An essay on gamestyles to aid in discussion, and recruitment of like-minded players


Gamer Life General Discussion


RPGs have grown quite a bit since their invention, but we still haven't really explored much of what can be done with this artform. One of the things that do not get really discussed much or very productively is style of gameplay, and a large part of this I feel is the lack of a structure to really describe gameplay is a useful way. I also feel that RPGs are an artform and deserve the same kind of scientific and logical analysis that other artforms benefit from.

Some of you may immediately think that this is pointless or just plain dumb. However, having had bad experiences with people who seemed to think I must be either a noob or a complete idiot simply because I didn't know what their expectations were, which they saw as the "obvious" and only way to truly play. Of course their expectations would only be reasonable for a certain kind of gameplay but not for any other kinds of gameplay. This could have been easily avoided if only there was a way to say they were playing X style, but there isn't really any way to say that right now, not in a way that is useful. I desire to fix that.

Often players boil down things to a scale of combat vs intrigue. This does not even rate as an over-simplication. It is not even a good place to start on the journey of exploring the range of gameplay styles.

So I am going to start from scratch. This is of course a rough sketch of things that will need to be refined over the years of discussion and analysis.

Before we get to that though, there is something that needs to be understood, and that is that people can have different directions of thinking (for lack of better term). Basically, when given a bunch of information, people gain an understanding of all the information by analyzing small pieces, and each piece that is understood builds a framework that affects how one understands following pieces of information. Information is generally prioritized differently by different people. Of course, this is all done subconsciously and as we get information. This is also why people notice things when watching a moving or reading a book a second or even third time, that they missed the first time.

The best example I can think of is type of audience. One type of audience understands characters (in the sense of them as people, their emotions and social relations) first, then they build their understanding of events on top of their understanding of character (and thus see how the characters emotionally relate to events), and then lastly build an understanding of the world state surrounding these events.

The second audience type understands the world state first (where everything is, the rules of the world, how things work, what can and can not be done, etc), from which they then build an understanding of events (and thus see how the events can happen and what likely outcomes are possible), and then lastly they come to understand characters.

(Though really, it more like a 5 step process, understanding characters, understanding how characters emotionally connect with and respond to and handle events, understanding events, understanding how events are shaped by world state and world rules, understanding how the world works)

Stories are of course driven by drama, and drama comes from the characters. We care about a story when we emotionally connect with the characters and care about what happens to them which generally comes from us emotionally connecting with characters which in turn comes from us understanding the characters.

This leads to the first audience type, the drama-only crowd. These audience members see the drama really easy and are thus unimpeded by inconsistencies in the workings of the world, and in some cases actually like when the world has paradoxes as that increases the awe and amazingness (this comes naturally from the fact that awe and wonder comes from things being not understood. See Brandon Snaderson's laws of magic which really apply to far more than just magic. Basically, the ability for a story to satisfactorily resolve a problem depends on the audience's understanding of how the problem was solved. If you solve a problem with magic, then that magic must be understood. However, understanding something drains all the wonder and awe from that thing. Getting wonder and awe therefore must be something ill-understood yet not used to directly solve problems.).

The second type of audience however, are the details and drama crowd. They need the world to make sense and not have paradoxes because their understanding of the world is the start from which they come to understand the characters and thus the drama, and when the world is inconsistent and full of paradoxes, they never get to really build a good understanding of the world and that hinders their ability to enjoy the story because each paradox breaks the story's immersion, because on a fundamental level the audience member goes "what? That contradicts X from earlier. What is going on?" and thus such a person must actually work at and intentionally try to set aside such issues to keep on watching or reading.

The drama-only crowd rarely has this problem because they do not need an understanding of the world to get the drama. When you see a story where someone does something impossible because they suddenly felt more emotional, the drama crowd eats it up because it is dramatic and they understand the emotions behind it and connect with the character from that extra emotional feeling. The details+drama crowd however has a problem with it because they know the character can't win that that way and is eagerly awaiting the character to find some sneaky way around that obstacle only to have the obstacle suddenly not matter and then they are left wondering why it worked. (I recently tried a new mobile game and a cutscene had this very problem, in which a character tried only to shoot someone but their bullets stopped matrix-style, then after a bit of talk of how useful that power is, they then just shot that person and killed them 20 seconds after demonstrating that they couldn't shoot them. No explanation given here, and it just leaves one wondering how you can shoot what can't can not be shot. Note to prospective GMs and writers, do not do this.)

You could basically say that drama folks understand that the hero felt X and thus did Y, while the details folks understand that the hero did Y and thus must have felt X.

Why is this important? (aside from the fact that knowing one's audience helps a GM/writer make their game more compelling and awesome) Because there is a similar difference splitting gameplay styles into two groups, though with the gameplay styles it is less an innate issue than an issue of how one is introduced to, and think about, what it means to play RPGs. I consider myself lucky as I was introduced to extremes in many directions from the very beginning, particularly in this regard in which my first two game were complete opposites.

This distinction in gameplay style groups I reference, I call the milieu/mechanics split. This split comes from thinking of things in terms of form and function and whether or not there is a mismatch between them.

