Content of the article: "Know the ways we enjoy Role-Playing Games"
10(ish) Types of Fun in RPGs
Tabletop Role-Playing Games are fun. If you have come to this site, I doubt you would disagree. But can we agree on why they are fun? I am sure we can find some common ground, but we could easily favor or focus on different types of fun. I might enjoy min-maxing my characters into the perfect fighting machine. You might enjoy playing larger-than-life, charismatic characters. And we can both be right. Players and Game Masters have several elements to fall in love with and find their own kind of enjoyment. If we understand all the different types of fun and everyone’s preferences for them, we can have more of this fun. When we know our player’s preferences, we can gear the game’s focus to them from Session Zero on. If we view the other types as options, we can better plan a change-of-pace quest or session. In addition, players can better understand and respect each other knowing how their friends across the table won’t always find enjoyment in the same way as you, and vice versa.
Listing all the types of fun seems impossible, but I first came up with a plan to cover as many as I could. I divided my quest into enjoyments for story and for gaming. Within each set, I wanted a mix of sources from systematic market research, top industry opinions, and scientific theories or models. Each set would have its own strengths and weaknesses. Scientific models of engagement will have logic and rigor we can trust but may not be as “real world” applicable as feedback from real consumers. Industry leaders offer us something in-between, logical insight but not bound to the quantifiable. Ultimately, if there is support in our biology, industry intuition, and audience reaction, then the type of fun is worth listing. Those with only partial support will be listed as well but marked with less universality. Unless you are trying to run a game for 7 billion people, we can learn from niche types of enjoyment.
Start with the Classics
For game design, many will stop at Marc LeBlanc’s eight types of fun and accept them. It was written specifically for video games and covers the different boons of games from Tetris to Final Fantasy. It does not have systematic rigor behind it, but the strong intuition of game designers. The list of eight below has lasted many years as what some call the standard for game design:
- Sensation (beautiful artwork and evocative imagery)
- Fantasy (use of imagination)
- Narrative (drama and story)
- Challenge (competition and progress)
- Fellowship (social interaction and kinship)
- Discovery (exploration and learning)
- Expression (self-discovery)
- Submission (relaxation)
It seems to cover a whole lot. You might begin to picture the different times you have felt these while role-playing. If we add the market research from Wizard of the Coast, XEODesign and Quantic Foundry we can gain insight from the consumer’s perspective. We can also add the intuitions of Ron Edwards, Robin Laws, and Richard Bartle to get the perspective of RPG professionals. Combing through GNS theory and player types from the above authors allows us to cast a bigger net out to find what is enjoyed in the real world. And what of those will be supported empirically in fields such as Self-Determination Theory or Mood Management Theory?
Filter the Classics with Science & More
As I began to filter these separate lists together, the first thing I did was shift the broad narrative aesthetics from LeBlanc’s big eight to the side for its own list. Next, I compared the remaining seven fun types to universal needs purported in Self-Determination Theory (SDT): Autonomy, Competence, and Connectedness. Autonomy covers Fantasy, Competence covers Challenge and Discovery, and Connection covers Fellowship. Four down, three to go. SDT is a motivation theory focusing on intrinsic motivation, but it also outlines how extrinsic motivations can become internalized. Essentially, through introspection and learning, humans create value systems to venture past the Big Three needs. In other words, Expression is a way to actively find meaning and enjoyment unique to the individual. With Expression now supported, just Sensation and Submission remain. These two types of fun seem to explain different enjoyable mood states. Just like we don’t need double-blind, randomized trials to prove the effectiveness of parachutes, we don’t need science to tell us relaxation and pleasant moods are good. Still, some scientists did create Mood Management Theory explaining our use of media as a means to acquire those good moods.
With Narrative put aside, Sensation and Submission combined as Mood Management and Discovery and Competition combined as versions of Competence, we are down to five core fun types. This list was built with just hard science and a few game design experts in mind. Each item is highly supported, but the list is not proven to be exhaustive. Instead of trusting the opinions of a few designers and a handful of psychologists, Quantic Foundry surveyed over 400,000 gamers to find the different reasons real people play and enjoy games. The majority of their list simply adds nuance to our list of five, but it also added escapism/immersion as number six. Transporting to somewhere else or playing as someone else should sound very familiar to any RPG player. It’s also the S in Ron Edward’s GNS (Gamism Narrativism Simulationism) Theory, further supporting this type of fun as a part of RPGs.
Expand Each Type on a Continuum
The evidence Quantic Foundry gathered showed that condensing individuals down to a list of likes and dislikes has two main issues. For one, it creates a bias towards “hardcore” gamers and paints “casual” gamers negatively. Labeling players as either strategic or unstrategic isn’t as valuable as placing someone on a spectrum of spontaneous to contemplative. The labeling identifies if they meet some standard, and the spectrum informs the player, designer, or GM on what the player seeks. The claim that certain drives are opposite poles that gamers normally distribute between is supported by their survey data. The desire for excitement was logically shown to stretch from calm to thrilling. Some of the opposites that arose were quite interesting. For instance, destruction and construction were not opposites. What they found was construction is a means to a variety of ends and destruction is an end goal itself for a subset of gamers. Construction could be a means for players to discover the bounds of the world, express themselves, or it could be part of a long-term strategy to take over the New York skyline. It turns out, the opposite of destruction is constant or idyllic settings. This essentially puts the world on a spectrum of enduring to chaotic.
