In the past year on my journey to get my groove back, I have done a lot of thinking about how people approach RPG’s and what people want to get out of their games. All this thinking has helped me find the style of game that I enjoy running, as well as the rules systems that best support that kind of play. Along the way, I have started to see some patterns in how players and GM’s connect with RPGs.
To be honest this concept is still a work in progress. I don’t think that the basic ideas are new; In some ways this concept has some relation to Robin Laws’ player types, as well as some of Ron Edwards GNS theoryÂ . For this article I am going to use the term Level.
The levels are the different ways that a player (or GM) interacts with an RPG when they are playing the game, as well as when they are thinking about the game away from the table. Every RPG exists, to some extent, on these four levels.
For this discussion I am going to focus on the way players interact with the levels, as they have more of an ability to move between these levels than a GM, who has to operate on each of these levels in some capacity.
As for the levels themselves…
The Game Level
For me, I think this is the first level of interaction, because I can’t think of a more basic way to interact with an RPG. At this level, the interaction is occurring with the mechanics of the game. The player’s focus is on the rules and using the rules to play the game. They see their character in terms of how it relates to the game; a series of numbers and rules.
A player who is playing on this level is enjoying the mechanical challenges that the game presents and enjoys the times in the game that include the use of the most rules. Often, based on page count in most rule books, this will be combat. These players enjoy playing mechanically complex characters (i.e. wizards, multi-classed characters, etc) because they have the most rules to master. Without a doubt players who are playing on this level enjoy games with high crunch and complex rules.
The player on this level enjoys the mastery of the rules and using the rules to “win” encounters. They often optimize their character builds (i.e. min/max) as a form of rules mastery. They like difficult encounters to overcome, proving their skill with the rules system.
A player focused at this level is not connected to who their character is beyond what is listed on the character sheet, and does not see their character beyond its role as a piece in the game; a very complex top hat of sorts. They interact with the overall story as a means to move from one encounter to another, in order to reach the next mechanical challenge.
The player who is overly focused on this level is in essence playing a complex board game. They can become annoyed with other players who do not share the same focus, as they are too much into the “talkie parts.”
The Character Level
The next level where the players connect to the RPG is their characters, as dramatic personalities within the story. At this level there is a focus on the personality and actions of the character. The character becomes the persona for the player. They are defined in terms of personality and background.
A player who is engaged on this level is enjoying portraying their characters at the table. They have a voice for their character, as well as mannerisms, and possibly a prop or two. They know what would be logical for their character to do and not to do, and act accordingly. They have likely developed a backstory to provide reasons for their personality. Making their character as realistic as possible to the campaign world is very important.
The main source of enjoyment for a player focused on this level is through their portrayal of their character at the table. They like to be that character, and interact with the world. They will be equally entertained having a conversation with an NPC as they will be fighting off a monster, as long as they do it “in character”. They enjoy being a character in an unfolding story.
Being overly focused at the Character level can create its own challenges. This type of over-focus tends to lead to spotlight hogging, as the player wants more and more character time at the detriment of the story and other players.
The Group Level
At this level the player sees their character as part of the greater group of characters. They begin to look at the relationships which make up the group, as well as the drama that comes from having relationships with the other characters.
A player who is engaged on this level begins to form relationships with the other characters, and develops reasons for why the characters are together in the first place. They become less concerned with personal success and begin to focus on group success to the point of being able to put their character in harms way if it is for the betterment of the group. At the same time the player may create complex or challenging relationships with other members of the group, in order to create intra-party tension as a way to make the group dynamic more complex.
The main source of enjoyment for a player at this level is through the overall activities of the group. They will appreciate individual scenes with their character, but will be equally interested in having conversations with other members of the group, and playing out some of the intra-party tensions created. They will find enjoyment in the ability of the group, acting together, to overcome obstacles in the game.
A player overly focused on this level will want everything to revolve around the group, putting aside individual story lines as well as being upset when the group is split up for any long duration. In addition a player could overly focus on creating and playing out intra-party conflict bringing progress in the overall story to a halt.
The Story Level
This level is where the players connect to the story being created at the table. The focus is not on their character’s role, and it moves beyond the group, becoming attuned to the flow and direction of the greater story for which the character is a part. They see themselves helping to collaborate with the rest of the table to reach a dramatic goal. They tend to look at the story in terms of flow, drama, and focus.
