• Welcome to this new upgrade of the site. We are now on a totally different software platform. Many things will be different, and bugs are expected. Certain areas (like downloads and reviews) will take longer to import. As always, please use the Meta Forum for site queries or bug reports. Note that we (the mods and admins) are also learning the new software.
  • The RSS feed for the news page has changed. Use this link. The old one displays the forums, not the news.

Worlds of Design: The Many Shades of RPG Play

I’m a categorizer and always have been. Categorization leads to illumination, but the danger in categorizing is that every play style might seem to fit only the extremes of each category. In this article, I try to categorize the various RPG styles of play in a logical manner.


soap-bubble-3490954_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​
Categorizing is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from seeing the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories. - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
RPGs offer more freedom to act than other forms of tabletop gaming. The players can “try anything” because they have a human GM (usually!). The constraints on the players are the constraints of physics and other “laws” of the real world (also usually!). Not surprisingly then, there are almost as many ways to play RPGs as there are players. But we can still identify categories of the attitudes of players and GMs, which is my goal below.

We’re in a world of extremism, so I must caution that these are the extremes with a very large area in between where most campaigns and players typically operate. Ideally I’d show you a line with one extreme at the left, the other extreme at the right, and lots of space between the two. I've added reference to my Worlds of Design column(s) that primarily discuss each category.

One ExtremeLots in BetweenThe Other ExtremeWorlds of Design Column
Beat the Bad Guys
<===>​
Save the WorldLet's Not Save the World . . . Again
Completing mission is paramount (military)
<===>​
Story is paramountMentioned in columns several times.
What’s best for the group is best
<===>​
All about Me - the individual predominates"All About Me" FRPG Part 1 and Part 2
“There’s a war on”
<===>​
Non-violent means to an end
GM is “god”
<===>​
GM is only a rules arbiter
Combat as war
<===>​
Combat as sportRPG Combat: Sport or War?
“Hero” in absolutes/black and white
<===>​
“Hero” in shades of greyHeroes in Shades of Grey
HERO
<===>​
VILLAINHeroes in Shades of Grey
Co-operative (within group)
<===>​
Competitive (within group)Tabletop RPGs Are the Most Naturally Cooperative Games
Real fear of character death/loss
===​
No fear of death/loss (most computer RPGs)Consequence and Reward,
Tension, Threats, and Progression in RPGs

These spectra don’t stand isolated from one another. For example, if fear of death/loss is real, players are likely to be quite cooperative within their group; if there’s little or no fear, it’s easy for players to be competitive with one another.

Players respond to combat as war by trying to avoid combat, by using stratagems to defeat the enemy without combat (or more often with only one-sided combat). When the game is combat as sport, players won’t work to avoid combat. (This seems a slight paradox, insofar as the players who have a more military orientation may tend to avoid combat, whereas some with a less military orientation may be happy to be in combat.)

I always think of my games as Good versus Evil, that there's a war on. But other gamers, especially those who prefer real-world shades of grey to fantasy black-and-white, may prefer non-violent means of resolution, whether via bargaining or confidence games, deals or theft. The black-and-white makes for easier GMing, I think -- but then again I have a military orientation despite never having been in the military.

The original GM ideal was the "god" who created everything, whose word was law. This requires creativity and imagination (and reasonableness), and can be a lot of work. Later the idea of a GM who as rules arbiter who relies on published material became popular. I think that's because it's easier to do, and consequently more people can be found willing to GM. A big limitation on the popularity of tabletop RPGs is the availability of GMs.

I ask you, readers, what spectra I should have/might have included? Also, what other strong relationships between the categories do you see?

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Nagol

Unimportant
Taxonomies typically reveal as much about the organizer as they do about the objects being categorized.

Several of the continuum appear artificial or redundant such as "Hero vs. Villain" vs. "Hero B/W vs. Hero SoG". Others seem to not be a continuum at all such as "GM as God vs. GM as rules arbiter".

For example, when I am running at the table, I run as GM as rules arbiter -- even though by and large I am also the only creator of the world and adventure (for those games with that structure). I am the rules arbiter not because I rely on others to create, but because the rules are the only viewport through which the players interact with the world. I assign resources and create the situations ahead of time. It is up to player choice and PC success as to how those situations unfold, what resources get expended, and what resources get captured.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think that the way you speak of it, there's no real difference between the death/loss spectrum and the combat as war/sport spectrum.
 

