On Objective Design, Player Types

Categorizing people into player types is an exercise in superiority, cliquishness and judgement.

Let's not be like that.

There are two dimensions to Player Categorization (Archtypes) in objective design.

1.) What do players get to do during the game?

and

2.) What experiences do players seek from those activities?

Game Activities

What do players actually get to do during the game?


Engage Gameplay: Most often this means utilizing the combat engine of a game, but it just as easily refers to skill rolls, space combat, or unique mini-games designed by the Dungeon Master. They are characterized by each player getting to take an individual turn, important stakes of some kind to give meaning to the outcome of the conflict, and utilizing both the skills of the player and the player's avatar, whether that be her character, a ship, or their gambling skill

Planning and Resource Management: This is a discussion about what to do next or how to do it. It is characterized by asking questions about the situation and the facts, asking questions about what needs to be done, and asking questions about what the players are able to do. This can be planning for a Shadowrun, solving a puzzle or riddle, or figuring out how to recover a treasure glimpsed through a translucent portal.

Exploration: This means many things. It is exploring sites like dungeons, but it is also talking with people in the game, or even asking questions about the setting. Exploration is done when you choose where to go, talk to non-player characters, roll on a random table, or even read the rule-book to pick a class. You are gathering information about the world. 

Upkeep and Logistics: This is the one most likely to be misunderstood and in error. 

Did you record your treasure? Update your experience? Calculate your combat bonus? Figure out how much it is going to cost to manage that Castle? What's your encumbrance value? 

Do not assume that this category is one to be avoided. Upkeep and Logistics add depth and weight to the choices made during the game--they add reality to the world. There are a great many games that dispose of these outright, but making that choice comes with a sacrifice. Having that last arrow, or needing the gold that badly can force choice and create drama without removing agency at all. 

It is also crucial to realize that having these choices does not mean tedium. You can manage weight by stone instead of pound. You can track ammunition via die roll, instead of counting down. 

Socializing: Hanging out is great! This is a key part of the experience, playing a game with actual real people. It's not casual to enjoy the company of other people. 

Game Experiences

What experiences do those activities provide? What things do the players seek?

Gameplay

  • Competence: "Power-gamer" is derisive and inaccurate. Some players receive a charge by being good or skillful at the game.   
  • Empowerment: A hero is you. Mastering the game presented allows you to succeed and feel a measure of power.
  • Tactical Acumen: This is a localized specific form of problem solving. It provides positive reinforcement for system mastery.
Planning

  • Problem-solving: This isn't always solving puzzles and riddles. Sometimes this is the good idea on the moment's spur. Thinking of the right idea, being creative, or solving the puzzle.
  • Leadership: Making a final decision or coming up with a plan effectively means you are acting as leader. This is relevant whether or not you are using an actual party leader or a caller.
  • Impact: The choices made by the players in this stage can have long term effects in the play environment. 
Exploration

  • Role-Assumption: Putting yourself into a situation that isn't real, or putting yourself into  the mindset of a person that isn't you is both pleasurable and cathartic. This is the need that is fulfilled by the player who always plays a dwarf or wizard or perhaps someone from popular media. They find comfort in their role.
  • Discovery: The exploration explorer. They are looking for relationships between things. This can be romantic relationships between non-player characters, the dungeon layout, the contents of hexes, or how the gate works to get into the treasure chamber. It is the environment and its relationship to the world and the player that is being explored. 
  • Theatrics: Exploration often involves non-aggressive conflict and interaction with non-player characters. It provides the opportunity to talk to other players and the Dungeon Master in your role.
Logistics

  • Transposition: These mechanical pieces that dictate the realities of the realm that you are exploring allow disbelief to be suspended. Dealing with the logistics of weather damage or the expense of psionic strength points add to the cohesiveness of the experience for the player. 
  • Achievement: Earning experience through rigid objective goals means that achievement in the game is an actual accomplishment instead of something that is given. Making good decisions about resource expenditure is satisfying when the advantages are gained.
Socializing

  • Social Needs: In a literal sense, socializing fulfills the third level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Although infrequently used by designers, games can be designed to specifically encourage this need. 
  • Savoir Faire: Doing things to save the day or using cool powers at an appropriate moment. This is the social side reward to several of the needs above. It matters because people see it.
  • Relaxation: Killing bad guys and taking their loot fulfills your need for fun and enjoyment. This activity often works at odds with providing difficult challenges to players which can cause frustration as well as a feeling of accomplishment.

Story

Notice how "Story" isn't in there. The above categorizations can be used to structure a fast-paced TV-episode type of game as well as a traditional dungeon crawl. 

I've always been disturbed by it being a label for players. What role-playing game doesn't have a story? Perhaps the Dungeon Master has a grand plot occurring in the world, perhaps every occurrence is only a sequence of random events that upon later reflection tells of your rise to power, perhaps care is taken to structure thematic arcs within the activities above.

The presence or absence of 'story' and the 'storyteller' or 'storygamer' type seems orthogonal to actual concrete objective design (The Vorthos/Melvin axis, Thank you Mark Rosewater). You can have as much or as little of it as you like with great success, so long as you allow the players agency.

But there is no "Story" activity when playing a game, unless you count sitting there and listening to the Dungeon Master read. That isn't playing a game.

Negative Space

There is no category for the disruptive player, griefer, overtalker, rules-lawyer or other various common ailments, because those are social ills, and cannot be resolved by rules or design. 

Can that be clear enough? No in-game or out-of-game rule can address emotions or substitute for communication. Having a mechanic that forces someone to be quiet does not resolve the issue. If they are not cogent enough to table it when you say "We can deal with it later" or wave it off, then why would a rule make it ok?

