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?

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!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Ramaster

Explorer
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
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

Explorer
"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.
 

Lord Mhoram

Explorer
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.
 

ehren37

Villager
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
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

Adventurer
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!’
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
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.
 
Wacky ideas are based on comedy. You like a serious game.They want to play a Looney Tunes version of D&D (or Adventure Time). That’s all that is. Just don’t play comedy D&D. You don’t have to look at anything but your style of D&D as inferior. It just ain’t for you.

Yes, you should warn players that you run a serious, fatal, tactically minded game. I do like those sometimes, and I personally almost always prefer consequences be serious and consistent. But I don't always want "everyone better maximally cooperate or we're all dead." Frankly every single gaming being good vs evil or merc vs merc and almost entirely tactical with little to no personalities or personal goals would get dull super quick to me. It sounds like Groundhog Daying the same game for years and years.

Ditto much of ehren37, cmad1977

People can cooperate to survive or they can cooperate tomake an interesting story. It is not a lack of cooperation if the goal is different.

PS - changed font for the sensitive eyed.
 
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Gradine

Archivist
I can see the next issue of Forbes now.

Report: Millennials are killing tactical war-gaming; also single-use chopsticks
PS: I would probably agree with the above post if reading it hadn't burned a hole through my retinas
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
I'm sorry but I find this all to be wild conjecture tinged with...ok, entirely based on...blatant biases. There's your style, and then there's the style that, as you describe it, selfish kids who grew up on video games play. Gosh, I'm glad you're just describing and not judging.

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.
How is this "all about me"? It doesn't seem to have anything to do with selfishness or lack of cooperation. It sounds like the player simply has a more fantastic/comic-book aesthetic than you do. I'm with you regarding the aesthetic, but nothing wrong with preferring the other.

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).
It is so easy and tempting to blame gaming styles we don't like...actually, any societal changes we don't like...on "those selfish kids and their computer games." I started playing D&D in...82...so most of us hadn't played video games more sophisticated than Breakout, and yet I saw I saw many people play in the way you are describing. I did so myself. Sometimes we'd cooperate, sometimes we'd undercut each other, sometimes we'd go all out pvp. It was all in good fun.

Sure, TODAY I'm mostly interested in "cooperative heroics", and I get annoyed when players I meet at public tables act like I sometimes did in the early 80's. But those alternate preferences have always been around.

I also understand military history quite well. So the “All About Me” style never occurred to me.
I understand logic gates very well. So the mise en place style of cooking never occurred to me.

Those two statements are related at least as much, if not more so, than the two you offered.

Like I said in your first post, these rants come across entirely as "get off my lawn" grouching.
 

Grimkrieg

Villager
Militaristic and Tactical play is alive and well today, just like styles of play that are not like that have been around at least since the 80s when I started playing. White Wolf world of Darkness games, for example, had conflict between party members baked in as part of the fun of the game. There are tons of stories of players even in old D&D playing selfishly.

As a tactically minded player though, I do resent storygamers telling me that I should play a computer game or a board game when neither of them can offer the tactical freedom that a TTRPG can. Even that is nothing new though :)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It is so easy and tempting to blame gaming styles we don't like...actually, any societal changes we don't like...on "those selfish kids and their computer games." I started playing D&D in...82...so most of us hadn't played video games more sophisticated than Breakout, and yet I saw I saw many people play in the way you are describing. I did so myself. Sometimes we'd cooperate, sometimes we'd undercut each other, sometimes we'd go all out pvp. It was all in good fun.
Hells yeah, and it's still good fun today! :)

I lose any fondness for (to borrow your term, if I may) "co-operative heroics" the moment I realize that as regular procedure I'm expected as a player to either a) just go along with someone else's plan and stop thinking for myself, or b) come up with a plan - or help come up with one - that everyone else is then expected to follow. Bleah!

I much prefer "act now, improvise later" to be the norm, with meticulous planning left for the rare occasions when it really matters (and is thus a novelty when it does happen).

Like I said in your first post, these rants come across entirely as "get off my lawn" grouching.
Yeah, I think the author would last about 5 minutes in our chaotic crew; and we've been at it since shortly after the last ice age ended. :)

Lan-"plan is a four-letter word"-efan
 
He should just come right out say it: He doesn't like young people because they act differently then he does. It would be much simpler then the article written here.
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
I agree. "Description" in the original post is judgment. The described table isn't likely one I'd want to be at, but one that's totally semi-military seriousness probably wouldn't be too much fun either. Anyway, this seems like a false dichotomy to me imposed on what's a continuum that ranges from, say, Toon to Millennium's End as if those were the only two styles of play. I never liked Toon or intentionally comedic RPGs in general, but when we played Millennium's End many years ago, there was plenty of gallows humor and a bit of silliness (if not physics-defying), despite the game definitely being quite literally semi-military.
 
I agree. "Description" in the original post is judgment. The described table isn't likely one I'd want to be at, but one that's totally semi-military seriousness probably wouldn't be too much fun either. Anyway, this seems like a false dichotomy to me imposed on what's a continuum that ranges from, say, Toon to Millennium's End as if those were the only two styles of play. I never liked Toon or intentionally comedic RPGs in general, but when we played Millennium's End many years ago, there was plenty of gallows humor and a bit of silliness (if not physics-defying), despite the game definitely being quite literally semi-military.
Yeah....I feel like maybe "players with issues" is not the same as a methodology or playstyle. "All about me" might better fit games where the focus is heavily on the players, but I would not think that that play style automatically precludes the need for immersion, verisimilitude and cooperation with the other players....so cases like the author of the article describes strike me as even breaking the "all about me" concept, since it damages the ability of the other players at the game to enjoy the experience (including, of course, the beleaguered GM who must enforce the concept of physical laws and limits, or what passes for such in the shared fictional headspace).

Maybe the real gripe of the article is that it is sidestepping the problem of special needs players? I could see my son (who is almost 7) trying something weird....but that turns into a "lets learn about physics" learning experience in such a case, and does not require suddenly codifying his limited understanding of the world (or how the game is supposed to be played) as a play style.

Just thoughts....
 

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