There’s an old adage amongst my gaming circles: “There are roleplaying games, and there is D&D.” This is not meant as a knock against Dungeons and Dragons of any edition or its derivatives for not being a true ‘roleplaying game,’ but rather an acknowledgement that playing D&D often requires a different mindset and assumptions than other games.
I’ve often met players and GMs that find it difficult to transition from D&D-style play to other RPGs and vice versa. Some go so far as to “only play D&D” or “anything but D&D,” as befits their comfort zone.
This also comes up during conversions. Dungeon crawls are tailor-made for D&D, but can become tedious slogs once the group converts them to GURPS or Savage Worlds. Why is that? Conversely, why do modern investigative adventures seem ill-suited for D&D?
While there are always exceptions, I’ve noticed that, by taking a step back, what I’m really looking at are two different types of RPGs. It is no different than calling both baseball and (American/Canadian) football ‘sports,’ even though the two play very differently. For convenience, let’s call these two types of RPGs ‘Encounter RPGs’ and ‘Goal RPGs.’
Encounter RPGs are games where each encounter is important and almost self-contained. The party encounters a threat/obstacle, use their wits and sheets to overcome it, and get an instant reward in booty and experience points. They then move on to the next encounter until they reach the climax.
Goal RPGs are games where the adventure goal is the most important thing. So long as the party accomplishes the goal, how they get there is less important and often left in the hands of the players. Rewards are often handed out at the conclusion of a game session or adventure.
Problems can arise not only when converting one type of RPG adventure to another type of RPG, but also when players or GMs try to apply the elements of one type to another. Here are a few cases.
Player Attention. In an Encounter RPG, players can mentally “check out” when it’s not their turn, paying little attention to what’s going on. Encounter RPGs tend to be a bit heavier on the combat, so even a cursory glance at the battlemat (or a simple “how many orcs are left? Is that orc shaman still alive?” query when using “theater of the mind” play) or prodding by another player is enough to get the player’s head back in the game when necessary. By contrast, Goal RPGs often encourage players to be engaged at all times, otherwise clues or intuitive leaps may be missed.
Resource Management. In Encounter RPGs, resource management is a big deal, as how prepared you are to deal with the unique challenges of an encounter is very important. Players of such games are used to listing equipment in great detail and often know intuitively the best two or three non-standard uses for each item. By contrast, Goal RPGs are usually a bit more lax about equipment; PCs are generally considered equipped with “reasonable items,” allowing the GM to make the final judgment call on what is reasonable. The player only needs to note nonstandard items on her character sheet.
Side Quests and Random Encounters. In an Encounter RPG, the more encounters the merrier, as each encounter offers immediate rewards that make the PCs stronger. In Goal RPGs, side quests and random encounters are often regarded as red herrings or time wasters, as they simply hinder the PCs from achieving the goal. Even when the encounter may offer something useful to aid the PCs, it runs the risk of seeming like “incredible coincidence” or even “railroading.”
Leaps Forward. In a Goal RPG, the players often feel rewarded for skipping over much of the adventure due to a clever deduction or tactic. They accomplish the goal in record time and still get their rewards. By contrast, a leap forward can actually punish PCs in Encounter RPGs, as they face a Big Bad they aren’t yet powerful enough to overcome or get stuck in a trap where the item needed to spring them was missed.
Adventure Length. Players in Encounter RPGs usually don’t mind long adventures, as they tend to be easy to follow (keep trudging through the dungeon until the end) and the PCs power up along the way, granting them stronger bodies and new abilities. By contrast, Goal RPG adventures work best when running 1-2 sessions, as the players find it difficult to remember clues and information from previous sessions. Also,players may be frustrated by the slow pace of XP awards in a slow-moving adventure.
Pencil Whipping. In a Goal RPG, the GM can often get away with pencil whipping some encounters when the conclusion is obvious or negligible towards completing the goal. In Encounter RPGs this can feel like cheating, as the PCs get rewards they didn’t really earn (this is related to fudging).
Fudging. In an Encounter RPG, fudging dice rolls is often seen as cheating. PCs are built to be challenged during encounters; fudging not only robs them of a clean victory, it rewards sloppy play. By contrast, players in Goal RPGs are more amenable to fudging when it keeps the adventure moving and saves a PC from “dying like a punk” in a chance encounter.
I’ve found that when I transition from one style to another, I have to keep these differences in mind. I fudge a lot when running Goal RPGs, but I hardly ever do it when running Encounter RPGs. I don’t have a problem running an Encounter RPG adventure that spans several weeks, while I try to limit Goal RPG adventures to a single session or two. I pencil whip combat encounters that are becoming tedious in Goal RPGs, but I would rarely consider it while running an Encounter RPG combat encounter.
