Modes of Play in Roleplaying Games


I’m currently reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, and it’s interesting the mode shifts among early roleplaying. I don’t mean history to fantasy, but Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign began with players building fiefdoms, and then plundering the dungeons under Castle Blackmoor. Gary Gygax’s ambitions were on swords-and-sorcery adventures, but the early games were either a narrow type of wilderness hexcrawl, or the classic dungeoncrawl, with a strong association between character power and dungeon depths. M.A.R. Barker may be the 1st to break away from this.

Somehow we got to more open-ended adventures, but I think it’s worth thinking about different modes of play.

For example, most games are oriented towards one player-- one character. Since it’s hard to get a lot of players, it’s hard to represent a lot of characters. And it’s often hard for one player to keep track of several characters. I think Blade and Lockpick might help with this-- it’s partly intended to help with this-- players describe each character, and then pick a certain number of character stregths and/or weaknesses from what they’ve described.

For another example, some games are oriented towards competition, like traditional games, wargames, and Diplomacy. Others are oriented towards cooperation, like most roleplaying games, and Pandemic. A few are oriented towards mainly cooperation but occasional strongly-encouraged backstabbing, like Night Witches and Republic of Rome. And some of us might not want to deal with that, or might not feel like we can deal with that, and ought to be warned up front. Republic of Rome usually ends with the Carthaginians taking the city, because, 1st, you have to be skilled players to avoid that, and 2nd, you have to cooperate, and 3rd, you have to have enough players.

Thoughts? What would you identify as common “modes of play”?


To me the biggest difference in modes is between Hard Crunchy (stats and rulebooks for everything), where you’re doing a detailed simulation using dice and paper with mechanics being of max importance, vs Narrative Imperative (few if any stats or rulebooks), where the plot and characters are key and mechanics are just there to help when needed.

Over the years, I’ve shifted from crunchy toward the narrative style. Mechanics are primarily used to introduce the unexpected and determine how story elements fit together - to resolve whether or not an NPC knows about a thread, how threads/events/characters are related, whether there’s a plot twist, etc. Things like combat and skill usage can be as simple as needed to make the story work.

When I was in middle school, games were more like trying to simulate a Kung Fu movie or a game of Mortal Kombat. Adventures were extremely railroaded. (Most published adventures fit that style.) Nowadays, with a more narrative approach, they’re much more freeform, and pretty much anything can happen.

Themes can run the gamut from mystery, horror, action-adventure, to intrigue and drama, social/personal/political, etc. In addition they can range from low-level nobodies trying to make a name for themselves to legendary heroes creating or saving an interstellar empire and chronicling the eras of history.

One interesting mode of play that I’ve only recently encountered is the reverse GME, used for solo or small group play. Basically, you play as GM, and know the entire adventure (so you can use one of those published railroad adventures, even though there’s no mystery there), but then you use dice rolls and random events to determine the player actions and how they handle things. That’s the bit that adds the surprise and unexpected. I’m looking forward to giving it a try.


Reverse GME looks fascinating.

But I think it’s helpful to distinguish rules vs. judgments from simulation vs. narrative. For example, Vardy’s Free Kriegspiel was judgement-based simulation.

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