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The Impossible Dream

Player Goals

by Hunter Logan
Feb 10,2003


Player Goals
The Impossible Dream Installment #3
by Hunter Logan


The topic of the day is player goals and my thoughts about how to support those goals in the game design. I suppose this also really addresses how to support a player's desired style of play. I know a lot of other people have tackled this. It has resulted in some rather large and impressive bodies of work filled to overflowing with good ideas. The most noteworthy efforts I know of resulted in grandiose three-fold theories called GDS, GNS, and GEN. These are among The Things That Shall Not Be Named on rpg.net, and for good reason. Mentioning them often brings about a massive flame war. But before you unleash the flames, rest assured I'm not going to discuss any of those.

After a very long campaign of research and discussion, I have concluded that those esteemed (and oft reviled) theories don't work very well. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I'll save the debate for another day. Suffice to say, from my exploration of those works, I developed this list of player goals and suggestions for supporting those goals. Because we are roleplayers and this is about designing RPGs, I formatted the goals on the list as roles that a player can take during play. As always, this is the way I conceptualize these things. The list is hardly all-inclusive, but I think it covers a lot of the important bases and it's a good start.

The Big List

I don't think many designers consciously choose goals to support or not support from a list like this, but the list may be a useful tool. Some of the names are colorful, but this is out of appreciation, not derision. Thus, I present The Big List:
  • Conqueror: Wants to kill monsters, smite the unworthy, and otherwise demonstrate the character's superiority over the enemy. The Conqueror really needs only three things to find happiness: A weapon that inflicts heinous damage, plenty of character skill for using the weapon, and ample opportunity to put both to good use. This is more about what the character can do than what the player can do. Also, the field need not be restricted to killing monsters. It might include sneaking around and stealing stuff, bartering with extreme efficiency, lying glibly, etc, etc. The bottom line here is simple: When the Conqueror rolls the dice within his character's area of expertise and gets good results, he expects to see big fireworks. And I want to see them, too.
    • Players who hold this goal in esteem may try to find what they're looking for in just about any game they play. If they can't find it, frustration may cause them to bend the rules to get what they want. The methods don't have to be pretty; they just have to produce the desired results.
    • Designers can support this by writing the game so that great expertise and good equipment consistently produce satisfying results.
  • Creator: Wants direct control over various aspects of the game world and what happens in the game. Creators want to set the scene and determine the course of the action beyond the character.
    • Most creators end up sitting in the GM seat and may feel dissatisfied when denied the power to make things happen.
    • It's pretty easy to give Creators what they want, but if you want to put this in your game, this absolutely has to have designer support. Without support, it's really not going to happen. At least it hasn't ever happened for me.
  • Detective: Wants to gather clues and solve mysteries. Designers can include means for players to find the clues needed to solve the mysteries, but mysteries themselves are more a part of the game world and the adventure than the game's system design. So, designers can support this by writing adventures that include mysteries for the player to solve.
  • Explorer: Wants to explore the game world. Explorers want to see interesting sights, meet unusual beings, and encounter strange things. The dedicated explorer is probably more interested in the setting than in the game system. So, the designer can support this by providing a great setting for the game.
  • Facilitator: Plays the game with the goal of helping other players realize their goals for the game. This is most often a goal for the GM, but players can choose to help the GM by playing along when needed. The designer might want to consider providing a bit of Facilitator Training for GMs programmed to rule their games with iron dice.
  • Gambler: Wants to take risks and experience the thrill of rolling the dice. This is easily supported with mechanics that provide a high degree of randomness in the outcome
  • Gatherer: Plays the game to gather as much reward as possible. This may include experience points, levels, money, power, special equipment, and other measures of increasing character ability or character prestige.
    • It's easy for designers to support the Gatherer by including rules for character advancement and supplying items like experience or levels that the player can gather.
    • Further support can be included in the setting. A never-ending supply of improved weapons, treasure, and other specialty items will help keep the Gatherer hooked on the game.
    • A word of caution: It's my experience that players often build up a whole lot of goodies in a fairly short amount of time. It seems that after a while, players reach a breakaway point, a point where they have gathered so much experience and so much good stuff that their characters are unstoppable juggernauts unleashed on the game world. If you plan to support the Gatherer's desires, you may also need to plan for what happens as the characters become better, stronger, and faster.
  • Negotiator: Plays the game to parley with NPCs and other characters in the game. The assumption here is, the player actually wants to do some of the talking for his character. The designer can support this in rules and in the setting. In the rules, the designer can pay attention to parley as an important process in the game. In the setting, designer can provide lot of interesting NPCs who want to negotiate.
  • Passenger: Wants to see the story unfold and find out what happens next and hopes for a wild ride. I don't have much to say about this, except to note that any player may choose to take this position.
  • Personator: Wants to portray the character as fully as possible from the comfort of the gaming table. From my own experience and from talking to others, I think some players really want to mentally be the character. This touches on the ideas about immersion. It's an exercise of the imagination, an attempt to experience life in the game world from the character's point of view.
    • The player tries to put himself in his character's mindset and contemplate events in the game as the character would contemplate events in the game. Of course, this means that the player's decisions and declared actions should be exactly what the character would do in the same situation. It's not perfect, but it's as close as a player can get to "being there" from the comfort of the gaming table.
    • I have read much discussion about the validity of immersion, and I am not fighting that battle. I accept the intent within its context. I have tried it. I never forgot I was still me sitting at the gaming table, and I had fun. It is a demanding way to play, so it is not for everyone. But it certainly deserves some consideration for designer support. Whether or not you choose to provide that support in your game is up to you.
