Friday, May 20, 2022


I think it's possible to express the pursuit of D&D, and by extension role-playing games, in four general forms.  This is not to suggest that these ways don't possess nuance, a degree of satisfaction or a personal value to the participant.  Nor is it meant to say that any single individual must fit into one of these forms.  There's room for grey between the forms.  That's understood.

Still, there's a benefit in recognising differences.  I have an audience, for example.  It serves me to understand what comprises that audience, what behaviour they elicit and what things they want.  Understanding this ought to enable me to serve them better as a writer.  These last few weeks have me thinking at length, "What am I doing here?  What am I trying to accomplish?"  I'm struggling to find useful and meaningful answers to those questions.  Towards that end, I'm pursuing thoughts related to motivation and sustainability.

As I said, four forms:

1. Expression of Energy.  D&D is something to do.  It isn't necessarily a game, it isn't necessarily what we're going to do on a Saturday night.  It's something we do when we feel like doing it, like any other appreciated activity we care to give our energy towards.  As such, a minimum set-up is needed.  It's best if Bob or Jane or Thomas can open up a few books and run the game easily, without much lead-in time, because we'd just like to get on with it when we feel like playing D&D.  In which case, there isn't much need for rules or accounting for things that just don't matter in the short term.  The convenience of a module serves, because we can just open one and go.  The convenience of pre-made characters, and characters that don't require die rolls to create, also serves since these concessions stream-line the process towards getting play started.  Since virtually all the energy we wish to expend is in actually playing the game, and because there is no consistent expectation that we'll play at any particular time — or, potentially, ever again — then most of what's discussed in the books regarding preparation, design, character backgrounds or even a story arc can be discarded.

As such, what appeals is the sense of what we do here and now.  Long drawn-out combats soak up time that could be used to move the story-narrative along.  The best moments occur when Paul and Dave and Helen are talking together, intermingling their discourse, with a group of NPCs in a fast-paced, excitable manner.  Stories that we can fly through, collaboratively, are genius and give a great deal of pleasure.  Any part of the game that can be simplified or tossed out to empower this dynamic is preferable and, indeed, obligatory.

2. Expression of Accomplishment.  Again, D&D isn't necessarily a game ... but the participants expect a series of building events that promote a sense of purpose that we've invested ourselves into emotionally, in that the time is spent pursuing a final, overarching sense of accomplishment.  Play is regular, and the participants are cherished for their commitment, as we intend to play towards an agreed-upon goal.  The emotional satisfaction and proud feeling of having done something difficult and worthwhile is the central theme of our gaming.  As such, game elements and opportunities that don't directly contribute to the goal at hand can be ditched — should be ditched — for the greater good.  Each moment along the way exists in the campaign because it's part of what we've agreed to attain.  And therefore, elements of detail, worldbuilding, even choice, can be happily dismissed without feeling that any meaningful part of the activity is lost.

As such, the campaign's appeal can is found in what we're trying to do, both now and in the foreseeable future.  Momentum demands that the storyline moves along, that a sufficient amount of the narrative is accomplished each session, so that we feel we're moving steadily towards our goal.  Drawn-out combats that must be won in order to set up the next situation are anathema to the activity's agenda.  The best moments come when we've done something, when we can get on to the next thing.  Any part of the game's rules that can be simplified or tossed out to empower this dynamic is preferable and, indeed, obligatory.

3. Expression of Game.  D&D is definitely a game.  It functions as an exploratory, adventurous possibility, enabling the players to discover what they can see or do.  As such, hex crawling, dungeons for their own sake, personal exploration in character building and design, challenge and inventiveness are all intrinsically part of the experience — which must have, above all, strong elements of amusement and novelty for the participants.  Things that are fun, things that are new, things that allow us to run characters we haven't run before, do things we haven't done before, and act our way are highly important to the shared adventure we're undertaking.  Aspects of the game that are repetitive, tiresome and not strictly necessary to our fresh and creative agenda can be rejected or — at the bare minimum — grossly simplified so as to allow a quick notation now and again when their inclusion seems moderately important.

