Gaming for Fun (Part 1): Eight Kinds of Fun

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If you ask the average GM “what is the point of an RPG” or “how do you win” or “what’s your job as a GM,” I’m pretty certain you’re going here the word “fun” in the answer. “The point is to have fun.” “You win when everyone has fun.” “Your job is to make sure everyone but you has fun.” Right? And if you ARE the average GM (and chances are good you are an average GM if you are reading this), you probably think those are pretty good answers. Admit it. I won’t hurt you. Just f$&%ing say it. SAY IT!!!

Believe it or not, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong and swear at you. Well, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. Not completely. This time. It is a fair thing to say. After all, the G in RPG stands for Game and a Game is a thing done for fun. So, the average GMs have it right. Statistically, it was bound to happen eventually. Good for you. Score one for Team Mediocrity.

But, here is where you screw up. You don’t understand fun. Not really. You don’t sit down to write a game and “add fun” or “make fun.” You make things. You design encounters. You plan plot points. You build NPCs. And you also put together and run campaigns. You hope that somehow, out of the campaigns and the decisions and encounters and plot points and NPCs, fun is a thing that will happen. But you don’t actually try to quantify fun. You don’t think about why fun things are fun.

Until today.

Video Game Designers: Quantifying Fun Since 2001

Between 2001 and 2004, game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek gave a series of lectures discussing a formalized approach to video game design. As part of the lectures, they outlined a list of what they called “aesthetics of play.” Basically, eight broad categories that describe the reasons why people engage with games. Put simply, they outlined eight basic types of fun. In 2004, they published MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.

Since then, their framework has been republished, analyzed, expanded, explored, revised, tinkered with, futzed with, studied, and taught. But the thing is, the list of Eight Kinds of Fun (as I’m calling them) hasn’t really been expanded or changed all that much, as near as I can tell. You can find the list all over the Internet with careful searching and Extra Credits did an episode about it some time ago.

It turned out that they were on to something. The framework was useful and fairly complete. In fact, looking at the list, it is hard to see what might be missing. I’ve read a few proposed ideas and I found one expansion of the list up to 21 items, but it seemed excessively nitpicky and seemed like it was mostly subdividing what was already there. There is just something about this particular lists that resonates with me, and seems to resonate with others as well.

And I’m going to share it with you because of the dirty little secret I’m about to reveal.

The Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little secret I am about to reveal comes in two parts.

First, you know all those RPGs you own? Dungeons and Dragons? Pathfinder? Savage Worlds? Dungeon World? Numanuma? FATE Accelerated Armored Core Advanced? Star Wars: West Edge of the Saga? OSR and Castles and Sorcery? Guess what. Those aren’t games. And they weren’t designed by game designers. Why? Because YOU (if you are a GM) are the game designer. Every GM is a game designer.

D&D is not a thing you can just pick up and play. At best, D&D is a set of rules and instructions and elements that can be assembled into a game. D&D is game engine. A game system. A development kit. A physics engine. A game console. D&D is a Playstation or an XBox. Legacy of the Crystal Shard? Rise of the Runelords? Keep on the Borderlands? Beyond the Rim? Those are closer to games. Just like the disc that has Last of Us or HALO on it, adventure modules have all the encounters and monsters and stories and things in them. Those are games. Sort of.

See, you’re probably expecting me to point out now that if you write your own adventure, you are a game designer. Duh. That much is obvious. But I’m about to tell you that, even if you don’t write your own adventure or campaign, you’re still a f$&%ing game designer. Check that out.

How does that work? Well, unlike a game console, you can’t just shove Rise of the Runelords into a Pathfinder book and have a game happen. To “run the game,” a human being has to follow the Pathfinder instructions and the Rise of the Runelord instructions, just like the processor in the PS4 follows the instructions in the PS4 and on the Last of Us disc. Right? Except that the processor is not a computer. It is YOUR HUMAN F$&%ING BRAIN. And it makes a lot of decisions about how that game is going to be executed. It can ignore any of the instructions. Sometimes, the instructions don’t tell it what to do and it has to make things up. Sometimes the players wander outside the playable area and the human brain running the game has to scramble to generate new content on the fly or to get the players on track. Some human brains adhere strictly to the instructions. Others use them as loose guidelines. Others throw them out altogether and start making s$&% up.

Beyond that, that human brain running the game also decides how to present that game. Does everyone make their own characters or will we use pregens? What classes, races, and resources are allowed? How will we start the story off? Will we use miniatures and dungeon terrain or just our imaginations? How will we handle PC’s dying? What about when everyone dies? Will I fudge dice? How often will I even use the dice? When you look at it that way, the game that you have dropped hundreds of dollars on is woefully incomplete, huh?

Just the mere act of organizing and running the game experience has a great deal of influence over how the game feels. And that is assuming you are running someone else’s module. If you also decide to run your own adventures, run your own campaign, and/or design your own setting, you define a lot more of the game than Jason Bulhman or Fred Hicks or Mike Mearls or Sage Latorra ever did. You have a lot more say over how your players feel about the game. And yet, you don’t get a paycheck for running the game. Welcome to game mastering.

