PoG: Playing Styles

As Described in On the Vocabulary of Role-Playing by Phil Masters

Found on RPG.net, 1999

Co-operative Playing Style: A player may co-operate usefully with the GM, other players, or (ideally) both. Co-operation with other players means acknowledging their interests, the nature of their own playing styles, and the need for their characters to accomplish their own goals. As the problems set in role-playing games often require team solutions, even intelligent power-gamers are usually co-operative in this sense; the opposite approach leads to breakdowns in both the game and player social relations. However, co-operating with the GM is perhaps the more important meaning of this term, and should be taken as the “default”.

Fully “co-operative” groups all work together to explore the game, setting, and plot. As the GM has the largest task in a game, a co-operative approach implies respecting the GM’s personal interests and “style”, and not deliberately attempting to confuse the GM or disrupt play.

As most gamers acknowledge that role-playing is a group endeavor, co-operative play of both sorts is generally admired. However, the pressure to conform to group norms may become restrictive; if role-playing is about the creation of fully-rounded characters, it cannot be denied that such characters cannot always be expected to co-operate with each other, and their actions may not always be within the range expected by the GM. Furthermore, an “overly co-operative” group may develop a style that precludes much of the excitement and uncertainty found in other games. Contrast the “GM as Enemy” style.

Incidentally, although “co-operation” is often associated with a sophisticated, story-telling-oriented type of game, it was also highly visible in many early, crude “Dungeon-Bashing” campaigns in which acquiescent GMs cheerfully fed the power fantasies of players.

The problems implicit in all this have no easy solutions; some groups regard failure to conform as tantamount to sabotage and selfishness, whereas others revel in stress and the unexpected – perhaps at some cost to campaign development. Comparisons with real life here would be facile.

GM as Enemy Playing Style: The opposite of fully “Co-operative” play – an approach to gaming in which the GM is assumed to be setting the characters serious and potentially often lethal problems, and the players set out to defeat these by any means permitted by the rules. In such a game, disruption of the GM’s intentions is often seen as desirable.

Obviously, given the power available to any GM, unrestrained hostility from that quarter will quickly lead to the extermination of player-characters; however, GMs who are willing to play “hard but fair” can provide players with genuine but not insuperable challenges. This may lead to a more exciting and engrossing game than one with overmuch co-operation – in which players may come to rely on friendship with the GM to save their characters from the consequences of inept behavior. Because of the need to maintain a balance of perceived threat and survivability, and the incentive to players to identify and disrupt the GM’s plans, true “GM as Enemy” games are a great deal harder to referee than may appear.

Like truly “Co-operative” games, “GM as Enemy” play is something of an extreme case; the paradigm may only rarely be found in reality, and most real games contain elements of both styles. However, the two terms reflect real components of gamers’ mind-sets – and a large difference in expectations between players and GM in this area has probably led to more problems in games than almost anything else. The subject needs to be discussed more.

Hack and Slash (often abbreviated Hack’n’Slash): A style of game dominated by combat, in which player-characters resolve most problems by violence, and character development is de-emphasized.

Although all styles of game have their occasional defenders, Hack’n’Slash is widely regarded as tedious; players who never discover anything else seem certain to become bored with the entire hobby, sooner or later, and drop out. That said, the appeal of the style goes deep into many adolescent male psyches, and one large British games company has made millions from those. Of course, that company has also discovered that an obsession with combat above all else finds more complex assuagements in a certain style of mass-battle wargaming – which also sells more figures, at more profit to the company.

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