Polarising Gaming Systems Into Left and Right to Better Understand Games and Gamers

One of the great pleasures that we enjoy in our gaming group is designing new game systems to play. Over the years we have designed tabletop wargames, collectible card games and, of course, role-playing games. One of our group even worked as a professional game designer back in the day. This last weekend whilst having a discussion with members of the gaming group over the design of a new system (of which I hope you will hear more about in the future) we came to a point where I realised that the disagreement that we were having was based on the two very different driving forces behind the player’s motivations.

The lead designer on the project is Cuchulain (the Call of Cthulhu and Dwarf Fortress fanatic). His main interests in a game are role-playing based. He likes nothing better than to throw rules out the window, don a quirky character and see what happens. Combat is something that happens only when it should ‘in-character’.

On the other side of the discussion was Ellisthion (the author of the Monster-a-Week series and many many reviews of gaming books). Ellisthion couldn’t be more different to Cuchulain. He’s a gamer and our resident rules lawyer (not that there is anything wrong with that, someone has to know what to do…). Ellisthion delights in finding the obscure advantages in rules minutia that allow his character to perform hither-to-fore acts unseen of heroism. To him, the game is less about playing a role than playing a series of stats to the best of his ability. His catch cry of “The character would chose the best ability for him to defeat his enemies!” is quite often heard at games.

And he’s right too. And so is Cuchulain. Which is one of the many strengths of the group. We have many different playing styles and motivations within the group and that keeps it interesting. Ellisthion plays great characters (just ask him about his character Bingles some time…) and Cuchulain knows the rules better than a lot of people do, so it’s not black or white by any means, but it is certainly a trend.

So what is the point?

In realising where the discussion was heading I stopped them and pointed something out. Cuchulain was on the Left of the RPG spectrum and Ellisthion was on the Right. (I chose left and right by the fact that Role-Playing is on the left of RPG and Game is on the right.) This analogy (borrowed from political science) helped to easily identify the issues at hand – it pointed out where the differences lay. It also raised an interesting discussion about where gaming systems sat in the proposed spectrum.

The conversation focused on games that we were familiar with, so this by no means definitive and is certainly open to discussion. We assumed that D&D would sit somewhere in the middle. LARP’ing and systems like Fudge would sit on the far Left with HârnMaster sitting on the far Right. This then puts games like Vampire: The Masquerade and Call of Cthulhu in the mid left and Rolemaster sitting on the near far right. It’s a fun exercise to place all your favourite games into the different categories and it helps to explain why you may or may not enjoy them, or at least your response to them.

Anyway, based on the conversations that we had, this is roughly what we came up with. Feel free to debate heartily with us in the comments…


At this point you may ask where I sit. I’ve been gaming for 23 years now playing in gaming groups on three different continents over that time. I’ve played countless different systems (D&D 1st, 2nd, 3.x and 4th editions, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, Mage, Shadowrun, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Fading Suns, Alternity, Rifts, and the list goes on and on and on embarrassingly…). I’ve enjoyed all of these games primarily for the interactions with other players. Having said that however, I think that I sit in the middle – I enjoy the rules and the roles in something close to a balance. But as in all things, it’s hard to accurately critique yourself, so who knows?

Conclusion

To be honest with you, you could say this is a rather trite academic exercise at best, and I probably wouldn’t disagree with you too much. At the time however, it proved an effective way to mediate a disagreement and help two conflicting views come to some form understanding. It also provided an excellent conversation where we reminisced  on games past and talk about systems we hadn’t thought of in years. Perhaps the most useful part of the whole exercise is helping to understand the motivations of the players in your group – it certainly helped to clarify the positions of a couple members within the group.

Footnote

There’s been some recent discussion about the changes in D&D4e and how some of us feel like something is, for lack of a better word, missing. I have, apparently, struggled to get my point across, and I think that using the above analogy is probably going to give me the best shot. Here it is…

The game’s polarity hasn’t changed, it still sits pretty firmly in what I would consider to be in the centre of the spectrum. The books on the other hand are written more to the right than the others have been. This doesn’t impact how the core game is played, except in how it influences the players. In previous versions of the game it felt that players were given more to work with inspiration wise. Again, this is just my opinion, and feel free to disagree with me.

[You may also be interested in reading about GNS Theory (Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist playing styles) or The Big Model.]

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About RupertG

RupertG has been playing roleplaying games ever since he discovered Dragon Warriors at the age of 12. Since those days he has played many different RPG's, collected not insignificant Dwarf and Tomb Kings armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battles and even worked as a games designer in the heady days of the late 90's building a CCG. Now he runs a gaming blog and is a participant in the Grand Gaming Experiment
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