My point is, the question of fun is pretty damned central to the whole experience. We agree on that, right? And you, the GM, have a lot to say about whether the game is fun or not. More to say than any other so-called game designer who has dumped a lot of responsibility on you. So, you need to think like a designer. And when a group of game designers (admittedly in another field) say “hey, we discovered these sort of rules for how people have fun,” don’t you want to know what they are and how you can use them too? Does it make sense to let those damned game designers keep all the useful stuff from you?

The Eight Kinds of Fun

The MDA paper I linked to earlier is a fascinating paper and there is a lot juicy meat in its scant five pages, but one of the places where it sadly doesn’t go into much detail is where it talks about the “aesthetics of play,” the Eight Kinds of Fun I’ve been banging on with. So, while you should eventually get around to reading the paper, I’m going to break down and expand on the important part right here. Let’s look at the Eight Kinds of Fun. And I’m going to start with one that I have some strong personal anecdotes about just to show how this thing can have a drastic impact on the games you enjoy.

 An Object Lesson: Sensory Pleasure

Sensory Pleasure is the pleasure that you get from having your various senses engaged, especially sight, hearing, and touch (because you shouldn’t be licking things in an RPG). In video games, the pleasure we derive from seeing the graphics, hearing the music, and touching the controller are sensory pleasures. In RPGs, sensory pleasure comes from things you can see and touch: artwork, the layout of the book, miniatures, terrain, maps, handouts, diagrams, props, and even dice. If you like those things and can’t imagine an RPG without them, you’re a sensory pleasure seeker.

Now for that personal anecdote I promised you. I realized recently that I am a sensory pleasure seeker. I should have known it, honestly. I spend hours and hours with maps and handouts. I love miniatures and battlemats and terrain. I can’t read a PDF or learn a game from a computer screen, I need a physical book. And I love rolling dice.

The thing you have to understand about these aesthetics, the 8 Kinds of Fun, is that everyone prioritizes them differently, but nobody is about just one of them. We all want different mixes. Some of them are very important to us, we can’t live without them. Other ones do almost nothing for us and we don’t care if they are present. Sometimes, our desired aesthetics vary with our mood or with the medium. When I say I am a sensory pleasure seeker, that means that sensory pleasure is high on my list of preferences, not that it is the only thing I want. It also doesn’t mean I can’t have fun without sensory pleasure (though for some people and some aesthetics, that might be true).

You also have to understand that most people are unaware of the aesthetics of play and have a hard time explaining the reasons for their preferences. You might not realize that you want a thing called “abnegation” out of most of your video games. All you know is that Mass Effect was “too complicated” for you to enjoy.

So, I am a sense pleasure seeker. I like physical things I can touch and maps and diagrams I can look at. I like dice and miniatures and props and feelie bits. Well, recently, I ran a few sessions of Dungeon World. I didn’t bother with a map and miniatures. I could have, but they weren’t necessary and didn’t add anything. DW doesn’t care about exact positions and narrative descriptions provide all you need. But DW is also written such that the GM doesn’t roll dice. Basically, I was running my entire game with a book with some simple art and two pieces of paper.

Needless to say, I didn’t have as much fun as I do with other RPGs. It wasn’t a bad game. It was fun. And it did some neat mechanical things. But I still walked away feeling vaguely unsatisfied with the whole affair. It wasn’t until I started doing the research for this article that it suddenly occurred to me why. But the reason is, it wasn’t satisfying my strong desire for sense pleasure.

Now, do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying that DW is a bad game. It is a fine game. It works well. But it isn’t fun for me. And the reason it isn’t fun for me is because I don’t have any dice and it doesn’t put minis and maps to any really good use. Now, that sounds crazypants to the average GM, right? Of all the stupid reasons to hate a game, that is about the worst, right? But it is just the way I am wired. I need to engage my senses. DW doesn’t do that.

Now, let’s look at the other side. Some people out there are absolutely bats$&% insane and don’t care at all about sensory pleasure. RPGs are games of imagination and they don’t need diagrams and maps and miniatures and tokens to have fun, right? They don’t hate those things, they don’t hurt the game, but they don’t need them. They are vestigial. Like an appendix.

But the thing is, all of those things that increase sensory pleasure require a lot of effort or money to add to the game. Maps have to be drawn or sought out, handouts need to be designed, miniatures are expensive, tokens need to be made or bought, grids need to be acquired, tactical maps need to be designed, and so on. These things make game prep more expensive and more complicated.

Now, if you care about sensory pleasure (like me), the expense and the complication has a payoff. It makes the game more fun. If you don’t care about sensory pleasure (and you’re wrong), it is just a needless waste of time, money, and effort. Right? You can see that, right?

Now, imagine a game you have loved for many years that used to treat the sensory components as optional suddenly makes a push toward requiring them as D&D 3E started to do and 4E, for all practical purposes, cemented. And before you fly down into the comment section in an irrational rage to start an edition war, just consider what I am saying rationally. With 3E and 4E, it became more difficult to ignore the tokens and grids. They were always useful, always an option, but by 4E, they were baked pretty heavily into the game. The game experience suffered if you removed them. Exact positions were a vital part of the game.

