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Four Characteristics of a TTRPG

Picking up from two weeks ago, I had mentioned that the World of Darkness campaign I was playing in has gone on indefinite hiatus. I sat down for tea with the storyteller who was running that show to talk about what happened and why. I wanted to try and put some names to the thoughts and feelings we were having, and we came up with four characteristics of a tabletop RPG which separate the kind of game that our different players want to play. It’s not intended to analyze every aspect of the TTRPG experience, but to provide some language we can use when talking about being more intentional about choosing those games. The four we came up with were:

  1. Setting
  2. Agency
  3. Characters
  4. Decisions

Setting: It’s more than aesthetic preference. Some people just don’t care for playing pretend in medieval Japan and would much rather go to space. Some settings also lend themselves to differing levels of agency and characters: it’s not impossible to do survival horror in a high magic pseudo-Arthurian setting but it’s not easy to pull off. Likewise, heroic power fantasies are not often draped in the low light and cigarette smoke of a noir setting. The other thing to consider is how much absurdity vs. consistency people enjoy: Monty Python and The Holy Grail, or Lord of the Rings? Even if you love your friends, they might not be suitable players for that OSR dungeon crawl and that’s okay. I am here to say that it is okay to tell your friends that zombie apocalypse is not your jam.

Agency: One of the reasons I have a little bit of trouble with enjoying survival horror type games is that I love when my choices matter more in the fictional world than they seem to in the meatspace. It’s not enough that there seems to be a revived interest in the kind of thoughts Lovecraft had about race in the real world, now I have to pretend that ancient monsters are on an inexorable warpath to drive humans insane and kill us all? I’d much rather be a dashing rogue who at least tries to shoot Cthulhu in the face and keep his composure while doing it – and at least have an outside chance of being a little bit successful.

Characters: Robin Laws’ Player Types describe what kind of players come to the table. In my discussions with the storyteller from my most recent campaign, we decided that distinct from the player type, there are also character types that certain players tend to play while others like to mix it up with different types of characters even if they mostly represent the same player type. We identified the following:

  1. A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
  2. Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
  3. Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
  4. Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative

Not all tabletop RPGs are very good at accommodating every single one of these, therefore it’s inadvisable for people who are itching to play a character integral to a big plot to go dungeon crawling. Discussing what you want to play with the DM/GM/Storyteller is a good idea and both parties should be willing to take “no” for an answer: whether that is accepting that a character concept is not suitable for the game that is being run, or declining to play that game. I have kept myself out of at least one campaign based on the fact that my two best ideas for characters were wildly incompatible with the type of game that was being run.

“And then Stanley chose the red door.” How choices are presented to players has a big impact on how much players will enjoy the game.

Decisions:¬†What kind of choices are offered to players and how do their decisions affect the plot? We identified four distinct styles. Simply offering “good” and “bad” choices don’t make a game interesting. We know that good guys win, bad guys lose, England prevails is boring if not problematic. The simplest way to avoid this is to present situations where two good choices have different costs, or two bad choices offer different opportunities to mitigate the damage. Rather than “slay the dragon” it is “do we convince the dragon to go burn someone else’s town or do we use foul forbidden black magic to become powerful enough to destroy the dragon?” Of course, getting thrown two bad options with no third way or deus ex machina to fetch a “win” might frustrate some players. If the DM is excited to create that kind of dilemma then they need players who are into that sort of challenge.

The second style is to offer bad and worse choices, where the players cannot know which is which until after the consequences are set in stone. This is generally how it has gone in the horror type games I have played. This is especially frustrating to the power gamer sorts who love to win, but also to many other player types who are invested in their characters.

The third style is like a puzzle. There is a solution to be found that moves the plot forward and satisfies a win condition, and your job is to find that solution. This works well when players go into it with the right expectations. The trouble is when the player who loves this style goes into a game more like the second style described above and expects that there are answers to find and a correct way to do so. It just gets all the more frustrating when everything goes to hell.

The fourth style looks kind of like a fishbone diagram. There is a plot and it moves forward. Your choices affect the flavour of the outcome, but that outcome is assured. I have come to dislike the term “railroading” as it seems to get tossed around whenever a player’s zany idea gets a flat “no” from the storyteller/DM/GM. I generally don’t like games where it’s really someone else’s work of fiction but where I am given trivial decision-making power. I would much rather just enjoy a performance than have my input tacked onto the side of it if that’s what it is going to be. That I can derisively refer to as railroading. But unless the DM/GM/storyteller is VERY comfortable with improvisation, this style starts to emerge if things are going too far outside the expected narrative and I don’t mind a little bit of this if it is done responsibly.