LordEntrails

Explorer
I have felt that for a long time in order to begin to understand something you must label (categorize) it. But to truly comprehend it you must give up all labels and just "grok" it.

Definitions are imperfect. Labels have connotations. Connotations have misconceptions, inconsistencies and differing interpretations. Language is imprecise, it only gets you so far towards comprehension.
 

GrahamWills

Registered User
There are a lot of suppositions that this categorization takes as read. Maybe they might make for a better first step at categorization?

* Is there active opposition? If not, "beat the bad guys", "villains" and the like are irrelevant. A good example might be a classic man-vs-nature struggle.
* Is there a mission? Most of the categorizations above assume there is some sort of group goal. That's by no means necessary, and in some systems (DramaSystem) it's not even usual to have one

The list also seems heavily slanted to strongly to a "group of men achieve goal by killing things" style of play. I play a bit of that, but it might be nice to look at romance, society and religion as stronger concerns than overcoming enemies to achieve goals.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There's a few holes and glitches with that categories table, as I see it.

1. Beat the Bad Guys <==> Save the World are not opposite ends of the same spectrum; in fact doing one can directly lead to the other! Instead I'd split this one into two, which would somewhat overlap:

Beat the Bad Guys <==> Join (or Become; or Ignore) the Bad Guys; and
Save the World <==> Screw the World

2. GM is God <==> GM is Rules Arbiter assumes there's a GM at all, which not every system has. So, broaden this one out to:

GM is God <==> There Is No GM

3. Hero in Absolutes/Black and White <==> Hero in Shades of Gray - to reduce the overlap with the next line on the table, replace the word 'Hero' here with either 'Alignment' or 'Ethics' to give something like:

Alignment is Absolute/Black and White <==> Alignment is Shades of Gray/Nonexistent; or
Rigidly Defined Codes of Ethics <==> Ethics Are Shades of Gray/Malleable

And there's a couple of other extremes between which lie large amounts of space:

4. Game Mechanics/Rules First <==> Fiction/Story/Narrative First - do the rules bend to suit the fiction and-or physics, or does the fiction and-or physics bend to suit the rules. (a very simple example: cubic fireballs v spherical fireballs)

5. Hardcore Realism <==> Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - this one's hard to find terms for, and I'm open to better suggestions; but what I'm after here is the spectrum between these two extremes:

Hardcore Realism - tracks every possible resource, plays out the PCs' lives minute-by-minute even if nothing interesting is happening, generally 'gritty' style, etc., very slow pace of play
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - skips from exciting scene to exciting scene without consideration of what happens between or how the PCs get there, little or no downtime, lots of GM hand-waving to dispense with minutae and get to the big stuff, very fast pace of play.

In fact this last one might broaden out into some sort of pace-of-play/campaign/advancement extremes.
 

imagineGod

Explorer
There's a few holes and glitches with that categories table, as I see it.

1. Beat the Bad Guys <==> Save the World are not opposite ends of the same spectrum; in fact doing one can directly lead to the other! Instead I'd split this one into two, which would somewhat overlap:

Beat the Bad Guys <==> Join (or Become; or Ignore) the Bad Guys; and
Save the World <==> Screw the World

2. GM is God <==> GM is Rules Arbiter assumes there's a GM at all, which not every system has. So, broaden this one out to:

GM is God <==> There Is No GM

3. Hero in Absolutes/Black and White <==> Hero in Shades of Gray - to reduce the overlap with the next line on the table, replace the word 'Hero' here with either 'Alignment' or 'Ethics' to give something like:

Alignment is Absolute/Black and White <==> Alignment is Shades of Gray/Nonexistent; or
Rigidly Defined Codes of Ethics <==> Ethics Are Shades of Gray/Malleable

And there's a couple of other extremes between which lie large amounts of space:

4. Game Mechanics/Rules First <==> Fiction/Story/Narrative First - do the rules bend to suit the fiction and-or physics, or does the fiction and-or physics bend to suit the rules. (a very simple example: cubic fireballs v spherical fireballs)

5. Hardcore Realism <==> Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - this one's hard to find terms for, and I'm open to better suggestions; but what I'm after here is the spectrum between these two extremes:

Hardcore Realism - tracks every possible resource, plays out the PCs' lives minute-by-minute even if nothing interesting is happening, generally 'gritty' style, etc., very slow pace of play
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - skips from exciting scene to exciting scene without consideration of what happens between or how the PCs get there, little or no downtime, lots of GM hand-waving to dispense with minutae and get to the big stuff, very fast pace of play.

