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Close to the Edit

All These Worlds Are Yours

by Ross Winn
Mar 25,2005


All These Worlds Are Yours...

There are four kinds of roleplayers: those who have normal tendencies; those who have asocial tendencies; those who have antisocial tendencies; and those who have hypersocial tendencies. Who you are and who you are playing with has a whole lot to do with the types of games that you play and the reasons that you play or enjoy them. One of the issues I have with the current "unintelligentsia" (my other term is the "diserati") in the RPG industry is that the entire conversation is about how the game influences play styles and ignores how the player dynamic affects them. Well, ignore may be a bit strongly worded, but for every ten thousand words written about how the system matters, there are only a hundred or two written about how player styles affect game play. I think it is almost criminal.

Understand that too many of the so-called designers in the RPG business hold their customers in contempt. They belittle, talk down to, and generally insult people on a fairly regular basis at conventions across the length and breadth of America, and the world. I have said before and I will say again, that anyone who is in the RPG business started out as a fanboy, most of all me, and that refusing to admit that is a lie. I will be a huge fan of guys Like Dave Arneson and Marc Miller forever. We should embrace our fans and fandom. If we refuse to be honest with ourselves, how can we expect our consumers to enbrace us? I am digressing today: I must be getting older. That or I am full of piss and vinegar and need to get some of it out: so we continue on to the four kinds of roleplayers.

Players with asocial tendencies are the people that the general public assumes always plays D&D. Of course these are the same general public that assumes there is only D&D and that other roleplaying games do not exist, but I digress. Asocial players just simply have no social skills. Not only that -- most of them aren't aware that there even are social skills. They generally have a dead end job, breathe through their mouth, and don't bathe or shave unless under duress. To be honest, most people think that the asocial gamers are the ones who give us all a bad name. I think they are mostly harmless. Oddly enough, asocial gamers get along well with all other types of gamers.

As an aside, we all understand the asocial player, and many of us have been one at one point in our lives. As a matter of fact all of us have probably been more than one of the gamer types; some of us have probably been all of them. I know that at one point or another I have been all of these, even the antisocial gamer. Oh, I tried. I played in a group with some of the most raving antisocial jackasses on the planet. I was so young and so out of touch with most people that I wanted to be accepted by anyone, even lunatics. My heart wasn't in it though. I had a vicious streak for years after I left that group; I just thought it was normal because my perceptions had been so warped. Your play group can do that to you no matter what kind of player you are. So before you judge those around you too harshly remember that, as in life, for every finger you point there are three more pointing right back at you.

Antisocial players are the players that make all of the rest of hobby cringe. They have no social boundaries, and few personal "stops" built into their psyches. These are the people who kill ruthlessly, steal without guilt, and (God help us all) rape with abandon. They aren't "playing their character" or "just being true to the genre"; they do it simply for lack of anything better to do, and in some cases out of pure enjoyment. They tend to get along OK with the asocial player. Antisocial players dislike normal and hypersocial players quite a bit. They feel insecure around normal people because they realize that other people see just how dysfunctional they are. They feel insecure around hypersocial players because they don't like to reveal themselves too much for the same reasons. Antisocial players have hundreds of rationalizations for why they behave the way that they do. None of those reasons hold much water to normal people; all of us are a little scared. We see that their condition bleeds over into their personal life (such as it is) as well as their work. There is a small subset of players that are not actually antisocial themselves, but have been playing with people who are so long that the effect starts to creep into their play styles as well. They can usually be distinguished by the fact that they are normal people in every other context except the game.

Hypersocial players are players that I have always generally respected. They function well in normal society; they have families, and jobs, as well as games. What makes the hypersocial player different is a near addiction to the social aspects of the game. They understand manipulation in all of its myriad forms: good forms as well as bad. They actively develop characters with the rest of the group in mind, creating individual hooks for interaction with others. They can subtly direct the group toward a more fulfilling goal, they can make alliances, and they can cooperate with anyone to achieve their goals. Finally the hypersocial generally use their skills most effectively in the role of GM. Understanding all of the different player types and understanding all of the mechanisms within the system together allow the hypersocial GM to push the players toward a better play experience. Even hypersocial GMs who run bad games are generally better than bad games run by other types of players.

Normal players are just that, normal. They are functional in all levels of their life, though generally not inspired. That isn't to say that they aren't great players, but I haven't in my own experience met any great GMs that were "normal" within the context of these definitions. Normal players are the mean or average that the rest of us are measured by. The defining characteristics are generally that there are few defining characteristics. It is also possible that the reasons there are fewer normal players in the roleplaying industry and business (it seems to me) than the rest of us are two-fold. Either we drive them away, or they never realize we are here.

Kevin Siembeda has made a fortune -- more money than just about anyone in the RPG business for a long time. Kevin, in case you didn't know, owns Palladium, and therefore RIFTS. He sells a ton of books, but I don't know anyone who has bought one. RIFTS is like crack cocaine and the Spice Girls: they make millions and no one admits to buying it (for you kids playing the home game, the answer is yes, I do own a copy myself). And then there's Dungeons & Dragons, which in its various forms has sold millions of copies, and made well over a hundred million dollars. Yet despite the fact that these two games have been phenomenal successes, the hobby is still small, still ghetto-ized in many ways, and still a drop in the bucket of the games industry. Why is that? Either the normals think that we are all a bunch of freaks, or they are perfectly happy to play their one game and never change. When you can buy D&D books from almost anywhere online, who needs exposure to the industry? As an aside, twenty years ago it was "if you can buy AD&D at Sears and Kmart, who needs exposure?" producing much the same result. They generally don't care about us, and they are perfectly fine without us.

