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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!
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Hussar

Legend
There is another fundamental issue here that isn't really addressed:

Why is death the only consequence of losing?

To me, this idea that only death is a "real" consequence of losing has created some of the most facile games in RPG's. No real depth at all. Play until your magic HP number reaches zero and you lose. I think the fact that once you get beyond D&D and it's general genre, you see a lot more variety what constitutes a "lose" condition.
 

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Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
Hussar is totally right. Games with a wider range of gain/loss options tend to be more interesting. Believe it nor not, D&D used to be more like this.....back when hitting level 9 meant you could build a fortress and gain followers, you were as likely to be concerned about losing your land and stronghold or your henchmen allies as you were being killed (which in AD&D was statistically less likely that would happen at high level than the GM would find a way to sack and pillage your holdings!)

My greatest victory in 1986 was when bandits found and stole the treasure my players had accrued in their secret lair, which was an old dungeon they had cleared out and turned in to their base. They spent many sessions hunting those bandits down for revenge!
 

Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
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.

Not really defending/arguing in favor of the OP, but I think his implication was not "I don't see eye to eye with this guy on whether his PC can lift a heavy stove" but rather that it seems like he thinks he needs to (or is required/expected to) default to the player's expectations under the play style he identifies as "all about me." That is the part I find weird....if someone was in a gritty D&D game I was running and said, "I flip the iron wood stove across the room," I'd explain it weighed a half ton and ask what his lifting capacity was.....problem solved, and lesson learned from the other guy about the setting and system expecations. But if this was...say...Cypher System with superheroes or enhanced beings I'd be like, "Level 7 check and spend some points!"

So the thing I see as odd is not him griping about the concept, but the implication that he has encountered this contradiction in expectations from people who appear to think the game's design and intent is to cater to their power fantasy, and not to engage in cooperatives storytelling with an agreed-upon expectation of how the fictional world works.
 

G

Guest 6801328

Guest
Not really defending/arguing in favor of the OP, but I think his implication was not "I don't see eye to eye with this guy on whether his PC can lift a heavy stove" but rather that it seems like he thinks he needs to (or is required/expected to) default to the player's expectations under the play style he identifies as "all about me." That is the part I find weird....if someone was in a gritty D&D game I was running and said, "I flip the iron wood stove across the room," I'd explain it weighed a half ton and ask what his lifting capacity was.....problem solved, and lesson learned from the other guy about the setting and system expecations. But if this was...say...Cypher System with superheroes or enhanced beings I'd be like, "Level 7 check and spend some points!"

So the thing I see as odd is not him griping about the concept, but the implication that he has encountered this contradiction in expectations from people who appear to think the game's design and intent is to cater to their power fantasy, and not to engage in cooperatives storytelling with an agreed-upon expectation of how the fictional world works.

If the player is used to playing in a mode where fantastical things always have a chance of succeeding, how is it "all about me" to expect that the DM would give his idea a chance? I mean, maybe the guy was all about himself, but the story Lew offers doesn't demonstrate that. It just demonstrates a different expectation about the fiction.
 

Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
If the player is used to playing in a mode where fantastical things always have a chance of succeeding, how is it "all about me" to expect that the DM would give his idea a chance? I mean, maybe the guy was all about himself, but the story Lew offers doesn't demonstrate that. It just demonstrates a different expectation about the fiction.

First....not my argument, I ain't gonna defend it =)

Second.....there's a lot missing from the OP's presentation. It's one thing in my mind if I say we're playing Mutants & Masterminds and the guy wants to flip the stove, totally different if they're playing GURPS. So while I might meander in my musings, I am totally on the side of "I don't quite get the comparison." But assuming that expectations were set before the game started (or in the course of the first game).....I would be surprised if this conflict ever came up.

That said, I have met the occasional oddball who has a loose grasp on reality in the many decades I have gamed, but an occasional oddball does not equal a genre type unto itself.