So, if you were one of those people who always opted out of sensory components, or even if you only used them occasionally, in really complicated encounters, suddenly, you had to deal with this extra complication all the time for no pay off. And that is why some people went batshit insane when 3E and 4E were rolled out about how “now you had to use miniatures all the time.”

If you are not a sensory pleasure seeker, you cannot understand how miniatures and terrain make the game feel more fun. It just doesn’t register for you. It is like a sound that is beyond the range of your hearing. If you are a sensory pleasure seeker, you can’t figure out why no one else can hear that strange whistling noise. And if you try to debate the merits of something that only serves to add or reduce the sensory pleasure in the game, you will only talk past each other because you are going in with different core assumptions.

Edition wars and style arguments are two places where the lack of understanding of gameplay aesthetics – of the Eight Kinds of Fun – becomes most obvious. At least, it does once YOU understand them. You begin to understand why these arguments happen, why they can’t be resolved, and why the people on either side aren’t irrational, they just lack the language to express their feelings and the introspection to understand them.

That is part of why I’m wasting so many words on this article. I’m hoping it will help you respect the preferences of others and recognize that some game elements are wrapped up in values and preferences that are beyond the range of your hearing.

So, let’s discuss and define the Eight Kinds of Fun in detail and then see if we can put them to good use. Here we go.

The Eight Kinds of Fun (For Reals This Time)

Now, just a quick word of warning. I normally don’t do this sort of warning, but here it is kind of important. A bunch of different people have written about, expanded on, interpreted, and rehashed these eight kinds of fun in terms of video games. I’ve read a bunch of different analyses. But the thing is, I’m now taking all of that together with my own personal experiences with gaming and smashing it into what I personally think will be a useful framework for us GMs. And I’m not going to try to draw the lines where various other writings end and where I begin.

Long story short? Like every other f$&%ing thing on this site, this stuff is MY opinion and MY interpretation and MY conjecture. It is informed opinion/interpretation/conjecture, but it is still MINE and I am not claiming there is any authority on it. The definitive first work on this stuff is that MDA paper I already linked. So go check that out. Otherwise, this is me talking and I’m flat-out admitting I’m trying to expand this framework into something specifically useful for RPGs and I might just be talking out of my incredibly brilliant, handsome, and well-sculpted ass.

Now, I’m right, because it is me. But this is still just me talking. Okay? Clear? Good.

1. Sensory Pleasure

We already talked about this one at length. It provides a good framework for understanding what the aesthetics are really about. This is the pleasure you get from things you can see, hear, and touch. Physical books, art, dice, music, maps, diagrams, miniatures, terrain, and props all bring a tingle of joy to the sensory pleasure seeker.

2. Fantasy

Fantasy is the pleasure you get from losing yourself in an imaginary world and pretending you are someone you are not. It is escapism. It is immersion. The fantasy seeker wants to feel as if their character could be a real character in a world that could be real. They want to be allowed to BE their character.

Fantasy can be very delicate. A lot of things can break someone out of the fantasy. Asking a player to make a decision outside of the scope of their own character can sometimes break the illusion. High levels of abstraction can also break the fantasy. Broken suspension of disbelief is a killer. Inconsistency and contradictions also break immersion.

Now, it is easy to look at fantasy and say “here is the definition of role-playing games” because this is, essentially what roleplaying is about, right? But you have to be careful with that attitude. Fantasy is still just one of the eight potential reasons why anyone might sit down at your table. Some people don’t care about it at all. For others, it is everything.

3. Narrative

Narrative seekers take pleasure from experiencing a well-told story as it unfolds. But this one has a lot of complicated baggage in table-top role-playing games. The thing is, it is existence of the story that satisfies the narrative seeker. The better put-together the story is, the happier the narrative seeker is. We have been trained for ages to expect stories to have a certain shape: beginning, middle, ending, incitement, conflict, climax, resolution, the whole shebang. There is a lot of structure to a good story and a narrative-seeker is most satisfied when the game matches that structure.

It is easy to imagine that a narrative seeker wants to TELL a story, but that is where we cross the line into expression, which we will get to below. And misunderstanding that can cause trouble. A strong narrative seeker might actually be happy playing the quest of a pregenerated character or playing through a fairly linear adventure because it helps provide the structures they crave. A satisfying game presents a solid goal and builds toward a satisfying ending and everything fits tightly together.

I have a player in my game that strongly seeks narrative. And I have discovered the perfect way to torture her: don’t finish the campaign. If a campaign peters out or we start playing a new game, she feels unsatisfied and unhappy. If the campaign ends with a TPK, though, she is better able to cope, especially if I tell her what happens after. The reason is she craves the sense of closure and resolution. The beginning of the game makes a promise to the narrative seeker that there will be a proper ending.

4. Challenge

Challenge seekers see the game as a series of obstacles to overcome and foes to be defeated. They want to test themselves and win. If they fail, they want to know the failure was fair and next time they will do better. Just keep in mind that challenge seekers aren’t solely about winning combat. They like overcoming obstacles, they like accomplishing goals, and they like to win. Investigations, puzzles, negotiations, chases, hunts, and obstacles are all valid challenges.