As such, participants are welcome to be keen on the game, keen on what the game tries to do and well-versed in the game's concepts and principles without these things challenging the success of game play.  No fixed agenda exists as to what we're going to do in any given session — nor is it necessary for sessions to string together with the same characters into campaigns.  Drawn-out combats that feel like we've done them before are not wanted, and are better when they can be quickly sorted out or played out in new and exciting ways.  The best moments occur when something truly funny and fantastic happens, when someone says or does something so memorable that it becomes a story we can tell ourselves years in the future.  Tossing out any part of the game that doesn't contribute to circumstances that empower the dynamic of players interacting with players is preferable and, indeed, obligatory.

4. Expression of Circumstance.  D&D is definitely a game.  It functions as a rigid ongoing narrative in which individual players strive against limitations to accomplish — and potentially fail at — uncertain goals as a means of self-challenge.  It isn't always fun but it is always emotionally engaging, even when everything going on feels extremely awful.  Character building is secondary to exploration of "self," the question of what can I invent or what situations can I overcome, through innovation.  Amusement and novelty are desireable and appreciated, but less important that proving the party's mettle against all odds.  Running the same character in every session, which must necessarily be part of an ongoing campaign, it crucial to appreciation of the game's power to excite the mind.  We want to accomplish goals, but they should be our goals; and we will accomplish them in our time, not according to some prefixed agenda or even one at a time.  Aspects of the game that are repetitive are what they are, to be accepted as a matter of endurance and pride.  Combats must have a strong element of detail, tactical possibility and uncertaintly; this makes drawn-out combats tense and even frightening, especially when entered into with characters whose existence stretches out into years of the player's real-time experience.

As such, participants are committed to the most difficult aspects of the game that are cheerfully dismissed by others: the rigorous keeping of accounts and measures, the unbending rules, the minimalistic structure of playing out a campaign day-by-day with all the attendant difficulties of feeding and housing oneself.  These things are embraced because they are difficult, because we feel challenged to see if we can survive in a game world that doesn't make things easy, that demands our full attention, that punishes hard players who forget their boots, who don't bring enough food, who make the wrong move in a combat, who haven't crossed their t's or dotted their i's.  Who, in short, can die because they've made one foolish mistake.  Any part of the game's rules that can be made more complex, more difficult, more engaging, in order to empower this dynamic, is preferable and, indeed, obligatory.

Conclusion.  Asking the question, "which one is best," fails to comprehend the matter at hand.  The more useful recognition is that we have groups of people playing four different games ... but we have all of them debating and defending themselves upon one forum.  For the most part, the circumstance of one forum leads many of them to believe they're fundamentally all playing the same game, just in four different ways ... but the basics of game theory defines a game according to the strategy, the payoff, the information set being used and the manner in which the outcome is reached.  These expressions above are clearly atypical of one another.  Commonalities exist, but what's discarded and what's embraced greatly diminishes the possibility of a player who enjoys one of four forms finding any satisfaction from a game played in the other three expressions.

Naturally, there are those who can play each expression comfortably, adjusting their expectations as needed and appreciating what that particular expression offers as an activity.  But these people are rare; and must acknowledge that it's a different way of thinking.  Moreover, attempting to express one type of game in the presence of a different form creates havoc and discontent among the players.  We're either stressing the wrong things, complaining overmuch about what's expected or trying to insert some of the game we prefer into someone else's expression.

Which brings me back to this blog.  Like most engaged and committed persons, I have my personal preference; which, logically, I present and discuss in posts here.  But since others find this blog by searching "D&D" and not actually the game I play and espouse (one forum, remember), I do much more to turn readers away when I write than entice them.  I don't doubt that many of my potential readers have long since given up on the internet because they are looking for my expression, and instead find the other three — which are, without doubt, much more common.

Desirably, when discussing the sort of D&D I play, it's better than I express myself in terms of what payoffs and outcomes I'm aiming to provide, rather than the extremely non-specific, impractical and virtually useless banner of what game edition I play.  There is nothing at all in my expression of play that is intrinsically related to AD&D ... which can be easily adapted to the other three expressions.  What I've chosen to keep from AD&D are those parts that fit my expression — because they fit my expression, and for no other reason.  All other parts of AD&D are useless for me.  Which helps explain my tirade recently about how much I've grown to hate talking about D&D.  I have.  I am sick to death of revisiting any subject material from any edition that matter-of-factly is a useless kitchen sink in my modeled game's structure.

