Once upon a time, the only GMing advice in existence was the stuff in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It wasn’t the best, but no one noticed because the game itself was a kludgey mess that had been invented by an actuary in a garage. But then things got complicated. And so there appeared the first pretentious, elitist internet blogger who tried to “elevate the medium” with snobbish advice. The problem was the internet didn’t exist. So the blogger had to resort to something we used to call a “book.” The pretentious snob trying to save the medium was named Robin Laws. And the book was – in a masterstroke of creative naming – Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering.
All right. Laws wasn’t a pretentious snob. At least, he wasn’t back then. And the book wasn’t terrible. In fact, it had some good s$&% in it. And without it to lay the foundation for preachy, snobby, GMing advice, I wouldn’t exist. Until your drowning in garbage, you don’t go looking for a someone to cart it all away.
One of the ideas that came out of that book was the idea of classifying your players into various “types” like “power gamer” and “method actor.” Laws basically invented all of the designations we still use today. He just gave them different names. And, of course, he gave plenty of advice for keeping each “type” of player happy while also keeping them on a short leash. And thirty years later, that same bulls$&% is now in every goddamned Dungeon Master’s Guide and game mastering book that exists. And nothing has changed.
I’m not saying it isn’t useful to understand that different players play for different reasons. It totally is. And it is also useful to know how to identify those motivation and how to cater to them. I am all for that s$&%. That’s basically a GM’s f$&%ing job! The problem is the system most people use – the one that Laws started – is about as useful and nuanced as f$&%ing horoscopes.
Fortunately, while no one has done anything to improve on Laws’ work in the RPG space, someone has actually done better somewhere else. Back in the early 2,000’s, a bunch of clever academic game designers – video game designers – started looking at the reasons why people enjoy video games. And they laid the groundwork for a model of game design based around catering to those motivations. And over the past fifteen years, the MDA Design approach has been examined, reexamined, reinforced, and improved.
I’ve written about the MDA Approach before. A long time ago. And I find it so useful that I’m going to write about it again right now. Well, I’m not going to rehash the whole thing. But I am going to discuss the part of it that plays right into my current topic du jour of the day: using a Session Zero to build a good campaign. See, one of the keys to building a campaign that your players want to play is understanding why they want to play the game in the first place. Imagine that.
This article is the second part of my three-part series on Session Zero. Or rather the second preface to my main article on how to actually run a Session Zero. The first preface, yesterday’s article, was all about the decisions you’ll need to make during or after session zero to build a good campaign premise. This preface is all about making sure that premise is one that your players will actually like.
Why We Play
According to the MDA Approach, we play games to tickle our brain in certain ways. And different games tickle our brains in different ways. Competitive board games, for example, provide a different sort of pleasure than cooperative board games. Action video games like Doom satisfy us in different ways than story-based RPGs like Final Fantasy XV or exploration-based RPGs like Fallout 4.
In the MDA Approach, the different types of brain tickles are called “aesthetics.” But I prefer the term “engagements.” Why? Because they explain the different reasons that players become emotionally engaged in the games they are playing. Different gamers prefer different types of experiences, different engagements. And those preferences explain why some gamers like Final Fantasy and others like Doom.
Makes sense, right?
Basically, every gamer wants certain types of emotional experiences from the games they play. If a game provides the right combination of emotional experiences, gamers are more likely to enjoy that game. And if you want to design a game that a certain small groups of players are likely to enjoy…
… you do the f$&%ing math.
That sounds a lot like what Robin Laws tried to do, doesn’t it? Yeah. But Laws f$&%ed up. And everyone who has come after just aped him, f$&% ups and all. First, the ways Laws sees it, every gamer belongs to one – AND PRECISELY ONE – classification. No more. No less. And it ain’t that simple. Most gamers a mish-mash of preferences. No one seeks one, pure emotional experience from a game. Most people seek several different types of engagements. And the precise mix can change depending on their mood.
But that’s not all. The other problem is that Laws’ classifications were very good at describing HOW players engaged with the game, but not so much WHY they engaged with the game. He defined the pompous, overacting role-player as a method actor because that’s how they behaved. But some method actors were method actors out of a desire to express themselves creatively. Others might be trying to lose themselves in an imaginary world. And those motivations are subtly different. As you’ll see.
The point is that you can’t just label people with index cards like it’s Diversity Day at the office. You have to think in more complex terms. You have to see people as combinations of preferences that define WHY they play, not HOW they play. And when you look at your entire group and see that most of them are playing for a particular reason, you can build your game to cater to that reason.
