Sunday, February 21, 2010

Play Style and "Fun"

A good while back, I ran into this post on Levi's Amagi Games: the What-I-Like Glossary. At the time, I read it, shrugged, thought to myself, "Well, that was interesting," and then went right on my way. About the same thing happened when I discovered Brain Hex. Thought about it for a bit, decided it might lead to some interesting ideas, and then moved on to other things.

I've been thinking about them both lately, because I've been trying to figure out what I mean by "play style." When I use that word, people start throwing around terms like "gamist" and "narrativist" soon after. These aren't useful words for me. The big issue is that I always feel like there's some much more precise definition for them than I actually understand; I've read the articles in question on the Forge, but can't make precise sense of them. All I really have to go on is the way that I see people use them, and there I find concepts that aren't particularly compelling.

Though perhaps that's not quite the right word. Compelling they are, yes. Dividing up RPGs into three distinct, semi-exclusive categories is, for whatever reason, attractive. I've found myself drawn in that direction myself, on occasion. And since I'll readily admit that I don't have a strong grasp on the overall theory that they live within, they may very well be good terms for describing the kinds of things they're designed for. But in common use, they tend to trample over a lot of what I find interesting about play style.

For instance: "Gamism" tends to be used to mean "games like 4e D&D," where the players are expected to spend a lot of time manipulating the mechanics of their characters in various ways, towards the end of overcoming various obstacles. But when I look carefully at the people I know who enjoy playing this way, the idea that this is style of play functions as some kind of self-contained unit breaks down. Many of them enjoy extremely rules light play, so long as there are obstacles to overcome and problems to solve--they get just as much thrill out of figuring out how to use a ten-foot-pole to deal with pit traps as they do finding that perfect character combo. And all of them are drawn to D&D for reasons beyond simply manipulating the ruleset and overcoming challenges, whether it's the funny voices that their DM makes or the continuing story that their character is involved with.

So while I've borrowed a lot of ideas from the framework behind those terms, I try to avoid using them because they don't get at a lot of distinctions I'm interested in. Instead, here's what I think is important about play style:
  • Different people have different ideas about what's fun and what isn't fun. This'd be one of those "borrowed ideas," though I doubt it's original to GNS theory or whatever it is that it's called. Furthermore, I suspect that a lot of problem play comes down to people disagreeing about what's fun and not realizing that they disagree. If I'm reading Ron Edwards right, this idea is what's behind a lot of his talk about "incoherent play," but I don't take it quite so far myself, for reasons I'll get to in a bit.
  • "Play style" doesn't live on the Island of RPGs. The stuff I like in roleplaying games tends to be similar to what I like in other games, or in other kinds of storytelling. Where it isn't the same, it interacts directly with my roleplaying game preferences; that is to say, there are certain things that I don't like in roleplaying games specifically because I think some other kind of game does them better. Particularly on a practical level of figuring out what makes your group tick, it's important to look at what people like about what other games they play, and why they're playing RPGs rather than those other games.
  • "Play style" is made of a bunch of little interlocking pieces. This is where Brain Hex and the What-I-Like Glossary come in; they're both basically ways of breaking down and looking at those pieces individually. You'll note that they have a number of styles of play in common, as well as the overarching idea that everyone enjoys more than one, but there's usually one or two that someone will like the best. Neither is perfect; the Brain Hex model is specifically geared towards video games, and Amagi Games has failed to provide the internet with a snappy Greek term for the thrill of finding stuff out. But the basic idea there is attractive to me, being based on at least an attempt to model what's actually going in people's heads when they talk about "fun." Though I mostly like it because it lets me talk about how . . .
  • Some kinds of fun go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Or, I should say, chocolate and something that's not terrible. Using the Amagi Games terminology, what I mean is, if you're into ludus and kinesis then you're crazy if you're not playing a game that's got tactical miniatures combat, because those two kinds of fun can really complement each other. Likewise, if you're currently deep into kenosis, you'll find it pretty easy to add expression and kairosis to your game, if you also enjoy those kinds of play.
  • Others kinds of fun are more like steak and ice cream. The main thing I'm thinking of here is something that Levi notes directly in his list: kenosis is easy to mess up if you've got something else going on in your game that breaks people "out of the groove." Another good example using the same terms is that alea can (but doesn't always) conflict with fiero. There's a certain kind of gamer who wants to win because he came up with a great plan, not because he got lucky. The basic idea here is that there are certain kinds of fun that you have to prioritize, because you can't have all of them.
  • Some players who like different kinds of play will get along great. Others . . . won't. If their favorite kinds of play don't conflict, or complement each other, you won't have a problem. That kind of group may even be preferable to one where everyone's play style is in perfect accordance; it can be fun to be a spectator to a different style of play than the one you're normally engaged in, or to be pushed out of your specific comfort zone every once and a while, and it's good to have players with a variety of different ways of approaching in-game situations and problems. On the other hand, if two players strongly prioritize styles of play that interfere with each other, you're going to have problems, especially if they don't realize that it's a play style clash and assume the other person is just being obnoxious. But playstyle isn't some immutable iron thing, either--if both parties are aware of the different kinds of fun they're interested in, and each explain to the other person what it is that's cramping their style, they're likely to be able to hash out a compromise that keeps them both fairly happy.