RPG’s Unique Layers of Play
After combining SDT, LeBlanc’s big eight and Quantic Foundry, we have a set of six detailed fun types. Each type backed by science and many measured on a spectrum. In search of gaps in our set, we reproduced the above process on RPG-specific motivation taxonomies. Robin Laws’ and Richard Bartle’s player types all fell on some part of these six types. They showed the core six can be achieved at the crunchy mechanical level of the game or the abstract character level. Players can seek Power in World War III (Nazis versus Confederates). Some may enjoy increasing their damage per attack others will have fun being respected as influential decision-makers for the resistance. Players can have fun socializing and hanging out while playing with Brian and Tom or make blood pacts with Chak-Ik and Oog. Players can even long to complete the module’s written story or meander through their character’s open-ended story.
We are left with the core six fun types fleshed out with fifteen subcategories. Twelve of the categories have evidence-based opposites. With two layers to experience RPGs, there are fifty-four ways to enjoy role-playing games below:
- Design (curated vs customizable)
- Fantasy (use of imagination)
- Challenge (easy relaxed fun vs skill-based learning)
- Competition (non-adversarial vs high conflict)
- Completion (self-driven vs task-oriented)
- Discovery (exposed vs unknown)
- Power (flat vs progressive power)
- Strategy (spontaneous vs contemplative)
- Fellowship (independence vs teamwork)
- Personal Values
- Expression (self-discovery)
- Mood Management
- Destruction (constant vs chaotic)
- Excitement (calm vs thrilling)
- Sensation (evocative sights and sounds)
- Immersion (deep lore vs generic)
- Simulation (dramatic vs realistic)
What About the Story Half?
Fifty-four types of fun for games, plus one for story? That is how it was listed in the many taxonomies I have read. Are the games we enjoy really more diverse than the stories we crave? After completing a review, in the same process as the game fun, the second set of four-story fun types emerged. Fifty-four may dwarf story’s little four types, but the complexities under each quarter is innumerable. From Literary Darwinism, Affective Disposition Theory, Mood Management Theory and Vorderer’s Complex Model of Entertainment Experiences we have of the following four fun types:
- Learning (values and skills)
- Escapism (leaving your reality behind)
- Catharsis (emotional release and empathy)
- Achievement (suspense and judgment of outcomes)
Learning Through Story
The field of Literary Darwinism explains that the stories we tell create greater fitness as a species thus storytelling is selected for on an evolutionary level. By telling stories of great warriors and enduring relationships we can learn to fight and find love faster than real-time experience. Stories with black and white morality or “good versus evil” teach us what good should look like and what evil lurks around the corner. The morally grey anti-hero acts as an experiment to find the soft line where good becomes evil or how evil can march back to redemption. Lastly, a meta-story level of learning can occur. By dissecting a presented story into themes, motifs and narrative devices we can improve our ability to write stories. In other words, learning about learning. This is where those obnoxious literary snobs live, but curious artists can find pleasure in meta-learning too.
Escapism into a narrative is very similar to what we briefly discussed already. Escapism can be a mental retreat from the world one normally exists in. Your everyday stresses are left behind. The monotony of TPS reports is easily broken up. On the other hand, the research hasn’t proven what exactly we get in exchange when we arrive at our escape. To truly immerse themselves in the new world, one must suspend their disbelief in the fake world. I know Athas isn’t a real place I can go to learn psionics. If I can ignore that small fact, I can begin to care about my path to psychic mastery. Acceptance of the new world comes from internally consistent interactions. A story fulfilling your urge to escape will flop if the world feels inconsistent or lacks deterministic rules. The bounds of my psychic power should be logical and consistent. If you are just looking for blissful laughter, a sitcom with no repercussions for wacky antics may be a better fit. Ask your players what types of world they want to escape to and what roles they want to fill.
Catharsis was coined in Aristotle’s Poetics and remains in our culture’s vocabulary to explain one of the strongest sources of pleasure in narratives. From reliving and processing sealed emotions to exploring new ones, the possible emotional reactions are limitless. The emotions can come from the basic pleasure of beautiful landscapes to the tragic stories of separated twins. What is nearly universal is the pleasure in completing each emotional roller-coaster. If you look back at your favorite films or books, you may see a trend in emotions. Maybe it’s the sorrow of losing a lover or the triumph of outworking the competition.
Drama and Conflict
Our last story-related fun is Achievement. Achievement starts with judging if an outcome or character is good, then swinging between hope and despair along the journey. You may long for good characters and fear bad outcomes or vice versa. Only with strong affectation (positive or negative) towards a subject can we get the joy of Achievement. Watching a stranger pack their bags for a trip is boring. Replace the stranger with your mother and now you care about the character. She likes to play ‘90s gangsta rap to calm down. This time she’s blasting Dr. Dre so she can find her car keys. The music on her phone drowns out the sound of a ticking time bomb. Now we have a negative outcome for a positive character. Now we have an achievement story.
In the post, we’ve pulled together science, surveys of real players and industry experts. Together, they paint a complex picture of how we enjoy role-playing games. The types of fun give us a sense of direction to directly pursue what we want out of each session. Still, much about games and stories are left unanswered. Where do your players want to escape to, who do they want to connect with and how do they want to feel powerful? These questions all remain unanswered by the lists. The answers will come from asking directed questions and watching your players’ reactions in-game. Paying attention to the different types and showing the rest of your table the lists is the first step for a good conversation.
Keep the Conversation Going
Each of the ten funs will continue to be explored deeper in the future. Stay tuned for insights and opinions on different ways to experience or create each type. For now, go reflect on the lists as well as critique them. Which types do you prefer and how do you prefer them? Send this to your gaming group and see how you compare. As we said in our 2020 New Year Resolutions post, we want our community to challenge us. You can start by commenting moments of enjoyment not covered in our lists to help everyone’s understanding grow.
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