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

Found on RPG.net, 1999

Modes (Child, Parent, and Adult): Terms for styles of behavior, borrowed from a brand of pop psychology by the author of this article, who feels they deserve wider currency within the hobby. Three Modes are defined.

  • “Child-Mode” behavior is playful, irreverent, and frivolous.

  • “Parent-Mode” behavior involves criticism of others and an unspoken assertion of superiority.

  • “Adult-Mode” behavior is practical and pragmatic, and accepts responsibility for necessary tasks.

Role-players and their characters tend to demonstrate all three modes; arguably, a good campaign demands all three.

GMs operate primarily in Adult-Mode; Child-Mode behavior can destroy the atmosphere and sense of structure in a game, and Parent-Mode GM’ing tends to be perceived as restrictive and coercive. The players have more freedom, and often amuse themselves by shifting to Child-Mode, but if they wish to achieve a goal, some Adult-Mode behavior is necessary. Parent-Mode play is rare, but not unknown, especially from players who become annoyed with others who will not shift out of Child-Mode, or with other problems of any kind.

Character behavior tends to reflect the player Mode – but not always completely; a Child-Mode player may depict a character behaving in a ludicrously excessive Adult-Mode or Parent-Mode way, while an Adult-Mode player can acknowledge a character’s tendency to behave in any Mode. Parent-Mode players tend to make their characters behave in Parent-Mode, but may “pointedly” shift to Adult Mode.

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.

Phase 1 – Initial Fascination:

Upon one’s first introduction to the game, a honeymoon ensues. You are happy to roll 3d6 for stats. You are happy with a fighter character with scores like: S:11 I:7 W:9 D:9 C:10 Ch:4. You name your characters names like Conan, Legolas, Hercules, Belgarath. You are happy the first time one dies fighting two kobolds in the Caves of Chaos. You roll a new mediocre character before the blood of your first one is dry. Plot? What Plot?

Phase 2 – Elementary Gaming (aka Hack n’ Slash):

You might discard a character that doesn’t have at least one 13. An element of plot comes in. You don’t mind meeting in a tavern. You don’t mind adventuring for treasure, fame, power and glory. You don’t mind random, illogical monster and dungeon placements. All that matters is that you meet, you swing swords, you cast spells, and you get stuff. You usually have your first wilderness encounter here, but you still think in 10′ squares. Your characters have names that end in “of (insert place here.)” i.e.: Conan of Minas Tirith.” When your character dies you have a twinge of regret before rolling up the new one.

Phase 3 – Adolescent Gaming (aka: Munchkinsim):

It is widely thought that this particular style of gaming was initiated with the creation of 2E, but it is now fairly well-known as a phase of gaming not unique to any one ruleset. Structure goes out the window. The as-yet unmapped game world is full of magical portals to other planes. All of your characters have ability scores of 18 or better. All your characters are level 24 or higher. They may have actually earned 2 or 3 of those levels, tops. More likely they are cut from whole cloth. They own at least 6 magic items and one or two artifacts. At least one party member will have the eye and hand of Vecna attached to his being and cowed to his will. A night of gaming is no more than a plane-hopping trip through the Dieties & Demigods Cyclopedia, picking off one god after another until the multiverse is empty. These characters never die. Forgotten Realms gamers rarely progress beyond this stage 🙂

Phase 4 – Post-Adolescent Gaming (aka: Slapstick Gaming):

The scenarios could have been drawn up by the writers at Laugh-In or Saturday Night Live. All of your characters have at least one score of 3. All characters have names like: Steve, Richard Cranium, Jerkwad the Buffinator, Gaylord, etc. Adventures consist of chasing giant rabid Energizer Bunnies through Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory only to be jettisoned to a plane called the Demi-plane of Custard to fight off Oompa-loompas and a throng of zombie clones of your 2nd-grade teacher. When these characters die much laughter ensues, followed by the resurrection of the PC as a sentient broccoli-stalk.

Phase 5 – ROLEplaying Phase:

The stats and the fighting have become too commonplace now. Every character has a pseudo-tragic, prophecy-filled 12 page biographical background. Each has a debilitating weakness, a dangerous enemy or three, and an impossible life goal. Each has lost at least two loved ones to one particular monster for which the character has an undending and berserk-inducing hatred. Each session begins with 3.5 hours of background material followed by hours of PC’s talking to NPC’s in semi-dramatic fashion. Your first encounter with an orc will usually be an orphan of some sort who is actually good at heart and can guide you through the political morass of the local orcdom without a single melee round, the roleplaying for which the DM will richly reward you with XP’s. The gaming session usually ends when combat should ensue, and everyone realizes they forgot their dice, not having needed them since they rolled up their characters eight sessions ago. The death of a PC, if it is permanent, is met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by a state funeral, 40 days of sackcloth and ashes, and many days of fasting.

