Worlds of Design: Goal-Oriented Play

There was a time when finishing the mission was core to RPG play.

There was a time when finishing the mission was core to RPG play.

chess-queen-7109823_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

A Different Style of Play​

If you have not played RPGs for as long as I have, this may be new to you. Goal-oriented play is an approach to gaming that was common in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. It grew out of the games wargaming roots and is not nearly as popular as it once was. This is my perspective as a game master with decades of experience, as both a historian and wargamer.

Expectations​

Goal-oriented gaming is less about the individuals and more about group success. This squad-type play requires experts in their field (fighters tank, casters blast, clerics heal, etc.) but is not about putting the spotlight on any one character. These expectations are reinforced by the stakes of the game: when lives are at stake, characters take things seriously enough to focus more on the mission and less on their individual needs.

Despite this focus, “cool” things can still happen in interesting situations through emergent play. I don't have to manufacture it as GM nor try to find it as a player, it will happen, or at least the opportunity will happen.

Delayed Gratification​

Most of the time parties have objectives, even if it's as simple as “find loot.” Instant gratification is not part of the equation nor part of the plan. The party's overall goal is that everyone stays alive and completes its objective or mission.

When the stakes are high, there’s a chance characters die if they make poor choices. As a GM or party leader, I try to talk players out of doing suicidal things, but I don't try to tell everyone what to do. It's a cooperative game. I try to get players to reach a consensus as to what should be done as a team.

Playing Smart​

This style of play requires tactical thinking and (when possible) advanced planning. The second century A.D. author Polyaenus said:
bravery conquers by means of the sword but superior generalship prevails by skill and stratagem, and the highest level of generalship is displayed in those victories that are obtained with the least danger.
I agree that stratagems are critical to team success. It’s not uncommon for players to want their characters to rush in, bash the monsters, and take the treasure, and that's all they’re really interested in. It's okay to have those people in the team – preferably as fighter or stealth types – but somebody's got to think beyond that.

As a party leader I ask for party input, because several minds are better than one. In my experience, the best adventure is one where the bad guys never know you were there and you achieve your objective, though that can be hard to pull off (and the GM has to be willing to work with you to achieve this).

Gathering Intel​

Pulling off stratagems makes gathering information very important. In play, I encourage the party to gather information in whatever ways are possible, magical and otherwise, including taking prisoners and magically interrogating them. If this requires splitting the party to grab a prisoner, so be it.

Collecting information to avoid just barging into the room depends on having a GM who permits info gathering (some do not). If they do, it can be a simple but effective means of dealing with threats, including enemies that might be much more powerful than the party. This includes bailing out, a perfectly valid tactic when intel determines that the monster is too powerful for the party.

A Soldier’s Point of View​

Goal-oriented, tactical approaches to gaming aren’t for everybody. Some players want to role-play their character's flaws, which is part of the fun. But that requires buy-in from both the players and the game master.

But many high fantasy adventures have world-shattering implications if the party fails. When the stakes are high, fighting is a last resort, because people get killed, and one of those might be you or your friends. That means fair fights are for suckers, and a party does its best to stack the odds in its favor before the showdown with the Big Bad.

Your Turn: What’s your playing philosophy?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Oofta

Legend
I think pretty much every game of D&D I have ever played over decades has been goal driven. Of course we sometimes have personal character arcs, but they don't drive the overall narrative of the game. Most personal stories emerge as a natural part of the game, not as a goal of the DM or group. The thing is that for home campaigns I'm going to be playing for a long, long time. A campaign will last a year or more and a lot can happen to any one individual in that period of time. Whether that's a PC dying or a player moving to a different state, for one reason or another those character arcs can go unfinished.

In a group with 6 people, I find that it's simply easier and more fun for the entire group to have goal oriented play.
 

log in or register to remove this ad


Oofta

Legend
Can we have an example of play that is not goal oriented?
I was going to ask the same thing. Even if you take a game like Critical Role which is very character driven, it's still a goal oriented game. Yes, characters work through things over time but it's while in pursuit of other goals.

Personally I run a very player driven campaign and the players choose the goals. But I don't remember the last time we did something that was specific to an individual's personal story, although it's probably happened at one point or another.
 