In a video game, especially older ones, form and function were basically unrelated. For example, in Balduer's Gate, when you encounter a table, it looks like a table, it is called a table, but functionally, it is nothing but a low wall. You can't break the leg off to make a torch or improvised mace, you can't burn it, you can't flip it over for cover, you can't shove it against a door to block it closed, you can't place over a pressure plate to avoid stepping on the pressure plate. Basically, in Balduer's Gate, a player does not think of a table like a table, they think of it as a low wall that is called a table.

Strategy, tactics, and problem-solving all come from our understanding of an object's functional behavior, not it's form. Form really only matters in recognition and communication. When an object's functional behavior is different from the real world equivalent, then players obviously think differently about it when solving problems or forming tactics. A complication arises from this as people are good at recognizing patterns, and when a pattern is recognized in the functioning of all, or at least most, objects in a an environment, then a new object will often be expected to match that pattern, and thinking in terms of the limitations and possibilities of those patterns becomes habit. This is why most video gamers can see a bar with strangely placed icons on the top or bottom of a screen and immediately understand that it is a compass with waypoints marking the direction to things that are likely to be points of interest or quest objectives, except red ones which will be enemies. Players of video games understand this because it is a pattern learned and perpetuated among games which leads them to expect that, even in a new otherwise unfamiliar game.

A tabletop RPG does not require such a difference between form and function. In fact, the biggest strength of tabletop RPGs is that they can have the form and function of objects match with, and be as realistic as, such objects in the real world, something that computers still can't do very well. But many players who have built up habits of thinking about the game in a similar fashion to videogames, will continue to think of object's functionality differently, even when enemies do stuff that breaks those expectations (because it is very common for enemies to do things that players can't) so players that think this way rarely get broken out of those habits that shape their tactics and problem-solving, even when playing with players of the other way of thinking.

Thus you get players who think about objects like a videogamer (mechanics type), and players who think about objects like real world objects (milieu type).

This applies to abilities and character capabilities as well. Looking at 3.x spells and abilities, sometimes you'll notice strange or arbitrary restrictions even ones that make no sense. These come from having made a spell/ability that was supposed to allow an effect but for which thinking of it like it is real results in exploits or tactics that ended up being overpowered but which would be too simple to really claim it has a high powered effect. Using prestidigitation to create a temporary baseball to play catch with a couple street urchins for example, is reasonable and simple for a cantrip, but once you start throwing that ball into people's faces when they try to cast a spell to interrupt their spell, suddenly it seems too much for a cantrip. This issue is nearly impossible to resolve reasonably, requiring to either accept simple and cheap things to be used creatively and to an effect on par with much greater powers or to limit things in artificial and arbitrary ways.

Interestingly, I have encountered players who can play freeform (playing without any game mechanics at all) in the milieu way and yet the moment you pull out a rulebook, they go straight into the mechanics way of thinking. (there are more than a few who say that mechanics should be played in the mechanics way, but that is oh so very incorrect. Rules can be played from either perspective and indeed Gygax himself called it playing the game vs playing the rules, but that is not the topic at hand. I may write an article about that later)

Now that the big split is handled, things can be broken down into a two axis spectrum.

One axis is ordered vs open-ended structure, and the other axis is setting vs story.

A true sandbox game is the extreme of open-ended and setting. Basically a world is presented and players simply interact with that world as they desire, whether it be to take on a quest or to just run around doing stupid stuff, like breaking the world's economy or getting rid of all the world's goats. Those who want to be free to go off and do their own thing or to simply explore a world rather than a specific story, want this kind of game.

Then you have the cinematic game, the extreme of structure and story. This style of game mimics pretty closely a video game on paper. The story is a mostly preset story that players will be railroaded along. Players certainly get to influence the story, but the story will in general follow a predetermined path. This is what most game modules and adventure paths are for. In some cases, GMs will even explicitly have "cut-scenes" where the player's control is removed entirely for a bit of story narration before giving the players back control to let choose how to respond. Those who want to play the encounters and such but want the general gist of the story told to them, or to have a clear path to follow, want this kind of game.

Next is the pure dungeon crawl, structure and setting. This is the style of game where you have a "dungeon," or more accurately, any kind space where players choose where to go next, and along the way they have encounters, but with little or no story main story and what story their is takes a back seat to the action. This game is about the more game-like aspects, like exploring, puzzle-solving, fighting, loot, etc. This is also the style where the difference between milieu and mechanics players is the most clear. The so-called "old school" dungeon crawls were milieu type players in this style, that is why they kept 10' poles, string, and other items modern players ignore, because mechanics type players go "a trap! I have the anti-trap skill!" while milieu type players go "a pressure plate! Probably a trap. Isn't there a bench in that last room we can put over the pressure plate?" This style is the one where the milieu vs mechanics distinction is so vast that it feels like two unrelated games even when using the exact same rulebook.