It is popular to scoff at challenge seekers. These are the people trying to win. Power gamers. Munchkins. Optimizers. They don’t want to role-play, they want to roll-play. And that is a stupid, s$&%y, harmful view. Remember, most people combine multiple aesthetics and this is just one possible reason to play. It is no less valid than any other. If you snort with derision at the challenge seeker, you might be cutting out a lot more gamers than you realize.

Give a challenge seeker a fair obstacle and the tools to overcome it, and the challenge seeker will be happy. Those sessions where it is all just personal interaction and exploration? The ones where “it was all role-playing and nobody touched dice?” Challenge seekers might end up bored to tears. Fudging dice? Applying the rules unfairly? An “everybody wins” mentality? Anathema to challenge seekers.

5. Fellowship

Those in search of fellowship view the game as a framework for social interaction and cooperation. They enjoy camaraderie and social interaction and working together with a team. At the extreme, fellowship seekers don’t really care about the game except insofar as it gives them something to do with other people and a way to contribute to a group.

Fellowship seekers can have their games absolutely ruined by group drama, antisocial behavior, and lack of teamwork. When a group includes “that one evil character,” the fellowship seeker’s sense of fun is probably going to be the first casualty.

6. Discovery

Discovery seekers like to explore and learn new things. They like to uncover things. They view the game as uncharted territory and get a thrill every time they fill in another blank on the map. Of course, the map is a metaphoric map in this sense. They are just as happy discovering the history of the world, the nature of the gods, the answers to mysteries and puzzles, and the reasons why things work. They simply want to learn and understand everything.

Oddly, discovery seekers also seem to be drawn to self-discovery. The same players who get excited just discovering the secret history of Orcus that no one knows also get a thrill from confronting a difficult moral issue and learning about what they, themselves, believe. Moral dilemmas and social quandaries can fill in for exposition and backstory. I am actually watching this overlap happen in one of my own games right now. The group is very heavily stilted toward discovery seeking and they seem to be drawn in to ethical dilemmas with the same fervor.

I recently had a conversation with a few other GMs about discovery and exploration and the difference between expression and discovery. The two seem to get conflated sometimes. The theory runs that if the players find a new location, it is just as satisfying to ask them to describe what they find as to tell them what they find. But it isn’t. This conflates two different types of fun. Discovery seekers need the feeling that there was a secret waiting for them to stumble across and they found it. There is an element of conquest to it. If you ask them to make up their answer, you’re trading creative expression for discovery. And discovery-seekers will ultimately be unsatisfied.

7. Expression

This is a big one. The 600-pound gorilla in the room. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already. This is what I would call the “trending aesthetic.” It is the thing everyone is talking about in the RPG community (at least, online, where I can hear it) and people are starting to view it as the be-all and end-all of role-playing games.

Expression is the pleasure you get from expressing yourself creatively. This is the desire to create something that is unique to you, to say something about who you are and what you believe, or simply to impose your creative will on the world around you. And to some people, this is the primary reason to play role-playing games.

Honestly, that’s not terribly unfair. After all, role-playing games are unique in that they are being run by a human brain in real time that can respond to anything the players think of. The players are free to try anything. They can create any character. Describe their character’s actions any way. In some games, they are free to create parts of the world or even shape the entire story. RPGs are unique in their ability to provide that level of creative freedom to all participants.

But expression can get us into trouble. Just like every other aesthetic, it is not something everyone is after in equal measure. It is not even something that satisfies everyone. The act of creation is not easy and it also involves a component of bravery. Creating something that expresses an idea unique to you opens you to judgment and criticism. It is scary. It is risky. And not everyone wants it.

In certain areas of the game, expression can also squash other aesthetics. I’ve already noted that, in some ways, creative expression can hinder discovery. Player authorship of certain world details can also disrupt some players’ sense of fantasy. For the same reason, it can also wreak havoc on a good narrative structure.

I am not down on expression. Far from it. Part of the reason I became a DM is out of strong expression seeking behavior. I think a lot of people who become DMs do so because they are driven by expression-seeking behavior. But I am worried about the loud voices in the community touting it as a panacea through ignorant assumptions. Like any other aesthetic, it is important to the people it is important to and not important to anyone it isn’t. It is just one factor.

Most specifically, I have heard a few DMs say “asking players to create the world always makes them more engaged.” The fact is, asking the players to create the world will excite the expression seekers, but the submission seekers and discovery seekers want nothing to do with that. A fantasy seeker might or might not, but someone else’s careless creation might wreck the fantasy seeker’s immersion.

Expression does have many forms though. In some ways, 3rd Edition D&D and Pathfinder allowed for an unprecedented degree of expression through character creation. FATE’s Dresden Files has an extensive set of instructions for inviting the players to help create the setting for the campaign, allowing for players to get in on the world design expression. Other games invite players to express themselves in a variety of other ways as well.