  1. So would you then welcome a more detailed nomenclature of "fun" that people could use as a shorthand, or are shorthands in and of themselves incompatible with your purpose?

  2. I'm considering taking the list from Amagi Games and expanding it, yes. So long as the shorthands are shorthands, and fairly easy to define to everyone's satisfaction, it's all good.

  3. Good, functional thinking going on here.

    Cool stuff, Oddysey. :D

  4. Play styles in rpgs I've been noticing is not something that can be easily defined. It's sort of an entity of it's own based on the play goals of those involved, and if the current play style doesn't support those goals the game either suffers or falls apart, so I think play style is an er... organic thing I guess.

    The best term I can think of is that play style is an 'emergent' product of game play. It's near impossible to come up with set definitions for play styles because it's really a collection of traits. I think...

  5. I've read Gleichman's essays on RPG theory and decided that I don't have to bother about them. The only real data we have happens to provide the terminology I need for myself: strategic, tactic, combat, story – and you need players of all kinds to run a long-term campaign. And all players need the following eight:

    • Strong Characters and Exciting Story
    • Role Playing
    • Complexity Increases over Time
    • Requires Strategic Thinking
    • Competitive
    • Add on sets/New versions available
    • Uses imagination
    • Mentally challenging

    Contrary to all other theories, the above was derived from hard numbers. And surprisingly enough, the resulting elements are things that I can actually use to look at my own games.

  6. @Alex: Interesting.

    I'm on a straight line that runs from Thinker through Character Actor.
    --No data for folks like that in the results, though.

  7. It's near impossible to come up with set definitions for play styles because it's really a collection of traits. I think...

    Yes, exactly. But you can come up with a rough list of those traits, and talk about how they interact with each other within individual players and a whole group.

    And this is something I only realized after I'd published this post, but -- you'll notice that the Amagi Games list draws a distinction between "what I think is fun" and "what I do to get that fun." "I like to create detailed character backgrounds" isn't a kind of fun; it's an activity that crosses several types. So you can talk about the relationship between "fun" and the stuff that actually happens in play.

  8. I've read Gleichman's essays on RPG theory and decided that I don't have to bother about them. The only real data we have happens to provide the terminology I need for myself: strategic, tactic, combat, story – and you need players of all kinds to run a long-term campaign.

    So you're saying that Gleichman's essays on the problems with GNS turned you off of all theory, period?

    And on the "real data" issue -- I've read that study, it's very interesting. But I'm not willing to let that be the final statement on the language used to talk about play, because, frankly, while the data is probably very good, the language that they've used to describe that data is kind of bizarre, and very much in tune with the trends surrounding the way people talked about "play style" and other such things in the mid-90s. Numbers don't have some kind of magical power to remove point of view from people's statements.

  9. Of course I am not "turned you off of all theory". The way I see it, there I get to choose between GNS that I feel uncomfortable with, and a categorization scheme (a different theory) supported by actual data. I prefer the theory supported by actual data.

  10. True. And really, as far as I'm concerned, the basic yardstick for theory is "Does this help you understand your game?" and "Does this help you design new games?" They're all just different models. It's good to have access to a number of them for different situations, and to be able to use ones that make sense to you.