(Noting that....let's say its a really new player, and his only prior gaming was in a farcial D&D session where the DM let them do things like heft up half-ton objects and chuck them. I'm thinking that the DM ought to realize that the player may be new to the whole experience of gaming and is now broadening his tastes. I would interpret this scenario very differently if it was a veteran player who was making assumptions about what he could do, however; as a player, I might ask, "Hey, can I lift this and throw it?" but I would expect the DM to either say yes or no and abide by that. I am under the impression from the OP he has had at least one encounter where the person did no abide his decision and then argued he deserved a chance, regardless, to accomplish something established as not possible.

I don't know. I really feel like I'm wasting a lot of thought on a essay that wasn't properly developed for consumption, is how I feel.)

(EDIT 2: And question to Elfcrusher....so the question is, if you as player are confronted with a DM who says, "that's not physically possible," but otherwise turns down the attempt with presumed grace....are you okay with that? I guess that's worth establishing.....I understand the idea that someone may have preconceptions going in to a game, but when those are revealed to be incorrect, the question then is whether the player adapts to the game, or the game is now required to adapt to the player.)
 
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Lylandra

Adventurer
There is another fundamental issue here that isn't really addressed:

Why is death the only consequence of losing?

To me, this idea that only death is a "real" consequence of losing has created some of the most facile games in RPG's. No real depth at all. Play until your magic HP number reaches zero and you lose. I think the fact that once you get beyond D&D and it's general genre, you see a lot more variety what constitutes a "lose" condition.

I heartily agree. Death of a character can be among the most non-engaging consequences of failure, depending on the campaign. One of the most recent campaigns I've been reading about has the players screwing up time after time after time. None of them dies, but the scenario they're in turns worse and worse with every screw-up. They might ultimately survive, but lose the whole world to a tyrant.

You, OP, want to play realistic or pseudo-realistic RPGs, I get that. But how often is death the consequence of failure in a realistic scenario?

People might lose friends they care for over stupid fights. They might lose support or trust, be betrayed because they are too unreliable or have too little influence. They might lose their home or status. Be persecuted. But in the end they may realize their mistakes and fix them. A dead person cannot fix his or her screw-ups.

Also, what you describe is a sense of dissonance between playstyles. Yes, it is unrealistic to throw an oven that far. Physically impossible even for a super-strength humanoid and I'd make the DC so high that it were impossible for anyone else but a Tarrasque. But in a light-hearted or super-hero campaign? I'd let them try.
 

TheZigZagist

Explorer
Isn't this argument at least as old as the internet? Predates the height of the edition wars certainly. Granted that todays RPGs evolved from a strategic war game such as Chainmail and that even the name TSR implies tactical rules were involved, D&D in particular was also branded as a Fantasy Role Playing Game. Fantasy by its very definition is going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and none of them would be wrong. OD&D started out very open ended leading to many interpretive styles of play. So much so that Gary felt for the sake of a more homogeneous D&D experience at conventions and in tournament play that a more comprehensive ruleset (AD&D) was warranted. That's four ideological schisms to the game before it was even past its introductory editions. Strategic Realism vs Fantasy Roleplaying, Rule heavy conventional tournament play vs. A kitchen table "anything goes as long as we're all having fun" and often heavily house ruled version. The most beautiful thing about this game/hobby/lifelong love affair is that it accomodates all of it and then some. With almost religious ferver every enthusiast has their favorite edition or a heavily houseruled version of an edition, or an OSR version of an edition, or a concept in there mind of some perfect edition they wish existed. None of these people are playing the game wrong. Like the formation of a band or some other artistic colaboration sometimes you need to shop around before finding the right bunch to match your style of play, but that doesn't make any other group wrong. If you were to show up to an audition for a bluegrass band with a Jackson flying-V shredding out some high gain and heavily flangered licks - one might believe you were in the wrong place. That doesn't invalidate either style and may not even be a deal breaker. As to the "all about me" style of a younger generation. That's a story as old as frontal lobe development in youth and is not exclusive to RPG playing styles I'm afraid to say. Terrifying actually! :)
 
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G

Guest 6801328

Guest
(EDIT 2: And question to Elfcrusher....so the question is, if you as player are confronted with a DM who says, "that's not physically possible," but otherwise turns down the attempt with presumed grace....are you okay with that?

