way to elucidate my experience with coming around to what "Story Now" play can do. Having an understanding of what it is and what it does has improved my group's level of play and enjoyment. Because I greatly care about finding new, fun, exciting, and innovative ways to get better at and maximize enjoyment from play.
 



Aldarc

Legend
@seankreynolds used to have an article on "The Breakdown of RPG Players" which was a result of the 1999 WotC market research. Unfortunately, the site that was hosted on has gone away, and I cannot find another copy of it.

However, my memory is that the cluster analysis of their survey data revealed 5 groupings - four of which mapped largely to the groupings you note here (I don't doubt that someone at WotC had read about the Fourfold Way), and a fifth, that was an admixture of the four. If I recall correctly, in fact the majority of players sat in the "mixed" group, rather than adhering strongly to any one aspect of gaming.
Considering some of the surveys that I have seen WotC produce,* I am somewhat skeptical about what the results tell us concretely about the playerbase. This is not to say that the marketing research is wrong, but there are also a lot of unknowns about how they conducted that market research, the sort of questions that were being asked, and the respondents. Moreover, this only really tells us about the market in 1999. Has this shifted (and how) within the last 20 years? The same groupings may exist, though the concentrations of answers may have changed.

* How some of the wording on the WotC questionnaires and surveys for D&D and M:tG sometimes feel:
do you want to follow me gravity falls GIF
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
And mine isn't an argument that, say, the Fourfold Way doesn't represent the basic real issues of RPGs. It is just that repeated internet argument about one set of things things doesn't itself indicate that those are THE THINGS that matter at our tables.

So, to be clear about the OP- the idea isn't that the four-fold way (or other, more recent classifications) is, or isn't, an accurate way to model players and/or player agendas.

It's more that there's a repeated cycle of-
A. Declaring that there's a problem in TTRPGs.
B. This problem is caused by inconsistent desires/agendas/types of players.
C. Therefore, a new typology of players will be announced (almost always with some types being more equal than others, in the George Orwell sense).
D. Based on that typology, a theory (or theories) of TTRPGs and/or game design will bloom, under the concept that the system itself will enable/encourage/assist in certain types of play.
E. Rinse, repeat. (The epilogue of the book has this re-occurring, with ...IIRC, I don't have it with me at this second ... the creators of Ars Magica writing in to A&E happy to have discovered it ...).

Like any kind of classification system or tool (even like the different modes of critical theory I discussed in a prior thread), I think that these models can be useful- often leading to people to think about their games differently, and, more importantly, allowing designers some space to create different game designs to cater to this elusive (or illusive) playing agenda. But none of them are gospel, or the truth, or reality. Just an abstracted way of looking at things that will eventually be forgotten and supplanted by something else.

But the vast majority of tables will get much more use out of (for example) reading what iserith writes about DC checks or the action economy than they ever will from these discussions.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
One thing I haven't seen anyone say yet (and maybe they did on another thread) is that the industry behemoth over the course of the hobby has a financial interest in constantly changing the game. If D&D became like chess and had stable rules they couldn't sell as many Players Handbooks and would have to start laying people off (not to mention, much more importantly, that Hasbro wouldn't want to kill their cash cow).

Since every new edition is going to change the balance between these types of players, and even in the absence of that factor some people are going to be unhappy with some of the changes (whether you're a 1er missing their half-orc assassin or a 4er missing their warforged marshal), this is going to be a topic of contention for some time to come.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Considering some of the surveys that I have seen WotC produce,*

Judging a segmentation study from over 20 years ago on today's questionnaires that have a different purpose? I'm not sure that's a great basis for a position.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So is that an exploration of the theory? Not per se.

Exactly.

Any individual can learn theory they did not know, and find some value in it. But, in the process around here no new theoretical ideas come up. All we have is the conflict between now decades-old theoretical frameworks, and only a couple of them, at that, without anything like a verification process beyond collecting anecdotes.

It is like a bunch of fans of cubism are discussing art (okay, really, more like arguing art) with pointillists. Sure, someone can learn a thing or two, but no new way of considering painted artwork comes out of it. So, unless the cubists or pointillists got art completely right on the first go, there's no reason to think that discussion is actually identifying what is important in painting, in general.

Discussions about theory on EnWorld more gravitate toward elucidation and education than exploration.

This is completley in alignment with what I said. So I'm not seeing disagreement here.
 

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