On Playing Styles and Adventure Design

The other day, I was writing up my thoughts on the Call of Cthulhu Weimar-era Germany supplement Berlin – The Wicked City and I started trying to put my finger on what it was that bothered me about the three interlinked adventures that comprise the bulk of the book’s page count. It wasn’t that the writer had ‘fucked up’ Weimar-era Germany or that the adventures were poorly written. In fact, I found the adventures to be well-researched, cleverly-structured and evocative in both tone and detail. Those were good adventures, but I had absolutely no desire to run them.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realise that while the adventures were richly detailed and tightly-structured, they left little to no room for personal creativity on the part of the person running them. This led me to reflect upon the reasons why I roleplay and what kind of published material would support my style of play.

Back in October 1980, Different Worlds magazine published an article entitled “Aspects of Adventure Gaming”. Written by Glenn Blacow, this piece is now widely seen as the foundational work of RPG Theory in so far as it tried to engage with the act of roleplaying in terms more sophisticated than whether or not one was playing the game correctly. According to Blacow, different people approached the hobby with different sets of needs and these different sets of needs manifested themselves as a range of different playing-styles determined by what the player preferred doing and what they hoped to get out of a session. However, what makes Blacow’s piece interesting is not just the idea that there are different types of player but also that these types represent sets of needs that are so radically different as to be functionally irreconcilable.

The roleplaying hobby has always had a shockingly short attention span combined with a real lack of institutional memory. The fact that most games are played in small isolated groups means that there has always been a lack of spaces in which to collectively process ideas and the fragility of what spaces there are means that RPG culture has a tendency to keep re-discovering the same sets of ideas. This is particularly evident in the way that, once every few years, someone will come up with a list of playing styles and everyone will get incredibly excited. For example, in 2001, Robin D. Laws wrote a book that expanded Blacow’s list of playing styles from 4 to 6. Then, in 2003, Hunter Logan argued that there were actually 13 different types of role-player.

While Blacow, Laws, and Logan were quite content for their playing-styles to gloss over the exact nature of what was represented by the various types, other theorists tried to imbue the styles with a bit more philosophical substance. For example, the Usenet forum rec.games.frp.advocacy came up with the Threefold Model which argued that gamers tended to approach RPGs with three broad sets of values. Born of the late 1990s, the Threefold Model would inspire first GNS and then the Big Model as well as all of the other ideas that came out of the Forge forums in the early-to-mid 2000s.

Surveying the invention, re-invention, and expansion of Blacow’s original taxonomy, I am fascinated by the fact that while the various models all purport to carve the role-playing population up into different sets of people, none of them acknowledges the most obvious distinction between different types of players. Indeed, from the 1970s all the way through to the rise of story-games in the late 2000s, every RPG table has had a clear division of labour between the people who run games and the people who play in them.

If we look at the ideas and games that came out of the Forge in the 2000s, it makes perfect sense that those thinkers would refuse to draw a distinction between players and GMs. Indeed, while one could argue the point back-and-forth, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the defining difference between traditional and non-traditional RPGs is that traditional RPGs have GMs while non-traditional RPGs do away with GMs by deconstructing the role and re-allocating their powers and responsibilities amongst the players as well as the author of the game.

Given that most recent high-profile theoretical writings come from the creators of non-traditional RPGs, it is unsurprising that the role of the GM has received little theoretical attention other than as a sort of rhetorical punching bag. Indeed, to the extent that people do write about GMs, it’s mostly to describe them as problematic tyrants who need to be brought to heel by their players. As someone who has, over the years, played with a lot of shitty and problematic GMs, I am sympathetic to that reaction but I also think that wanting to write, and run a traditional game for your friends is both a legitimate creative role and something that deserves a bit more elucidation.

The reason I have decided to write about this issue is that I recently came across a series of excellent pieces by Eero Tuovinen. Back in March, he commented that the role of the GM in traditional RPGs involves a slightly different set of skills to that of the player.  He then followed this up with another intriguing piece about social hierarchies and how different groups might try to resolve the tension between the desire for egalitarianism and the fact that traditional GMing requires an imbalanced set of creative forces.

I have a great deal of respect for Eero as despite being very much a Forgite thinker, he makes a real effort to try and understand both the appeal and the mechanics of traditional play. This being said, I do find it quite funny that he feels obliged to present the GM/player divide as a social hierarchy that sits at odds with the egalitarian ethos of the hobby. While I don’t think that it’s absurd to centre the question of power dynamics, I think it does assume a social landscape whereby everyone at the table is a) able to GM and b) waiting for the chance to deploy those kinds of creative skills. Obviously, if everyone has the skill to GM then having one person hoard the narrating responsibilities does result in a power imbalance that needs addressing but I don’t think this reflects the hobby’s actual social landscape.