In fact this last one might broaden out into some sort of pace-of-play/campaign/advancement extremes.
Thank you, these pairings are so much more logical.

But also thanks to [MENTION=30518]lewpuls[/MENTION] for getting the ball of ideas rolling.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
1. Beat the Bad Guys <==> Save the World are not opposite ends of the same spectrum; in fact doing one can directly lead to the other! Instead I'd split this one into two, which would somewhat overlap:

Beat the Bad Guys <==> Join (or Become; or Ignore) the Bad Guys; and
Save the World <==> Screw the World
This might actually genrealize to Solve the Problem <==> Do Your Own Thing.

3. Hero in Absolutes/Black and White <==> Hero in Shades of Gray - to reduce the overlap with the next line on the table, replace the word 'Hero' here with either 'Alignment' or 'Ethics' to give something like:

Alignment is Absolute/Black and White <==> Alignment is Shades of Gray/Nonexistent; or
Rigidly Defined Codes of Ethics <==> Ethics Are Shades of Gray/Malleable
Alignment is a D&Dism. That doesn't mean that morals and moral choices are not present in other games. So, this probably genrealizes to

Morals and Ethics are Simple <==> Morals and Ethics are Complicated

(where, "we don't care about morals and ethics" is actually at "simple)
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Darth Solo

Villager
You have a military "orientation" but, you've never been military. That's huge. The next question would be your tabletop war-gaming background?

Someone without a real combat or wargaming resume has very little to contribute to how a proper combat begins or ends. You know game rules but, your true tactical knowledge is minuscule.

Because many former tabletop wargamers & military vets play tabletop RPGs, I question your ability to establish modes of play when you are so lacking in a field that is so prevalent to actual play sessions.

You can only guess what combat is and how it occurs.
 

Benji

Villager
You have a military "orientation" but, you've never been military. That's huge. The next question would be your tabletop war-gaming background?

Someone without a real combat or wargaming resume has very little to contribute to how a proper combat begins or ends. You know game rules but, your true tactical knowledge is minuscule.

Because many former tabletop wargamers & military vets play tabletop RPGs, I question your ability to establish modes of play when you are so lacking in a field that is so prevalent to actual play sessions.

You can only guess what combat is and how it occurs.
Seriously? Like running a dnd combat has anything to do with real military tactics. In your military experience how many dragons did you face? Psionic abilities? Zombies?

If this was even pitched as realistic simulation game, you Might have a leg to stand on. But it isn't. It's a rules set based on pure fantasy.

And nd within that fantasy you don't have to be a tactical genius to deliver an exciting combat, in many ways the minutiae of actual combat might bore a considerable number of players. Realism isn't even a measuring stick for what constitutes a good combat, right? It has to be exciting and engaging. It must provide a challenge for the people you play with but given that a large portion of players have no tactical or military experience, then it only has to provide a challenge for people who as you put it 'can only guess what combat is'. And if they are satisfied, you have done a good job. There's no need to gatekeep.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
1. Beat the Bad Guys <==> Save the World are not opposite ends of the same spectrum; in fact doing one can directly lead to the other! Instead I'd split this one into two, which would somewhat overlap:

Beat the Bad Guys <==> Join (or Become; or Ignore) the Bad Guys; and
Save the World <==> Screw the World[/uqote]

This might actually genrealize to Solve the Problem <==> Do Your Own Thing.
Or Solve the Problem <==> Be the Problem? :)

Alignment is a D&Dism. That doesn't mean that morals and moral choices are not present in other games. So, this probably genrealizes to

Morals and Ethics are Simple <==> Morals and Ethics are Complicated

(where, "we don't care about morals and ethics" is actually at "simple)
I'd say "we don't care" goes under complicated, mostly because when asked why they don't care the answer would often come back "They're too complicated". :)

So, almost a three-way split on this one: Morals and Ethics are Black and White <==> Morals and Ethics are Complex <==> Morals and Ethics: Who Cares?
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
You have a military "orientation" but, you've never been military. That's huge. The next question would be your tabletop war-gaming background?

Someone without a real combat or wargaming resume has very little to contribute to how a proper combat begins or ends. You know game rules but, your true tactical knowledge is minuscule.

Because many former tabletop wargamers & military vets play tabletop RPGs, I question your ability to establish modes of play when you are so lacking in a field that is so prevalent to actual play sessions.