As a final, interesting side note regarding expression, let’s look at another 4E edition wars incident. When 4E came out, one of the touted features was a reduced and simplified skill list. Many skills were dropped from the game altogether, including crafting and professional skills. Some members of the gaming community went berserk. Do you know why? Right. An apparent reduction of expression.

The thing is, you can say that your character is a blacksmith or a tailor or whatever in any edition. You don’t need rules or skills to back you up, right? So who cares. It is not as if anyone actually used those skills. So what was the harm. Well, the thing that expression seekers understand is that anyone can say anything, but when you choose to expend resources on something, that makes a much stronger statement. That says “this is important, this is central.” When you give up a useful skill like Diplomacy or Athletics in favor of a skill you might never use like Tailoring, that sacrifice says something about what you think is important about your character. It is a strong expression. And people who value the the ability to make those strong statements were upset that that ability had been reduced.

Again, people are bad at introspection and articulation. No one could quite explain it that way. And even if they could explain, the listeners would have to understand how important expression was to the speakers. And so we have another skirmish of an edition war with people uselessly talking past each other about utterly rational, reasonable things.

8. Submission

The final aesthetic is called submission, though I prefer the term that the Extra Credits’ team use: abnegation. It just sounds cooler and more complicated. Submission is the pleasure you get from turning off your brain and losing yourself in a task you don’t have to think too hard about. Grinding levels in World of Warcraft. Mining minerals in Minecraft. Farming item drops in Diablo III.

Now, submission is an odd one to discuss in tabletop RPGs because it is one that tabletop RPGs doesn’t handle so well. The thing is, even the simplest tasks in an RPG require a high cognitive load. You have to think things through. But still, the concept of “beer and pretzels” play exists for a reason. Go down into a dungeon, kick down doors, kill orcs, take their loot, go back to town. Lather, rinse, repeat. That is submission or abnegation.

And there are people who want exactly that. They look like challenge seekers sometimes, but they don’t want to work too hard or think too hard. They just want to goof around and enjoy a simple game with clear, straightforward goals.

I actually lost a player not too long ago because, if there is one aesthetic my game does not offer, it is submission. I’m bad at it. My game is serious business. The player was pretty savvy. He said, flat-out that he was looking to relax, unwind, and goof around and I agreed with him that my game table wasn’t going to give him that chance. It happens.

And Now You Know All You Need to Know…

And there you have it. Eight aesthetics of play. Eight kinds of fun. And every gamer brings with them a mix of preferences for some, many, or most of those. Even you, the GM. And once you’re aware of them, you’re in a better position to run less worse games for the players who show up at your table.

So thanks for reading and…

What? What do you mean, “what do I do with them?” Figure out what you want, figure out what your players want, and then do the things that make you all happy. This isn’t f$&%ing rocket science.

Okay, okay. I hear you, dammit. This is a hefty topic. And I don’t want to overwhelm anyone here. So, I will be back one week from today with the second part of this article, where we will discuss how you – the Game Designer GM – can use this information to help you make decisions about how to build and run better games for your particular peanut gallery.

But, between now and then, start thinking about these eight aesthetics of play and think about how you, personally, experience role-playing games. Or any games really. Board games. Stupid card games. Video games. Anything .Do any of the aesthetics resonate particularly strongly with you? Do any of your preferences and habits reveal anything about which aesthetics you value most? About which ones you could live without?

And what about the players who share your table? Can you start to make any guesses about where they are coming from? Think about it. I’m not kidding. If you don’t do your f$&%ing homework, I’m going to know about it next week.

44 thoughts on “Gaming for Fun (Part 1): Eight Kinds of Fun

  1. If you game long enough you see all these gamers. There was an illustration many years ago ( maybe in 2nd d&d) that summed up each player at the table. They are a hard bunch to please. They may even change seats so to speak from week to week and game to game.
    I myself do not have a regular game ( this is my problem) and so I mainly run convention games where their attitude when they sit is “entertain me”. I have to interpret that table as fast as I can, within say the fisrt 20 minutes or so. So as GM I try and bring everything to them as hard and fast as I can. Hitting all 8 of your list. The components have become increasingly important to me that they are going to have the chance to win (so to speak) with as little input on their part as possible. I see it as a challenging and on my part the best possible outcome for me is that they leave happy whether I managed all 8 or not.

    • Yes. Over the last few years, I have become increasingly active in running Con Games for strangers and this is a great way to learn about the different ways people engage with games. One of the best events I ran was for Baldman Games three years ago at GenCon. The Delve consisted of a one-hour 4E adventure. You ran it for eight hours straight. They would bring you a group, you’d run the two encounters for them, and then they would bring you a new group. So, in that one day, I ran the game for 48 strangers at a breakneck pace. And it was a GenCon event. People were paying for it. It had to make them happy.

  2. Another great article, and probably the one closest to my own interests personally (academic study, woohoo). Particularly striking was the call-out about how expression and discovery are competing interests a lot of the time, since I’ve been making a lot of forum board posts with that exact caveat in them.