Lastly, open-ended story. There are two different ways to approach this extreme. One way is that of a storytelling game, where the players are cooperatively crafting a story, with the players having a great deal of influence on the world and setting and often make choices based on what would be most interesting for the story rather than the character (in some cases there may not even be a GM at all, and many rule systems built specifically for this tend towards mechanics about narrative controls rather than mechanics about what a character can do). The other way is what I call "pure roleplay," in which players have the highet amount of freedom in making choices as their characters but still have no influence on the world or setting beyond the actions of their characters, and in which the whole point is to explore the world and story almost as though the story is happening to the players via their characters. This is the style for those who want to try being [insert protagonist here] but doing it better, and without doing all the stupid things we find ourselves yelling at the book/movie about when we know the character is about to do something dumb. The two different styles at this extreme of the spectrum seem to stem from whether the players are thinking from the character's perspective, or from a meta perspective about the character, this meta-milieu or in-milieu thinking can be seen as a minor influence elsewhere on the spectrum, but at this extreme is where it really divides things to a significant degree.

So in recap, we have milieu vs mechanics divide, a two axis spectrum, and the meta vs in-character divide. I didn't put the two divides as spectrums because they are not really spectrums as they are less about preference and more about how a player thinks, the direction they think in and nearly everyone falls pretty clearly into one side or the other.

None of these styles are the single best way to play. The proper way of playing can be argued to be what the designers intended and expected as they wrote the game, but that doesn't invalidate playing a style contrary to the rule system's design.

I present this as a way to talk about, explore, and think about different ways of playing and hopefully help folks discuss what kind of game they are looking to play or run. Because it is much easier to say "I'm running a milieu type dungeoncrawl with moderate lethality" and have everyone looking to play realize that there will be minimal overarching story and that they'll need to dig out 10' poles rather than the anti-every-single-trap skill.

So what do you folks think? Any major distinctions in style you think I missed? Anything that you think can be explained better?


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One thought process I've read about that really changed my views on gaming and hobbies in general is the concept of Eight Types of Fun. It was talked about by game designer Marc LeBlanc to ascribe more concrete examples on what people look for when having fun.


  • Sensation
  • Fantasy
  • Narrative
  • Challenge
  • Fellowship
  • Discovery
  • Expression
  • Submission

The more formal PDF is here. I think it's a good read to check out. Might help you with your thoughts on gamestyles.


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

To a certain extent, you're talking about Ron Edwards' GNS Theory of role-playing game design. "GNS" refers to the trichotomy of Gamist / Narrativist / Simulationist.

He developed this theory of game design back in the early 2000s over on the now-defunct independent RPG forum The Forge

The outgrowth of this are the three main branches of current RPGs: Story-Games, which emphasize Narrative (e.g.Swords Without Master or Fall of Magic); Old-School Renaissance (OSR) games, which focus on Simulation (e.g. Labrynith Lord or Mothership); and traditional/mainstream games, which have a focus on the rules of the game itself (e.g. Pathfinder or GURPS).

This is, obvuously, an over-simplification of GNS Theory...


Gns? That is not even close to what I described. Not really contradictory, but then again it is so vague that it's not really helpful.

It most especially ignores the milieu/mechanics split I discussed, which is a major part of the difference Gygax referenced when talking about "playing the game" vs "playing the rules."

You, and the gns, imply that different systems are different styles and different games, but that's not entirely true. Style is separate from rule system. You can have any of these styles be played on any one system.

You can run pathfinder games in any style and they'll play drastically different despite using the same rules. Likewise, the same style can played in any system.

I really do not see how gns even comes close to making the distinctions I'm making.


This is an interesting discussion. I dont believe you will ever be able to make a single sentence/paragraph such as "I'm running a milieu type dungeoncrawl with moderate lethality" and get 4+ strangers to showup and all of them understand exactly what you mean. These topics are complexly nuanced and only play at table reveals a player's preferred style, IMO.

I ave errands to run but i'll be back to discuss more later.


Interesting Character wrote:


I really do not see how gns even comes close to making the distinctions I'm making.

GNS might not make the exact distinction that you are, but it does demonstrate a model of which you are attempting. Some folks hold a lot of stock in GNS and others are offended by its mere mention.

During the E.War there was a controversial model named "combat as war vs. Combat as sport" which cleaved very closely to your mileu/mechanics divide. The purpose was to explain some differences in playstyle and why some may prefer one system to another. It was highly touted by some and poo poo'd by others. Some felt the author placed their bias in the descriptions and made one preference sound much better than the other. (I applaud you taking the time to mention no playstyle is wrong which is important in these types of discussions.)

There have been all kinds of shorthand terms over the years that fall into the trap of the derogatory. Roll-player vs. role-player, powergamer, munchkin, killerGM, etc. Often, terms such as these start with good intentions, but sooner or later become ways to insult playstyles. Unfortunately, this is a byproduct of human nature to categorize difference when it comes to judgement. Even seemingly non-offensive models such as GNS or CaW v. CaS cant avoid this. I doubt your model will either.

As of right now, I believe your ideas need some chunking into digestible pieces. This will be especially useful when discussing them one by one. You always have the OP to refer back to, but maybe you could take a singular idea and we can discuss from there?


Pathfinder Companion, Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Interesting Character - Do you think it would be possible to distill it down into a few questions to define where someone's tastes and preferences put them on that grid?

On the lines of "which of the following statements would you agree with?" (I'm not advocating any of these as right or wrong - several contradict each other)

- The GM should aim to make an interesting story. It is a player's responsibility to give their character a reason to be interested in it.

- The GM should aim to make an interesting world. It is a player's responsibility to give their character interesting objectives.