So how about you? Have you made a similar distinction? Do you favor one type over the other? Have you had issues with players having trouble changing their mindset? What other issues do you come across when switching from one RPG type to another?
Interesting read. Lat time I played D&D, the GM was clearly trying to play a non-trad D&D plot. The group was a nice mix of D&D purists, and then my girlfriend, my best mate, and me, who played all kinds of games and were happy to go for a more goal oriented style of play. Sadly, the other players weren’t as pen to this, and within a month, the game had become what a lot of D&D games turn into. The dungeon crawl players knew the system better, and just took over, with the combats and encounters being the biggest part of the game, and any attempt at interaction ditched in favour of a quick die roll and moving on.
Damn shame really, as I think the DM was doing a stand up job and the plot he’d put together was very interesting.
An interest way to look at things. I’m going to have to think about this for a while but I think it’ll help in my current campaign. It seems to have slogged down in the middle. â˜¹ Refocusing on the goal will help immensely. â˜º
Going into noob mood. What’s Pencil Whipping?
I think Pencil Whipping has to do with the GM changing facts to get an encounter over with faster.
Say the party has taken out the enemy boss in the first round, but there’s still fifteen lesser enemies on the table. The GM could just change their stats on the fly so that one shot kills the rest, rather than bore the players with the job of having to kill or subdue every last henchman.
Svengaard has it.
As we use it in my circles “pencil whipping” is anything done to speed up play. One example that I’ve used is in con games where the outcome of a combat was so obvious that I’d pencil whip it by saying “okay in the next round you guys subdue that last henchman.”
My circles also refer to glossing over uneventful scenes as “pencil whipping.” Example: “You guys need to get to Soldier’s Point, which is three days’ ride away. Okay, three days later, you arrive…”
Mostly, it seems to come down to a difference in scoring. Oddly, most of the D&D tropes of whacking random critters over the head and hauling off their ubiquitous valuables (where do Beholders spend their coin, and how do they carry it?) for very specific game currency rewards comes from the tie-breaking system in tournament modules. SWMBO discovered that if we’re just going to hit things (which she likes), D&D and its descendants are rather complex and take too long – she’d rather play “Song of Blades and Heroes”. Which sort of brings it all back to the beginning, except Chainmail didn’t have Mouslings.
I think there’s definitely a “D&D Mindset” where the consensual imagined reality is very rich when it comes to combat sequences and very poor when it comes to the “real life” bits. Sleeping rough when you’ve pockets full of gems and Ye Nagge’s Hedde Inne lies not five minutes walk away, going from one dungeon to the next without a day resting in a handy village. That sort of thing.
One can play a character and plot driven game with D&D, but the players of that game have expectations, some of them militantly held. Telas may remember a rather heated discussion in the comments to DM of the Rings some years ago which centered around an accusation of a floated idea being “not real D&D”.
But if there’s a mindset of that sort, game publishers do little to dispel it. A look at any of the published plot point campaigns for Savage Worlds reveals them to be extremely heavy on the figures-on-a-grid encounters style of adventure, and Savage Worlds has at its heart a design principle based around combat (amongst other design principles, but the combat one is dominant in my opinion). One could assume a lazy design in such campaigns, but Savage Worlds really does lend itself to action-adventure encounters.
Please don’t savage me for saying that. I love Savage Worlds and learned to do so in these pages.
And I like D20, which I feel gets a bad rap out of all proportion to its admitted shortcomings.
It is my avowed view that any game system can be used to present scenarios hinging on PC/NPC interaction, politics, detection and all the other non-combat heavy situations. Player expectations of what a game system will be setting before their eyes is the real issue, and experience shows me that there is a very large body of D&D players that have certain fixed ideas on what the game “must” be.
Amusingly, the reverse situation can be found in Call of Cthulhu circles, where there is a large body of vocal GMs who hold that Call of Cthulhu must be played in a given manner.
One risks vehement denunciation if one steps out of line in such company.
HERETIC!! Oh, sorry. My tribal thinking gets the better of me some days… Ahem. Yes, I remember that discussion of “real D&D”, although I couldn’t tell you what the actual point of contention was.
I suspect Walt is using Savage Worlds as a popular game that can be played in a goal-oriented fashion, as opposed to one that should be. I have run very successful SW dungeon crawls, and I’ve also run some very successful SW ‘goal oriented’ games.
But I’ve never run a successful D&D ‘goal oriented’ game (at least not with anything published since 2000). I’m sure it can be done, and I’ve had moments in-game that were very similar to a goal-oriented game, but we always ended up in a detailed and challenging combat.