    • There is one other danger with supporting this goal. Some GMs may expect the players to be personators. A lot of times, it's true and works very well; but other times, it doesn't work. A guy who wants to play a smooth or suave character may play the character because he's not smooth or suave. Designers might want to include mechanical solutions to this sort of problem. You can also handle this with notes and examples.
  • Puzzle Solver: Plays to solve the puzzles that come up during game play.
    • Support for this is primarily written into scenarios for the game. The designer can add puzzles to scenarios thus giving the Puzzle Solver something to do.
    • When puzzles are provided, it might be a good idea to also include mechanical means of solving the problem. It's fine to include the puzzle, but if the players can't or don't want to solve the puzzle, it might be a good idea to supply alternative means of resolution so that the game doesn't grind to a halt.
  • Scientist: Plays the game as an experiment to see what will happen. Scientists do things to evoke responses. They expect that sometimes experiments will go awry. They know bad things may happen to their characters or the game world, and this is okay. The designer doesn't really need to support this sort of thing. Players and GMs will do it or not do it as they see fit. Still, if the designer does actively try to support it, the results might be like Greg Costikyan's Paranoia.
  • Storyteller: Plays to tell stories about the character in the game world. Some storytellers want to end up with good stories that they can reflect on or share with others about their adventures in the game world. Others really want to tell the story of their characters through play. They may want to show how their characters overcome adversity or transform themselves over time or something similar. I think there is room in roleplaying for better support of the storyteller goal. The actual form of that support may be similar to support provided for creators.
  • Tactician: Plays the game to solve tactical problems, outsmart enemies, and overcome obstacles. Any resources available to the player in the game can be used to solve tactical problems in the game. Unlike the Conqueror, the Tactician is interested in using his own personal skill to meet the challenge at hand.
    • Tactical play does not necessarily mean wargaming. It's more about decision-making and carefully exercising options on limited resources in order to meet the player's goals for the character in the game.
    • The designer can support tactical play by providing resources for the player to manage and tactical situations for the player to resolve.
    • I now refer you to Brian Gleichman's article, Elements of Tactics, for more information.
  • Wargamer: Wants to break out the miniatures and play a wargame as part of the RPG experience. A designer can support this by including rules for using miniatures and providing a combat system system that is really a war game within the RPG. The wargamer can roleplay, but he still wants to fight that battle in the most traditional way.
Other Factors
  • Design Goals: What do you want your game to do? Why are you designing a game? If you are reading this article, you probably already have answers for those questions. Yet, your goals are factors that will impact on your design. If you haven't thought about them, you might want to do that.
    • Only you know why you want to design a game. No one else can tell you.
    • It's probably a good idea to articulate your goals in writing. This will save you time later. Also, you can include these notes and all the other stuff that affects your thought process as designer notes at the end of your game. Doing that will make Brian Gleichman very happy if/when he reviews your game. It will also give everyone else who looks at your game further insight into the ideas behind your game.
  • Coherence: This is all about building a game that supports your design goals. For me, coherence is a blanket term. You can strive for coherence on several levels.
    • A coherent game plays efficiently. That is, the play flow is smooth and the mechanics work. One step segues into the next and the players can play through anything that comes up during the game. I think my whole column is predicated on the idea of achieving this sort of coherence for any game you decide to design.
    • A coherent game has clear, comprehensible rules and mechanics. The best game design in existence is useless unless you write the rules in such a way that a player can use your book to learn to play your game.
    • A coherent game has rules, mechanics, and play examples that support the designer's goals. Here is the pay off for writing your goals: You can critique your own work. You can compare what you've written to what you intended. If your game fulfills your intended goals, then you have probably written a coherent game. If you have doubts or you're too close to the project, get someone else to read it.
  • Complexity: Brian Gleichman has written a very good article on this very topic. If you haven't read it, I think you should. I agree with his statements, and I will be referring to them here. Also, I will use his terms without changing them. As Brian says, people have a threshold for complexity. I think simpler is often better, but other people like more complexity. It's up to you to decide how much complexity to add to your game.
    • Complexity of Implementation: This is the complexity of the actual mechanical steps required to play the game. If a game becomes too complex, some players may choose to simplify the mechanics.
    • Complexity of Mass: This is the number of options, exceptions, and special cases written into a game. Really, there is a point of balance for mass. Insufficient mass may make for sparse gameplay. Too many options means it may take longer for a group of players to master all the nuances of the game, or that some of those options will be discarded. I prefer a relatively simple implementation with a lot more mass.
    • Complexity of Concept: I agree with Brian that RPGs are complex in concept by their very nature. Excessive complexity (in implementation or mass) is not the Kiss of Death for a game. I have found that when people like a game, they will adjust it to suit their own tastes. A simple game can be made more complex, and a complex game can be simplified.
  • Verisimilitude: This is really all about realism and maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in your game. I am not going to fight over whether or not SoD exists. I accept it within its context. That is, you can watch a movie, read a book, or play an rpg and evaluate for yourself whether or not the presentation, handling, and outcome of events is believable within the context of the source material. This does not mean you have lost contact with reality or anything like that, but it is important to the perceived verisimilitude of your game.
    • I think it's a goal of design to produce a game system that produces results consistent with what should happen in the game world.
    • There are many ways to approach the same goal.
    • No game system, no matter how complex or detailed, can perfectly model the resolution of events in the game world. The best we can hope to do is provide a set of rules and mechanics that allows our audience, our players, to produce satisfying results when playing our game.
    • Verisimilitude in a game system does not necessarily equal realism. I think our purpose as designers of games and game worlds is to find ways to present games so that players may play in our game worlds and attain satisfying results that sustain their SoD.
    Now, I have deluged you with food for thought. Next time, I'll talk about resolution mechanics. Thanks for reading.

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