Phase 5 – Mature Gaming (aka: Balanced Gaming):

A reasonable balance of roleplaying and combat. Characters are rolled up with 4d6 and accepted as is. Each PC has a one or two page bio, much of which has actually developed over the course of the campaign. The gamer enjoys both the intrigue of complicated roleplaying and the thrill of good orc-hewing. The death of a PC is something that sometimes happens.

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

Found on RPG.net, 1999

Builder: One of Aaron Allston’s terms: A player who “wants to have his characters have an impact on the world – to build institutions, to clean up a city, to change things”.

Builders are generally harmless and even useful players, who can add much to the interest value of a game for all concerned. However, their interests sometimes clash with those of other participants, as they demand that the campaign focuses on their character’s achievements; like any highly-motivated player, a Builder can have a strong influence on the game – to its benefit or detriment.

Combat Monster: Allston’s term for a player who “wants his character to fight, fight, fight.” This is not (necessarily) equivalent to Mad Slasher play, power-gaming, or even to a taste for Hack and Slash; the Combat Monster may recognize the existence of other aspects to the game, but chooses to emphasizes this one.

The Combat Monster’s chief interest in a game generally appears to be catharsis. Although such a player can contribute a useful element to a group of PCs (most games having aspects that require a violent solution), a single-minded obsession with combat can be tiresome to other players.

Copier: Allston’s term for a player who is strongly interested in reconstructing a character (or a close equivalent thereof) from another source – usually a favorite book or film. Although not impossible in any game, this behavior is generally easiest under a Character Design system.

Copiers are often enthusiastic players, but their approach to a game is sometimes rather one-dimensional, as their sole concern may be in adapting the game to the model.

A variant of this model is the “One-Character Player”, who “copies” the same character – from whatever source – into every game they play. This might indicate a deep interest in developing a particular characterization, but it might also indicate narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination.

Genre Fiend: Yet another Allston term, referring to a player (or GM) who is determined that a game should emulate all the conventions and tropes (and clichés) of the fictional genre on which it is based.

To the (large) extent that games are a highly derivative form, the genre fiend can be a useful stabilizing force. However, such an individual can also seem tiresomely obsessive in their attachment to cliché, and may also disrupt attempts by other individuals to explore, modify, or subvert the genre.

Mad Slasher: Aaron Allston’s label for a type of gamer at the extreme end of the “Combat Monster” and “Hack and Slash” spectrum; someone whose sole concern with games is to use the combat system for personal catharsis. The Mad Slasher’s character responds to all obstructions by killing the other characters involved.

Generally, Mad Slashers are either immature personalities who find the repetitious description of extreme violence amusing, or genuinely disturbed and perennially frustrated individuals. Fortunately, the former are perhaps the more common, and less violent playing groups eventually respond by ejecting them. However, there is a suggestion that, like other player vices, this one has a subtle, player-level variation.

The “Player-Level Mad Slasher” is one who responds to personal frustrations by attempting to dominate the player group. This is unlikely to involve physical force, but it can involve a great deal of psychological and emotional manipulation. This type of play is also seen from personally assertive Power-Gamers, and here, the two types may overlap.

Mini-Maxer: A player who attempts to exploit every aspect of a game’s rules to maximize character power for minimum cost of any kind – hence, by implication, a variety of power-gamer.

“Mini-Maxing” is often easiest within complex character design systems, but potentially, any game that allows a degree of player choice within the rule system – say, in combat – may be susceptible to this treatment. Mini-Maxers are not widely admired, at least in their extreme form, but many numerically adept players behave this way from time to time, and they at least serve to demonstrate the potentialities and quirks of any system. Arguably, too few games on the market were properly play-tested by competent mini-maxers before publication.

Plumber: Aaron Allston describes this type of player as liking to “create a character with a finely-detailed and intricate personality, and then spend his gaming career plumbing this character to its depths”. Such an exploration generally demands a morally and emotionally complex game-plot.

While the Plumber would be regarded by many as the epitome of good role-playing, see the comments below under “Power-Gamer” for reasons to qualify this praise.

Power-Gamer: A player whose primary interest in the game is the acquisition of a sense of raw power. This is usually taken to mean physical power in the context of the game-world, pursued either by legitimate if limited character tactics, or manipulation of the game rules.

However, it is interesting to consider that the underlying urge – to personal dominance in the context of the game – may find other, more subtle forms of expression. For example, a player might seek power over plot development, or simply over other players.