Frustratingly, however, I continue to think I can write the words that will change the world to suit me ... which, obviously, I won't.  And so, what am I writing the words for?

Still working on that one.


JB said...

I am writing a comment because I do not want this post to be met with silence. However, I am still mentally digesting it, and I'm not sure when (or if) I'll have something more pertinent to say.

These "expressions" and their application (applicability?) seem closely related to the creative agenda part of the old GNS (gamist-narrativist-simulationist) theory/model...except with a fourth pole. I'm kind of into three pole construct concepts at the moment (comes from reading a lot of treatise on Carl von Clausewitz's work recently, specifically as it pertains to the "fascinating trinity") so the idea that a 4th pole is necessary (or useful) is something I'm still wrestling with...which is to say, I'm undecided.

SO...digesting. Heck, CHEWING still. But I didn't want this to just get crickets while slow-poke thinkers like myself are mulling over your idea.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thanks JB, but you'll have to explain some of that. Two of these are gaming, three are narrative and none are simulationist.

If I could think of a fifth one, I'd add it.

Lance Duncan said...

This is interesting/thought provoking and deserves some sort of comment so . . .

For the 1st category, just a nitpick, but there is no module/adventure/game I have ever seen that you can just pick up and go.

I think these types really describe 4 different games. If you look at the dnd subreddit, 95% of posts are made by people who have obviously only ever played 5e. And often someone will post a question or want help making rules for something that can be found in an earlier version of dnd or another rpg, they just haven't bothered to do a 30 second Google search. Suggesting that anyone should Plat anything other than dnd based on what they want out of the game is immediately shouted down as "unhelpful" even though clearly they don't want to be playing dnd because it doesn't create the play experience they want. As you say everyone tries to lump everything into dnd instead of playing a game that caters to their taste.

I guess that was the whole point of Ron Edward's gns model and the Forge, even if it was poorly implemented.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You've never seen a module/adventure/game that YOU can just pick up and go.

Don't overestimate other people.

Sterling said...

This taxonomy of the expressions of TTRPGs is at least as good as any other I've seen.
The question is how to make sure your audience can find you and that those who are not your audience can quickly recognize that and move on to whatever better suits their fancy.
I don't have an answer to that question, but I do have a couple of thoughts. First off, long-time participants in the "circumstance" expression of the game will find you for subjects you discuss if my personal experience is any guide. I found your blog while researching crop yield estimates for 10th century Scandinavia, for example.
I expect that newer participants will be working from terms described in recent rule books and/or popular online discussions of "play style." You know that universe better than I do, but I suspect it revolves around terms like "hack-and-slash," "storytelling," "simulation," and so on.
Perhaps a follow-up to this post that touches on these terms, even just as a mention for how the game is often discussed followed by a breakdown of the "circumstance" expression of play and how it could be related and not to those terms would provide the guidance and search hits needed to reach more of your audience.

Sterling said...

Perhaps the time is even right for a new forum.

Alexis Smolensk said...

If you have any ideas ...

Sterling said...

You write to be read or because you need to exorcise your thoughts or what? Probably both those things in some measure and for other reasons too. You crave some dialogue, but answering poorly thought-out questions or responding to commenters who clear don't get your point is tiresome I imagine.

My somewhat amorphous, brainstorm-y thoughts for whatever they're worth...

- A new blog dropping the D&D moniker since the specific system is irrelevant and not what you want the discussion to focus around.
- A new voice might be more attractive to new readers while being good exercise as a writer.
- A discussion platform that invites a collegiate discussion with your audience, but which you curate and control to keep on point and at the level worthy of your new "brand."

I don't know if any of that would work toward motivating and sustaining your writing by increasing your interest or excitement. I find change motivating most times.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'll think about those.

Vlad malkav said...

While not having anything interesting to say, I like the light this post shed on the ways to approach RPG play. Frankly, leagues ahead of the GSN shit I've seen. Here I could better see where old players and friends were, and how I'm myself. As well as how I react to playing in other expressions.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thumbs up, Vlad.