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?