Series Info...#7: The Building Blocks of RPGs, Part 1: Theoretical Bases

by Travis S. Casey
May 4, 2001

A complete RPG consists of many things. There's the game system, which is the set of rules by which the game is played and run. A system by itself is a game, but it's not really a role-playing game, because there are no roles to play. The system must be married to a setting, which gives the background that players will use to create their characters and in which those characters will move. A setting in the abstract is of little use when it comes time to actually play the game, though — while it's good to know who your characters are and where they came from, those characters need something to do. That element, the something for the characters to do, is a scenario.

However you slice it up, however, a Role-Playing Game is a game that's about role-playing. So... what is role-playing? This is an important question; the answer that someone chooses to it defines what a role-playing game should be, and thereby dictates the design of all three of the above aspects — system, setting, and scenarios.

This time around, then, we're going on a tour of different ideas about role- playing. What it is, what different aspects there are, and so forth. It's all going to be on the theoretical side of things, but don't worry — we'll get to practical application in future columns.

A Definition of Role-Playing.

So, let's start out by defining role-playing. Note that this is my definition; I won't try to claim that it's the definition; if you have one you like better, bring it up in the forum! To me, role-playing is making decisions in character — that is, on the basis of "what would my character do in this situation" instead of something like "what's going to work best under this set of rules" or "what's most likely to get me the treasure". An integral part of role-playing, then, is defining who your character is — the character's goals, ethics, morals, blind spots, and everything else that dictates what decisions they will make.

A corollary of this is that single-player RPGs are possible — after all, you don't need to have someone else around in order to make decisions for your character. This is very different from some points of view, in which role-playing is the act of interacting with other characters; under that sort of point of view, a single-player RPG can't really be an RPG unless and until a level of AI is achieved that can make interactions with NPCs believable.

Another point of view that sometimes get bandied about is that role-playing is "getting inside your character's head" — that is, being able to "become" that character for a time. Going from my definition, that's one way to role-play, but it's not the only way — as long as you're making the decisions for your character that your character would make with the information he/she has, you're roleplaying under my definition. You can do that from an external point of view, asking yourself, "What would Bob do in this situation". You can also do it from an internal point of view, trying to be Bob and then asking "What would I do", but that's not truly necessary.

Three Points of View

OK, so we've got a basic definition. Or at least, I've got one — if you don't agree with it, that's fine. What really matters here is that you have some definition that you can articulate, because otherwise you're designing blind, not really knowing what it is that you want to encourage or discourage.

It's useful to be able to examine other points of view than your own, though, so let's talk about some points of view on role-playing. First, I'd like to talk about a set of points of view that have been worked out and discussed on, which there are sometimes called the threefold model.

This model says that there are three basic approaches to playing (and gamemastering) role-playing games: dramatist, gamist, and simulationist. The dramatist approach says that the dramatic aspects of RPGs are most important: to put it another way, dramatism is about the story. The gamist approach considers the game primarily as a game: that is, as a set of challenges designed for the players to try to overcome, acting within a set of rules. Simulationism considers the game to be a simulation of a particular world: the main interest is on "what would really happen" under the given circumstances.

Note that these three styles are not exclusive of each other; any real person's style is generally going to be a mix of these three, with different amount of emphasis on each. People can even vary in the style they prefer depending on what they're playing; for example, playing one game for the story (dramatist) but another because they're interested in figuring out how to overcome the challenges in that game (gamist).

The value of this classification isn't so much in trying to classify players as one or the other, as in the realization that these are different reasons why people play RPGs, and that people will make different decisions about what's a good game and what isn't depending on their viewpoint. To put it another way, it's a way to get a handle on "who am I designing this for?"

Four Types of Players

The threefold model is a somewhat abstracted way of looking at things; it's not so much about what players do, but about why. So let's take a look at the what, with Bartle's suits. These come from an article by Richard Bartle, who was one of the creators of MUD1. Bartle divides up players into four types:

Achievers (or Diamonds, using the metaphor of card suits) are players who give themselves game-related goals and set out to achieve them. This could be reaching a certain level, or being the best at a certain activity, or establishing their own guild, or any of a number of other things.

Explorers (or Spades) are players who want to learn about the game. They enjoy discovering things — new ways to get from point A to point B, how to get past a particular room, and so forth.

Socializers (or Hearts) are interested in the game as a vehicle of interaction with other people. Relationships with other players are what's important to them.

Killers (or Clubs) are interested in demonstrating their superiority over other players, generally in a very direct way — thus the name of this category. While "player-killers" are a part of this group, however, it also includes those who compete not to achieve a particular pre-set goal, but to prove that they're better than the other players.

There's a lot that can be written about these four categories and how they interact, and we'll get to some of it in future columns. If you really want to look at them in depth, though, I strongly recommend Bartle's essay that I linked to above. If you're interested in more info about the threefold model right now, I'd recommend John Kim's FAQ on it.

Well, that's it for this time... a bit short after last time's magnum opus, but we're just getting started on this topic, really. Next time I'll be talking about using these models in designing games and scenarios. See you in two weeks!

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