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Worlds of Design: What's Your Style?

You may benefit, as a GM, from understanding where your players stand in the spectrum from Romantic to Classical game player. The terms derive from music and philosophy. I discussed one point of view about game playing styles in an earlier column ("Different look at playing styles"). This one is much older in origin.


When I originally discussed classical and romantic play styles in 1982 I was thinking in terms of boardgames more than card games or RPGs. In 2019 boardgames are still purchased more than RPGs, though the tendency of boardgamers is to play a game 1 to 3 times and then move on to another one. At the same time we have an entire generation (Millennials) for whom avatar games seem to be the natural fit, whether video games or RPGs. And Magic: The Gathering has changed the game landscape since 1982.)

Hearkening back to the well-known nineteenth century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic playing styles the Classical and the Romantic. (One might be called conservative and calculating, the other bold and more risky.)

Classical

The Classical player tries to know each game inside-out. They want to learn the best counter to every move their opponent (the monsters and GM) might make. They take nothing for granted, paying attention to little details which probably won't matter but which could be important. The Classical player does not avoid taking chances, but they carefully calculate the consequences of their risks. They dislike unnecessary risks. Yes, many RPGs may appear to be "dice games," but the Classical player's purpose is to avoid having to rely on the dice to save lives.

Classical players prefer a slow but steady certain success to a quick but only probable success. They try not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. They maximize their minimum gain each turn - as the perfect player of mathematical game theory is expected to do - rather than try things that could gain a lot but which might leave them and their party worse off than when they started. A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the Classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than on discovering brilliant coups.

Some people call this the "minimax" style of play. That is close to the game theory term, but as used in gaming "minimaxer" and "Classical" are not the same thing. Gaming Minimaxers are people who pay close attention to numbers and odds, which Classical players also do. In the actual tactical and strategic decisions they make they may be Classical or Romantic.

Virtually no one, not even as Classical a player as I am, always plays classically in RPGs. RPGs encourage the bold move because, after all, they're adventures. "Do you wanna live forever?" is part of the ethos of these games.

Some people refer to Classical players with derision as "mathematical" players. It's true that Classical players are concerned with odds and expected losses (though this alone doesn't identify or qualify a person as a Classical player). Nonetheless, Classical players do quite well in non-mathematical games. Which certainly includes RPGs.

Romantic

The Romantic looks for the decisive blow which will cripple the enemy, psychologically if not physically. They wish to convince their opponent of the inevitability of defeat, whatever the actuality may be. The Romantic is willing to take risks in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play the opponent cannot handle. They look for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximize their minimum gain. A flamboyant but only probable win is their goal. They may make mistakes, but they hope to seize victory rather than wait for the enemy to make mistakes. The Romantic player may be a little sloppy about seemingly minor details; if they get in their decisive blow(s) they won't need to worry about little things, and if the big coups fail those little things won't make a difference in the result.

Player Types & RPGs

RPGs are unusual insofar as there is no player enemy, but both playing styles can be discerned. The Classical player tries to avoid a reliance on dice, though must accept the occasional melee (where luck tends to average out). They hate to roll a saving throw. They like to devise thorough, sometimes complicated plans to defeat a monster or trap with the minimum of risk. The Romantic doesn't mind risking a saving throw against spells or whatever in order to get in his blow at the enemy. Sometimes he likes to rely on guile and bluff. The second level character who pretended to be a twentieth level magic-user and slapped a dragon in the face must be accounted a Romantic!

Don't confuse intuitive play with the Romantic. I would assert, however, that Classical players tend to rely on logic, and Romantic players tend to rely on intuition and "yomi" (reading and anticipating the enemy's intentions). Many good players depend on intuition rather than study and logic to make good moves (even chess champion Jose Capablanca), yet the moves can be either Classical or Romantic. A Romantic player can also be a very cerebral/intellectual player who happens to prefer the Romantic style.

So what kind of player are you?

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!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I'm much more Classical, though not totally. In my view, it's very important to be true to the character and if the character should be more of a hothead, then they should be played appropriately.

I often use dice or randomization as an RP guide, so I'm a variant type. For instance, if I feel that I'm unsure about how my character would go in a particular moment I will often roll a die or three based on some adjectives I think of, in effect making my own internal morale check. This helps push me to have the character do things I wouldn't necessarily do.

Edit: However, "being true to the character" shouldn't be an excuse for "But I'm playing my character..."-type griefer justification, which it can turn into.
 
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jmucchiello

Adventurer
I don't see how these are on the same axis. I know players who are very rules oriented and I know players who are very story focused. And I know people who are both and who are neither. I devour rules. But I try to play "romantic" at the virtual table. What am I?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Player-at-the-table alignments:

Classical = Lawful
Romantic = Chaotic

I guess that makes me a Romantic, in that I often go for the big score...





...and my characters often pay for it with their lives. :)
 

Lylandra

Explorer
Hm, I don't see if these two playstyles are really different poles of one and the same scale, but that may have something to do with the fact that the "classic" playstyle is very much described in detail and the "romantic" is given one small paragraph.