The answer is, it doesn't. It simply provides space for one person to make an argument to authority instead of dealing with other human beings as, well, human beings. 

Categories

The other thing of crucial note, is that these aren't labels. They are categories. Each player has differing desires at different times for each type of category. Each player is a combined ranking of the goals. They are the rewards that players get from your game.

The Objective Design is to use each of the concrete activities to address specific needs. This ties right in with the Demon of Design Series. You are choosing what to present. Don't just include a bunch of stuff that wastes the players time. You can include things to waste the character's time to accomplish a goal (wandering monster checks increase risk: Logistics->Achievement), but not just to waste time.

Other Research

This is far from the first post on Player types. Wizards of the Coast even performed a quantitative analysis! It's interesting for a couple of reasons, first is that it was likely used to drive the development of 4th edition, which was not a commercial success for Wizards of the Coast. In general it seems that games based of a strong quantitative or theoretical background don't do particularly well in the market.

I am of the opinion that just because some popular things are crap does not mean that a thing cannot be both popular and good. Generally I find that longevity is a good metric of the strength of an idea.

They characterize the "four types of players" into thinkers/power gamers/character actors/and storytellers by placing them on a dual axis graph with a story-combat axis, and a strategic-tactical axis. Though these loosely correlate to the activities of play, I find any poll of players which finds that there is a numerically equal distribution across all types suspect. 

The Point

If you play a lot of role-playing games, you'll find that every moment is filled with one of the five activities. Role-playing game design isn't about presenting a dungeon or a bunch of rules or sussing out purposes of play or any of that jazz. 

It is simply ordering these five activities in sequences and presenting them in interesting ways. All my design articles talk about that. Adventure Design presents the way you can structure these activities. Set design explains how you can present them in publication so that they are a useful artifact in play. The Demon of Design talks about how design is purposeful and should focus on the experience of the players and not other goals at their expense. And this Objective Design series talks about what players get out of the game so you know what to design towards.

That's how this is useful. You already know you're going to have each of the five types of activities. When you create your game and design the activities in, you do so to provide opportunities to meet player needs. You say "This is an opportunity to show leadership, tactical acumen, and problem solving" when you put a puzzle fight requiring teamwork in the game.  

When we speak of Objective design, we talk about how well what is published accomplishes its stated goals. If you present a battle where they win no matter what choice they make, then what need is that fulfilling? And what is the cost of fulfilling that need? A successful game or module overloads each of the concrete events within it to fulfill multiple needs, and makes sure to not neglect the majority of them to focus on just one. 

There are examples here, and here of other methods of categorizing players. See if you can spot the difference between the ones that are categorized because it is helpful towards the goal of making a product* and those that are categorized to make someone feel better about the way they engage in an activity.

"Well, I'm the good one here!

*Let's also not get too commercial here. They are designed to help making a product because the person wants to make a product that is actually hella-fun to use. They want to maximize the enjoyment of the experience they are preparing. Making money from that is an extremely optional byproduct. Reference OSR blogs.


4 comments:

  1. I agree that it's a lot more useful to examine the different kinds of activities in gaming than the different "kinds" of players there are.

    It strikes me that the gamers that are typically described as "storytellers" or "story-focused" are defined less by the actions they want to perform while gaming than they are by what they want the results of those actions to be. I think what some players want most is to be able to look back at a session (or a series of sessions, or an entire campaign) and feel like the resulting story felt like a novel or a movie or a TV show, with a dramatic arc (or arcs) and a satisfying conclusion. What they do during the game is less important to them than the end result of those actions.

    (I should note here that I'm not really speaking for myself here - my primary interests tend to be what you describe as "impact" and "discovery". However, I've had some long conversations with some of the people I game with who consider themselves to be "story-focused".)

    This is a bit of a detour, but I think that one factor that often leads to confusion in these conversations is that there's a difference between activities that make people happy while they're doing them, and activities that make people happy when they anticipate them or remember them. Vacations are a great example of this - it's very common for people to not enjoy actually being on vacation very much, but they enjoy anticipating and remembering their vacations a great deal.

    When some people talk about what they want from a game, they're talking about what they want to be happening during the game. For other people, what they anticipate or remember is more important to them. A lot of arguments over agency vs. "story" seem to me to have this distinction at their heart. Personally, I believe that it's possible to generate a satisfying story (in the sense outlined above) without sacrificing player agency. But it requires a well-designed game and a certain amount of player (and GM) skill.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I should add that when I say "story" above, I'm not talking about the kind of story that is merely a sequence of causally-linked events involving the same characters, but the kind of story that writers and literary critics talk about: dramatic structure, the hero's journey, etc. Many game sessions (or even campaigns) don't produce a structure that resembles a classic narrative - the action takes place in a series of vignettes that don't really form much of an arc. Even if the players' actions have meaningful consequences, those consequences don't necessarily play out in a way that resembles the form of a traditional narrative. Personally, I don't see that as a problem, but some players do.

    When you couple the desire for narrative structure with a belief that such a structure can only be achieved if outcomes are determined in advance, you get the canard that "story" requires players to sacrifice their agency.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would argue that "story" in RPGs is the result of actual play. The story unfolds with each campaign session, a result of the choices the players make in response to the circumstances that the GM presents, which are followed by the GM bringing about consequences of the player's actions. This interplay plays out over a campaign, and it's not a stretch to say that the full "story" of a campaign is not complete until said campaign is over.

    This is a great post that I'm adding to my re-read list

    ReplyDelete
  4. When I play, I like to take turns in each of WotC's player quadrants. That's one thing that makes it fun. Very meta? Sure. But playing the same way every time fills me with ennui.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...