This is going to take some digesting. I suspect that there are as many ways to play RPGs as there are to live one’s life. A vocabulary that describes all these ways is handy, but I really don’t want to go back the the gamist/narrativist/simulationist theory of the Forge.
You young whippersnappers and your hippy roleplaying terms. Pencil whipping? Sounds like something that happens in another kind of dungeon — which we’ll speak no more of here.
I say. I think you’re talking about “hand-waving” parts of the adventure, or what some at the table used to say: “Just skip to the end already …” 🙂
Pencil whipping? Another term for our gnome glossary!
I’ve used hand-waving and pencil-whipping interchangeably; I tend to use ‘pencil whipping’ more when I disregard something planned. Example: I have three scenes planned but the session is running long so I ‘pencil whip’ to the end scene.
Walt– Great article! A very interesting take on the main differences between Goal and Encounter RPG’s. I run a goal type game and I play in an Encounter game, and they are very different.
This was useful for me too. I often talk about games with these style differences; this gives me a good shorthand for describing them.
This was a GREAT article. I try to have a goal for the players, but encounters along the way. Still, made me consider trying to move the goal farther forward, perhaps making sure to have things during the encounters to make players move along towards solving that goal (without railroading, of course).
The “railroading” comment struck me – I feel more railroaded in, as this article delineated, an encounter/dungeon crawl format.
I recently started a WH40K Deathwatch campaign during which I’m already feeling guided/forced into a circumstance where my knowledge of the ‘rules’ is the primary determinant of doing well.
More reactions abound, but no time to share…
I have a question. Are you saying all RPG’s can be lumped into goal oriented and encounter oriented or are you saying there’s a slider between the two extreme points?
Aside from that I think those descriptors are good to help explain part of what an RPG is trying to do but are only two more to put on the list of things like Narrative, stimulation, or gamest and the level of choice the players have over their characters or over the story or even the impact of the choices the players characters have on the story. These ideas and descriptors are starting to clear up the muddled forest which is the RPG but it’s still pretty muddled.
While closely related, any particular RPG isn’t specifically Encounter or Goal-based. It’s how you run them that determines that. And yes, there is a scale involved. Many Encounter RPGs, for example, have goals that need to be attained, and players in a Goal RPG could derive more fun from the individual encounters than worrying about the goal (for example, players may enjoy the string of social encounters they have along the way more than solving the mystery itself).
I think in the RAW, D&D and its derivatives lend themselves to be played as Encounter RPGs. I have played them as Goal RPGs in the past, but it certainly alters the play-style.
GNS theory is a separate element. You could apply GNS equally to Encounter RPGs and Goal RPGs.
I do have one more question. Where would a game like the Drama System fit into all this? It isn’t exactly about encounters or goals for the party but pushes interaction for the player to create and have dramatic scenes between each other to push the story forward. You could say a scene is an encounter or the group has a goal to create a story between the characters but I think these two descriptors fall short when trying to describe what that particular game is trying to do.
Is Fiasco part of this line of thought or does it fall outside since the goal of the game is to create a fiasco. I guess I’m missing the definition of the word “goal” when I start trying to figure out how it works with recent developments in game design. Psi Run is goal based I would think as the runners are trying to figure out whats going on without getting caught but what’s the goal of Penny For My Thoughts? Are we looking at this from the players perspective of goal or the characters? Smallville has a lot of room for Player vs Player conflicts as the game pushes towards that sort of game. Is that a goal based game?
I think the idea of goal vs encounter is a good one when applied to games in the vain of the ones you mention in your post but could use a little more depth when getting to this outlying region of gaming which is growing all the time. Then again I might just be missing the point.
I’m not familiar with the Drama System (yet).
The two types I offered presume that the players expect their characters to grow (in XP and other stuff) along the way.
If an RPG is self-contained (no expectation of continuing beyond a single session), then it would tend to fall under the Goal RPG type, if for no other reason than the players’ actions and reactions would better reflect a Goal RPG than an Encounter RPG.
I guess it’s whatever you’re used to. I use D&D as a game system, not a style of play – my style of play is implied in the campaign storyline, not dictated by the rules. I like rules options and it certainly comes into play in the game, but the storyline being played would hardly be different using a different game system.
Different groups play D&D differently, I suppose.
How do you generally handle XP?
At the end of a given level of play (played by ear, based on storyline). I don’t usually assign X amount of XP for any given encounter. After enough encounters in a series of related events, or if some tier of story is accomplished, I say it’s time to level up.
It sounds like you run a Goal RPG.
I’ve never ‘labeled’ my style of play, but that sounds about right.
