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So You Want To Play An RPG?: Aspects of Play We Enjoy

May 14, 2013

So I’ve discussed the importance of time management in relation to gaming, and I’ve talked about how mechanics and genres relate to helping you narrow down what sort of system that you want to use. However, what might really help you finally decide on things, as well as have a good idea of the adventures you’ll want to run is probably one of the hardest questions to answer: Why do we play games? Now it’s a very simple question, and some people would say that there’s a very simple and obvious answer.

We play games to have fun.

This is completely true, the stumbling occurs when you realize that people can have fun in all sorts of different ways. What’s fun for one group of people you game with might not be for others, or what’s fun to you as the GM might not be fun for the PCs. In tabletop RPGs almost anything can happen, and there are niche products out there to simulate all sorts of genres.

One weekend, my friends and I played a game in which we were all Maids in an Anime world vying for the affection of our 14 year old master. It was weird, it was silly, and it was a hell of a lot fun with very simple and straight forward mechanics. It did take us a bit to get the hang of it, but once we did it was fantastic. However, I can’t explain you to what was necessarily fun about it. It might have been the absurdity of the genre, the friendly competition between the players the game fostered, or the simple novelty.

When you give someone an open world, it can be difficult to know what they’re going to do.

I think truly one of the best examples of this is the now defunct MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies. Galaxies certainly allowed people to become rakish smugglers, daring pilots, ambassadors, and Jedi Knights. It also allowed people to be in a cantina band, or run a shop that sells power converters. You might even think that while those options were available no one would take them, and you’d be very wrong. Cantina’s were overrun with musicians, and every little desolate planet you found might have had a guy on it, sitting in front of his computer screen waiting to sell you ship plans.

In fact, I still remember a story related to me by a friend in which while playing as a planet-traversing badass, he was looking for some new ship designs. He found a guy selling the ship designs on some nearly empty planet. It being 3am on a mostly US server, he assumes that the shopkeeper was a bot. Much to his surprise, it really was a guy who sat in front of his computer waiting to sell ship designs to people. Presumably, he had a lot of fun doing this. At the very least he got the laugh from people being surprised he wasn’t a bot.

My point here is that there are a lot of ways that people can have fun in a game, especially the more open ended that game is. As I’ve explained before while RPG’s have the term “game,” in their title, a more appropriate description would be a shared story telling experience. These games are by definition open ended and filled with player agency to do whatever they want, provided it fits the logic of their characters.

Does this mean that there’s no insight to be offered on what people have fun with in a game?

Not exactly. It’s just important to remember that we can only talk about generalities, and how they can apply to helping you choose the right system for your group.

Let’s start by looking at the common false dichotomy in RPGs, combat and politicking. Now, yes, these are two different things in most systems and are often covered by different aspects of the game mechanics. The thing is it’s often believed that politicking relates more to the story and is enjoyed by certain players who aren’t necessarily going to be thrilled by fighting wave after wave of orcs. This can be true in some versions of D&D, or other class-based systems, where being ‘The Guy Who Talks,’ comes at the expense of not being ‘The Guy Who Kills Stuff,’ but many systems don’t make this distinction.

The basic idea though when we talk about these ideas as different ways of deriving fun, is that some people will find the more abstract advancement of plots and storytelling rewarding while others find the more clear cut aspect of defeating enemies enjoyable. At the end of the day though, both players enjoy accomplishing goals in this fantasy world. Achieving power that they might not have in the real world.

They’re both ultimately escaping from their lives into a world similar to but clearly not their own. This sense of escapism is part of what we enjoy. No one wants to play Cubicles and Computer Programmers. If we do play games set in the modern world, we’re action heroes or expert hackers. We’re looking to be those idealized versions of ourselves or people that we might never be.

Per usual though, I’m getting into much deeper subjects that I wanted. We all know that we derive pleasure from accomplishing goals, and achieving things. Steam and Xbox Live Achievements, and World of Warcraft have certainly proven that Human beings will derive pleasure from doing all sorts of mundane activities if you structure it in a reward system. Right now, there’s little reason to discuss the catharsis we might feel while slaying orcs or punching a supervillain.

What can help us here is breaking down aspects of play that different players might enjoy.

Combat is often a large part of roleplaying games. However, saying that you enjoy combat in a game is not a statement that actually helps someone understand what you like. Combat can involve a lot of careful plotting, tactical decisions, and be filled with an array of options. Or combat can be straightforward and fluid, basically always using the same general mechanics to accomplish your goals. It’s not always the act of slicing a goblin’s face off, sometimes it’s the joy of outmaneuvering an enemy before you slice their face off.