    “Expressionist,” for lack of a better term, tactics that focus on spreading the creative load to the players in a traditional GMed RPG can definitely increase immersion (in fact it’s one of my favorite ways to get player buy-in on NPCs)… but with the caveat that they can easily shatter a sense of discovery into a million pieces. Running a mystery scenario where the players start making up NPCs and world details is not only pretty much impossible, but really antithetical to the sort of fun that mystery scenarios typically make the most important (discovery).

    It seems like it took a lot of people a long time to catch on to the possibility of dividing the traditional expressive powers of the GM with the players, but you’re only too right that we should be careful of going too far and dumping discovery like a radioactive potato just because it’s “old hat” in today’s indie RPG scene.

    Looking forward to part 2, and still looking forward to your experimental dungeon idea having more entries as well.

    • Well, I’m going to throw some other things out there. Engagement is the term for someone being emotionally interested in the game. Being more “Expressionist” will only garner engagement from people seeking Expression. Engagement is the word for someone who is being satisfied by the game. Whatever their needs, you are meeting them.

      Immersion, the sense of being lost in the game, comes in a couple of different flavors and it is a tricky creature. In truth, Immersion is another word like Engagement. It means the game is drawing people in to its trance. And that means, again, it will vary from person to person based on what they are seeking.

      “Player authorship always increases buy-in” is a myth, and a dangerous myth. Buy-in is like Immersion and Engagement, it means the person is in the game. Player Authorship increases buy-in for those who want it, but those who don’t are not going to be drawn in. Part of why I wrote this article is to go after that myth and point out that most of the “advice” about various different styles of game are highly personal.

      • I agree, but I think TheHydraDM has suggested a useful distinction to pay attention too: that there two kinds of attachment to a game — Investment and Enjoyment.

        For example, if I’m in a hopeless position in a game of Diplomacy, I’m not going to walk away from the game and leave all my fleets and armies sitting idle — I’m not having fun, but I’m committed to playing it through because Dippy is a long, hard game, and being a good sport makes it a better game for everyone. I have Investment without Enjoyment.

        Contrariwise, if I’m playing Super Hexagon when someone interrupts me, I’m having fun with the game but I’m not committed to it in the slightest. Because it’s a single player game, the typical game lasts less than ninety seconds, and I can start a new one in under a minute even if I quit the app, I lose almost nothing by throwing a game to deal with something else that has come up. I have Enjoyment without Investment.

        Looking at this distinction, using the words “engagement” and “buy-in” rather than just “fun” makes a lot of sense, because players seeking Expression are going to be more committed to a game that they had a creative hand in, above and beyond having more fun, because now it’s a world that they had a hand in making. It’s theirs, like their character is theirs, and it matters to them that their work not go to waste.

        Now, having said all that, this doesn’t actually change your point in the slightest. Non-Expression players aren’t going to gain commitment to a game by Player Authorship any more than they are going to gain pleasure. I still think it’s an interesting point, though.

        • You know, in situations where you have investment but not enjoyment are the sorts of things that just cause unnecessary stress and are better without. I respect you for continuing your game of diplomacy. I recently had a D&D game that had 2 years of investment, but lost all enjoyment. Eventually we all just had to just tear it off like a bandaid and be rid of it.

  3. Great article!

    There’s also heterogeneity with different parts of the game too. I love challenge in the form of old school dungeon crawls, but grew tired of character creation/optimization as a form of challenge.

    But maybe that was just the 4e feat bloat.

    • Yes. There are specific types of everything, which I’ll mention next week. Challenge is an idea, but there are different ways to produce challenge and some are more satisfying than others.

      The feat bloat issue is another great example. If you don’t get off on either the Challenge of system mastery and character generation OR the Expression inherent in building a complex character, feats don’t do much for you. Which is fine if you can ignore them, choose simple feats you can forget, or just pick a very small number of them. But if you are forced to wade through lots of feats and devote lots of time to it (for no payoff), you will get tired of it.

      However, this is an instance where self-policing of game aesthetics is useful. If you KNOW the feat thing doesn’t give you any fun and you don’t want to bother, you can consciously minimize the choice for yourself. Simply say “I will only choose core feats” and “I will only choose feats with static bonuses.” You can then avoid the feat bloat issue. It never has to hurt you. That is part of the power of understanding your own aesthetic preferences.

  4. This is a great article.

    I’ve found myself not wholly satisfied with games like Dungeon World and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, but until now didn’t really know how to articulate it.

    The fact is, I derive most of my gaming pleasure from discovery and challenge. I suppose that’s why a well-run dungeon crawl is so dear to my heart.

  5. Really especially like the distinction between Expression and Discovery, because as a creative/artistic person and usually That Player who plays the weird, offbeat characters, other people tend to assume I’ll like Expression. When I explain that I sort of hate writing backstory, most are surprised. I’ve always had to work to convey the idea of “I don’t want that pressure” “I can’t tell you what my character is like until I play him” etc etc.
    I think my deal is actually Discovery and Fantasy. I can get behind the idea of talking to the DM and working with the DM on developing the world to make my character fit well, but I’ve always balked at inventing my character’s place in the world without asking about the world first, or of having the world built around my backstory. The conflicts between Expression and Discovery that you pointed out here describe that preference really really well, and I really appreciate you getting that idea out to other DMs. Looking forward to part two!

