How To Use Knowledge of Role-Playing Game Play Styles to Optimize the RPG Experience

Beware current popularity leading to increased "Balkanization"by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson

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How To Use Knowledge of Role-Playing Game Play Styles to Optimize the RPG Experience

How To Use Knowledge of Role-Playing Game Play Styles to Optimize The RPG Experience - Beware current popularity of play style segregation leading to increased "Balkanization"

by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson

Revision G, May 28th, 2022

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.20381.38885

This paper references a question from the Role-playing Game Professional exam

QUESTION: Using the appropriate valid and reliable assessment tools, if you know your players’ play style preferences, despite the current pop-culture trends in recent years, decades of research and evidence-in-practice shows that the best approach, especially for long-term campaigns, is that you should not (a) _________ different play styles.

The GM needs to ensure that all of the players (b) ____________ play styles are being (c) ______________.

The best solution is to encourage (d) ______________ of play styles at the table not (e) “_____________ by fiat”.

There are many player variables that impact the RPG experience, including cooperative attitude, Aphantasia, and a willingness to suspend disbelief.  However, one of the most powerful impacts, especially for long-term campaigns, regards mixing diverse play styles versus matching play styles.

Role-playing game play styles are usually well mixed within each individual, but some players may gravitate to more singular play styles such as only enjoying combat (gamer term of "murder hobo"), puzzle solving, dungeon crawls, political intrigue, theater of the mind, rich narratives, etc. Some players may find the other styles boring. For example someone who loves combat dungeon crawls and puzzles, may be averse to complex social political narrative intrigue campaigns. Most just reference feelings of more enjoyment for some styles, and more boredom from others, while some can be rather intense in their reactions to "opposing" play styles.

One of the oft-cited character theory play style references is the Bartle Taxonomy Player Types diagram. While usually used out of context of the original theory, intended more for video games than tabletop RPG, and subsequent research has shown some weaknesses in some of the areas, it is easy to grok the general concepts, so it is not without some value at a basic level for some basic concepts related to player preferences in play styles.

In recent years, it has unfortunately become increasingly popular on social media, streaming media, and elsewhere, recommendations that when you know your player's play styles, you should match all players with the same play styles together in a group. For example, putting all of the combat-focused dungeon crawlers at one table that only provides adventures mostly focused on combat-focused dungeon crawlers, and put all of the social political intrigue players together at another table with all like-minded players.

While that might initially be the “easier” approach for the GM, it is not necessarily the optimal approach for the best RPG experience, and indeed may in the long run be increasingly harmful to the RPG industries and communities as a whole. There isn’t much consequence in the short term or on a small scale. For short one-shots and some short convention settings, this is certainly a much easier and less risky approach for short-term fulfillment of the players surface gaming "fix", and may lead to shallow "higher ratings" of the GM by the players. Unfortunately, each time the players and GM take this lack of play style diversity melting pot approach, they are missing out on the potential for far greater RPG experiences, the kinds that lead to dramatic personal growth and positive social change.

This “easy way out” approach we are increasingly seeing grow in popularity and implementation at public gaming venues, but we are also seeing it associated with increasing complaints from gamers about the increasing lack of play style diversity at tables, and feeling as though it is getting harder to find a table to play with if you don’t match that table’s lengthy list of social homogeneity in beliefs, politics, policies, and play styles. Non-compliance increasingly leading to negative reviews or even outright bans against the player or game master.

Instead, with the goal of trying to optimize the role-playing game experience in every session, the best approach is to strive toward a well-rounded variety of play styles in the group. Most players should be encouraged to respect the diversity of play style preference, even if they don’t share those preferences. The better a GM balances the adventures to give them all opportunities to shine, the better the experience for everyone.

This mixture of play styles also promotes more growth in all the other players, expanding their horizons from their interaction with others from very different perspectives. This is fundamentally another area illustrating the benefits of allowing diversely different viewpoints to work together, rather than segregation.

We see this enhanced benefit for everyone running sessions and programs that include this more of a “melting pot” approach mixing group members together, rather than the unfortunately increasing trend toward a “Balkanization” of play styles approach we're seeing as people become more polarized culturally, politically and otherwise, including:

  1. Mixed ethnic groups
  2. Rival gang members
  3. Mixed age groups (with some caveats)
  4. Other mixed cohorts

To illustrate this to the extreme, we have run programs with high-risk and incarcerated populations from rival groups/gangs, and highly combative racial, even racist, divides. We have seen how role-playing games enabled these individuals to learn how to set aside their preconceptions about each other, and work together successfully in the game cooperative environment.

For example, we have run games with all of the following at the same table: Native American (Navajo), Vietnamese, Black (African-American), Mexican, Columbian, neo-nazi white supremacists, and other rival gang members, all at the same table together!

Thanks to the social contract and alibi benefits of the role-playing game environment, they were able to all set aside their intense issues and work well together cooperatively through the TRPG experience! This is an extreme example we have experienced, and it requires considerable facilitator and professional game master abilities. We do not recommend the average game master try this, you need considerable experience and training. It is important to note this extreme example as an illustration of the more subtle and less risky debate about mixing play styles at the same table.

It IS very helpful for a GM to know the play styles of all the players, to make sure no one is left out, it is not so important for the players to know this in advance. As the group goes through the forming phase, they will lean about each other’s differences, strengths, weaknesses, etc., stumbling through the storming phases, and trying to find a means to reach norming, and in the hopes of eventually achieving the performing group dynamics.

Other important considerations:

  • Cooperative attitude (compared to competitive, combative, domineering, or entitled ("you must entertain me")), willing to forgive gaps or mistakes of the other players and especially the GM, because understands it is a group cooperative effort, rather than “you are all here to entertain me” entitlement attitude.

  • Willingness to suspend disbelief

  • The multi-sensory “visualization” strengths and weaknesses (aphantasia can greatly reduce the experience for the player, and frustrate other players due to their either constant confusion or seeming lack of engagement).

  • CRITICALLY IMPORTANT, ESPECIALLY FOR LONG-TERM CAMPAIGN OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE: Mixed play styles (either within the player, or between the different player’s styles). Mono-play-style groups end up having lower and lower enjoyment and immersion scores, compared to well-managed (by GM) and well-integrated (by players group) variety of play styles. Avoid “Balkanization”!


RPG Professional Training by RPG.LLC 

Joan Burlingame and Tom Blaschko

Cooperation and Trust Scale (CAT)

Leisure Interest Measurement (LIM)

Assessment of Leisure & Recreation Involvement (LRI)

W.A. Hawkes-Robinson

Gamers Code of Conduct (GCoC)

Role-Playing Game Activity Assessment Form (RPG AAF)

Role-Playing Game Barriers to Entry, Accessibility, Risk, & Complexity Scale RPG BEARCS

Genre Interest Assessment Tool (GIAT)

Gaming Player Preferences Tool (GPPT)

Game Master Preferences Tool (GMPT)

Game System Preferences Tool (GSPT)

Participant Post-Session Assessment Tool (PPSAT)

Game Master Session Self-Assessment Tool (GMSSAT)

Game Comfort Pre-Session Form (GCPSF) (red, yellow, green rankings)

Avedon Interaction Patterns and Role-Playing Games Summary Page

Role-playing Game Ability Model

Role-Playing Game Model

Neuroscience of Learning and Role-Playing Gamesmen

Current State of Role-Playing Game Professionalism

Improving Access to Tabletop Role-Playing Games by Overcoming High Barriers to Introductory Play

Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of Change, Therapeutic Recreation and Role-Playing Games

Important Basic Considerations for Programs Using Role-Playing Games with At-risk Populations


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