Different games handle combat differently, with varying levels of complexity regarding the rules for things like grabbing an opponent. For example, I love the Hero System because it provides players and NPCs with constant options for what to do in a fight. However, this also means that a single fight in the system can last an hour and a half or more of real time, because people are constantly debating decisions or looking up rules for a maneuver they just remembered existed.

Some systems have simple fluid mechanics for combat, with moderate choice but mostly boiling down to roll this die and compare to a number. For example, Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons allowed players to choose from all sorts of different abilities in combat, but all the abilities essentially follow the same mechanic: 1d20 roll + modifiers = X, if X > Defensive Stat Y, roll NdD and subtract from Hit Points. There are definite and distinct exceptions to that rule in 4e, but it generally holds true. Its combat can be pretty quick, and fairly easy.

So, if you have players that enjoy combat, you have to determine what it is about combat that they enjoy.

The same thing goes for people that enjoy, “story.” Once again, this is a fairly broad term that gets bandied about quite frequently. When a PC enjoys the story aspect of a game, do they mean that they enjoy telling their own story, interacting with the world, helping to build the world, or talking to NPCs? Or do they just mean “not-combat?” Not-Combat is a very broad aspect of RPGs. Not enjoying the slaughter of Kobolds by the thousands, doesn’t instantly mean that a player wants to be the go-to talking character for NPCs.

Some people like puzzle solving, for example. Puzzle solving also doesn’t always mean that you present the group with some obstacle that has a clear and definite answer, like a riddle. It can mean wrapping their head around a problem as simple as, “We need to get from point A to point B but there’s no service to get us there and multiple routes.” I’m reminded of everyone’s favorite educational computer program, Oregon Trail. The question of fording a river can be pretty intense if your players are in a caravan and have the skills to deal with this situation in a unique and novel way.

What I’m trying to say is that there are a lot of different we can enjoy ourselves while playing around in a world that doesn’t exist, or even a world just like our own but where we’re the heroes. When looking at different systems you can use, you need to take into account what your players enjoy.

If your players are more interested in the non-combat aspects of a game than the combat kind, you might want a game that simulates a lot of different skills and uses a relatively similar system for combat. I feel that the Storyteller system, while sometimes complicated in how its skill rolls work, really did make use of a good universal skill mechanic that worked well both inside and outside of combat.

If your players are totally into just letting off steam, kicking in the door to dungeons, and slaying weird things, then maybe you don’t need to worry about how the game deals with social mechanics.

What’s most likely though is that you’ll get a group with similar but still diverse interests. They all enjoy sessions with combat and talking and puzzle-solving, but they might have something that they like more than others and build a character that’s more engineered to that. Therefore, you’ll need to keep it varied, allowing all the players a chance to shine and enjoy themselves because if it doesn’t matter if you’re more interested in “story,” or “combat,” if you’re forced to sit through four hours of the one you don’t like, you’re going to be pretty disengaged.

I’ll offer this quick piece of advice for adventure building (which we’ll get into more in depth on a later basis). I like to design adventures that revolve around investigating something (usually a crime), because they can make use of weird skills and knowledge the group might have, they have multiple paths to the end, they have discussions with unique NPCs, and confronting a criminal can easily devolve into a combat scenario in a novel setting. Plus, I guess I’m just a sucker for police procedurals.

 

On a final note, I’ll leave you with two reasons people will play games that will have little to no affect on what you’re playing.

Some people play games just to hang out with their friends. Some aspects of the game might be more interesting to them than others, but ultimately they’re there because they like hanging out with the people they game with. They’ll play fighters, magic-users, superheroes, vampires, gritty criminals, and Jedi Knights. What matters most to them is just having fun with their friends. You could all be playing poker for all they care. This is a great type of player because they are having fun and it’s not dependent on what you’re doing, just that you’re doing it.

There is also the type of player whose playing to win. They want to defeat encounters single-handedly, they want to ignore the logic of the world, and they sometimes want to be able to beat their fellow players if they could. They look at a game’s mechanics and look for the most efficient path to whatever they deem to be ‘success.’ It won’t matter to them what you’re playing, they will still focus on this goal. It won’t matter to them that most of these games don’t have a ‘win condition,’ because they’re about people getting together to have some fun and tell a story. They want to win and that’s it. They’re the type of person who would play Silver Age Superman and complain that he’s not powerful enough. Players that just want to win may very well be your first introduction to a ‘problem player.’

 

No matter what you deal with or what system you choose to run, just return to that simple answer at the top of this article. The main reason we play, is to have fun.

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