If you instead assume that only some people in the group have the skill and the desire to run games then having them shoulder the brunt of the narrative responsibility is more akin to a family where only one or two people know how to cook. If the trained chef winds up cooking Christmas dinner every year, we don’t assume that they’re selfishly hoarding the culinary powers… instead we tend to view it either as a gift that they are giving to the rest of the family or we feel a bit guilty about their having to shoulder the burdens alone.

While the traditional GM/Player split is certainly a division of labour, I don’t think you can assume that said division is either intrinsically hierarchical or somehow unfair. As I noted in my piece about paid GMing, loads of people seem willing to pay someone else to shoulder the burdens of game-running and if people are consenting to this supposed power-imbalance then maybe it is neither inherently problematic nor in need of a fix.

In fairness to Eero, while he may start from the Forgite position of viewing the GM/player split as a social hierarchy, he does then go on to suggest that traditional GM/player splits sit alongside non-traditional narrative egalitarianism as one of a number of different social formations that groups can assume. He even goes so far as to perfectly capture the vibe of my current group:

“One GM type pulls the group together and maintains it on the strength of their own creative passions. Typically involves treating gaming as “perfecting the craft”; the GM type is like a crazy scientist who iterates over their own understanding of roleplaying to present ever-improving gaming, with the rest of the group as their audience. The rest of the group consists of player-types, or gamers willing to adopt the player role; they’re there because the game is fun, and don’t generally know or care about the creative concerns of form and technique that the GM wrestles with in preparing the game. The most common type of play group, and also the one most assumed by trad rpg texts.”

While I do enjoy playing in RPGs, I must admit that I much prefer serving as a GM. When I have been in groups with multiple GMs, I have viewed my time as player as a kind of payment of dues: I submit myself to the creative choices of my fellow group-members on the assumption that they will, in turn, submit to mine. This dynamic is similar to the one you find in local music scenes: I sit through your gig and in exchange you sit through mine.

Obviously, this payment of dues is a lot easier when I am playing with people with similar tastes but I have definitely sat through a fair number of tactical dungeon crawls in the hope of one day being able to run a game of my own. In fact, the times when I have parted company with otherwise stable groups tended to be as a result of people either not letting me take my turn or allowing me to take my turn and then not allowing me to provide the experience I had planned.

I admit that this makes me sound quite tyrannical but that’s because I very much tend to approach GMing as an act of authorship: Players are free to make decisions and steer campaigns, but I determine the genre, the subject matter, and the tone, which brings me to the second part of this reflection.

In an ideal world, I would not only have carte blanche to run games in the style I intended, I would also be in a position to write everything that feeds into my games. Obviously, we do not live in an ideal world and the most obvious creative compromise I make is to use published rule-sets. I’ve been playing RPGs for a while but I’ve never had much of an urge to tinker with rules and so I accept that my creative vision will always be partly dependent upon the ideas of another. In practice, I tend to view this as paying someone to do the work that I don’t want to do… I could theoretically learn how rules work and come up with rule-sets that embody the ideas I want to explore in-play or I could throw £40 at a shop and get something a product that does most of the heavy lifting for me.

While I admit that I could not run games without the existence of published rule-sets, I am also aware that some RPG products do too much of the creative work for me. For example, I have no desire to run the adventures in Berlin – The Wicked City because I enjoy making creative choices and those adventures are so comprehensively imagined that they require little to no creative input from me as a GM.

These two poles established, what is left is a vast creative spectrum where I get to pick and choose not only which creative work I want to undertake, but also which pieces of creative work I don’t want to undertake and where to outsource those creative duties.

My problem, as both a consumer and a GM, is that I am not totally clear on which creative duties I want to undertake and even if I were clear, I would not necessarily know which products to buy in order to fill the creative gaps.

For example, I recognise that Chaosium’s Secrets of line of Call of Cthulhu supplements do a really good job of providing you with maps and lists of historic locations, but I have never once run a game in which those kinds of details actually mattered. I can’t imagine running an adventure set in 1920s New York and needing both the name and location of a real-world Speakeasy. Nor can I imagine running a game in which I absolutely needed to know the name of the best hotel in 1923 Los Angeles. This is all good, solid research work that has been undertaken in good faith but I can’t imagine needing to pay for it. Your mileage might vary, obviously. When I pick up a book like Secrets of New York, I am frustrated because the creative work the book contains has almost zero value for me… it’s just not giving me the kind of stuff I need.