The Core of the Tootsie Pop
When it comes to the various types of engagement – that is, the actual brain tickles that people derive from your game – it’s impossible to do everything. And while most games – and most RPG campaigns – do tickle all sorts of different brain parts at different times, most campaigns do tend to tickle particular brain parts more than others. We call those engagements the core engagements. They define how it feels to play the game – the campaign – most of the time.
Most GMs don’t think twice about their campaign’s core engagements. F$&%. They don’t even think once about them. They just run whatever they run. Their game still has core engagements. But they don’t know what they. And they didn’t pick them on purpose. I hope I don’t have to explain why it’s better to make deliberate choices about what your campaign’s core engagements are going to be.
Obviously, the key to setting good core engagements is first identifying which engagements the majority of your players prefer. But that’s something we’re going to talk about in the third part of this series. In this part, I just want to introduce the specific list of engagements. Because there is a very specific list.
There must be dozens and dozens of reasons why people play games right? Lots of actual engagements? Actually, no. According to the MDA Model, there are really just eight major aesthetics. Eight reasons to play games. Surprised? Well, let me tell you something. I’ve been using the MDA Approach for years to help me design my adventures and campaigns. And in that time, I have yet to find something big enough that some game does that isn’t close enough to something that the model already covers to warrant adding a ninth classification.
That said, let me caveat you with a little warning right now. The original MDA Approach was based on video game design. Over the last several years, I’ve tinkered with it a bit to make it overlap with table-top role-playing games. Not much. But enough. I haven’t changed anything big. But I had to do a lot of thinking and observing to figure out how some of this applies to our hobby space. And I’ve come to a place that I find works really well.
So, let’s look at the eight engagements of the MDA Approach as translated into the table-top RPG space by me and. And we’re going to start with the one engagement that doesn’t actually work as a core engagement of a table-top RPG campaign.
Sensory pleasure is the joy you get from having your senses stimulated. In movies, it comes from cinematography and special effects and soundtracks. In video games, it comes from graphics and art design and music. And in role-playing games, it comes from artwork and miniatures and props and maps.
Sensory pleasure IS a part of the table-top RPG experience. I’m not saying it’s not. F$&%, me but I get a lot of joy from sensory pleasure. I love maps and miniatures. And it’s good for GMs to be aware of sensory pleasure. A lot of players get satisfaction from sensory pleasure. Yes. Some players like maps and miniatures and visual and tactile aids. Some misguided gamers actually like f$&%ing music at their games.
That said, sensory pleasure isn’t a big enough part of the game that you can really say it’s something your campaign is ABOUT. It’s an engagement, but you can’t really make it a core engagement. What you can do, though, is f$&% it up for players who really do prefer some level of sensory pleasure in their games. If you’re one of those GMs who insists that battlemats and grids and miniatures ruin the experience, you might be making some of your players sad without realizing it. And they may not be able to explain precisely why.
The point is, if you discover during your Session Zero that some of your players seem to have a preference for sensory pleasure, think twice about trying to sell that “theater of the mind” bulls$&% on them. Lots of gamers really do get something out of those maps and minis you hate so much.
Challenge refers to the fun of winning. The fun of overcoming obstacles. Don’t get it confused with difficulty. Difficulty is a way of measuring the chance of overcoming an obstacle. Challenge is actually a type of pleasure that comes from knowing that you can win or lose and that you have the power to affect the outcome. In fact, the power to affect your outcome is central to challenge as a source of satisfaction. In order to enjoy challenge as an aspect of the game, you have to know that if you succeed, it’s because of something you did. And if you fail, it’s also because of something you did.
A lot of GMs sneer at challenge. But a lot of GMs are pretentious a$&holes who think they are too good to run a game instead of a “collaborative storytelling experience.” Challenge is actually the part of the game that makes it a game. And almost everyone expects some amount of challenge from their RPGs. People who don’t enjoy some amount of challenge don’t play games. They watch movies or read books or do something else non-competitive.
It’s also important to note that challenge is not synonymous with combat. There are lots of challenges. And different challenge-seeking players might seek very different types of challenges. Some players want to solve puzzles. Some want to win combat.