    • My dirty little secret is this article started because of EXACTLY that distinction. I had this tricky discussion with some folks talking about how to reward exploration in the game and it turned into a player authorship discussion. Basically, folks were saying “when the players chose to explore just to find out what was beyond the next hill, reward them by letting them create the answer.” But that completely misunderstand why people who are driven to explore are driven to explore. That conversation rattled around in my brain for a while before I stumbled on the MDA paper and the discussion of aesthetics. More reading, more analysis, more thought, and BAM, this article.

  6. Angry, this was a great article. It helped clear up some of the conflicts between myself and my roommate (both of us run games in which the other is a participant). I tend to skew my games toward challenge and expression, while he tends toward fantasy and narrative.

    Looking forward to part 2!

  7. Thank you muchly for this! Just the idea that the GM is a game designer is really eye-opening — and while I’d seen the Eight Kinds of Fun episode of Extra Credits, I’d never connected it to my tabletop roleplaying experience.

    On the subject of the interrelation of items on the list, I think the contrast between Fantasy and Expression is interesting when it comes to role-playing: both can drive a player to emphasize their character’s motivations over game considerations like victory in combat, acquisition of rewards, or not splitting the party, but Fantasy does so for verisimilitude and Expression for authorial integrity.

  8. Wow, this was excellent. I’ve played everything from RPGs to miniatures to card games, and this article really articulated things I’ve been trying to figure out on my own for years. So so good. Thanks so much for posting it.

  9. This is great! But now I am faced with a huge problem: my players are a totally mixed bag and the conflict of what they’re after is causing a lot of drama. One player, an expression player, has lofty ideas about how to play d&d, and disrespects anyone to whom expression just isn’t a big deal. He also gets into large conflicts with another player of mine, who is really into the narrative, as his actions of defiance to being controlled by the whims of the DM often cause the plot to be derailed slightly, and its a mad scramble to get things back on track. Meanwhile my own play style panders to discovery seekers, (creating my own setting and campaign), and its not that popular. I am the kind of DM who just lets players do as they do, while still giving very clear and loud cues as to where the plot needs to go. I just expect players to be interested by my plot and hope they follow along, but won’t try very hard if they decide against it.

    All around, my campaign is falling apart after 3 sessions.

  10. This is an extremely good article, but I think you’ve combined distinct and opposing groups into headings. Specifically…

    2. Fantasy is actually two groups.

    Group one is as you describe, Group two is the Media-ist. The Media-ist has fanatasy tendencies, but his “Fantasy” is a implementation of some media. Maybe it is Drizzt or Raistlin, maybe it is Harry Potter, or maybe it is Anime. He is distinctly different from the Fantasy-ist in that the Fantasy-ist is generally happy with a consistent world, while the Media-ist wants to recreate some specific other form of media, usually while taking on the role of a character central to that media.

    4. Challenge

    This one is two very distinct groups. One group wants a series of challenges which they overcome as your describe. The Powergamers/Munchkins are different, they don’t want challenges to overcome, they want to be “Better” than everyone else because they overcame a challenge in ways that shouldn’t be possible through system mastery and exploitation. A Challenge-ist wants to defeat a Tarrasque, a Munchkin/Power-gamer wants to solo a Tarrasque and make it his pet. They share some commonality, but they require vastly different forms of gaming to satisfy them.

    On the surface these above groups do seem to share commonality, but in practice they require very different styles of game to be happy. A Fantasy-ist might be happy in a Media-ist world, but the Media-ist will not be happy in a Fantasy-ist world unless it is a reimplementation of their preferred world. A Challenge-ist won’t be happy in a Powergamer/Munchkin world as there is rapidly no challenge, and the Powergamer/Munchkin won’t be happy in a Challenge-ist world if they can’t game their way to achievements that shouldn’t be possible and they’re being held to reasonable degrees of challenge.

    Basically, I think you need two more groups of Fun. The Media and the Monty-Haul, I think they’re distinct enough groups to require special attention, especially as these two groups have been styles since RPG inception.

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  13. This made me realize why I like the random tables I made for my game, and like to use them in-game vs just for inspiration. I like to see some discovery as a DM, not just expression.

  14. I thought this was a great article, but I have some comments regarding the section on Challenge.

    After reading over the fun types, I would say I identify most with Challenge, but I’m not overly concerned with rolling dice and have had more fun in exploration than combat (talking DnD 4E here). This is because my DM presents us with puzzles during exploration, which I have to think long and hard about in order to get our party past. I’m playing a hybrid Psion-Ranger with the Mark of Passage, and he’s all about getting us through places we shouldn’t be able to get through. Climbing kit, ropes, grappling hooks, teleportation, telekinesis, mirrors, lanterns: I use all kinds of tools to get us through, over, and around.

    You do say something along these lines in the first paragraph, but then completely contradict it with the last one.

    • I don’t think I do contradict it and your experiences make perfect sense. As I said “give a challenge seeker a fair obstacle and the tools needed to circumvent it and they will be happy.” The puzzles that you mention are not a part of the idea of exploration. Those ARE challenges. Fair obstacles with a variety of tools. The exploration is a means toward Discovery, but exploration is not, of itself, an obstacle. The puzzles represent an blockade.

