Since 2007 I have been an organizer for the Denver RPG group, a Meetup.com group of over 2,200 role players across the Colorado Front Range. When each member joins, they are asked a seemingly simple question: Why do you want to join our group?
The most frequent response to this question is some form of “I want to play D&D.” Over the last decade I’ve seen this response more than a thousand times. But I suspect the reason a person plays role playing games is about more than the rules framework or setting from one game. What is it that people really want from role playing games? Misunderstood desires or expectations can leave people dissatisfied , and can even result in people leaving the hobby because the first group or game system they happened upon did not give them the experience they wanted.
It took me years to be able to articulate what I wanted from a game group. In the end it has very little to do with what game we play, and far more to do with how we approach role playing as a group. Presented here are some tools that can help start the discussion about the group style or group culture that will help the participants to get the most out of their gaming experience.
The table below describes the combinations I see based on the intensity of the rules (relaxed or focused rules) and the story (light or deep story). I have purposefully not associated settings or systems because this is meant to speak to the style of the group. The majority of rules systems or settings can be adapted to create the experience the facilitator and players want. If a certain framework absolutely doesn’t fit, the group will be able to figure that out pretty quickly by assessing whether or not they are having fun.
These are not value judgments – one style is not “better” or “right” and the other is not “worse” or “wrong.” The goal is to help players find a game group that is the right fit, which will lead to more enjoyment and fulfillment for everyone. If everyone is enjoying their RPG experience, mission accomplished!
|Group Style||Relaxed Rules||Rules Focused|
|Light Story||Casual Gaming||Crunchy Combat|
|Deep Story||Intense and Immersive||Campaign Stories*|
*A potential evolution of one of the other group styles.
Relaxed rules, light story: This game style provides a great reason to get together with your friends and enjoy each other’s company while slinging some dice. Expect combat regularly interspersed with role play and a fair amount of out-of-game conversation about life, work, and pop culture references, aka “table talk.” The GM is excited for players to try unexpected and over-the-top actions and probably uses the improvisational “yes, and” or “yes, but” tools. The core experience is getting to spend time with your friends. (This style of gaming is sometimes referred to as “Beer and Pretzels”, however literal beer and pretzels are not required.)
Rules focused, light story: Sometimes the fun in a game is from optimizing character stats to create a superhuman avatar or otherwise pushing the system to its limits (Peasant Railgun, I’m looking at you). Feeling effective in game is an integral part of the role playing experience. Feeling like you got the absolute maximum level of capability from your character can make the game especially fun. Dice rolling and combat are likely to be the core component of this group’s game style with the players following through on plot hooks with a combination of problem solving, destruction, and looting at the other end. The GM may take on a direct adversarial role to the players. Experience points, leveling up, and accumulating powerful gear will be important to participants in this game culture. The core experience is pushing the rules and your character to the breaking point and winning the day by defeating your opponents.
Intense and Immersive
Relaxed rules, deep story: In this style of gaming group the story, tone, and emotions elicited are the fundamental experience. The rules system or setting provides a framework for the shared experience, but knowing the rules inside-out probably won’t enhance the participant’s enjoyment of the game session. This group style attracts players who trust their group and are interested in having a high degree of vulnerability at the table. The players may share the narrative authority, blurring the line between game master and player. In these games the drama of failure may serve the story better (and be more satisfying) than success. Role playing is the core experience with combat interspersed if desired, winning is telling a memorable story.
Rules focused, deep story: This group culture takes time to build and likely evolves from a different style that the players used to initially get to know one another. It can work well with a dedicated group with a deep knowledge of the rules system. Game play vacillates between meaningful role play and intense combat. The stakes are high and threat of character death is real. Simulationist style mechanics are embraced as a way to immerse the players in a combat that feels as true to life as possible without leaving the gaming table. Extensive player and GM knowledge of rules means that the group isn’t bogged down by having to research how to do something in the heat of the moment. Getting the rules right is as important to the participants as keeping the tension high. The core experience is character and story development that take place at the game table over months or years.
I have multiple role playing groups, each with a slightly different group style. Since I know what I want from each group my expectations of what constitutes a satisfying session shifts. For me, finding gamers that thrive together as a team by embracing the same game style is far more important than the system or setting we play in.
