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:
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:
- A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
- Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
- Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
- 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.
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.