- The challenge of an adventure should be driven by what is there in the world. If the players have planned well it should be easier, if they are stupid they will suffer

- The challenge of an adventure should be driven by what will make an exciting session - the GM should dial it up or down based on the party's capabilities to ensure its both challenging and fair

- A character should have flaws and weaknesses , because they make for a more interesting story.

- If a character has flaws that is their look out. The player should plan to mitigate their weaknesses if they can.

- The approach a character takes to a task is as, if not more important than their skill roll - for example what they say to the NPC and how they say it, where they are looking for traps and how they attempt to disable them

- Its the party's responsibility to cover their bases - if they have no diplomat they should expect to struggle socially, if they didn't enough combat capability that's their risk

- The choice of which characters to play is a good indicator of what the players find fun. If no one wants to play a rogue the GM shouldn't use many traps, if they are light on martial characters then reduce the amount of combat.

- A character that has had hours of thought put into their design should be more effective than one that has not

- A character should be shaped by what happens to them from the story and the other characters. Its rude to your GM and fellow players if nothing they do will make you deviate from a plan you made before level 1

I'm sure you have a different list of questions but hopefully these illustrate what I'm getting at.


Planpanther wrote:

This is an interesting discussion. I dont believe you will ever be able to make a single sentence/paragraph such as "I'm running a milieu type dungeoncrawl with moderate lethality" and get 4+ strangers to showup and all of them understand exactly what you mean. These topics are complexly nuanced and only play at table reveals a player's preferred style, IMO.

True, but it would be a much much better starting place. For example, this would have helped a great in avoiding problems in the past.

I once created a sorcerer with disdain for potions and which had no no ranks spellcraft. It was an interesting rp point for the character.

They did say it would be combat heavy, which I made my character to be good at combat. However, the group failed to mention that it would be my responsibility to identify any potions we encountered. They also failed to mention just disjointed their rp was from any actual mechanical parts of the game, like combat. They rp their combat. They might have said a bit of this or that in character, but their tactics and choices were completely based on the meta. They, for their part, seemed to be so used to this, that they thought I must be a total noob unfamiliar with rpgs, because "everyone" knows that arcane casters identify all the potions. (in all my years of playing, only one caster did the identifying of potions. Usually it was the rogue or bard [ok, technically an arcane caster, but really they're the JOAT class] or alchemist.)

Basically, they wanted a pure and hardcore dungeoncrawl that told a story to them throughout.

Had I realized this before starting, there wouldn't have been much of a problem. I would have probably still missed the need to identify potions, but I also would have known to mention that I hadn't done many hardcore dungeoncrawls and asked for more details about what jobs they expected me to fill.

---
As for the two other posts, I'll get back to them. I've written a bunch today already and have other things I need to get to.


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Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Pathfinder Accessories, Pawns Subscriber
Interesting Character wrote:
this would have helped a great in avoiding problems in the past.

Not only do you want to create a classification system, you want the entire TTRPG culture to adopt it.

Those folks don't sound like people who would have used your system even it it had been available.

However, a good Session 0 would have uncovered most of those differences in expectations. And that's already a part of the culture.


JulianW wrote:
Interesting Character - Do you think it would be possible to distill it down into a few questions to define where someone's tastes and preferences put them on that grid?

Maybe eventually. I'm autistic, so communication is difficult. Took me years to get this far in trying to discuss the topic, and it has been something I've been analyzing for the past decade or so, especially after I got my minor is psychology.

Forming this into a set of questions is something I'll look into. Not something I'll be able to just put together with any kind of speed.


CrystalSeas wrote:
Interesting Character wrote:
this would have helped a great in avoiding problems in the past.
Not only do you want to create a classification system, you want the entire TTRPG culture to adopt it.

Not likely to happen, but maybe it might spark inspiration in the right someone at the right time.

At the moment, most of the community still thinks of this as more of a game than an art.

I imagine the first musicians were derided as fools making pretty noises, yet now we have people who study it in a professional manner.

My hope is that someday, people in general will see RP in the same way, as an artform to be studied and taught with full scientific and professional rigor. If that happens, something akin to what I put together above will be made, probably in several iterations.

Quote:


Those folks don't sound like people who would have used your system even it it had been available.

I think they might have. They weren't exactly bad or terrible, not even rude truthfully. The entire issue came from such a vast difference of assumptions and expectations.

Quote:
However, a good Session 0 would have uncovered most of those differences in expectations. And that's already a part of the culture.

I don't think so. I asked questions and got answers, more than I normally would even because I wanted to be sure I fit with their expectations, but it wasn't until we got to playing that the full scope of things actually became clear.


Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Pathfinder Accessories, Pawns Subscriber
Quote:
an artform to be studied and taught with full scientific and professional rigor.

In 1938, Johan Huizinga published "Homo Ludens", which is still a basic text to introduce masters and PhD students in Game Studies to the field.

There's a large body of professional scientific literature already available and you might find some of the taxonomies that have been previously developed would give you some more insights.


Planpanther wrote:

...

As of right now, I believe your ideas need some chunking into digestible pieces. This will be especially useful when discussing them one by one. You always have the OP to refer back to, but maybe you could take a singular idea and we can discuss from there?

Okay, the overview sketch is two mostly binary distinctions and a two axi spectrum.