What style of play do you seek out most frequently? Has your style of play changed over time? What other group styles have you seen?
My style preference fluctuate between Crunchy Combat and Intense and Immersive, with attempts at Campaign Stories that usually leave me unsatisfied because A) there are individuals that are not Rules focused enough or B) there are individuals that are not into Deep Story. I would say at my start I was into casual with preference to the Crunchy (started on 3.5 D&D) just having fun and blurring/bending the rules where it seemed fun. Now I tend to want either Crunchy or Immersive now that I’m more comfortable ‘Role’ playing, as opposed to ‘Roll’ playing.
I enjoyed the article and have one thought that I think it worth mentioning. The “Discovery Group Style” I put this in it’s own, or at least call out to it because as you said, I know TONS of people who know I play ‘D&D’ and want to play ‘D&D’ but they’re not really sure what they wont out of it other than they’ve heard of it. It’s like saying, “I want to learn to play an instrument” without the slightest idea on what instrument, or even what type of instrument. To me the Discovery style is one where it intends to incorporate all styles between sessions or even in an individual session to ‘try out’ what people want/like.
Keeping the instrument analogy going, if someone wants to play an instrument you dont want to just teach them 1 thing, but let them try out drums, guitar, piano, trumpet, etc, etc.. until they either find something they they enjoy or are good at; or until they realize they don’t really want to play an instrument and take the time to figure it out. If you give an individual Crunchy Combat their first session and their personality is that of Deep Story, it might end their attempt into the Hobby ever again.
Anyway, it’s a bit long winded and there’s more too it, but that’s my thought. [Or at least footnote; a bit of a call out to any GMs who might be trying to incorporate new players or run games for new players]
JP, I agree that trying out different styles is the best way to start off. I highly suggest people attend gaming conventions and special RPG events to try out play styles, systems, GMs, and other players. Getting to “try before you buy” a GM or game group by playing together at an event is way more powerful and (I believe) predictive of success than reading a game/system/setting description online and deciding to join a group based on that.
I’ve played with the same core group for 11 years, it has the potential to get stale (I’ve been RP-ing for 30 years and I am hoping to continue for 30+ more). I find that my play style has definitely evolved thanks to conventions and pushed myself to try new things I’d probably be getting repetitive. Even though I only play with some people for 4 hours at a convention there are many who challenge my idea of what interesting role playing can be, they can change me. And that is a very good thing.
I hope this article can help established GMs (or groups) to give a clear “elevator pitch” for their game so that they attract the right people to their tables. I have lots of gamer friends who are fun and awesome people but who I don’t mesh with in a RPG due to our preferred styles. It can be very hard to break-up with a group of people you like, but if you set clear expectations up front for what everyone values and enjoys I think people will have to do the break-up less often. 🙂
Cheers and happy gaming!
In this context, is “Relaxed Rules” analogous to a lighter rule system, or a lighter adherence to following the defined rules? Conversely, is “Rules Focused” analogous to a more crunchy rules mechanic, or the adherence to a more strict adherence to following the defined rules?
Matt, I see it as sufficiently broad to cover both. Relaxes rules and rules focused are more about the group’s attitude toward the rules system though some systems lend themselves towards groups that prefer one over the other.
As the older I get, the more and more we move into the casual gamer group style. People have lives, families, differing priorities and jobs. Schedules are hard to get right, and when we actually get together, there is as much catching up as there is gaming. For most in my group, its a chance to escape for a few hours away from kids, jobs, and commitments.
Life can get in the way of gaming for sure! Setting the expectation for they style becomes even more important when your time together is so precious. I am glad you have a great group to play with and that you are having fun!
I’ve always believed that the rules should take second place to the story. A good GM can bend, and sometimes break, the rules without the players even noticing. IMHO that is the most important quality in a GM, the ability, and flexibility, to adjust to each wrench that players can, and will, throw into your carefully laid plans. After all, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. 😛 As long as your story is compelling, players won’t even notice being pulled by the nose in the direction you want… and will keep coming back for more.
TR;DR – Deep and Immersive, which usually leads to campaigns as the natural progression.
I have a question: may i post some additional thoughts about groups as being viewed through someone reviewing their activites and how that might alter their feelings for the groups performance as a whole?