Also, I include investigations regularly in my D&D games. I am in fact working on a Kaidan map/encounter product where the entire encounter is strictly an investigative situation. While PCs might be using Knowledge checks, if not RPing such discussion directly with an NPC, they need to identify the right persons to ask their questions. Its a ghost/haunt/curse complex encounter and the ghost needs to be laid to rest for everything to resolve. If the PCs don’t investigate the right people, they will never resolve the mystery.
There are 3 clues required to lay the ghost to rest, and not a single NPC knows all of them. It’s finding the right 3 people, each with one clue for resolution, putting it all together to figure it out.
Most of my GMing experience has been out of the D&D and variants styles, in general I have ran RP heavy games, that don’t fit in well with the dungeon crawl ethos. Like Gameprinter I am using the rules not necessarily the play style.
That said this summer I started a Pathfinder campaign, and have been running it in the same fashion as I would a story focused game, this did cause some problems with at least one player I brought into the game for a session before he dropped out. The player had the expectation of the dungeon crawl, and I gave him intrigue and mystery, and that just rubbed him the wrong way.
Great article. But I totally don’t agree with ghettoization of D&D players and putting them in some kind of sandbox where you only have to find an inn, go to dungeon and receive money and XP (“D&D Mindset”). I’ve been playing and GMing (A)D&D since early 90s – always as a crossbreed between what you’ve described as “Goal RPG” and “Encounter RPG”. It was the only way to amuse a group composed of tactical battlemat players and more story-oriented ones. So while designing an adventure I always make sure that events pushing the plot forward are counter balanced by a few classical brawls (and I’m always trying to make them tactically hard by choosing opponents with some special traits and carefully designing unique features of the terrain in which fight takes place; it’s quite easy especially during low-level play, when for example even fighting an ordinary troll with regeneration requires some additional thinking – especially if no shop full of casks of acid and Molotov cocktails is available in the middle of the forest 😉 ). Between sessions we concentrate (mainly via e-mails) on “resource management” – PCs train to gain new feats and increase their abilities and skills, manage their businesses and estates, recruit henchmen, learn new spells, design and manufacture magic items and so on (and one of my players – who doesn’t like RPGs much and plays only to socialize with the rest – is very busy and very happy sketching maps, plans and producing yet another Excel spreadsheet that calculates income you get from your Amnian trade enterprise). Of course I’m using some errr… pencil-whipping and fudging – you just can’t kill a thrilling monster encounter with some “stupid rule on page 223” or extremely unfortunate dice roll (for example great villains that GM has been designing for weeks just shouldn’t get killed in the first round of climactic battle, that’s why wise people designed such thing as “GM’s screen”). As well, good story plot also requires lots of flexibility and adaptability.
I think that D&D is perfectly suited for that style of play – detailed set of rules on fighting (and lots of additional material like ready-to-use monsters etc.) allows you to allocate more preparation time on plot design… And at this point you can use that amazing hugeness of (A)D&D published world-detailing material (especially 1-2 Ed.) – as a base or only as an inspiration.
Maybe more important than which system or set of rules you choose is who are you playing with and what attitude you have? And the rest is just a tool?
By the way, isn’t a good story with complicated NPCs, political intrigues or criminal investigations even better when it includes some head-bashing from time to time?
[Sorry for my English, I’m not a native speaker.]
Perhaps it would be helpful to consider “goal oriented” and “encounter oriented” less as binary categories and more like tags. Over on UK Roleplayers we had a thread a while ago about the use of tags on the sign up sheets to provide information about convention games.
Basically, a tag can be used as shorthand to convey a concept, such as an expectation of the style of play or genre without needing to generate a wall of text to describe it.
Here’s the link: http://www.ukroleplayers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=13673&p=147610
I think one of my previous comments about gamist/narrativist/simulationist was slightly misinterpreted and seems to carry a little bit of vitriol among the gaming community. I’ve just picked these terms up in the last couple of years and I don’t think they’re any more or less correct than a game which is described as goal oriented or encounter oriented. I think when you use a descriptor from each you allow for a greater depth of describing something that most people want to describe simply. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a simple way to describe RPG’s. If there was we would have a firm definition by now but we don’t.
This leads me to believe RPG’s sit on a spectrum. Some games are more narrativist like Dungeon World while others are more gamist like 4e D&D and what I mean by some games are more X or Y is the rules support play styles which lean more towards those styles of play without too much modification or interpretation. This also means a goal oriented or encounter oriented game is on a different scale or axis than the gamist/narrativist/simulationist axis so you can have a narrativist goal oriented game (I would think Leverage fits in here) or a narrativist encounter oriented game (I want to say Dungeon World would normally play this way but after several sessions the area’s can sort of roll into each other.)
Point being I think the gamist/narrativist/simulationist and the goal and encounter oriented ideas are both good descriptors paths in getting to being able to actually describe how any specific RPG actually plays.