Challenge is the one engagement that is hard-wired into just about every role-playing game. That is, most role-playing game mechanics are about resolving success and failure based on player choices. And that means most mechanics are about challenge. Whether it’s combat challenge or some other form of challenge. And that means two things. First, challenge tends to be a core engagement of most RPGs just by virtue of the fact that they are games. Second, every RPG has certain types of challenges that it handles best. And players expect those particular challenges when they sit down to play those games. A challenge-seeker who sits down to play D&D or Pathfinder is expecting action and, especially combat. A challenge-seeker who joins a Gumshoe group or a Call of Cthulhu game is expecting to solve puzzles and mysteries. Thus, challenge-seekers tend to have very strong preferences with regard to rules systems.
It takes very little work to make challenge a core engagement of your campaign because challenge is a key component in most RPGs already. But it’s important to note that difficulty is not the thing that will turn challenge into a core engagement. An action-focused D&D game can boast challenge as a core engagement regardless of whether it is brutally hard or not. The distinction lies solely in how much the players are forced to rely on their skills and choices to determine the difference between success and failure. To make challenge a core engagement, you just have to emphasize that failure is a possibility and the players will have to earn their successes.
Discovery refers to the fun that comes from combing the world for hidden stuff. That hidden stuff might be treasure, Easter eggs, information, or secrets. It doesn’t matter. The joy of discovery comes from an intellectual mastery of the world. Discovery is similar to challenge in that it has to be driven by the players’ actions and choices. Discovery feels good only when we know we could have missed something, but we didn’t. But whereas challenge is about making the right choices, discovery is more about persistence and thoroughness. The joy of discovery derives from carefully examining and deconstructing the world and, after patient hard work, turning up something new.
Like challenge-seekers, discovery-seekers come in different flavors. Lore-seekers want to discover all of the world’s hidden secrets and backstories. Scavenger hunters want to map every tiny corner of the dungeon and know they have left no treasure undiscovered. The difference is immaterial. Discovery seekers want to pull apart the world and find whatever particular goodies it has to offer.
Discovery only works when there is something to discover – obviously – and when it takes some work to discover it. Just stumbling across jewels and secrets along their linear path is no good for the discovery seeker. Non-linear gameplay in richly detailed worlds filled with optional content are the bread-and-butter of discover seekers.
Discovery seems like it should be an easy core engagement to put into a campaign, but it can actually take some work to do it right. The world has to tantalize players with the promise of hidden treasures. NPCs need secrets and motivations. Locations need backstories. And all of that stuff has to be discoverable. And missable. And that means that any GM trying to make discovery-seekers happy is going to spend a lot of time filling in details that might never come out in play.
Expression refers to the joy that comes from creating and sharing things that are uniquely ours. And one of the keywords here is unique. Expression-seekers thrive on shining a spotlight on their own unique ideas and creations. Most expression-seekers flourish during character creation first. And it’s their nature to push against restrictions in their quest to do something different. Especially if they feel like they are being stifled. Expression-seekers get wrapped up in building interesting and unusual characters, playing against stereotypes, and writing complex and detailed backstories for their characters. In play, they use interaction to show off their characters, often focusing on weird quirks that they can get a lot of mileage out of, and they enjoy pushing the game in unusual directions.
Expression is another one of those engagements that seems like it should be easy to turn into a core engagement. But it’s harder than you think. The problem is, beyond character generation, the opportunities for creative expression for players are a bit limited. And most of the opportunities are considered disruptive by many players and GMs. At the very least, they can cause tonal problems in the game. And that’s precisely because the expression-seeker wants to stand out.
Fortunately, expression-seeking isn’t as common among RPG PLAYERS as you might think. And that’s because most expression-seekers are drawn to the GMing side of the table and end up making that leap pretty quickly. But there are expression-seekers out there and you can end up with a group with a strong leaning toward expression.
There are several ways to make expression a core engagement in your campaign. And they don’t have to be as extreme as collaborative world-building. That is an option, though. And some systems handle that well. Expression becomes a core engagement in any campaign in which the players get to choose the goals of the campaign. Or any campaign in which the players’ own storylines form the plot threads that tie the campaign together. There are also some systems that specialize in giving the players additional creative and narrative control. For those systems, expression becomes a core engagement.
If you are looking to satisfy a single expression-seeker without making expression a core engagement – which does seem to come up often – the first thing you can do is ensure that there are plenty of interesting and unique options for character creation. After that, make sure the expression-seeker has some freedom to create a backstory that fits into the world and work with the expression-seeker to bring their own plots into the game occasionally. Otherwise, just make sure that encounters in the game occasionally offer the freedom to deal with challenges in highly unusual and unique ways. And remember that expression-seekers are highly focused on their own characters over all else.
