Role playing games are interesting for many reasons, one of which is how difficult it is to actually explain the game and how it’s played. Often it’s easier to just play a session with someone and let them experience it, rather than trying to describe what can be a somewhat unusual activity / past-time. In “Role Playing Games as Inherently Game Design” I discussed this and came to the conclusion that role-playing encompasses an EXTREMELY broad range of human activities that have existed long before the innovations of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.
In this post I’m mostly interested in the varieties of players who enjoy Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TTRPG), things like “Dungeons and Dragons”. While this group considers monolithic, there are distinct play styles vying for control. A better understanding of these can deliver the game and experiences players are looking for.
Role-players will typically discuss settings (such as fantasy, sci-fi, or horror) and rulesets (such as the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, World of Darkness, or Apocalypse World). This *ISN’T* what I’m discussing here, instead I’m talking about the type of game different groups play. This can be different, even when two groups are playing in the same setting and ruleset.
When I was in high school, a popular refrain among TTRPG players was “I’m a ROLE player, not a ROLL player!” The meaning behind this was that they were more interested in the improvisational acting part of role-playing, rather than the dice rolling and mechanics. This is fine, as a preference, but what confused me, even at the time, was that it was often stated as a quasi-moral position. They clearly thought this was the CORRECT way to role-play or at least a BETTER way to role-play.
I never argued it, but if someone enjoys the dice and mechanics, what’s the problem with that?
GNS Theory talks about games as being Gamism, Narrativism, or Simulationism. Classic D&D was Simulationism and modern RPGes lean more towards Narrativism. They’re trying to accomplish different types of play, so of course they’re different! With the PbtA system (see below), you’re just quickly trying to resolve the situation and move on with the narrative. The dice roll is just to make the outcome uncertain, it isn’t trying to model the situation like classic D&D is. Classic D&D was heavily Simulationism, since it came out of Wargamming, which is almost pure Simulationsim.
(As an aside, there’s been a backlash against GNS Theory and many people take great exception to it. I’m not arguing in support of it here, although I probably do support it in general. I’m just using it as a model to discuss different styles of play that groups might enjoy.)
With a Narrativism game it makes absolute sense that there is more sharing of control of the game (which I discussed in Players “Topping From The Bottom” in Role-Playing Games). If that’s what a group wants, this style of play supports it.
When I described Narrativism styles of play to a friend who is more of an old-school role-player (Simulationism), he said it sounded like it’d just be people saying “my character defeats the bugbear chieftain ’cause he’s the best!” and that didn’t sound like any fun to him. He wants a rule set that SIMULATES a fantastic experience. At the end of the session, you have a sense of how your actions would have played out in the simulated world. His feelings are that this is how you EARN your victories, instead of just claiming them.
Some players read a RPG manual, then hunt for rule interactions that will give them an edge. This is pure Gamism. In Kevin Crawford’s TTRPG “Godbound”, there are a number of powers that are limited to “line of sight”. Other powers let characters see greater distances. Some people online argued that these could be combined to let powers work at a greater distance. The designer, Kevin Crawford, answered in a forum that this wasn’t his intention. Sight range was just to provide a rough guide, it wasn’t to be used as a legal clause to combine with other powers to great effect. He said if he was running the game, he wouldn’t allow this combination to extend ranges.
Munchkin is a derogatory term for “immature role-players, playing only to ‘win’ by having the most powerful character possible.” This is gamism. Why this should be reviled in TTRPG, while forming the basis of games like “Magic: The Gathering” is again odd to me. If a group enjoyed a gamism TTRPG, there’s nothing wrong with that.
How The Industry Has Evolved
Products have been put out to support this “new” narrativism focus. One of the biggest is the “Powered By The Apocalypse” system that has been used to make a PbtA version of every system and setting you can imagine.
It took me quite a while to even understand PBtA. I read multiple books and didn’t get what they were suggesting. Eventually I think I understood, and would like to run a game at some point to verify that it works how I think.
Basically, the systems are at a higher abstraction level and are more improvisational than traditional role-playing. Often there’s a very simple roll (2d6) that gives you 2-6 failure, 7-9 success with complications and 10-12 full success. This is modified in a very minor way based on what the character is good or bad at.
So, if you’re in combat you roll 2 six sided dice and add them together. If you get below 7 you miss. If you get above 9 you do damage and if you roll 7-9 you do damage, but something bad happens (maybe your character takes damage back from the opponent). This is VERY different from taking a character’s THACO, considering the AC, rolling to hit, then rolling for damage. It collapses the calculations and multiple rolls into a simpler resolution.
For a long time, I couldn’t understand why a goblin was as hard to hit as a dragon. This is because I was thinking in more simulationist terms – “what is the roll modeling?” It isn’t modeling ANYTHING, it’s just resolving uncertainty into three possible states (failure, success, success with a complication). This resolution is made to allow the narrative to continue and for the players to be surprised and given something to react to.
People arguing about control and authority in RPGes, the “proper” way to play, and getting angry about how other people are playing is, when you consider the different flavors of games, comparable to someone arguing about whether bridge or poker is the better game to play with a deck of cards. It’s a fairly pointless argument: play whichever you prefer!
Each group needs to decide on the GNS blend they want to play. ANY blend is valid if it’s fun for the group. These days, a heavy focus on Narrativism is the default expectation, with a smaller group preferring Simulationism. Gamism would be quite fringe. If different players have different expectations, they are likely to be disappointed, so this is worth addressing before play.