To start, the meta vs in-character divide.

On the meta side. This is when a player is playing in "3rd person." They are a step removed from the character, gaining an enjoyment of the results of the RP more than doing the RP, so they do things like have the character do what would lead to character growth, or what would make for a better story, even if either of those would be dumb or contrary to what they think would actually be a better way to achieve success at the character's goals. Notice that character growth and and a better story are both things that are understood and enjoyed after the fact, rather than in the doing, they are abstract measures of abstract concepts about the events of the game.

The flip side is the in-character side. This is about the experience itself of pretending to be in a character's shoes, to make a choice and see what the results are. This can be someone who swings on a chandelier because that's fun and a classic, but also it something they did, not something they say about the game. This isn't just funny stuff, this can also be the concept of wanting to act out a character or to see if one is smart enough to accomplish the goal as if it were really happening to them, to be there making the decisions and feel the consequences for good or ill.

The meta group gets enjoyment from looking at things from the outside, watching a character grow, watching a story unfold, etc. The in-character group gets enjoyment from the inside, from the doing and experiencing.

I am firmly in the latter group. Playing a fiery sorceress and having banter with rogue that keeps trying to pinch my butt without me giving him burn scars, me having to control my temper so I can get close enough to the unicorn, or me just raging and burning everything around me from snapping of anger and frustration. I felt almost like I was there, like I was the one doing that stuff. The unicorn bit would have been perfect for character growth, but that wasn't the point, I didn't care about what happened to the character in that sense, I was too busy being the character.


CrystalSeas wrote:
Quote:
an artform to be studied and taught with full scientific and professional rigor.

There's been a professional gaming organization since the early 1970s, and they've been holding conferences for over 50 years.

They offer masters degrees and PhDs in gaming. You might want to explore their professional proceedings to see what research has already been done on the questions you're interested in.

International Simulation Ang Gaming Association

Members of that association have long bibliographies for the graduate school classes that they teach in gaming. Their taxonomies might be a good place for you to start in developing your own.

They have books and papers on just the topics you're trying to articulate, and you might find it useful to start from where they are rather than trying to invent a parallel scientific field from scratch.

Although that particular association is focused on games as simulations and the practical applications in organizations, in the universities where they teach, game theory is the foundation for academic research and only later do students start applying the theory to real-world scenarios.

Never heard of it, but I'll look into it.

That said, game theory as a field of study is not about games as in activities you do for fun, but rather it is about decision-making. The prisoner's dilemma for example, is a basic problem in game theory, yet if you look it up, you'll notice it has nothing to do with designing or playing games such as RPGs, board games, etc, and certainly not about the distinctions that apply to RPGs and no other game in existence.

Cause these distinctions I'm making above are about games with that particular element to them that simply can not appear in chess or checkers or poker or any other mechanical game, because it is about that thing that is normally incompatible with the simple inclusion of rules, but which somehow, for some at least, is the centerpiece of an RPG.


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Ok, I was editing as you were responding because ISAGA isn't really the best place to start you off.

But, the point remains: what you are proposing is already part of a rigorous field of scientific study, and people have been looking at the sociological issues as well as the mathematical ones all along. Games are, at their heart a cultural phenomenon, and even animals have been observed engaging in playful activities.

Economic game theory is not at all the same as Games Studies, and I think you'll find a big difference in approach. One of the foundational texts, Homo Ludens, published in 1944 was about the cultural aspects of games, not the math.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, study with the wheelwrights so you can design better wheels


I do investigate game theory a lot, and stuff about actual for-fun games, such as GDC (game design conference) and all kinds of groups about game design. It is one of my most investigated topics outside my degree minors of psychology and computers.

And game theory as field is not economics, it is a general scientific field that can be applied to any other field of study which involves decision making.

My drive for this stems from the fact that RPGs, or at least certain styles of play anyway, involve the milieu/mechanics divide, and that divide is something I have never seen acknowledged in a professional capacity, which isn't surprising because you simply can't do it with computers and it goes against everything any non-rpg game is. It is something unique to RPGs, and something that those who recognize it still don't have a good description for.

Gygax himself had to refer to it as "playing the game" vs "playing the rules" because he never had a better to describe it. He complained about the fact most people picked up the rulebook and played the rules but missed the core point of the game. This has pretty much matched my own experience, save that I enjoy both sides of the divide.

I also think that the fact that I do enjoy both sides of the divide has added to my drive to truly understand and communicate the difference.

This of course requires better understanding of the whole thing and not just the one distinction. Match that with my studies of game design in general, and thus, naturally I'm putting together something more wholesome.

GNS is the closest I've seen, but it is vastly insufficient and completely ignores the milieu/mechanics divide (not to mention a bunch of other stuff), which is at the core of my drive for this project.

I guess the mmo foursome of explorer/socializer/achiever/killer comes as a distant second.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Interesting Character wrote:

Gygax himself had to refer to it as "playing the game" vs "playing the rules"

Look, you keep referring to this as it was something of universal truth. The truth is that Gygax was a guy without a degree who wrote rules that ranged from good to horrible and then kept ignoring them in his games whenever that suited him the best. You'd get an aneurysm playing in his game because he would keep winging things you'd expect to work as the rulebook said and his last week's houserule would work differently this week without him telling you that. In fact, his skill at being a great GM came from his ability to obfuscate his fudging of the rules to keep the story moving along and have The Rule of Cool prevail over math.