Fantasy refers to the fun of escapism. It is the joy of losing ourselves in another world. It isn’t about exploring another world, like discovery. It isn’t about creating a world, like expression. It’s just about existing in that world. Fantasy-seekers are the players who role-play every interaction with every shopkeeper. They are the ones who want to spend their time running shops or businesses. They want to spend time gambling and drinking in the tavern. They are the ones who don’t want the game to stop just because they are between adventures.
Fantasy-seekers thrive on interacting with a living world, but they also want to have a role in that world. A role they can understand. Because they truly want to feel like they are a part of the fantasy world. For that to work, they need a rich and detailed world. But they also need a defined space in the world. Their character’s identity goes beyond their powers and abilities and it isn’t defined by their backstory, it is defined by the role they fill in the daily life of the world.
As an interesting note – at least I think it’s interesting – fantasy seekers provide an excellent example of why it’s more important to discuss WHY players engage with the game than HOW they engage with the game. Both fantasy-seekers and expression-seekers might be classified as “method actors” or “role-players.” But the expression-seeker wants to carve out a unique place in the world whereas the fantasy-seeker wants to fit into a place.
Fantasy works as a core engagement if you’ve done enough world-building to bring the world to life and if the players have the opportunity to interact with the world in a variety of ways that aren’t just about killing parts of it and collecting treasure. Or that aren’t just about advancing the plot. And for it to really work as a core engagement, you have to do more than simply let the players role-play for a little while between adventures. You have to let the players get to know the world.
If you’ve really been paying attention so far, you’ll understand this statement: fantasy-seeking players thrive under expression-seeking GMs.
Fellowship refers to the fun of belonging to a group. It’s social pleasure, pure and simple. It’s the fun of doing things with other people. But there’s a little more to it than that. While we do derive a sense of fellowship merely from interacting with other people, fellowship is felt most strongly when we belong to the group. Cooperative gameplay really hits the fellowship nerve.
I admit I struggled with this one. Initially, I was going to put it up at the top with sensory pleasure as something that doesn’t really work as a core engagement. And I would never call fellowship a core engagement of any campaign I’ve ever run. But it does deserve some discussion for a few reasons.
First, fellowship is actually a core engagement of role-playing games in general. One of the selling points of RPGs is the aspect of cooperative, group play. RPGs aren’t for antisocial loners. And anyone who has had an antisocial loner f$%& up their gaming group can attest to that. By virtue of that, fellowship is probably going to be an unspoken core engagement for most campaigns. That said, there really isn’t much a GM can do to make fellowship a specific, defining engagement for their campaign beyond the default. That is, there’s nothing you can do to make fellowship even more important to your campaign.
But – and this is the second reason why fellowship is worth discussing – but, what you can do is f$&% up fellowship as a core engagement if you really try. Or don’t try. Whatever. Anything that f$&%s with the team dynamic of the RPG experience is going to really screw with the fellowship-seekers at the table. That includes things like allowing evil PCs or running campaigns for evil groups. Or even running games for secretive loners with dark pasts. Hell, one antisocial loner in a group can mess with the team dynamic enough to upset your fellowship-seekers.
The third reason fellowship deserves discussion is because fellowship-seekers absolutely f$&%ing BAFFLE GMs. You know that quiet player at your table? The one who shows up to every game without fail but drifts into the background and barely says a word unless you force him? The player who chooses their race, class, and even actions based on what the group says they need? The player you are convinced isn’t participating in the game at all? THAT’S your fellowship-seeker. They are there just to feel like a part of the team. That’s all they want. And they are perfectly happy.
Countless GMs have asked me how to draw that quiet player out. They just want every player to participate. To have fun. Well, that player doesn’t want to be drawn out. They just want to be there. They just want to belong. Leave them the f$&% alone.
I think Robin Laws called that player “the wallflower.” Isn’t that nice?
Narrative refers to the satisfaction we get from experiencing a good story. And this is the one engagement that f$&%s a lot of GMs up. This one starts fights. Be warned. Narrative-seekers like experiencing good stories. Stories that make sense. Stories that hit all the right beats. Stories that have tension and climaxes and denouements and all that crap. And man do these people get lost in the crowd.
