- Sensation. These are games that engage the senses directly. RPGs that have mini’s, terrain, handouts, and things we can touch, pick up, and interact with physically, exist in this kind of fun. Savage Worlds players are said to love their toys. They look great on the table and give them things to touch and move around. People who also like to incorporate music into their games enjoy sensation as fun. Those Syrinscape and BattleBards users are part of the sensation as fun crowd. Our own Gnome in Chief also enjoys the visual and visceral appeal of stuff on the game table. If you like to see, touch, and feel things as part of your gaming experience, then your fun is found in sensation.
- Fantasy. These games don’t exist in our world, or if they do the world is changed enough that we can suspend our disbelief and separate from the everyday for a little while. More so, we can take on the personas of people and visit places that only exist in our wildest dreams. D&D is the classic fantasy game. Take up arms and battle mystical and fantastical monsters and foes in a world of swords and sorcery. While D&D is the classic, any elements of the experience that get us to exist in the fantasy will do, from the outer horrors of Call of Cthulhu to the lovable and honorable mice of Mouse Guard. If you just want to disconnect from the drudgery of reality for a while, then your fun is in fantasy.
- Narrative. When it comes to RPGs this element of fun is all encompassing. Every RPG I have ever encountered has narrative as a part of its fun. Often we play RPGs to create or experience stories, from ones that are embedded into the games we’re playing where we only have a minimal impact on how they play out, to games that let us build everything about the narrative, and every game that lands somewhere in between. If you enjoy storytelling, and I’m sure you do since you’re reading Gnome Stew, then narrative is your kind of fun.
- Challenge. Challenge is an odd bird in RPGs. Many people play for the challenge of overcoming the obstacles with the tools that your character has, but challenge is very much an illusion in RPGs. It’s the problem with having a human being as the GM. They need to make calls based on what they see as correct within the rules of the game, the setting, and a hundred other factors both external and internal, so while something looks like a challenge in an RPG it may really be more about discovery, expression, (both of which we will get to later) or narrative–telling the story of how we overcame the thing. Now if you’re into finishing the story that’s challenge. If you’re into setting up a situation and then letting it play out according to the rules, that’s also challenge, but–and I’ll editorialize here a bit more than in the rest of this–RPGs are not the best kind of game if challenge is what you seek for fun.
- Fellowship. A lot of games are about being social. Apples to Apples, or Cards Against Humanity, are about bringing people together to socialize and the activity is secondary. Yes, there’s a win condition in those games, but the experience, humor, and camaraderie that happens during the game is more important than the game itself. RPGs are quite good at this. We’re conversing constantly and interacting with each other, building bonds within play that often translate outside of play. If gaming is more about the people and hanging out with your friends, then your fun is found in fellowship.
- Discovery. This is another area where RPGs excel. Being excited by what’s behind the next door, what’s in the next hex, or what’s on the flash drive you just stole, is all about discovery. If you want to see what’s around the corner, or just over the horizon, then you find your fun in discovery. Earlier I mentioned discovery in relation to challenge. Sometimes the discovery is about how to overcome the problem at hand. The reason I don’t think of it as challenge and more as discovery is because when you can’t overcome the obstacle, or you don’t find a solution, the narrative and game grind to a halt. To me that means challenge isn’t really what we’re looking for, but rather a way to discover a solution, or at least discover how you die. I do love watching people walk into the green devil mouth in the Tomb of Horrors and discover they’re just dead.
- Expression. This is another element that is almost all encompassing when it comes to RPGs. Expression is about story creation and self-expression. We bring a bit of ourselves to the game table when we play, and we leave ourselves in those stories we helped create through the characters we’ve come up with, the way we worked through any obstacles that arose, and all the other pieces that we helped create during a session. If you like to be creative and leave your mark on a game, then your fun is about expression.
- Submission. Go ahead. Get the giggles out. We’re not talking about kneeling before Zod or anything even more adult. We’re actually talking about how this kind of fun is in being consistent. The campaign and game night as an event that is regularly attended. The enjoyment of knowing you have that night of the week or monthly weekend game session with your friends. These are the elements that make up the fun of submission. The ritual of gathering together. If you find solace in that, then being part of the ongoing event is where you find your fun.
These eight types of fun aren’t exclusive to each other, more like dials that get turned up and down for different experiences. Board, Card, Video, and Role Playing Games are all made up of different kinds of fun. Within those categories of games there are even more variations. Think of the difference in the kind of fun that one has in a Fiasco game compared to a Pathfinder game. Both are fun, but are different kinds of fun.
I’ve found fun in all of these elements, I like a lot of different kinds of games, but expression and narrative are where I get the most enjoyment out of my play time. It’s no wonder I play a lot of RPGs. So with that thought I’ll leave you with the question: Which of these elements make up your kind of fun? What mixture of the types of fun do you attribute to the games you play?
This article is based on MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research  by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. It was inspired by Role Playing Public Radio’s Panel: The Case Against Fun – Social Critique & RPGs