Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two Styles of Play

David Peterson's Mouse Guard
I've visited this issue several times in the short run of this blog, so I hope you're not bored with it. I find it fascinating. In short, there seem to be two major styles of play employed by those I game with:
  1. These players are focused on the game-mechanical aspects of their characters and measure their success by additional mechanics enabled. 
  2. These players focus on the story, both of their character (background) and achievements in the campaign.
Of course I'm simplifying this radically to make the point. In general, younger players tend to be #1's, while older players are more likely to be #2's. I play with more younger players than old. The ratio is about 3:1. Players assume characteristics of the other style at times.

My theory is that the younger players are more likely to have grown up with CRPGs, which focus on mechanics as a metric for character advancement, and tend to have less-personal stories. Older players are more likely to have played table-top RPGs first, and may have branched out to CRPGs.

This all makes for an interesting challenge as a GM. Some of my players get an immense amount of their game satisfaction from tracking progress, advancing capabilities, and poring over rules to find game-mechanical advantages for their characters. Others are daunted by this level of detail, find it a burden, or would happily remain oblivious to it. Games like CRPGs and 4e D&D put a lot of burden on the player to make sound game-mechanical choices in order to keep pace with the encounters the game provides. These games are predicated on the idea of character/challenge advancement.

So, as a GM I get the benefit of a system that empowers my players to define a lot of the rules that they'll be using (as a subset of the gamut of game rules), and puts the utilization of those rules in their hands. However, I am then burdened by the task of generating encounters that challenge the capabilities of these characters. Players expect that opportunities to use these capabilities will arise, and are usually disappointed when they do not. The knife has two edges.

WotC's 4e D&D
For those players who are content to focus on story or setting, I can easily sketch rich outlines that they then fill out with the results of their choices. Granted, these players assume that I will do so in a fair and impartial way. They are required to trust that I will do so, and I am bound to honor that trust. Anything less leads to disaster, as I'm sure anyone who played an RPG in middle school, or high school experienced first hand!

So, I'm sitting here with this knife in hand (Not literally. It's the figurative knife of modern game rules that make my life easy as a GM, as well as complicated.) And I'm wondering if there is a way to carve out a system that works for both styles of play?

What would you do if your favorite campaign was run using two different rule sets? If, for example, one session was a story-based system like the Mouse Guard RPG, while the following session used something more mechanical like 4e D&D? That's just a crazy idea I threw out. I don't have an answer yet, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


  1. Hmmmmm……sounds like I’m in the old people category. ^.^

    Thanks for the Mouse Guard picture! Cute, cute, CUTE! Patrick was invited to play it, but couldn’t find the time. I would love to try it someday. I have two mice of my own and I find what little I know of the game just charming.

    I think that younger players are also just young. They want things now. Older players tend to be more world-weary and patient, more willing to let things play out. We have more life experience and we see complexities in situations and people because we’ve lived them. So it can get incorporated into gaming. Maybe older players read more too because they are not so CRPG exposed. Again, there are complexities in a book you don’t see on screen. Of course, there are also plenty of 14 year olds in 40 year old bodies, so I don’t want to oversimplify.

    I’m of the firm opinion that the players make the game. I know that you play with the players you have, not the players you wish you had (thanks Rummy!), but if I had it my way I just think it’s better to have one style in one group and another style in other. My opinions have just changed over the year and become less tolerant. Keep the actors/role-players in one group, keep the combat masters in another, and keep the dungeon crawlers in another. Like should always play with like, otherwise someone will eventually feel excluded and that is a crappy way to feel. And never allow a clique to form in a group because I do believe men are prone to that too. And I think you are more likely to have more positive dynamics with similar playing styles. Again, hypothetically.

    Having said all that, yeah, I could do a session based on story and one based on combat. One year ago, I despised combat in every conceivable way because I didn’t understand it. Now, I’ve come a long way actually primarily through board games. Mansions of Madness is essentially a dungeon crawl. Arkham Horror is essentially combat with monsters and sealing gates from beginning to end. I learned to play for a couple of hours with some guys and Patrick from Seattle Metro Gamers and had a marathon 5.5 hour combat session with friends down in Sumner. This thing has skill checks, bonuses, spells, dice, everything. All these people I played with also had RPG experience for probably 20 years or more. I had hoped to introduce non-RPG friends to RPGs using this game, but I think it’s too complicated.

    And, after that 5.5 hours session, there are still MORE rules to learn. I could certainly go back to a 4e combat no problem. Bring it on. But I still resist combat for combat’s sake. There has to be a purpose and it has to be unavoidable. I don’t get excited because I killed something just because I killed it. That hasn’t changed.

    And I would like to suggest as a future topic the relationship between board games mimicking RPGs and RPGs themselves. Arkham Horror and its expansions, Castle Ravenloft, etc. there may be more. Is this a way to hook people into RPGs or just another way to make some money. I suspect A because the whole framework is so similar. Is it a good way to introduce newbies to the hobby?

  2. Anna, thanks for your comment! You make many great points, especially about "combat for combat's sake. There has to be a purpose and it has to be unavoidable." I think this is something that too often gets overlooked in modern gaming.

    I'll look into the board game/RPG topic further. I think you're right in saying it is a good way to introduce newbies to the hobby (as well as make some money.) Whether it is an avenue that will promote specific styles of role-playing might be an issue worth considering as well.