The problem is people look at fantasy-seekers and expression-seekers and say, “those are story gamers, man, look at how they are interacting with the world.” But those aren’t the story gamers. The real story gamers are the ones who play all of those eastern-style RPGs and visual novels. The ones about piloting a character between cutscenes and making limited choices from small selections. And that’s because those people want a good story. And a collaborative story-telling, world-building experience is NOT a good story.
Narrative-seekers thrive in campaigns with good narrative structures, clear motivations, solid backstories, and strong plot threads that tie everything together. They are the ones who want the promise of a good ending at the start of every story. There’s no better way to say it than that. Obviously, they want to participate in the story. But freedom and agency aren’t as important to them as the feeling of an advancing plot driving toward a proper conclusion.
Sandbox play? Freeform play? Collaborative story-telling? Goalless dicking around having fun? That stuff KILLS the narrative-seeker. In fact, that stuff is worse for the narrative-seeker than a well-structured dungeon-of-the-week campaign with clear villains and an adventure hook at the end of every adventure that leads into the next. That’s not to say improvisation is bad for the narrative-seeker. Hell no. Improvisation is great. Good improvisation guarantees the story will always have a direction, regardless of whether the players succeed or fail. But it has to be good improvisation firmly grounded in a solid story structure and actually building toward something.
Here’s a secret, by the way. There’s a lot of RPG players who are actually narrative-seekers. That’s because a lot of gamers got into the game because they wanted to experience their favorite books and movies from the inside. And they were raised on Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest and lots of eastern RPGs.
Want to make narrative a core engagement in your campaign? All you need is a solid hook and the promise of a good ending. And that’s pretty much how any adventure-path style campaign works anyway. If your group leans strongly toward narrative as an engagement, the best thing you can do is tell an iconic story that’s appropriate to whatever game setting or genre the group is onboard with. Heroes saving the world from the devil. Rebels against the evil empire. Whatever.
Submission refers to the fun we derive from just dicking around without too much thought. It’s unwinding. It’s chillaxing. It’s fooling around and not stressing about it. It’s losing track of time for a few hours. In video game terms, submission is grinding for levels or mining for ten thousand units of ore. It’s also the joy you get from turning on some old game you’ve beaten a thousand times and playing on autopilot. But how the hell does that come into table-top RPGs.
Submission is beer-and-pretzels play. It’s the murderhobo dungeon crawl. Kick in the door, kill the thing, take its stuff. Some people love that s$&%.
Submission-seekers are the players who sit back and ignore most of the game, but wake up for the mindless action. Those are the players who get bored when there is too much thinking and talking and not enough killing and looting. They are the ones who will act at random just to make something happen without thinking about the consequences. In that respect, submission-seekers are a lot like expression-seekers. Both will kick open a door if the group stands around talking for too long. The expression-seeker does it for attention. The submission-seeker does it to make some stupid mindless fun happen.
Submission-seekers can also seem a lot like fellowship-seekers at time. When too much is going on, the submission-seeker will generally drift into the background. But the submission-seeker wakes up for the mindless fun. In fact, most submission-seekers are pretty content to nap through most of the game and wake up for the fun. They just don’t want to think too hard. The player who “just wants to roll some dice, man?” That’s your submission-seeker.
Submission is one of the core engagements of the casual, dungeon-crawler game. And submission can actually work well with challenge and discovery for that reason. I once had a group of players who wanted challenge, discovery, and submission and that game was a f$%&ing blast. Just hack-and-slashy dungeon-crawly fun like the old days. Man, I miss those games.
If you’re not selling a casual game, it’s best to let the submission-seekers enjoy the mindless parts of the game that do come back and not try to treat submission as a core engagement. Submission goes with a serious game like crowbars go with kneecaps. The one thing that kills a submission-seeker is when their fun actions have long-reaching, not-fun consequences. And that means any sort of complex story-building or world-building is out the window.
One last thing: if you end up with a mix of submission-seekers and expression-seekers, be prepared for wacky hijinks. AND NOTHING ELSE. Because that’s all that combination of players is good for. And I will never do that s$&% again. I’ll kill myself first. F$&% me.
Mixing and Matching
And those are the eight engagements and what the players who like them look like and what the games that boast them look like. At this point, I just wanted you to become familiar with them. Obviously, tomorrow, I’m going to tell you how to figure out what sorts of engagements are sitting at your table during Session Zero. And that information will help you pick which two or three core engagements you want to make the focus of your campaign. Later on, when we discuss actually designing your campaign, we’ll talk about how those engagements will shape what you actually do.
Until tomorrow, kids. Now get out of here.