  11. Alex: As fascinating as those numbers are, they're not terribly useful to me as a player. While Chatty, Jeff Rients, and I may need all eight of those factors to have a fun time playing an RPG, we're each clearly doing different things with them. Jeff would probably find my campaigns a bit to staid, Chatty might find Jeff's game a bit to simple in its mechanical bits and tactical options, and I'd likely find Chatty's game a bit too unpredictable and lacking verisimilitude.

    I'm also a touch suspicious of those numbers since we still haven't seen the exact questions that were asked. I suspect they assumed false dichotomies (setting vs. conflict makes about as much sense as blue vs. five, but that appears to have been one of the underlying assumptions of the survey).

    That all said, they are the closest thing to hard numbers we've got, and for that, at least, I'm thankful. If nothing else, they've made me realize just how central a good GM is to the longevity of an RPG group.

  12. GNS and it's decendents are just plain bad. Faux Academia, and a really questionable place to start looking at how games and RPGs work.

    @Alex: The numbers from that survey are really questionable. I talked with a professional statistician colleague about them and he confirmed the conclusions aren't supported by the data they provide... ;-)

  13. GNS and it's decendents are just plain bad. Faux Academia, and a really questionable place to start looking at how games and RPGs work.

    Uhhhh... okay, either I'm misunderstanding you and everyone expressing similar sentiments here on the blog, or I haven't made myself clear.

    I'm not using GNS as a starting place. I'm unwilling to make a blanket condemnation of that theory, or whatever it is, on account of not understanding it. (Which, honestly, makes me suspicious of it. Anything that takes me longer to understand than deconstructionism is probably too complicated.) But this blog post isn't intended as an endorsement of it. I mention those terms so I can explain why I don't like them, which then allows me to talk about what I'm interested in instead.

  14. @Stuart: Ouch! Any more details? It seems pretty straight-forward to me, doing chi-Square tests and all that. As far as I can tell it's impossible to know whether the study is bogus or not since we're not given any numbers, just a summary of the results. Obviously there's some trust involved. Neither data, not material, nor methods are provided. It's not a scientific paper, and it shows. :)

    @trollsmyth: I agree, the study doesn't help me determine whether I'm going to like playing with you, Jeff, Phil, or anybody else. Our idiosyncracies aren't captured in the broad segmentation that the survey generated.

    But that doesn't mean that the survey is useless. I've found it to be a relief for my own games. It helped me accept that one of my roleplaying buddies is a powergamer and that's ok, for example. I had put a lot of pressure on myself. The study took it away.

    I used to try and force the game in directions I liked better, but now I realized that having a diverse group of players is important for the longevity of the group ("having different kinds of players tends to make the RPG experience work better over the long haul").

    It also helps when I'm feeling tired and uninspired. I can look at the various elements that I know to be important and decide which one to emphasize in the next session. Haven't had tactical challenges in recent sessions? Missing some story elements? Just having the (small) list of things to look at helps me focus.

    I used to think that changing the system we used would change our play style. But the study tells me that this won't work. I used to think that rules-lawyering or character optimization was a blight, but the study tells me that these are just elements that some players enjoy, and taking these things away will lessen their enjoyment of the game.

    Instead of trying to reform these players, I'm now trying to balance these issues such that the other players can still play the game they enjoy best.

    In short, the study helped me embrace the diversity at my own gaming tables. And in that, it was far more useful than any other theory. Contrast this with GNS: Whenever I talked to people who mentioned gamist, narrativist, simulationist, agendas, or other such terms, I was unable to take away useful bits for my own games.

    @Oddysey: What I love about the Amagi Games' What-I-Like Glossary is that it gives us words – a vocabulary to express what we mean when we say "have fun." I appreciate that. That I can use when I talk to my friends at the table. It's genuinely useful.

  15. Levi's What-I-Like Glossary grew out of his defence and evangelism of GNS on a couple of RPG forums. It's probably a lot better than GNS, but it's cut from the same cloth, and wrapped in the same faux academic tone. (Sorry Levi)

    So if you're considering taking the list from Amagi Games and expanding it, you are building on the GNS foundation.

    There are good articles out there that are helpful for thinking about RPGs and game design. This article on Improving Player Choices is excellent. So are any books dealing with Cybertext as it relates very closely to RPGs.

  16. @Alex: The numbers are included with the Market Research Summary.