You can only guess what combat is and how it occurs.
Just going to drop this.

wikipedia said:
Pulsipher graduated from Albion College (Albion, MI) in 1973, and earned a Ph.D. in military and diplomatic history from Duke University (1981).[1][2] He discovered strategic gaming with early Avalon Hill wargames.[3]

In college, he designed many Diplomacy variants; while living in England in the late 1970s he wrote magazine articles about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), and other role-playing games, and at one time or another was Contributing Editor to Dragon magazine, White Dwarf, and The Space Gamer as well as a columnist for Imagine magazine. He also contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio,[4] including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist.
He published what may have been the first science fiction and fantasy game magazine, Supernova (later sold to Flying Buffalo Inc.), as well as other non-commercial magazines. He made presentations at game conventions as early as Origins 82.[5]

He also designed several games published mostly in the 1980s. He is the designer of Dragon Rage, Valley of the Four Winds, and Swords & Wizardry.[3] His game Britannia, was described in an Armchair General review as "one of the great titles in the world of games",[6]and is the progenitor of a series of similar games.[7] He received the 1987 Charles S. Roberts Award Nomination, Best Pre-World War II Boardgame, Britannia for this game.[8]


He taught college-level computer networking, Web development, and game design in North Carolina.[3] He is retired from teaching now.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Someone without a real combat or wargaming resume has very little to contribute to how a proper combat begins or ends. You know game rules but, your true tactical knowledge is minuscule.
Real-world tactical knowledge is largely irrelevant to the RPG table* - in general, game rules (and most GMs) don't model the real-world well, so that real-world understanding doesn't apply.

Plus, "combat as war" has *NOTHING* do to with real world, actual war and its tactics. That's not what the phrase is referring to.



*And, indeed, most wargaming tables. Wargames may have originated as tactical exercises modelling real combat, but Warhammer doesn't bear much resemblance to real fighting any more. I doubt a modern Army General would look at the Advanced Squad Leader rules I used to play with an nod, sagely approving.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Or Solve the Problem <==> Be the Problem? :)
I suppose if, "There is No Problem to Solve," is in the middle of that spectrum, we could do it that way.

There is, related but not the same, a Proactive <==> Reactive spectrum.

So, a typical Shadowrun session that starts with the Fixer calling the PCs, telling them he has a job for them, and they do the job, is Reactive. A D&D game where one day the party rogue and bard say, "We want to build an Inn as our home base, we are going to go rob the Thieves' Guild to get the money to build it" is proactive.

I'd say "we don't care" goes under complicated, mostly because when asked why they don't care the answer would often come back "They're too complicated". :)
If you can ignore it and not have it be an issue, as far as you are concerned it isn't that complicated :p
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Darth Solo

Villager
No.

D&D IS based on historical combat tactics drawn from wargaming. You don't have enough history regarding Gygax and his group's connection to real military troop tactics.

You think D&D combat is some imaginary thing coming from the minds of novice gamers but, D&D combat emerged from historical combat tactics.

Let me teach you:

The Thief/Rogue is the scout/recon element that looked for traps and the enemy. We used mirrors to signal the party when we found anything.

Fighters/Martials engaged the enemy upfront, providing cover for Thief/Rogues to retreat/reposition, while Mages cast spells.

Mages were the "heavy artillery" using spells to take down multiple or singular powerful foes, normally ahead or just after the Martials.

Clerics empowered the party with prayer, healed the wounded, and performed the Last Rite on the dead so they would see the Gods.

Based on that paradigm, a party could advance & succeed in adventures. YOU, didn't know that, obviously.

If you're going to inform me on tabletop rpg combat, you need to know *the basics*.

Edit: But, keep running your "Storygames".
 
Last edited by a moderator:
There are a lot of suppositions that this categorization takes as read. Maybe they might make for a better first step at categorization?
Agreed. The framing seems to be contrasting (at least roughly) skilled play-type approaches to D&D with "storytelling" approaches to D&D and similar games.

4. Game Mechanics/Rules First <==> Fiction/Story/Narrative First - do the rules bend to suit the fiction and-or physics, or does the fiction and-or physics bend to suit the rules. (a very simple example: cubic fireballs v spherical fireballs)
This is not a spectrum on which all or even most RPGs can be located. It supposes that the fiction and mechanics are correlates of one another and that the correlation can't be made adequate to avoid distortions.
 

Advertisement

Latest threads

Advertisement

Top