A player who is focusing on this level enjoys crafting a collaborative story with the others at the table. They have a feel for where the story is going and what actions would make the story more entertaining. At this level, their character is a tool to be used to move the story. These players are comfortable in the spotlight, but only when it makes sense, and gladly give up the spotlight to another if that is best for the story.
The main source of enjoyment for a player at this level is to craft a great story. A great story is not a string of continued successes, but rather a mix of failures, setbacks and successes. To this effect, the player is not opposed to putting their character or the group in danger, or making sub-optimal choices, if it results in a better story.
The challenge for a player who is overly focused at this level is that they may try to overreach their ability to direct the story and can be perceived by other players as trying to direct their characters or take over the story. The GM may also feel like the player is usurping some of their narrative authority.
Traversing the Levels
A player engages the game at one or more of these levels during the course of a game. In most cases players will enjoy one of these levels the most, one the least, and the others in the middle.
It’s been my experience that most “traditional” players connect at the Game and Character level, then at the Group level, but not as frequently to the Story level. They often leave the Story Level of the game to the GM. Conversely, more “indie” type games tend to focus more at the Character, Group, and Story levels, with many of these games focusing on player agency and collaborative storytelling, as well as having more streamlined mechanics reducing the Game level focus.
I think that its also possible that during play the focus can shift from one level to another. A game could be having a high focus on Character and/or Story, when a fight breaks out. The GM then calls for initiative as she rolls out a battle mat, and suddenly the focus moves to the Game level.
I also think that over time players can shift their focus. When most players come into the hobby, often having previously played boardgames, they come in focused at the Game level. As the player then begins to understand the difference between an RPG and a board game, their focus moves to the Character level, as they get into being their character. The Group level comes naturally after that, as the player begins to tie their character to the other characters in the party. Later the player discovers that they are one part in a greater collaboration to create a story and they can begin to focus at the the Story level.
This idea of different levels of the game gives us a framework (one of several) to look at what our players want from a game so that we, as GM’s, can prep a game which connects with our players at the levels they enjoy the most. I will talk more about that in my next article.
In the meantime, if you want to hear more about this idea, come check out the Misdirected Mark podcast (Episode 96) Â where I talk more about it – although in that recording I did not have the Group level thought out, so you will only hear of the other three.
I know that I have no problems traversing the levels based on momentary circumstances. If not in combat or other direct game level involvement, then the emphasis is character or group depending on who is active at the moment. The story level is in the background at all times and kept in mind, while whatever direct interactions are occuring at the moment. I share this level of interaction with 2 other players in our group.
There are a couple players in our group that are always stuck in game level and only cursorily ever venture into character level, while story and group is the confines that the game level is applied within.
Still each is having fun within their own willingness to traverse the levels, and despite incongruity between all members of our table in how interaction takes place – we work well as a team and accept whatever willingness or lack there of, for each individual player in the group.
I don’t really have anything to add, but I thought this article was quite insightful. I’m looking forward to the next one, which will hopefully go from ‘theory’ to ‘here’s what this is useful for’ 😉
I think you are on to something. Here is some food for thought.
First, an old article by Brian Gleichman about layers of play:
Taking this in one direction is a very poetic Vincent Baker blog post:
In another direction is an important outcome of the Daedelus Project:
(That whole site is full of fantastic findings, and is a great read.)
Good article, and a less pessimistic view than some I’ve seen.
I’ve come to realize I like all four. I thought I was all “indie” but I find that when the rules are very “rules light” I miss some of the “gameyness.”
Sometimes, when the story is sputtering, and the group and it’s characters are confused, if the mechanics are fun just as a game, you can get your groove back (ooh! 🙂 and the engine starts firing again and you can find yourself carried over the rough spots by gamey fun.
For example, when I ran Ashen Stars, I brought in some crunch from Night’s Black Agents. Both are GUMSHOE games and both are fun, but the mechanics at a personal level are so simple in Ashen Stars they didn’t carry us when everything else wound down. Starship combat was a nice game.
To be sure, Night’s Black Agents and Ashen Stars starship combat are incredibly rules light if you compare them to high crunch games like Pathfinder or 4E. But even in rules light land, a little crunch can be fun.