I am very much an analytical kind of player that would put me on the "classical" end, even if I don't minimax all the way, but I still try to limit my character's weaknesses to one or two flavorful points.

However, I'm also often tempted to take a clever risk especially if I can avoid rolling dice as a result (i.e. "If I choose to show myself to the BBEG instead of hiding, I can maybe let both the prisoners escape AND give an argument strong enough to make him reconsider his actions"). Slapping a dragon in its face however? That'd be stupid and suicidal. Unless I know the dragon of course.

Player-at-the-table alignments:

Classical = Lawful
Romantic = Chaotic

I guess that makes me a Romantic, in that I often go for the big score...

...and my characters often pay for it with their lives. :)
That's too much of a reduction, imo. Classical is analytical, romantic is daring. Both can lead to unpredictable and consistent choices.

And in the end, most times it will solely depend on the character's personality, even if there may be a correlation between player and character personality.
 

Stacie GmrGrl

Villager
This is way too much philosophy after just waking up and not having my coffee yet.

It doesn't make any sense to me.

So I'll go with whatever is between the two. :)
 
Some RPGs can be played to win (eg Moldvay Basic), in which case the OP's categories may be applicable.

Some RPGs very much can't be played to win, and so don't support the categories. For instance, in Cthulhu Dark or Marvel Heroic RP there really isn't any scope for what the OP calls "classical play". The system just doesn't make room for it.
 

S'mon

Legend
Some RPGs can be played to win (eg Moldvay Basic), in which case the OP's categories may be applicable.

Some RPGs very much can't be played to win, and so don't support the categories. For instance, in Cthulhu Dark or Marvel Heroic RP there really isn't any scope for what the OP calls "classical play". The system just doesn't make room for it.
Yeah, I would say the OP covers two varieties of Gamist play - Tsun-Zhu vs Alexander the Great, say. :) Or Cavalier (Romantic) vs Roundhead (Classical).

For RPG play I definitely prefer the Romantic/Alexander approach. For board wargames I'm more a Tsun-Zhu player.

For players with non-Gamist play priorities the distinction is not meaningful.
 

lewpuls

Explorer
Yes, it is a way of looking at competitive play, not story-oriented or other types. It was devised long ago to explain play of opposed board games (not parallel competitions). For RPGs, YMMV a lot.
 
I'm much more Classical, though not totally. In my view, it's very important to be true to the character and if the character should be more of a hothead, then they should be played appropriately.
This right here, minus the die roll in Jay's original answer. Know the rules, but play the character within the rules.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I don't see how these are on the same axis. I know players who are very rules oriented and I know players who are very story focused. And I know people who are both and who are neither. I devour rules. But I try to play "romantic" at the virtual table. What am I?
I think at some point there's an inherent conflict between these two, though of course as you say many people are a mixture and the "casual" type gamer often doesn't bother to RP or know the rules so it's not really aligned on one axis.

If you want a really high drama story, that can be quite difficult to achieve when being a rules-follower or odds-calculator. This is particularly true in a game like D&D, which has minimal support for "drama points" or the like which appear in other games. It's flirted with those kinds of ideas with 4E's Daily powers and Action Points (both Eberron style and 4E), and, in a tiny way, Inspiration, but for the most part, D&D doesn't provide a mechanical way to support a more dramatic play. A skilled DM can make it much more possible, of course, but there's no real way for players to do it aside from things like consumable magic items. Some classes are a bit more "dramatic" than others, of course, but many are pretty much just wargame grind.

By contrast, games like Star Wars D6 (which might be the first to have this?) to White Wolf's Adventure! to the various Modiphius 2D20 games have clear, built-in mechanisms to allow the players to enhance the drama.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
You don't need narrative control to create drama. As long as the GM is not dictatorial, the players should be able to steer the story.
 
You don't need narrative control to create drama.
This is true. Assuming that by "narrative control" you mean some sort of metagame currency, then it is not a necessary tool for creating drama in a RPG. Prince Valiant is a great system for creating drama, but doesn't have "narrative control" mechanics as a core element (there is provision for adding them as an option).

As long as the GM is not dictatorial, the players should be able to steer the story.
The players being able to "steer the story" doesn't necessarily mean that drama will ensue, or will even be possible. Classic D&D, for instance, doesn't provide many tools for establishing drama until the publication of (arguably post-classic) Oriental Adventures.

Drama requires (at least) a certain pacing and a certain sort of content, and a RPG might push against one or both regardless of whether or not the GM is "dictatorial".
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
Your use of quotation marks is interesting. We may as well add "drama" to the list of quoted words. What do we mean by "drama"?

Yes, by "narrative control" I mean any number of methods that allow the players to create plot points that, in theory, the game requires the GM to incorporate into the narrative. A good GM will incorporate player ideas into the narrative without the need for game mechanics that insist on it. This is "steering the story".

You could play Classic D&D in a King's court with court intrigue and never encounter a single rust monster or beholder. The players' actions could drive the narrative. There is nothing in any version of D&D that helps you do this but there's also nothing that hinders doing this. "Drama" is a basic tool of storytelling. It doesn't need game mechanics to support it.
 

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