Worlds of Design: The Great Dichotomies of RPGs

A few years ago for an online course about strategic wargame design I devised a list of about a...

A few years ago for an online course about strategic wargame design I devised a list of about a dozen dichotomies between warfare and games. The paradox of wargames is that warfare and games are polar opposites! After writing some 150 “Worlds of Design” columns I decided to do the same for RPGs, relying in part on some of my columns.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

“Dichotomy”: a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.
Where you see yourself in these dichotomies is a quick way to determine your play style. Game masters who answer one way and players who answer another may find they aren't a great fit for one another. Of course, dichotomies are a forced choice and gaming experiences are a spectrum, so this is as much a provocative thought experiment to get a conversation started as it is a discussion of two opposing tensions of tabletop play.

Game vs. Story​

I’ve addressed this several times in columns, as it is the fundamental divide amongst RPG players. Is it a game, with a chance of failure (loss), or is it a storytelling machine? This is a spectrum, with various sessions sitting at different points on the spectrum.

Fantastical vs. Realistic​

This is “RPG as governed by the “rule of cool” versus RPG as “a life that could exist, but does not”. For both sides of this debate, see “Spectra of RPG GMing Styles: Improvising the Adventure” and “Spectra of RPG GMing Styles: Believability

Everyday Heroes vs. Superhuman​

Heroes can be recognizably human, or can be more like superheroes, impossibly powerful and impossibly lucky. For an in-depth discussion, see “Heroes Made or Born?

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Character Classes​

Some players insist that if character classes are not equally powerful (balanced), they can’t have fun. Others are more oriented toward interesting capabilities than class balance. I explored this topic in "A Question of Balance"

GM- vs. Player-Controlled Characters​

Some GMs like to say that a player character does such-and-such even though the player doesn’t want that to happen. This “your character does” such and such is more likely to happen in storytelling than in games, of course. For the GM’s perspective, see "Your Character Wouldn't Do That". How much can the players affect the outcome of the game? The more it is story- rather than game-oriented - the less agency they have; in the extreme they are “led around by the nose” by the GM. I discussed this in “The Tyranny and Freedom of Player Agency”.

Old vs. New School​

There are lots of elements here, but a major one is whether there’s real danger for characters, and another is earning what you get versus being rewarded for participation. I discussed this dichotomy in a two-part series reviewing Failure and Story and Rules, Pacing, and Non-RPGs

Solo vs. Group Play​

Does the GM construct things for the group as a whole, or does the GM tailor adventures and parts of adventures to individual characters? The “All About Me” FRPG series was examined in part one and two.

Magic vs. Technology​

We’re often not even sure where technology and magic meet, whether something is one or the other.

Combat: Sport vs. War​

Sports are supposed to be fair. War is the opposite – “All’s Fair in Love and War”. A fair fight is for suckers.

Elaborate vs. Simple Backstories​

Some players create elaborate backstories for characters, others just get a bare bones character together and use the play experience flesh out the character. See “Which Came First, the Character or the Backstory?

Other Dichotomies to Ponder​

For the following, I haven’t written a column to cover the dichotomy, yet.
  • GM: Arbiter vs. God: Is the GM’s job merely to interpret the (clearly massive) rules of the game, or is it to be a creator of world and adventure, who can choose to do whatever is best for the game (in the GM’s view, of course)?
  • GM vs. Player: Is the session a competition of GM versus player, or not? NOT is my answer, the GM is much more like a referee than a competitor.
  • Treasure-Hunters vs. Divine Soldiers: Are the player characters money-grubbing, mercenary treasure hunters, or are they “heroes” in a war for their gods?
  • Player Desires vs. the “Good of the Game”: Is an RPG a vehicle for what the players (think they) want? Or is it about what’s best for the game as a whole? (This is closely related to the previous dichotomy.)
  • High Magic vs. Low: High or low with respect to both commonality and power.
  • Tolkien vs. Non-Tolkien: Fantasy game worlds don’t have to be much like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth – but often they are.
  • Roll-play vs. Role-play: This has an element of historical trend to it. Early FRPGers were usually wargamers, and many were accustomed to actively try to make good things happen. They tended to role-play situations to determine outcomes, rather than rolling dice. With Third Edition D&D we saw Skill rolls start to dominate. This was good for passive players, who didn’t want to negotiate (in effect) with the GM, they just wanted to roll a die for Diplomacy, or Intimidate, or whatever. (In board games, negotiation is becoming a Lost Art.)
  • Vicarious Participation vs. Acting Out a Role: This also has an element of historical trend to it. In early FRPGs, players often thought of their character as themselves, and asked “what would I do in this situation?” This made lots of sense for game playing. Now it’s more common for a player to ask, “what would my character, given their background and experience, do in this situation?” This works better for RPG as storytelling machine then RPG as game.
  • Rules Lawyers vs. Rule Zero: Gamers tend to have a strong opinion about this. I’ve even seen rules referred to (perhaps tongue in cheek) as “sacred texts.”
There's no right answer to these dichotomies because they aren't questions. They're spectra in which players and game masters negotiate what they'd like to happen and how they deal with the game when it does happen. In some cases, you might not know where you stand until the situation comes up, and many gamers might not feel strongly enough one way or the other to care. But for those who do, determining shared boundaries early will go a long way to helping the entire group have fun.

Your Turn: What dichotomies are most important to you in determining compatible play styles?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The dichotomy between whether things are:

dichotomies or spectra..

There is, of course a whole spectrum of possible variations between the two.

From the OP:

Where you see yourself in these dichotomies is a quick way to determine your play style. Game masters who answer one way and players who answer another may find they aren't a great fit for one another. Of course, dichotomies are a forced choice and gaming experiences are a spectrum, so this is as much a provocative thought experiment to get a conversation started as it is a discussion of two opposing tensions of tabletop play.

The dichotomy between those who read the entirety of an OP and those who do not. :)
 

From the OP:



The dichotomy between those who read the entirety of an OP and those who do not. :)
Also from the OP..
There's no right answer to these dichotomies because they aren't questions. They're spectra in which players and game masters negotiate what they'd like to happen and how they deal with the game when it does happen.
The dichotomy between those who read the entirety of an OP and those who do not. :)
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I have found it rather rare that I can tell a compatible playstyle just by stating a dichotomy preference. Sometimes that is because we don't share a similar definition. Other times, we are just not on the same spectrum of one side of the dichotomy. Sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I dont, and want both sides at different times. In my experience, you only know yourself through play, and you only know someone else through play as well.
 


Um… yeah. Did you want me to multiquote reasons why your post was bizarre?
You can do whatever brings you joy.

I get what the OP is trying to represent, that there are some stylistic axes upon which players' and gms' preferences can be plotted with "poles" at either end.

It's just strange, to me, to summarize a set of "dichotomies" and then claim in various places that they are spectrums even within their own categories (rather than the table experience of those "dichotomies")

It feels needlessly (and ironically) contradictory.

But..It's a thought experiment. It's fine.
 
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Yora

Legend
Game and story being in opposition is the great fallacy of RPGs. The Curse of Dragonlance.

The real contrast is between Scripted and Emergent story. Except that one is actually better than the other. Story does not have to suffer because there is risk, failure, and uncertainty for the heroes of the campaign. In fact, these actually hugely improve the story.
There are many mediums to tell stories, but RPGs are the only medium in which you can have an emergent story that is at least in part outside of the control of any of the creators. That's what dice are really for. To have unexpected things happen because of bad luck or good luck, not because the writer of the story has made an arbitrary decision that the heroes of the campaign should succeed or fail at any given task they attempt.
 


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