You're somewhere on the spectrum, I presume? In that case, I'd suggest you to unlock your brain from being focused on that one random throwaway thing Gary said and read up actual science on game design. There's a high chance that a lot of what you're musing about was already discussed, not by random wargamers on forums, but by actual scholars.


Pathfinder Companion, Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber
Interesting Character wrote:
JulianW wrote:
Interesting Character - Do you think it would be possible to distill it down into a few questions to define where someone's tastes and preferences put them on that grid?

Maybe eventually. I'm autistic, so communication is difficult. Took me years to get this far in trying to discuss the topic, and it has been something I've been analyzing for the past decade or so, especially after I got my minor is psychology.

Forming this into a set of questions is something I'll look into. Not something I'll be able to just put together with any kind of speed.

There is a germ of something brilliant here.

Your original post is as you quite rightly describe, an essay - the guidance I got given when I did my undergrad at Oxford was the weekly essay should be close to 3000 words, no more or less. Your post is 2879 - my tutor would have smiled at that. Essays are great for getting your thoughts in order and laying them out ready for an academic discussion. Ideally the outcome of the essay plus the discussions is then a shorter set of conclusions that can then be applied in practice.

My learning here is that this is all about communication.

You're looking to be able to get expectations about the campaign's play style more formally set upfront - its key information you want them to communicate to inform decisions on if to play, what character to play and how to play them with that group. Most groups don't take the time to spell this out formally, or if they are they aren't covering all the topics you want to cover.

The challenge is how to best communicate that request for information to the group, especially as most won't take the time to read an essay or if they do, they won't all draw the same conclusions from it.

I think what you need is to find the simplest way you can of explaining to groups how they can place themselves on the grid of your mental model without them needing to understand the full theory - whether its a list of questions, simple examples of what different points on the scale look like or maybe a flow chart.

Its designing a classification system, ideally one that is quick and simple to use.


Gorbacz wrote:
Interesting Character wrote:

Gygax himself had to refer to it as "playing the game" vs "playing the rules"

Look, you keep referring to this as it was something of universal truth. The truth is that Gygax was a guy without a degree who wrote rules that ranged from good to horrible and then kept ignoring them in his games whenever that suited him the best. You'd get an aneurysm playing in his game because he would keep winging things you'd expect to work as the rulebook said and his last week's houserule would work differently this week without him telling you that. In fact, his skill at being a great GM came from his ability to obfuscate his fudging of the rules to keep the story moving along and have The Rule of Cool prevail over math.

You're somewhere on the spectrum, I presume? In that case, I'd suggest you to unlock your brain from being focused on that one random throwaway thing Gary said and read up actual science on game design. There's a high chance that a lot of what you're musing about was already discussed, not by random wargamers on forums, but by actual scholars.

It's certainly possible, but table top rpgs are a very niche and very odd subset of "games" and broader science of game design isn't going to be all that relevant. Scholarly work on RPGs would be interesting (not Computer RPGs, which are a very different animal, despite drawing a lot of the mechanics from table top RPGs.)


Moved over from the other thread to consolidate.

Interesting Character wrote:

I additionally think that changing DCs to be challenging is bad because it undermines the feeling of being superhuman and also undermines the entire point of leveling. If you need a roll of 10+ regardless of your level, then why have levels? But the former is the more significant in my opinion, if you are a superhuman demigod of jumping, a 20' gap should not be challenging just because the module author wants an obstacle. If the module author wants a jump to challenge the party's superhuman acrobat, then they should make it a jump that every player can easily see is a ridiculous jump that only superhuman being could jump, in which case, the superhuman player then gets to feel like a demigod when they actually succeed.

But if a jump of 20' is challenging no matter your level, then being high level will never feel like a demigod, because doing demigod things will never happen, because ordinary things will always get inflated to challenge what should be a superhuman, making those superhumans nothing more than ordinary humans.

This is, I believe, a misinterpretation of the intent. The point isn't that the same 20' river will have a higher jump DC for higher level characters, but that if you want to challenge higher level characters you need a higher DC - which means you need a bigger river (or some other factor to make it harder to jump).

Similarly locks don't get harder when a high level character approaches them - a high level character needs better locks for them to be the same challenge.

Much like goblins don't get tougher if a high level party stumbles on them, instead the high level winds up fighting giants. They could wipe the ground with a bunch of goblins, but there's not much fun in that so we don't bother with it often.


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Haladir wrote:

To a certain extent, you're talking about Ron Edwards' GNS Theory of role-playing game design. "GNS" refers to the trichotomy of Gamist / Narrativist / Simulationist.

He developed this theory of game design back in the early 2000s over on the now-defunct independent RPG forum The Forge

The outgrowth of this are the three main branches of current RPGs: Story-Games, which emphasize Narrative (e.g.Swords Without Master or Fall of Magic); Old-School Renaissance (OSR) games, which focus on Simulation (e.g. Labrynith Lord or Mothership); and traditional/mainstream games, which have a focus on the rules of the game itself (e.g. Pathfinder or GURPS).