    Take a look at the age breakdown of players within the marketplace. See the drop-off from 16-18? Notice the conclusion that Adventure Gaming is an adult hobby? Now adjust the number for the fact 16-18 is only a 3 year range and the other ranges are 4, 5 and 11(!) years. It doesn't just change the results a little… it's almost the exact opposite of what the conclusions they were drawing.

    That calls the validity of the entire thing into question. I don't think this is good research.

  17. I wouldn't get too caught up in whether or not the numbers are legit in the survey, but look at the approach the surveyers(wotc dnd 3e dev team I think it was) took. that gives you some insight on the models of design they were basing their works on.

    What's interesting about the survey is that they recognized that no player truly fits into the archetypes they established on the outset and so essentially expanded their line of thinking into including there 8 core values. The values main purpose seems to be for game design.

    Not useful for players but a good list to keep in mind for game masters to remember these 8 as a checklist when designing a scenario. The game already supports it but I'm sure not everyone remembers to put all 8 elements into their own games all the time.

    Forge theory, while annoyingly championed is still a decent model for looking at games. It only goes so far though, but still the model brought a lot of cool games to the tabletop.

    So long as no one is saying or wasting time writing long articles on how some gamer is "doing it wrong" and the unexplored as being explored I say fuck it, game on.

    also, burning wheel is awesome.

  18. A couple things...

    Stuart's sequence of events isn't quite perfect (close, tho'), but he *is* dead-on correct, and obviously so, that it's wrapped up in pseudo-academic tone and terms. The bits were that way when I stole them (from actual ludologists), and I kept 'em that way. I thought it meant people would be less likely to confuse the weirdo words with, y'know, regular words with multiple meanings. That might have been a mediocre decision (I think in retrospect), but it's the one I made.

    On expanding it or altering... Uh, it's public domain. So you're totally free to rip, spin, edit, rewrite, publish, charge money, whatever. No need to "write it all out from start" or anything silly like that.

    Or, if you'd like, you could just edit the original directly. If you'd prefer that, shoot me an email (, and I'll just give you access to the googledoc.

  19. (For any innocent bystanders confused by that last comment: I'm the Amagi guy who wrote the What-I-Like Glossary).

  20. @Stuart: Thanks for the link. As far as the numbers are concerned, I think it's fair to say that "More than half the market for hobby games is older than 19." I agree that a lot of adult gamers does not an adult hobby make, but it didn't strike me as disingenuous.

    Personally, I mostly interested in Section 1: The Segmentation Study. Too bad they don't have more material to go along with it. I think they're basically saying they picked an "external consulting firm" to do the statistics for them. And with that, the results are as opaque as they can get.

    As for the ergodic literature… I remember trying to read Espen J. Aarseth's book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature a few years ago. It was painful and I ended up giving it away without finishing it. :)

  21. @Alex: Aarseth's book isn't easy to get into, but there's lot of interesting ideas in it. A more accessible book is Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.

  22. @Alex: From the study:

    "There is a substantial *dip* in incidence of play from 16-18. This lends credence to the theory that most people are introduced to hobby gaming before high-school and play quite a bit, then leave the hobby until they reach college, and during college they return to the hobby in significant numbers."

    This is not backed up by the data at all. Quite the opposite, and I have a thought I'd heard that WotC has changed it's thoughts on this study as well...

  23. I think the whole GNS theory is so wrong-headed and misleading that I am sorely tempted to write a big-ass blog post about why, in detail, I think that.

    But then I worry it would just cause people to talk about it more, which is the problem in the first place.

  24. @Stuart:

    It's not a GNS descendant, though it may look like one as an accident of timing (the other things I was up to at the time and the places I first waved it around).

    It's primarily a descendant of Roger Callois' Le Jeux et Les Hommes, which is older than, well, RPGs. Or television.

    Go ahead and look:

    Or type "Agon Ludus Fiero" into google, and see what you get.

  25. @Zak: Yes. Yes. Yes.

    @Levi: If you say so. ;-)

    @Odyssey: I've seen you post really insightful stuff here, which is why I visit. You're already contributing much more than GNS et al. ever did.

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  27. “So,” I thought to myself, “let’s ignore all these things other people have come up with and ask myself this: ‘How would I describe the different play styles that I have witnessed?’”

    I don’t think the play style of all the people I’ve gamed with have really varied enough, however, to consider any of it more than one style.

    Based on what I read, it seems like there are some people who approach the hobby much differently than I do, but I’ve not seen such stark differences at the table.