Worlds of Design: “All About Me” RPGs (Part 2)

Part 2. Continuing to describe the “All About Me” style, and asking why it’s popular. It has to do with player (not character) backgrounds, certainly. Is it generational in some way?

Part 2. Continuing to describe the “All About Me” style, and asking why it’s popular. It has to do with player (not character) backgrounds, certainly. Is it generational in some way?

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Last time I talked about the “All About Me” RPG style, and how it differed so drastically from the semi-military style I’ve always been accustomed to. I’ve been trying to compare the two, to describe rather than prescribe, though it’s obvious which style I prefer.

Another element of this style seems to be a lot of what I would call wacky ideas that the GM is supposed to take seriously. I recall one group where the player/character wanted to throw an old-fashioned wood-burning oven (they are remarkably heavy) a hundred yards, and expected to be given a reasonable chance to do it (as in, a 20 on a d20). I would have simply said “that’s impossible,” but that might not satisfy the “All About Me” crowd.

I occasionally wonder how one could encourage such players to play the more semi-military/mercenary style. Probably the first thing to do would be to impress upon the players before they joined the group that this was the kind of game we were going to play, that you had to be on your toes and cooperate or you were going to die. Of course, if someone accustomed to the “All About Me” style comes into an existing game with people playing, shall we say, more seriously, they would probably learn to conform pretty quickly; it’s when you start out with an entire group of new people (new to your style of GMing) that things can go wrong quite quickly.

I remember particularly the case of one player who attempted to do something, where the GM warned him that it was dangerous and it might result in his head exploding. Yeah sure, he said, and did it anyway. And his head exploded! But in less than a minute a fully formed version of himself walked out of a nearby building, some kind of special power that he had even though these characters had not been playing for more than about five sessions.

Use of this style is mostly a GM-player thing, but rules can contribute one way or the other. Rules that allow for a great deal of customization, and for wildly neurotic characters who are nonetheless supposed to be functional, encourage “All About Me”.

Why is this style popular?

An obvious point is that the great majority of players are not wargamers, and may not be gamers at all, that is, they’re not accustomed to leisure activities where you can lose. When you cannot lose in an RPG, that is, you cannot die (and not come back), then individualism is easy to express and adopt; when you CAN lose, cooperation is more natural. Single player computer RPGs with their respawning and save games are part of the “cannot lose” mentality (far more people play computer RPGs than tabletop RPGs).

The ultimate question of the game is one often asked of people throughout history: what is more important, the individual or the group? In difficult times, such as World War I or WW II, cooperation was at a premium, which tended to make the group more important than the individual. More recently, in the “safer” post-Cold War environments, the emphasis tends to be on individuals. Individuals are what “All About Me” is, well, about.

Though some people still doubt it, there are clear differences between generational behavior, as discussed in many books. People of the World War II generation naturally cooperated, because of their experiences in a very difficult situation. And each generation since then has behaved differently as their shared experiences have been different. Corporations have hired consultants to help them cope with the newer generation’s tendencies and preferences.

Maybe it’s natural for younger people of any generation to play this way. I don’t know, I was 25 when I started playing, and my first game involved meeting dozens of humanoid monsters in dungeon corridors, where only cooperation could allow survival.

I also understand military history quite well. So the “All About Me” style never occurred to me. As always, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. YMMV.

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!
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ramaster

Adventurer
What is "semi-military style"?


You've identified 2 types of playstyles, "Semi-military" and "All about me", but you said that there are many more. Can you give us an example other types of play? Do you have names for these other styles? Why is it that you prefer "Semi-military"? I just read both articles and I don't think that's explained. Do you just mean "you have to cooperate to survive" or is there more to it?


I come from a social background very detached from military doctrine and I've been running D&D type games for close to 15 years now. I prefer stories to have a social theme ("how is it like to live on the dangerous outskirts of a big city?") or a phylosophical theme ("how do we fight death itself?"). Have you played these types of games? How would you call these styles? What do you think of them?
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
I saw immature, silly, and overreaching play years ago, and I have seen it recently. Including in older players who should know better.

One interesting thing about most new players today is that they have gaming backgrounds, usually video RPGs and often other tabletop hobby games. I am old enough to remember when, outside of space invaders of monopoly, D&D was often the first "real" game people played. It could get wacky. New players may still have to get used to the table's expectations about play style, but its usually not a big deal.
 
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AriochQ

Adventurer
"Why is this style popular?"

I don't believe it is. You run into it occasionally, usually with newer players, but if they are at a table with more experienced players and DM it gets squashed pretty easily. If the entire table is playing that way, and having fun doing it, more power to them.
 

People play for different reasons.

