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.

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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
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.
If you're using the term 'scripted' to mean 'the DM writes the setting' then this won't get far.
Unless you are doing some sort of randomly generated instanced content, it is going to be scripted to a fairly large extent.
The background is, obviously. The difference, however, is more akin to two theater troupes using the same stage and scenery (a.k.a. the setting), where one is following a plot and script and the other is going full improv.
 

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I don’t find the dichotomies all that useful, I answer yes to both sides on a lot of them. I like games, I like a lot of them, I‘ll play a lot of ways if it’s done well. I know there’s a lot of people around here with strong opinions on how things should be done, not one of them.

I don’t like playing poorly implemented games, and some styles aren’t so fun for me when playing with certain extreme personalities, but I just don’t understand when people are so specific in their needs.

Now, I’m thinking in mostly board games terms. Where, sure, I’ll do anything for a night. If it was a year campaign commitment, perhaps that’s different, but my objections/preferences would be more thematic, and not as Presented here.
 

Hussar

Legend
If you're using the term 'scripted' to mean 'the DM writes the setting' then this won't get far.

The background is, obviously. The difference, however, is more akin to two theater troupes using the same stage and scenery (a.k.a. the setting), where one is following a plot and script and the other is going full improv.
There are two problems with this.

1. If what you're saying is true, then modules shouldn't work. Every time someone tries to run a module, it would become a complete train wreck as the players deviate further and further from the module. But, this doesn't happen. People who play, say, White Plume Mountain (to pick a random example) generally have pretty much the same stories afterward. The order of events might change and some of the details sure. But, everyone talks about the spinning tunnel and this or that event.

2. Even if we accept the idea of two groups going full improv, given that they are both starting with the same starting point, events will occur at certain points in time and by and large the goals of the various groups are very similar, I strongly disagree that you're going to get wildly varying experiences at the table.

And that's presuming a fairly open scenario. Linear adventures, not railroads, but, adventures which have linear structure, will generally produce similar experiences at the table.

If the adventure is to escort the caravan from A to B and the hijinks that ensue along the way, most tables will have pretty similar experiences.

This notion that every table is this completely unique experience is just not true IME.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There are two problems with this.

1. If what you're saying is true, then modules shouldn't work. Every time someone tries to run a module, it would become a complete train wreck as the players deviate further and further from the module. But, this doesn't happen. People who play, say, White Plume Mountain (to pick a random example) generally have pretty much the same stories afterward. The order of events might change and some of the details sure. But, everyone talks about the spinning tunnel and this or that event.

2. Even if we accept the idea of two groups going full improv, given that they are both starting with the same starting point, events will occur at certain points in time and by and large the goals of the various groups are very similar, I strongly disagree that you're going to get wildly varying experiences at the table.

And that's presuming a fairly open scenario. Linear adventures, not railroads, but, adventures which have linear structure, will generally produce similar experiences at the table.

If the adventure is to escort the caravan from A to B and the hijinks that ensue along the way, most tables will have pretty similar experiences.
At the individual-adventure level I get this; and it's largely because in most cases once a party take on a mission or equivalent and get nicely stuck in, they tend to want to see it through for any variety of reasons. If tasked with recovering Blackrazor out of White Plume, for example, or with guarding a caravan as it progresses from place A to place B, the party will (in most cases) do what they need to do in order to fulfill that mission and in so doing probably expose themselves to whatever hazards the module (or DM, if it's a homebrew or designed-on-the-fly module) has for them. That said, players/PCs sometimes can and will deviate from the module, deciding for example to keep Blackrazor for themselves or to abandon (or even rob!) the caravan; and I've DMed situations very analagous to both of these.

Contrast all the above, though with a party wandering the countryside, seeing a ruined castle (narrated as a random bit of colour), and saying "Hey, let's check that place out". Here we're all in improv territory - the players are improv'ing their next actions and I-as-DM am improv'ing what comes next.

Also, when one steps back a degree it's not always predictable which module or adventure will come after which; even if it's just not knowing which (if any) adventure hooks they'll bite. IME while storyboarding within an adventure isn't often difficult, storyboarding the sequence of adventures is often little more than a guessing game.

Last night, for example, I threw my DM a pretty good curveball. Very short summary: there's some interplanar gates that it would very much be in our better interest to close or destroy. We don't have the means on hand unless we spend years building a specific structure to power a bespoke spell. So, on a whim my high-level Cleric gets on the phone with his deity and asks, in effect, "We can't do this quickly, can you?". Answer: yes. Next question: "What sacrifice will you require of us for this to happen?" Answer: a quest. "Make it happen!" says I.

So out of the blue the DM now has to come up with an unexpected quest for me/us for next session, as we-as-players have decided that quest (and shutting down the gates) takes priority over the other dozen or so things we already had on our plate.
 

aramis erak

Legend

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.
For me, this is key. if past the midway point towards story, I lose interest.

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?
this makes a predicate on a deeper, more fundamental trichotomy: hero, villain, or victim. And really, the spectrum runs past everyday hero to Not Even Normal Man level - KAMB, for example.
(It can be argued to be a tetrachotomy - adding bystander - but the bystander role is not normally appropriate for player characters)
Some games I've enjoyed are about the transition from hero to victim... tho' a few games I've not played run the other fundamental transition: victim to hero. ALIEN transitions characters from non-victim along two thirds of the spectrum between hero and villain.

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"
Your focus on Class & Level systems shows here... and it makes for a problem, since "classless" doesn't factor in as you wrote it.
Classes vs Classless: a problematic distinction, as low numbers of skills (EG Star Frontiers, 2d20 Star Trek Adventures) can very much feel classlike, while some games use classes only as at generation (CP 2013, CP2020), and some with classes for skill access (RM/SM, Alternity), pure skill & attribute purchase (GURPS, Hero, d6).
Then there is the issue that "Balanced" is almost impossible to attain, as different GMs campaigns emphasis different pillars of play...
Combat is easiest to balance, with exploration, social interaction, puzzles, politics, and investigation being harder to balance, and indeed, overlap. Exploration and investigation are a dichotomy to examine... find what is out there vs find what shouldn't be here...
social interaction is essential for many investigation stories, but it may be to serve politics, to serve investigation, to serve exploration... or even to support conflict.

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”.
this is important for me... Because I don't care for absolutes on that spectrum, picking the middle....

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
I disagree with your categorization because the labels are representational of too many elements at odds with your view.
Fundamentally, the terms are becoming weaponized caricatures, and really don't have useful representation.
 

Achan hiArusa

Explorer

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"

That's all well and good but what about: Character Classes vs. No Character Classes (Skill Based)
 

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