Thus, an “Emotional Power-Gamer” might be defined as a player who seeks (perhaps not consciously) to dominate and manipulate the process of characterization and the more melodramatic aspects of plot development in a game. Some such players attempt to dictate to others – usually by assertively-expressed “suggestions” – the personalities and past histories of their characters; others dominate other players more crudely, through “put-downs” and snide remarks. (It might be desirable to find separate terms for the two types.) A “Plot Power-Gamer” would be a player who attempts to influence the campaign’s narrative by psychological manipulation of the GM, a “Rules Power-Gamer” continuously suggests revisions to the games mechanics, a “(Simple) Time Power-Gamer” simply takes up as much playing time as possible with their own ideas and concerns – and so on.

Romantic: A player who is most interested in their characters’ personal relationships – especially (but not uniquely) romantic ones. Such relationships may be central to a campaign’s plot, but if the campaign is highly “action-oriented”, they may be seen by other players and the GM as peripheral. This is another of Aaron Allston’s terms.

Romantics, with their interest in character and some aspects of narrative, are often highly regarded as players. However, they can be rather obsessive personalities, and in their attempts to “romanticize” every aspect of a campaign, they can prove to be the worst kind of “Emotional Power-Gamers”.

Rules Hacker: An individual with a strong and persistent interest in the “mechanical” aspects of a game’s rules, and particularly a tendency to tinker with and “fine-tune” them.

Although Rules Hackers have a very different approach to many other players, who would prefer to get on with actual play, they are generally regarded as mostly harmless, lacking the vanity and abrasiveness of Power-Gamers or Rules Lawyers. It should be said that few successful published systems have probably been designed by Rules Hackers; their productions tend to be overly detailed, reflecting too many personal quirks – and in any case, a real Rules Hacker never considers a set of rules entirely complete, which makes publication difficult.

(The consummate Rules Hacker is one who incorporates a Rules Update phase into the game combat system’s sequence of play.)

Rules Lawyer: A player who seeks to gain game advantage by invocation of the letter of the games rules.

Rules Lawyers may be the product of too much “GM As Enemy” style play. They are widely regarded as annoying; play to the letter of the rules is not usually seen as the point of role-playing. That said, they can be a useful brake on the whims of an overly self-indulgent GM, and their attitude is as likely to result from an over-developed sense of fairness and precision as from an urge to Power-Game. A true Rules Lawyer may even insist on a literal reading of the rules that works against the interests of their own character. Rules Lawyers who become GMs are usually tolerable as long as they know the rules system properly (otherwise they spend too much time leafing through rule-books), but they may not display as much flexibility as player enjoyment demands, and their games will be unforgiving of incompetence.

Rules Rapist: Another Aaron Allston term; the Rules Rapist is a player who gains amusement by stretching the game mechanics in use to the limit, usually in an extreme display of power-gaming.

The Rules Rapist may be distinguished from the Rules Lawyer, despite their similarities. The “lawyer” usually has some respect for the rules system in use – perhaps too much; the “lawyer like” approach may simply imply overmuch formality. The Rules Rapist, by contrast, displays contempt for the spirit of the rules by exploitation of their letter.

Tragedian: Another Allston-originated term, describing a player who “likes literary tragedy and wants to play out something similar”.

This term is rare but useful; the same can be said of the player type it describes. As Allston remarks, a tragedian may help develop the richness and depth of a campaign, and provide an outlet for the GM’s more sadistic urges. “Plumbers” and “Romantics” often pass through phases of tragedy-obsession, and the popularity of White Wolf’s game Vampire may indicate the existence of greater impulses to tragedy than previously realized (if it is being played as its rule-books suggest). However, “Tragedian” GMs, while known, may be regarded as a menace by non-Tragedian players, for obvious reasons.

War-Gamer: Literally, one who plays wargames – the simulations of military activity that are both cousins and antecedents to formalized role-playing. More colloquially, one who plays role-playing games “as wargames” – as conflicts to be won by optimized strategy, with little regard for characterization or narrative. As role-playing games rarely involve much balanced or impartial conflict, this attitude may be somewhat misguided, although a GM may be willing and able to set up such conflicts in the course of a game, and hence satisfy the player’s impulse. The term is part of the definition of the Four-Way Split.

A War-Gamer may be a rather more cerebral personality than a Combat Monster, being potentially willing to avoid actual combat if this is an effective way to “win”. However, the two types certainly overlap. That said, war-gaming – in the broad sense of problem solving and conflict resolution – can certainly be an enjoyable aspect of role-playing, and many playing groups find that war-gaming members provided a useful element of discipline and efficiency in play.

In 1999 I discovered a series of articles published by one Phil Masters on RPG.net about the psychology of gamers and gaming.

It was the first time I’d seen gamers profiled in such a way so I compiled the posts in offline documents and squirreled them away. I believe that these articles are specifically geared toward traditional, table top role playing gamers but much of the information can be applied to online role playing gamers as the media may have changed but the mental processes are similar.

As console and computer gaming have become a defacto genre of their own at this point, it’d be interesting to see an updated version of this or a compare/contrast style write-up.