This is, obvuously, an over-simplification of GNS Theory...

Indeed it is. :)

GNS also grew out of the older Threefold Model which I'm more familiar with, since I was reading r.g.f.a back in the late 90s and not reading Forge when GNS was developed. If I understand it correctly, it's similar but with big differences in emphasis. Particularly in that the 3Fold was focused more on styles in terms of running games, recognizing what players want and finding ways to deliver it, while GNS was more focused on designing new games, particularly narrative games since those were rare at the time.


Hmm, still not sure I've got this right, but I need to go to bed and I've still got my actual games to post in yet.

thejeff wrote:

Moved over from the other thread to consolidate.

Interesting Character wrote:

I additionally think that changing DCs to be challenging is bad because it undermines the feeling of being superhuman and also undermines the entire point of leveling. If you need a roll of 10+ regardless of your level, then why have levels? But the former is the more significant in my opinion, if you are a superhuman demigod of jumping, a 20' gap should not be challenging just because the module author wants an obstacle. If the module author wants a jump to challenge the party's superhuman acrobat, then they should make it a jump that every player can easily see is a ridiculous jump that only superhuman being could jump, in which case, the superhuman player then gets to feel like a demigod when they actually succeed.

But if a jump of 20' is challenging no matter your level, then being high level will never feel like a demigod, because doing demigod things will never happen, because ordinary things will always get inflated to challenge what should be a superhuman, making those superhumans nothing more than ordinary humans.

This is, I believe, a misinterpretation of the intent. The point isn't that the same 20' river will have a higher jump DC for higher level characters, but that if you want to challenge higher level characters you need a higher DC - which means you need a bigger river (or some other factor to make it harder to jump).

Similarly locks don't get harder when a high level character approaches them - a high level character needs better locks for them to be the same challenge.

Much like goblins don't get tougher if a high level party stumbles on them, instead the high level winds up fighting giants. They could wipe the ground with a bunch of goblins, but there's not much fun in that so we don't bother with it often.

This is one aspect of my point, that higher challenges should come from things that are actually more difficult. But that generally isn't what actually happens.

There are plenty of cases of what a rulebook says being completely and entirely ignored by the community in favor of what the community expects. The logical and natural consequences of what the book doesn't say, even more so.

The other aspect of my point is that somehow things must be a challenge for the players at whatever level they are, instead of having challenge based on the world. If you come across centuries old chest in a dungeon, it doesn't need to have an amazing DC 45 lock just because the PCs are all high level. It can be a perfectly ordinary lock that has degraded over the centuries. When the lock is seen as needing to be challenging, there are only two options narratively, make it a better lock regardless of whether it fits narratively, or making a lock that fits narratively but has a difficulty that is challenging regardless of whether it matches what the lock is.

Most people simply grab the needed numbers. Monsters are easy, if they need a more challenging encounter, they just grab higher CR monsters, regardless of narrative. Locks are harder, if they need higher numbers they can just raise the number and vaguely state it is a more difficult lock regardless of what the new DC is supposed to mean.

The same then goes for playing. Encounter a trap? Players just go straight for the anti-trap skill, without even bothering to get involved with what the trap is like or how it might work, or how they might save themselves time and just step over the stupid thing. Consider some f the older supplements for traps in which traps were nothing little things that are just spotted on the ground that you just roll a die and it's over but rather had traps like whole rooms or corridors or were illusion covered pits, or other cases in which dealing with the trap could not be reduced to a simple anti-trap check. No one does those anymore because the common concept of traps is something that the rogue disarms so everyone else can forget about it.

Alexandrian explains a good example of both of these aspects http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/2050/roleplaying-games/revisiting-encou nter-design
in which players heavily criticize modules for 3.x having encounter levels in a wide range above and below the expected party level, despite the rulebook quite clearly saying that is what should happen. That was when the whole "things need to match the player level" craze had really taken hold and which has unfortunately become the norm.

Beyond that is the general feel of playing. It's like watching scary movies, if you are there to be scared, but it turns out to be a comedy, then it failed to be a horror film even if it had all the bits and pieces that could be claimed to be important elements to horror films.

---
Additionally, I'd like to point out that these checks about locks and jumps and DCs are the easy and clear things to make examples out of, and that which makes them prime examples also means they will be the least likely and last to become dissociated and/or suffer the issues I'm discussing. You need to take what I'm saying and extrapolate it more holistically to the play of the game. Consider the discussion in the other thread about whether the numbers in 3.x were broken at a high level or not. Look at the thinking behind the examples. what was the thinking about the claim that DC 35 was the highest one would ever face? What was the behind the counterexample? How did these thought processes differ? What made each see the fundamental aspects of the examples given and why was that vision so different?

---
If you've ever played freeform, consider how you think about problems and try to solve them, vs how you solve problems when playing a system.

Most will never think to flip a table for cover, even though it is a trope most are familiar with.

