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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Structure, Focus, Setting: Classifying Game Types

I am shocked I never expanded on my game classification system here.

I was reminded of my old definition of CLEF games (Class and Level Exploration Fantasy,) first hinted at in my criticism of Robin Laws in the Whatchamacallit Games post. (I’m sorry CLEF never caught on, but ecstatic that Robin Laws’s “F20” suggestion didn’t, either.)

Apparently, all my later references to CLEF games were buried in comments on forums. But I did expand on a classification built around three broad parts to any RPG:

  1. Structure: How PCs are defined, particularly in terms of how issues are resolved. For example, “Class and Level”.
  2. Focus: What the PCs do, and how they advance. For example, “Exploration”.
  3. Setting: Where the PCs do it. Genre defined as broad types of location. For example, “Fantasy (Worlds)”.

You’ll notice I focus on broad features, rather than details like dice mechanics or power level, and avoid potentially subjective judgments like tone or feel.

So far, I’ve really only settled on two types of structure: Class and Level vs. Skill and Talent. I’m less sure about setting types, but feel they should be as broad as possible: Normal, Speculative, and Fantasy, for example. These might be the subject of future discussions.

But I’ve narrowed the focus down to four, possibly five, types:

  1. Action (focus on individual tasks, especially combat)
  2. Exploration (focus on experiencing the world)
  3. Investigation (focus on revealing plot elements)
  4. Other (focus on player rather than character)
  5. Undefined (no focus, or focus on system rather than setting)

Action is the simplest. You get rewarded (advance) based on direct challenges. You see this a lot in borderline wargame/RPGs, like Steve Jackson’s Man to Man or the Melee/Wizard microgames. You fight in arenas, or in battles, and any roleplaying along the way is incidental. The resolution system is more likely to contain facing rules or track movement in individual steps.

Exploration was the most common, at one point. Action is still possible, but the focus is broader, on experiencing the world as the character. In OD&D, you get more experience points for treasure rather than combat, and earning money doesn’t count as treasure… you are lured into finding and exploring dungeons in order to advance.

Investigation is fairly common. Call of Cthulhu is probably the best known example. You are given a mystery, and success or failure depends on finding the clues or triggering various scenes written into the plot. You could also consider Intrigue to be a variation of this kind of play: each NPC in an intrigue scenario has a “mystery” of “what would influence this NPC to do what I want?”

These three (A/E/I) all deal with rewarding what the character does. The focus of Other is about what the player does while acting in character. You see this in rudimentary form as rewards for good role-playing, but the first pure game with this kind of reward system, as far as I know, was Toon. You get plot points any time you make people laugh.

The Other focus is still just as much about what happens in the game world as it is about what the players do. If what happens in the game world doesn’t matter at all, the focus is Undefined. The reward here would be for system mastery, rather than anything done in character or through the character. This is the fifth kind of focus, which I’m unsure actually exists as a game design or not, although you might be able to argue that some universal systems like GURPS have an undefined focus… but in practice, most GURPS players drift towards either A or I as a focus.

My gut feeling is that, when there appears to be more than one focus, the focus that comes first alphabetically is overwhelmed by the focus that comes later. Once Exploration matters for advancement, Action becomes incidental, something that happens while exploring. Once Investigation matters, Exploration and Action become only a means to find clues and solve mysteries. For games or gaming groups that try really hard to focus on two of the A/E/I goals, you might wind up with a “diphthong” of EA, IA, or IE, for a few extra playstyles. If O becomes the focus, it truly does dominate the feel of the game, and U, by definition, can’t have another focus.

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