Well, the OP was talking about party goals, not individual player/PC goals. Lots of games focus on individual character development and exploring the PCs stories over anything else. The entire storygame category of playing works that way to my mind.
I would say that even if a goal is specific to one character the rest of the party (AKA their friends) work together to help them achieve it.
 



Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I've never seen a party all split up and go do different things. Do you have any evidence of this playstyle, or is it purely imaginary?
A little aggressive here. I was just suggesting that the party might be led around by one PCs personal plot for a while, and then the spotlight turns to another. The rest of the party's just along for the ride.
 

Stormonu

Legend
My goal? To have fun.

As a DM for me that means both making the players - as a group and as individuals - feel good about their successes while at the same time not making it too easy to accomplish AND not stepping on each other's "fun".

Ultimately, that rarely means bashing in the front door is the best course of action. But sometimes its unavoidable - the characters have to take action to reach their happiness, and that may mean losing a few hit points barreling ahead. Or, being creative and finding a way around their problem.

So long as they aren't moving backwards (doesn't mean you can't retreat and regroup, but abandoning the enterprise altogether won't generally work).
 

timbannock

Hero
Supporter
I've never seen a party all split up and go do different things. Do you have any evidence of this playstyle, or is it purely imaginary?
IME, games where the party is regularly "split", such that either not every player's (primary) character is present every scene because they may be off doing other things, and/or that feature troupe-style play to solve this (so every player is present, but not their "main" character), include:
  • Ars Magic -- troupe-style play, in part to account for varied goals of main characters, but also because mages need lots of downtime for certain aspects of the game (research, recovery).
  • Vampire: The Masquerade -- characters working at cross purposes, or at least divergent ones. Though rare, troupe-style play using Ghouls or other retainers is covered in at least a few of the rulebooks early on.
  • Smallville (and any Cortex-derived "dramatic" game) -- you literally have a player running Clark trying to keep secrets from the one running Lois, one running Lex Luthor plotting to manipulate the situation, and another off doing stealth missions as Ollie/Green Arrow.
  • Marvel Heroic -- bakes "splitting the party" into the game mechanics through Affiliations (player-facing trait) and Doom Pool "tricks" (spend a d10 or d12 to split the party, forcing them to rely on different Affiliations).
I'm not terribly familiar with Pendragon, but it seems like a game where this is likely covered. Regardless, all of the above explicitly promote this type of play, and cover it in detail throughout their core materials.

I've seen this happen a bit in Paranoia too, depending on how the secret society missions PCs get drive wedges between them. In one particularly memorable campaign, one of the PCs ended up turning into the BBEG after a few missions due to a combination of increasingly frayed loyalties and their possession of an especially apocalyptic piece of R&D tech.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
IME, games where the party is regularly "split", such that either not every player's (primary) character is present every scene because they may be off doing other things, and/or that feature troupe-style play to solve this (so every player is present, but not their "main" character), include:
  • Ars Magic -- troupe-style play, in part to account for varied goals of main characters, but also because mages need lots of downtime for certain aspects of the game (research, recovery).
  • Vampire: The Masquerade -- characters working at cross purposes, or at least divergent ones. Though rare, troupe-style play using Ghouls or other retainers is covered in at least a few of the rulebooks early on.
  • Smallville (and any Cortex-derived "dramatic" game) -- you literally have a player running Clark trying to keep secrets from the one running Lois, one running Lex Luthor plotting to manipulate the situation, and another off doing stealth missions as Ollie/Green Arrow.
  • Marvel Heroic -- bakes "splitting the party" into the game mechanics through Affiliations (player-facing trait) and Doom Pool "tricks" (spend a d10 or d12 to split the party, forcing them to rely on different Affiliations).
I'm not terribly familiar with Pendragon, but it seems like a game where this is likely covered. Regardless, all of the above explicitly promote this type of play, and cover it in detail throughout their core materials.

I've seen this happen a bit in Paranoia too, depending on how the secret society missions PCs get drive wedges between them. In one particularly memorable campaign, one of the PCs ended up turning into the BBEG after a few missions due to a combination of increasingly frayed loyalties and their possession of an especially apocalyptic piece of R&D tech.
Much better expression of my point than I can claim. Thank you.
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Related Articles

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top