So we’ve got all this descriptive stuff, how does this help me choose a TTRPG?

Looking at this from my own perspective as a player, I can do most types of setting except for the bleakest of the post-apocalyptic, generally play a part of myself, and enjoy a high degree of agency. If that’s the game someone wants to run, I can consider committing to it. I am not sure I can commit to doing Lovecraftian stuff where agency is minimal; if that’s what a good friend wants to run then I wish them well but won’t try to force myself to play the type of game I am just not into and hope that it won’t be taken as “I don’t want to spend time with or play games with you.”

What’s next? Full Steam ahead resumes its regular run next week and will appear at least once in October. Then my next four posts will be a deeper dive into each of these four characteristics. Now that this is becoming a series where I keep expanding each point into four more, should I come up with a name for it? Powers of Four? Suggestions are welcome in the comments section.

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  1. Rolaran Rolaran

    I like all of this, and I am looking forward to reading the whole series. (Although I don’t have any better ideas for what to name it). Rather than comment on any of the summaries, I’ll keep to overview-level stuff for now.

    I am glad to see someone tackling the issue of “We are friends, but we have divergent tastes in games and/or one of us wants to try a game that the other person finds disagreeable”. As the DM whose campaign implosion and subsequent tea-fueled game analysis indirectly led to this series, I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

    “As much as we love to role-play, an honest assessment of time commitments is essential.” These words were written on a online Dungeons & Dragons character generator, and they are literally some of the first advice I received about tabletop gaming, ever. Especially as we grow older and take on more responsibilities, indefinitely committing a full evening every week to an ongoing social engagement is a big ask. Committing to a form of social engagement we don’t enjoy, even more so.

    However, especially in a close-knit group, the Fear Of Missing Out can pressure people into showing up to something they actually don’t care for. I believe this happened in my campaign; some of my players, either consciously or unwittingly, told me as much. Refining the vocabulary we use to describe our preferences and tastes in games is a valuable step, but for it to have any effect players must be able to say, “although I like you, I am opting out of this particular game for these particular reasons”, without it being either intended by the player or interpreted by the planner as a personal snub. For that matter, planners must likewise have the ability to invite as many or as few people as they please, rather than feeling obligated to invite every gamer to every game. Some games are leisurely garden tours, and some are 5-hour rappelling courses.

    To that end, one criticism I have with this piece is that it seems overly binary. Every player has preferences, but they can’t all be sorted into a simple “yes/no” structure of things we’re fine with and total dealbreakers. I suggest some sort of green/yellow/red system, with a category for things we have misgivings about, but are willing to try under the right circumstances. Given that at least one article on this very site begins with “I don’t find [setting] interesting, but someone ran a one-off in a [setting] system and I enjoyed it”, I think this is a fair request. (Also a good point to note: one of things affecting this is length of the expected event. Some things are fine to try for a one-off but hard to commit to for a full campaign!)

    If you, as a player, believe a game will contain something you can’t abide, *talk to the person planning the game about it*. If you, as a game planner, feel that something is essential to the experience and cannot be removed, but you suspect potential players will take issue with it, *talk to them about that*. But in both cases, consider the possibility that you can reach a compromise (while recognizing that “agreeing not to play this time” is one such compromise).

    A couple quick things: planners, be honest about all of this. I know some people are up in arms about spoilers, but all the factors Graham lists above can be covered in a fair amount of detail without touching on plot at all (with the possible exception of setting). And as much as everyone wants to pull off one of those slick mid-campaign genre shifts, if it really is nothing more than a bait-and-switch for the sake of bait-and-switching, your players will be ticked off, and you’ll probably deserve it. I’m not saying “never subvert player expectations”, but when it comes to broad-strokes stuff like this, don’t try to trick your players into playing something they hate. It’s not nice. Even Doki Doki Literature Club puts content warnings where you can’t miss them.

    Players, if there’s something in a game you dislike, be up front about it, especially during the planning stages. Don’t try to change it from inside the game and hope the planner doesn’t notice. Either they will notice, in which case you might as well have just talked with them about it anyway, or they won’t notice, in which case they’ll interpret the change as damage and spend precious time and energy fighting you without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. It feels like this should be obvious, but, well… let’s just say I’ve had it happen to me multiple times as a planner (and let’s be honest, done it once or twice as a player).

  2. Charles Charles

    Quadratic Theory?

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