Worse, many people are driven away by the subculture itself: they walk into a so-called "friendly local game store" looking for something and don't have a good experience, being talked down to, ridiculed, or ignored because no one knows them, or they are not interested in the staff-member's specialty. Or the normal gamer may be repulsed by the antisocial, the asocial, or even the hypersocial gamers. We are all a lot to take for more normal people; and when you add to that the natural elitism that I see in roleplayers every day it can get very "thick" very quickly. I think the moral to the story is that we need them a lot more than they need us. We have to watch for this, and safeguard against it at nearly every turn. Even then we won't always be successful, but it is better to try. I think I have more to say on this little side topic as well. Hell, I have been talking about it since I helped with "Listen Up..." over a decade ago, but that will be a column of its own. I am running in more directions than a mother of five in my head right now.

In my experience the more virulently asocial that a player is the less complex their character is. In the most extreme example, I knew one roleplayer who used the same name and concept for every character he played for nearly a decade. He wasn't even trying to hide it. He had one idea, that was it, and he wasn't changing for anyone. Now I understand that this is an extreme case, but also understand that it is absolutely true. The more social a player is, the more complex their characters tend to be, this can go off the deep end with hundreds of hooks and ideas that run to twenty-page character backgrounds and so much detail as to be unmanageable. Players with antisocial tendencies can go either way, and either can be painful to read.

Apart from the backgrounds, gamer tendencies lead to character selection tendencies. For instance, antisocial players tending to play slope-headed killers and calling to mind images of the popular "Summoner Geeks" syndrome. Or, more social players tending towards socially complex roles like Fixers in Cyberpunk 2020, and Wizards and Sorcerers in D&D, with asocial players tending toward roles that make them necessary to other players like Clerics in D&D and Techs in Cyberpunk 2020. None of these rules is hard or fast, but they are trends that I have noticed over the last 25-30 years of roleplaying.

While the game setting can influence the style of play, different groups are drawn to different game settings. The Morrow Project and Phoenix Command were the archetypical antisocial roleplaying games. Frankly, choosing almost any game that has a hundred pages of combat rules and more than one hit location chart, but only ten pages on non-combat roleplaying, makes it a pretty good bet that the enthusiastic player is antisocial. In contrast, games like Blue Rose, or Dead Inside are extremely supportive of hypersocial play-styles. While I do not feel that there are games that are completely asocial in style, I do think that games that allow asocial players to hide in the background (as it were) are somewhat to blame. Games like the aforementioned D&D and most all "universal systems" allow you to build characters that are completely void of social skills. That just isn't kosher in a real-world setting. As a Cyberpunk GM, and a Traveller GM before that, I always insisted that a player have some social skills unless they were playing someone profoundly retarded or hermetic. We could talk about how games teach play styles, and we may at some time in the future, but that is something that is outside the scope of this discussion.

How do you break your players out of the mold? There are a lot of good roleplayers out there just waiting for an opportunity to show something different. Years of playing with a dysfunctional, or nonfunctioning playgroup can make this a challenge for the referee. Just take some time to think about simple solutions: do not automatically assume it cannot be done. If you see evidence of strong roleplaying in a player who also shows antisocial tendencies, ask him or her to play a support character, like a tech or a cleric. Give them a small challenge to help them along. Ask them to play a certain hook or disadvantage*. It is possible that the game needs a character element specifically to come from an unexpected source, and introducing these ideas to a different type of player may add a level of mystery to the idea that would not have been possible had "Joe Hypersocial" picked up the baton and run with it.

A few people have noticed other trends that I missed in some player types. A few people seem to think that hypersocial players have a tendency to go off half-cocked without reading the books all the way through and just "winging it". Some people have also mentioned that many of these character types have trouble running long term games, so I think that may be across the gamut of player types. Some also think normal players are the best GMs, while others maintain that only hypersocial players have the skill to read the players consistently. Asocial players commonly have all the time in the world to volunteer to GM, but leave more social interactions flat -- though oddly, not physical conflict as well; they seem to run that just fine, which I have always found odd.

While I would like to claim that I have created this thesis in a vacuum, I can't. A lot of players and other GMs have contributed to this discussion over the last fifteen years. My greatest debt goes to Gilbert Milner, who talked me through the original assertion. I would also like to thank all of my players, and all of my GMs who unwittingly (or otherwise) helped in the process. LiveJournal users "aurachad", "vajrabot", "chadu", and "spuriusfurius" all contributed to this as well.

Let us know what you think in the forums.

Next we will take a look at Werewolf: The Forsaken, and hopefully (if we see a copy soon) finish up the Cyberpunk survey with three more titles.

*A note on the term "Disadvantage", I dislike it. Disadvantage expresses that these flaws, hooks, or liabilities are always purely negative. I think that this is technically a bunch of "hooey" and should be exterminated from the lexicon. That is the subject of another column however, and one yet to come.

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What do you think?

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