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 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.

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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Agreed.

Of the various dichotomies/spectra presented in the OP, most are more or less zero-sum where moving toward one end means moving away from the other. But this (ironically, the first on the list) is the only one that really doesn't make sense as either a dichotomy or a spectrum; in that a game can very easily be both a storytelling machine and a game with risk of failure/loss at the same time.

Put another way, if the failures/losses encountered by the PCs can and do become part of the story then the two are combined.

Now, were this split into two different spectra - your idea of Scripted vs. Emergent Story being one and something like PCs Can Fail vs. PCs Can't Fail being the other - then each would work better under the OP's paradigm.
 

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Hussar

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.
But, even that is too reductionist.

Emergent stories are still dependent on scripted beginnings. Even something as completely devoid of a scripted story, like say, Keep on the Borderlands, will often have fairly predictable emergent stories because of many reasons. The level of the characters means that the story will likely start in Caves A, B or C because a story that starts in Cave M will be a very short story ending in everyone dying. It's very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book in that way. Choose A or B and the story progresses. Choose wrongly and the story ends.

And, of course, you have the whole "Well, the bad guys are doing stuff" which is 100% scripted story. Which means when the "bad guys do stuff" you've entered scripted story territory. The more stuff the bad guys do, the more scripted your story will be.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
But, even that is too reductionist.

Emergent stories are still dependent on scripted beginnings. Even something as completely devoid of a scripted story, like say, Keep on the Borderlands, will often have fairly predictable emergent stories because of many reasons. The level of the characters means that the story will likely start in Caves A, B or C because a story that starts in Cave M will be a very short story ending in everyone dying. It's very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book in that way. Choose A or B and the story progresses. Choose wrongly and the story ends.

And, of course, you have the whole "Well, the bad guys are doing stuff" which is 100% scripted story. Which means when the "bad guys do stuff" you've entered scripted story territory. The more stuff the bad guys do, the more scripted your story will be.
There's a difference, I think, between scripted backstory (which you're referring to) and scripted party or PC story (which in its extreme is ye olde railroad).

You can have all the scripted backstory in the world but if you give the players freedom to do what they want in front of it you're never going to be sure what story the game itself will end up telling until after play is done.
 


aia_2

Custom title
That would be cool if I could craft a sentence from my preferences...

Story Realistic Everyday Heroes Unbalanced Player-Controlled Old-School Solo Magic War Simple!

Hmm. It looks a little like news-speak?
You would need to put a verb somewhere in the middle...

Seriously speaking, i don't see any need to answer the final question as the answer is simply the single case of our party... We play in groups and every group has features that can be defined according to every dichotomy listed above (and many others not listed...). In other words every group is a singularity therefore for the sake of fun we can classify it by using the above mentioned dichotomies but it is an exercise of style to my eyes...
 

Hussar

Legend
There's a difference, I think, between scripted backstory (which you're referring to) and scripted party or PC story (which in its extreme is ye olde railroad).

You can have all the scripted backstory in the world but if you give the players freedom to do what they want in front of it you're never going to be sure what story the game itself will end up telling until after play is done.
Kinda sorta?

It's typically not all that difficult to guess what the players are likely going to do. If Baron McEvilton is a nasty-bad cultist who is kidnapping people to sacrifice them in an attempt to open a Hellgate and summon Paizuzu, it's probably not a huge leap to think that the PC's are going to try to stop that. it's also not an enormous leap to figure out how things are most likely going to fall out.

50 years of modules means that you can script an awful lot of the story, and the players largely are supplying the dialogue.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Kinda sorta?

It's typically not all that difficult to guess what the players are likely going to do. If Baron McEvilton is a nasty-bad cultist who is kidnapping people to sacrifice them in an attempt to open a Hellgate and summon Paizuzu, it's probably not a huge leap to think that the PC's are going to try to stop that.
In a broad sense, maybe. But IME it wouldn't be out of the question that having defeated Baron McEvilton the PCs then try making their own bargain with Pazuzu... :)
it's also not an enormous leap to figure out how things are most likely going to fall out.
True, but only on the scale of picking how a playoff bracket will come out: there's the on-paper stats and tendencies but they still have to play the games.
50 years of modules means that you can script an awful lot of the story, and the players largely are supplying the dialogue.
Depends on the players. Some are quite cool with this. Others take the DM's storyboard and subject it to all kinds of abuse. Most IME are a bit of each, at different times - if the DM's story catches their interest they'll run with it, and if it doesn't they'll left-turn things to whatever they've found to be more engaging in the setting.
 

Hussar

Legend
But even that more interesting thing will still be scripted to a large degree. Even if you have this open world sandbox, everything in that sandbox is largely scripted. Monster is here, treasure is there, this thing is is over there.

Unless you are doing some sort of randomly generated instanced content, it is going to be scripted to a fairly large extent.
 

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