      Don’t get too hung up on the die-rolling aspect. I included that remark just to call out the DMs who claim that the ideal game session is one that is purely about Narrative and Discovery without forcing the players to overcome any difficulties. In the end, any time you are faced with an obstacle and have to create your own success, you are facing challenge.

    • To add to my previous reply…

      You really do need to break things down moment by moment. “In this moment, right now, how am I engaged with the game?” The switch between one mode of play and another can happen very fast and very subtly.

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  16. Good article.

    You also have to understand that most people are unaware of the aesthetics of play and have a hard time explaining the reasons for their preferences.
    Simon Sinek gives a explanation to this in his talk:

    It’s basically that the limbic brain is where all the feelings and decision-making happens, while the neocortex controls the language center, and our analytical and rational thoughts. That’s why it’s so hard to sometimes put words on your gut feeling.

  17. I know that me personally I am an expressionist and a challenge seeker. I love coming up with a good background and creating and interesting character. I also love a good challenge that requires me to think outside of the box to resolve. I never make a character without a challenge that I need to deal with in the game. The most memorable for me was my mute blade singer that couldn’t hit crap but on the other hand nothing could hit him either. He was basically worthless unless there was a choke point and it was a lot of fun to make him and to try and over come both of those challenges in the game that was heavy on social interaction and low on choke points.

    Thanks Angry for posting this as it gives me better ammunition to get my players not just invested in my game but to be able to increase their enjoyment of the game as well.

  18. Fun to read a year late! These do ring pretty true as categories – I’m high on Fantasy and Narrative, with a healthy dash of Submissive. Which perfectly explains why I LOVE – LOVE – LOVE being railroaded. Tell me where to go and what to do and let me lose myself in the character, knowing that I can’t possibly fuck the adventure up badly enough to ruin the plot.

    Maybe you addressed this just-less-than-a-year-late; I’m curious if and which other kinds of fun exist on a scale opposite each other.

    Discovery Expression
    Challenge Submission

    Fantasy, Narrative, Sensory and Fellowship don’t seem to act the same way.

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  21. Great article – I guess the next question is which types play well together and which need to be separate.

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  25. In response to your tweet (here because I don’t do the twitter thing): People are split about 50/50 on that particular question, with a slight lead in favor of the “better story” option. My pick is the “tough challenge” option, personally.

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  27. Excellent article. One of your best, IMO.

    The quality of “Submission” (or “Abnegation” as you prefer) is one that RPGs can approach with the concept of Bleed. Due to the presence of dice, papers, tortilla chips, etc, it’s not really possible to completely sublimate the physical world. But it is possible to forge such a strong connection to the interior state of your character that the physical world starts to seem secondary, compared to the power of the subjective effect. In a sense while you cannot totally “lose” yourself, you can “fuse” yourself.

    Bleed is a scary word to some people. But it’s the holy grail of my favorite sessions, and a powerful recreational drug for my most dedicated Players.

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  29. Really interesting, thanks for writing this. I’ve done my homework. I thought about myself and each of my players as you suggested. I have watched over a couple of sessions, and adjusted my assessment of each. This is a very useful tool for understanding the fun.

    The aesthetics seem to work for videogames, but in a pen and paper game a big part of the thrill for me is seeing others enjoy my work. Fellowship and Expression have aspects of it, but don’t address it head on. It’s the feeling of fun I get from watching the players have fun with the world I’ve built, the NPCs they encounter, and the adventures I run.

    Maybe there is another aesthetic, not one that videogames typically attempt, but one that an actor, an entertainer, a performer, an author, and perhaps even DMs might experience.

    If my players don’t enjoy the game, no matter how much Fellowship and Expression there was in the session, I don’t enjoy it. And for me, this is the buzz that’s missing when I’m a player, no amount of Fellowship can replace it, and even with Expression, that doesn’t satisfy this aesthetic. It would take other players building off me and enjoying my Expression, rather than just the freedom to have Expression.

    I can’t think of a good name for it. I’ll call it Emotional Response for now.

    I’d be curious if you think I’ve missed how this fits into one of the eight aesthetics for videogames.

  30. I was recently pointed toward this by a post in the RPG Design subreddit since I’m starting to think about the game I’ve been dreaming up for the last 15 odd years. I just wanted to tell you that this is SO much better than that GNS shit. I tried using that to explain to my last DM why I didn’t like his homebrewed point-system that allowed for player authorship ( among other things) or why I was insulted when I discovered that the theory my scholar character had about why weird things were happening was correct simply because the DM “allowed” me to create that. Now I can say that I highly prioritize Fantasy, Discovery, and Challenge (in that order) and he wasn’t respecting that.

  31. Hey Angry, Am I allowed to ask you to quantify what aesthetic one of my players is after?

    Because I can’t really quantify it. The part of the game he most enjoys is cleaning up all the messes the other players make. He pretty much plays the Only Sane Man on the middle of all the insanity the others come up with. I’m really wondering what aesthetic this falls in.

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