Well, I tend to favor the same kind of games the OP does, so I'm personally more than ok with "that's not physically possible." My favorite RPG is The One Ring, which is less fantastic/heroic/gonzo than D&D by a long stretch.

So I'll answer the more general question, which would be "What would you do if a DM surprises you by doing something very different from what you're used to, but explains his approach respectfully?"

1) Even without grace, I'll at least stick out the rest of the session.
2) If it turns out it was fun, I might play with that DM again.
3) If it's REALLY fun, I might reconsider how I've been playing the game.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Yeah....I feel like maybe "players with issues" is not the same as a methodology or playstyle.

Absolutely and I've played with hardcore power gamers who are super tactical and not at all fun to be around, too. Someone who plays their character more like it's a piece in a Clix game isn't fantastic for me either.


"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).

Yeah, I agree. I also believe the options are not mutually exclusive. I run a pretty player-focused campaign for orientation, themes, and so on, but when the battles start occurring, the PCs come together and work as a team.


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.

Hmmm, not sure but that's a good point.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Absolutely and I've played with hardcore power gamers who are super tactical and not at all fun to be around, too. Someone who plays their character more like it's a piece in a Clix game isn't fantastic for me either.




Yeah, I agree. I also believe the options are not mutually exclusive. I run a pretty player-focused campaign for orientation, themes, and so on, but when the battles start occurring, the PCs come together and work as a team.




Hmmm, not sure but that's a good point.

Thing is, I'd point out that hardcore power gamer is precisely what the OP is saying is a good thing. After all, if your basic premise is cooperation and survival, then building the strongest team you can is the best way to go. Which, depending on edition of D&D, often means very strong specialization of roles, or, in other words, power gaming.

Now, to be fair, far be it from me to say that powergaming and good role playing are mutually exclusive. They aren't. Roleplaying to me doesn't mean that I'm a poetry spouting fighter armed with a spork. You can be an effective character AND an interesting one, all at the same time.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You, OP, want to play realistic or pseudo-realistic RPGs, I get that. But how often is death the consequence of failure in a realistic scenario?
In today's real world? Not very often at all.

In a dog-eat-dog halfway-lawless fantasy world full of extremely dangerous creatures, i.e. most typical RPG settings? Pretty often. :)
 

psychognome

First Post
Ah yes, the semi-military style of role-playing was forged in the trenches of the World Wars and had nothing to do with the fact that the first role-playing games emerged out of wargaming, and furthermore millennials bad, in this essay I will
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
Absolutely and I've played with hardcore power gamers who are super tactical and not at all fun to be around, too. Someone who plays their character more like it's a piece in a Clix game isn't fantastic for me either.

I'd go a bit further and say that someone who plays his or her character like an interchangeable lego figurine with a certain set of skills is the wrong person to be at my table.

Don't get me wrong, I love tactical play. I love cooperation. I love both of these aspects so much that I engage them in online games in a semi-hardcore fashion. But I'd like my roleplaying games to be more narrative-focused than military-tactics.

That being said, I also don't like players who don't want to cooperate with the rest of the team. Because they tend to be disruptive and egocentrical.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Thing is, I'd point out that hardcore power gamer is precisely what the OP is saying is a good thing. After all, if your basic premise is cooperation and survival, then building the strongest team you can is the best way to go. Which, depending on edition of D&D, often means very strong specialization of roles, or, in other words, power gaming.

I agree---I do prefer it when the characters optimized to a decent degree, if not relentlessly so. Now if that's all they are, if it doesn't fit a concept, and if the player never does anything but the purely optimal move, that's not good.


Now, to be fair, far be it from me to say that powergaming and good role playing are mutually exclusive. They aren't. Roleplaying to me doesn't mean that I'm a poetry spouting fighter armed with a spork. You can be an effective character AND an interesting one, all at the same time.