---
Also, why giants instead of a big group of goblins that are better equipped and more organized than most and led by a great tactician of a goblin, or a bigger smarter monster, and thus use intelligent tactics instead of rushing in to a suicide attack without purpose? What about the goblins of a valley becoming a problem for the valley for some reason and causing grief in many places where the PCs simply can't be everywhere they need to, and thus the PCs need to figure out what is causing the goblins to be so much more of a problem than normal, where they are facing goblins not for the combat of just killing every one they find, but rather to discover information. The goblins may be easy to defeat individually, but when they are using guerilla warfare tactics to attack where the PCs aren't, how will the PCs solve that and would it really make sense to only fight giants?

Tucker's Kobolds. If you are dismissing low level monsters, then consider why. Then ask why you think that, then ask why you think that about that answer about why, and keep going. Consider why the encounter is there at all. Is it so the PCs get a bit of combat, or because it shows something of the world, or because the world responds to things the players do? Heck easy and simple to defeat creature can still be fun. There is even a video game where you primarily fight hordes of easier to kill enemies (I don't remember the name as I merely borrowed it years ago.).

But more importantly is not whether you could make a challenge of low level creatures, but rather why you face them.


thejeff wrote:
It's certainly possible, but table top rpgs are a very niche and very odd subset of "games" and broader science of game design isn't going to be all that relevant. Scholarly work on RPGs would be interesting (not Computer RPGs, which are a very different animal, despite drawing a lot of the mechanics from table top RPGs.)

I used to know someone who both studies game theory and roleplays, and I believe has done some scholarly work on RPGs.

Ironically he wasn't (IMHO) a very good GM - because he approached gaming as an academic discipline, and would regularly shut down any out of-character gossiping / bad puns / random roleplay that didn't advance the plot because these were distracting from the focus of the game.

The players, in contrast, saw gaming as a hobby and way to socialise with their friends, so wanted a more relaxed atmosphere and were happy with the occasional Monty Python reference or twenty minute diversion into dwarven beer halls.

Thinking about it, this is another big divide to think about when looking for a gaming group - is it about the mechanics of the game and how it's played, or is it about the social interaction of the players.


Interesting Character wrote:


Okay, the overview sketch is two mostly binary distinctions and a two axi spectrum.

To start, the meta vs in-character divide.
(snip)
The meta group gets enjoyment from looking at things from the outside, watching a character grow, watching a story unfold, etc. The in-character group gets enjoyment from the inside, from the doing and experiencing.

I have never experienced the "I am only lothar the barbarian from 7pm until 10pm on Friday nights" first person players, but I hear they exist. My experience is most groups move between "meta" and "in-character" according to their tastes. For us, we usually only first person interactions of conflict and/or importance to the story. If I had to point to one of these two divides I guess I would go meta, but im not convinced the divide is that distinct.

How do you measure accurately, and with distinction, between a meta player and an in-character player?


There will always be a bit of bleed between them, especially when speaking as a character, but you can see the different in the decisions the player makes and for some, their commentary on their own choices. For example, I've seen some players preemptively defend their less-than-ideal choices as being done because it would lead to character growth or because it would be a story than doing the strictly smarter thing. Sometimes someone will defend a choice as being in-character but that is rare in my experience.

Meta players often speak of their character's action in the third person, like would discuss some other person, while an IC player will more often speak in first person as though describing their own actions.

Meta players will regularly make choices that any experienced or decent writer will recognize as hitting those story beats that matter more as a larger story structure vs individual event, and IC players will more often make choices that make more sense for someone actually in the action (often these two are different actions, but not always). This does get a bit fuzzy in the more mechanical games though, as the strategic choice is usually much closer to an IC choice despite being able to come from either a meta or IC perspective. With such strategy, the difference usually is seen in how much meta info the player relies on, though it is still difficult to discern in this case.

Meta players also are more likely to do "extraneous" rp things to set up later story beats. IC players are more likely to have haphazard rp moments. Basically, real people rarely interact the same way story characters do. IC players will often interact with other characters, PC or NPC, in the haphazard and natural way of people (seen in topic, opportunitis used, and conversation direction, though the actual words used are not always as reliable) while meta players more often have a meta goal in such interactions such as establishing history and foreshadowing planned character growth for more longsighted players, or sometimes to incite mild character conflicts, or to add interesting interaction to entertain the players (especially when the current narrative hits a slower point, just like a good author would do). IC players tend to also act with their real "alignment," if they are players who naturally initiate action in the real world, they'll iften do the same with their characters (likewise with more reactive players), while meta players will act or react according to their inclination about when and towards what they have their character act towards, their characters actions will drift a lot more from the player's personality and reflect the player's vision of the character's personality better (for example, a more reactive meta player with an active character might respond to something in game but their character will more likely deal with the issue more actively, moving the action forward).

This is just a rough concept. I didn't really explain it well, but watch other players. Don't just see the superficial details, look for the more holistic patterns in their play. What choices did they make, what are the consequences of that choice, direct outcome as well as narratively, character development-wise, and personality-wise. What kinds of excuses did they give?

For example, the examples Gorbacz and I gave in the other thread about DCs in 3.x. If you look at his examples they were rather direct and drawn only from two mechanical table entries with no supporting narrative nor context, while mine included context and a narrative situation and used that context to build the mechanical DCs. The differences you might note there are not about the numbers, nor even the discussion, but rather the important part is little-picture vs big-picture, a purely mechanical example vs a holistic example, etc. These less obvious aspects are what you need to look for to see how someone is thinking.

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