I have a life I like to escape from - worries about "is the car going to run until I have the money to fix it" type issues. I have enough tactics and struggling to survive in real life. When I play RPGs I prefer that it is away from those concerns (thinking tactically, worries about what happens all the time). Many others play for other reasons. Tactical play and escapism are only two of them.

I don't think it is a generational thing - but we have so many genres of movies and music because people like different things - no reason that differing RPG playstyles should be different.
 

We've heard your "kids get off my lawn" rants. Now hear my "get back to the nursing home" follow-up.

I honestly loath the semi-military style. It encourages characters that are little more than bland cogs in the dungeon industrial complex that exist to "beat" adventures. No one acts in a manner that is opposed to winning, or creates a flawed character that does an action the player character knows to be poor tactics. Take the scene in Pan's Labyrinth where Ofelia encounters the Pale Man. All she has to do is get the dagger and leave. But she also foolishly steals a grape off the banquet table, and enrages the fey. This is clearly a trap, and something I feel few "old skool" grognard would do without being forced to roll a save. It goes against being a good little adventure solver.

If Raiders of the Lost Ark had been done in the that style it would have been 2 hours of Indy painstakingly farting around in a dusty hallway to avoid any encounters or traps, with scores of contingency plans and no drama. I prefer racing the boulder.
 

The story describes some pretty outrageous behavior I've never seen at any game table, and I'm not even sure what game systems would lead players to think such things were possible. I also am not sure that the "semi-military" distinction vs. "all about me" distinction is nuanced enough.....at best, I could conceive of some scenarios in the above situation that might stem from a FATE or Super hero type game system vs. most other RPGs that would not allow such to happen if it was physics defying/immersion shattering.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Why is this style popular?

An obvious point is that the great majority of players are not wargamers, and may not be gamers at all, that is, they’re not accustomed to leisure activities where you can lose.

I severely doubt this point is generally applicable, at least in the US. Every kid grows up knowing about (through general cultural exposure) and engaging in (in gym class, if nothing else) sports. Many don't like it. Many don't make it a major hobby for them. But they are *accustomed to the idea*. There is nothing strange about it to them.


Though some people still doubt it, there are clear differences between generational behavior, as discussed in many books. People of the World War II generation naturally cooperated, because of their experiences in a very difficult situation. And each generation since then has behaved differently as their shared experiences have been different. Corporations have hired consultants to help them cope with the newer generation’s tendencies and preferences.

Oh, gods. Now "Millennials are killing my playstyle"? Is that your intent here? Please note that while you mention them several times, the Greatest Generation (that were born around the Great Depression, and fought WWII) has never been a major force in RPGs. Gary Gygax himself was born in 1938, and was too young to be categorized as such. Pretty much everyone in gaming is Baby Boomer or later, so the "we fought WWII, and have that cooperative mindset" idea really doesn't apply.

You are so busy thinking in terms of generational identity that you have missed two far more basic notions:

1) Winning isn't everything.

2) For those who do want to win a tactical game, in the modern era, RPGs are not the best games available.

These days, the folks who are focused on winning a tactical game are playing computer games. Folks who want to focus on resource management have board games that have far more formalism and depth for such. Tabletop RPGs have aspects of these, but they are ancillary, so they can't really compete with games that do those things better.

That leaves RPGs with more people who are interested in other aspects of play. Not necessarily of "playing games to win", but of play in a more general sense, and of imaginative play, rather than tactical play. For this kind of play, "losing" is not in and of itself a major concern. Yes, your character may die, but... they're fictional. It *doesn't matter* if they die - character death is then to be avoided more for reasons of emotional attachment and the sunk cost fallacy, rather than any notion of "losing".
 

cmad1977

Hero
Any time someone laments the ways ‘this generation’ does anything I disregard their opinions out of hand. It’s the same whining about ‘kids these days’ I’ve heard every ten years.

‘Elvis and his hips! Kids these days!’
‘Those Beatles and their hair!! Kids these days!’
‘What is this ‘disco’? Kids these days!’
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
An obvious point is that the great majority of players are not wargamers, and may not be gamers at all, that is, they’re not accustomed to leisure activities where you can lose. When you cannot lose in an RPG, that is, you cannot die (and not come back), then individualism is easy to express and adopt; when you CAN lose, cooperation is more natural.
This is more significant to me than the individual/group preference. Does the RPG say, "when your hit points reach zero, tear up your character," or do they same something more forgiving?

Do the rules say, "when you roll too low, you succeed with a consequence?"

Or maybe they say "if you don't like the GM's idea, you can reject it at the cost of 1 XP/story point/etc."

Point being: the rules of the game, i.e. the quantum mechanics of the game-universe, dictate how seriously a player must consider the risk of losing - and how much "all about me" he can afford.
 

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