The flip side of this particular coin was made manifest when I purchased and reviewed Allan Carey and Nic Holland’s The Mummy of Pemberley Grange, a so-called ‘adventure seed’ that basically boils down to a map, a bunch of hand-outs, some pre-rolled PCs and a vague plot outline. Back when I was running these Type40 products, they felt like a complete swizz as I was paying about $9 a go for little more than a set of writing cues. Having played through all of the adventure seeds that interested me, I migrated towards a series of adventures I had written myself before orbiting back around to some published scenarios that felt ‘complete’ but left me with little room in which to be creative.

While I am still trying to work out what I want from published RPG materials, I think I am a lot closer to understanding not only my creative workflow but also the kinds of products that excite me as both a consumer and a GM. This is not to say that stuff like the Secrets Of line or the adventures in Berlin – The Wicked City are bad, it’s just that it’s important to recognise that there are different types of GMs and that while not all GMs may have the time or the capacity to write their own adventures, not everyone wants to run stuff where the creative decisions have already been made for them.

Looping back to the opening remarks about playing style, Eero also put out a really interesting post about what he calls the architectural order of D&D writing that ranges from the bare-bones, stats n’ maps simplicity of the ‘laconic’ order right up to the thematically sophisticated, evocatively-written, and lavishly-detailed stylings of the ‘literary’ order. As Eero puts it:

“I think Literary order originates in ’80s stuff, not all of it explicitly for D&D; I haven’t researched the origins exactly, but I remember seeing similar patterning in some ’90s TSR adventures that manage to still be kinda-sorta playable for old school D&D. But really, if you’ll ask where I personally encountered this first, it’d be in this kind of OSR stuff. Jim (Raggi) really believes that it’s his job to bring the Ideas when you choose to consult an adventure product of his. Every encounter a weird setpiece.”

I think Eero is absolutely bang on the money with this observation and when I read it, I was reminded of the fact that Goodman Games produce these eye-wateringly expensive re-workings of classic D&D adventures that not only update the modules to 5th edition rules but also expand the substance of the adventures and provide extensive historical commentary on how the adventures have changed with each re-print and re-publication. While I’ve never seen one of these products in the flesh, I imagine they must read like a forced march through Eero’s stylistic order, from the minimalist sandbox of the early 1980s to the absolutist fairground ride of the 2020s.

The Temple of Elemental Evil is actually a really good exemplar of the kind of differences in needs I talk about further up. I have a good deal of affection for The Temple of Elemental Evil as it was the first published adventure I ever played and I can remember being incredibly weirded out by the module when I purchased it as a teenager. Temple is a great example of Gygaxian adventure writing in that, aside from the dungeon itself, there are these descriptions of the town that tell you where people have buried their savings and which random peasant NPC turns out to be a retired 7th level fighter.

Over the years, I have experienced several different reactions to this kind of writing. At first, I was quite shocked as I couldn’t reconcile the adventure I had played with the idea of a group breaking into the homes of random peasants in order to search for loot and magical objects. This reaction lingered well into my 30s as I was amused by the assumptions that Gygax seemed to be making about D&D players when he included little to no detail about people beyond their stats and treasure. However, when I returned to the hobby more recently and decided run my current group through the first chapter of Temple of Elemental Evil, I realised that Gygax had written the opening module as a kind of sandbox in so far as he provided loads of stats as well as hints at tensions within the community. Unlike the guy who ran the adventure for me back in the day, I decided to lean into these elements and so my group wound up getting sucked into the factional fighting that defined city life. There was even a scene where the players decided to tail some random member of the community and so happened to see him when he went and dug up his life savings.

It’s not that the guy who ran Temple for me misunderstood the adventure or that I had compounded his errors when I had tried to run the adventure for myself. It’s more that neither of us had the skills or the creative capacity to make use of the information that the module provided. We wanted the guided tour and the fairground ride and so we focused our attention on the dungeons. However, when I returned to the hobby more recently, I had about a decade of free-wheeling improvisational sandbox play under my belt and I was able to take Gygax’s bare-bones descriptive factoids and use them to run a memorable adventure. My skills had changed, my needs had changed, and Temple of Elemental Evil was a product that empowered me to make creative decisions whilst also relieving me of the burden of making some of the kinds of decisions that I find less fun. I may not be in a position where I can write all of my own material from scratch but I’m experienced enough that if I want a literary experience I’ll read a book. Maybe what I need are laconic adventures for games other than D&D.

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