Totally agree. IMO the "real role-player" stereotype of deciding that the only way to RP is to play a character that has so many liabilities it's unclear why anyone would want to be around that person gets old real fast, too. Too often that kind of character is played by someone who's way too into drama for my taste.

A moderate amount of power gaming and a focus on solid RP goes a long way.
 

pemerton

Legend
This is a curious essay coming with a week or so of Greg Stafford passing away.

The idea that RPGing might be something other than semi-military dungeoneering is not a new one. Greg Stafford's RPG designs helped pioneer it, beginning with RuneQuest: characters embedded in a social world, with values and aspirations comparable to those of fictional and mythic figures, and at the same time also more recognisable as the sorts of things that motivate ordinary people (loyalties, familial obligations, religious convictions, etc).

What the connection is between this sort of RPGing and "it's all about me" is I'm not sure. If the objection is to RPG characters and motivations with depth that goes beyond the desire to garner loot and accrue XP, then it's not an objection I share.

On the throwing of heavy things, here's a comparable episode that occurred in my 4e game:

Another thing that had been planned for some time, by the player of the dwarf fighter-cleric, was to have his dwarven smiths reforge Whelm - a dwarven thrower warhammer artefact (originally from White Plume Mountain) - into Overwhelm, the same thing but as a morenkrad (the character is a two-hander specialist). And with this break from adventure he finally had he chance.

Again I adjudicated it as a complexity 1 (4 before 3) skill challenge. The fighter-cleric had succeeded at Dungeoneering (the closest in 4e to an engineering skill) and Diplomacy (to keep his dwarven artificers at the forge as the temperature and magical energies rise to unprecedented heights). The wizard had succeeded at Arcana (to keep the magical forces in check). But the fighter-cleric failed his Religion check - he was praying to Moradin to help with the process, but it wasn't enough. So he shoved his hands into the forge and held down the hammer with brute strength! (Successful Endurance against a Hard DC.) His hands were burned and scarred, but the dwarven smiths were finally able to grab the hammer head with their tongs, and then beat and pull it into its new shape.

The wizard then healed the dwarf PC with a Remove Affliction (using Fundamental Ice as the material component), and over the course of a few weeks the burns healed. (Had the Endurance check failed, things would have played out much the same, but I'd decided that the character would feel the pang of the burns again whenever he picked up Overwhelm.)

In running this particular challenge, I was the one who called for the Dungeoneering and Diplomacy checks. It was the players who initiated the other checks. In particular, the player of the dwarf PC realised that while his character is not an artificer, he is the toughtest dwarf around. This is what led him to say "I want to stick my hands into the forge and grab Whelm. Can I make an Endurance check for that?" An unexpected manoeuvre!

D&D has always had wizards with mythical powers. There's no in-principle reason why other sorts of PCs can't be comparably mythical.
 

Shasarak

Banned
Banned
I was half way through reading this article and I thought to myself, this sounds like something written by Lewis Pulsipher.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I feel it is a deep mistake to confuse games that are more focused on individual intersecting characters and games that lack much in the way of meaningful consequences. Games like Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard and Sorcerer often have brutal and sometimes fatal consequences despite being very much centered around a cast of individuals. The reason they do not always join forces together is that they all have processes for defining individual and sometimes mutually incompatible goals. Think of it like a board game where different pieces have different winning conditions. Sometimes you join forces where those align, but when your goals do not mesh there can be conflict.
 

S'mon

Legend
I haven't seen a huge amount of "all about me" play in 5e D&D, the players generally co-operate. 4e D&D very much encouraged the creation of tactical synergies between PCs as the way to win combat. There is one game I found that encouraged 'all about me' play, that being 3e D&D, and so Pathfinder by extension. But that feels like an outlier.

I do think that games with group initiative tend to encourage players thinking as a team, and individual init can make it hard.
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't necessarily want the PCs, or players, to think like a team. If the situation is such that, given their various motivations, they might conflict, then that conflict should emerge.

Given that RPGing is a social activity there may be some limits that apply in respect of that sort of conflict, but I think that's something each table can resolve as individual temperaments and the overall mode dictate.
 

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