As soon as a role-playing game had been run in at least two places, the attempts to categorize and catalogue gaming styles began. Even in the 1970s, when most of the market only knew D&D, foundational work in understanding how and why role-players play had already started. One of the most influential early theorists was Glenn Blacow. Originally exposed to D&D at MIT, Blacow published an early typology of gamers in the small gaming zine The Wild Hunt. This typology, after being expanded for publication in another, larger zine, Different Worlds, became one of the first and most influential classifications of RPG playstyles. Among other things, Blacow is credited, through the Different Worlds version of his essay, coining the term ‘power-gamer’.
Although one might guess that Blacow’s model has declined in relevance somewhat since its original publication in 1980, in reality it still serves as a foundation for many player and play style classifications in wide use. GNS Theory owes its start point to Blacow’s Power Gamer and Storytelling archetypes, and D&D’s seven player types start from Blacow’s four play styles as well. As much as we still see story and optimization as driving forces among gamers, the dichotomy of fantasy and wargaming is a concept that has slid from relevance as the days of the wargamer/fantasy reader schism grow further behind us. Still, behind this dated framing is an idea that’s still worth investigating.
Glenn Blacow’s original essay defined four types of gamers: Storytellers, interested most in the narrative and the events, Ego-Trippers, interested in amassing power, capability, and cool items for their characters, Role-Players, interested mostly in getting into the head of their character and seeing the game world from a character’s point of view, and Wargamers, interested in engaging with the scenario through the constraints of the rules. Blacow did change ‘Ego-Tripper’ to ‘Power-Gamer’ when the essay was republished in Different Worlds, but the final piece actually came from one Jeff Johnson, who put these four types on two axes, creating a punchy visual. Another theorist, Scott Bauer, added but pushed back, positing that no game or gamer was exclusively one of these things, rather a combination of all four in parts.
Of course, gamers in all circles took to this just like another two-axis simplification in gaming, Alignment, and quickly there were declarations about which quadrant was the best to be in, charts plotting games on the quadrants, and just as many arguments that the whole thing was rubbish anyway. Another theorist, Don Miller, may be credited as the first person to say “System Matters” when he argued that playstyles as envisioned by Blacow were strongly influenced by the type of rules the players were exposed to. While this saga continued for years after these initial articles in 1980, already a clear line is being drawn from Blacow, Johnson, and Miller in 1980 all the way to Ron Edwards and The Forge in the mid-2000s.
I don’t want to re-interrogate the entire history of RPG theory, but obviously merely drawing a line from Blacow to GNS or the Big Model is extremely reductive. That said, being able to make the connection to a more recent set of theories shows that Blacow’s original model still has relevance, at least at its core. I want to try looking at Blacow’s basic premise from a more generic perspective. When the first “Fourfold Way” graphic was published in 1980, RPGs were a smaller set than they are now; it’s also worth mentioning yet again that D&D was even more dominant in the hobby in 1980 than it is now, simply because gamers had spent less time developing alternatives. Now, while we likely still exist along similar continua, specifying things like “war-gaming” and “fantasy” are simply too narrow.
Let’s first think about the classic axis that is still widely used and talked about today: Storytelling versus Power-Gaming. At a certain level, it’s easy to think of this as accurate: narrative play and optimization play are both popular and are two groups that don’t ever seem to see eye-to-eye on what they want in the hobby. While this split may define some gamers, though, it’s more reductive than it needs to be. At a higher level, we’re talking about the difference between engaging with a broader narrative and setting and engaging with your character as the mechanism by which you impact the setting. And, unsurprisingly, these two things essentially never exist in complete exclusion of the other.
Next we turn to the axis between Role-Playing and Wargaming. This one can be a little hard to parse; an ungenerous interpretation of ‘simulationism’ in GNS was that it was a poorly considered attempt to render this whole axis one single thing, as the other axis is clearly ‘gamism’ and ‘narrativism’ and clearly the one Ron Edwards actually gave any thought to. To me, though, Wargaming and Role-Playing is about decision-making schemas. How do you decide what your character does? The ‘Wargaming’ side is considering your decisions through the rules, using your knowledge about the situation as it’s presented and emulated as well as your choice of actions to determine what is going to happen. At one point, this was just ‘Wargaming’ as RPGs were still basically wargames at a mechanical level. Now? Not so much. If you play Masks, you will engage with a mechanic called the “Moment of Truth”. The “Moment of Truth” is a pivotal time in the narrative where your character realizes something important about themselves and, in that moment, shows both the other characters and the other players who the character really is. “Moment of Truth” is also, in Blacow’s terms, a ‘wargaming’ mechanic. Having played and run Masks, the “Moment of Truth” is not an organic decision. It’s a decision that is balanced against how the player is advancing the character (you need to spend an advance to unlock the Moment of Truth), what’s going on in the fiction at that moment, and what the party’s resources look like. While determining whether the scene you’re in is important enough that you’re going to use your Moment of Truth is a narrative decision, it’s a player decision. It’s non-diegetic. And it’s a perfect example of why ‘wargaming’ isn’t the right word anymore. As for Role-Playing? It kind of still works, but it advances the incorrect idea that you’re only role-playing when you’re acting in-character. So let’s call these Out-of-Character Decision Making, and In-Character Decision Making. Once again, essentially no game has only one of these, rather being a mix of the two.
So we’ve relabeled these axes to Character Engagement and Setting Engagement, and In-Character Decision Making and Out-Of-Character Decision Making. Let’s take a look.
At first glance, this is, with blander language, the same basic chart as above. And when you use it for the same intent that Blacow used it for, categorizing how gamers play and what they prefer in how they play, the results will likely look similar as well. If you walk further down the theory path and start trying to layer games against these axes, though, something interesting happens. When you look at how most RPGs are structured rules-wise, what you’ll see is that most, quite likely upwards of 95%, of all role-playing game rulesets fit comfortably in the upper-right quadrant: Out-of-Character Decision Making and Character Engagement. In fact, in my discussion of Traditional RPGs I even stated that rules which simulate a world (therefore rules you must engage with to make decisions) and playing a singular character (therefore focusing the rules at that character level) are defining traits of these games. And, as also discussed there, the majority of games do not move away from that basic schema. Exceptions, games like Microscope, Fiasco, and Alice Is Missing, are noteworthy.
My revised set of quadrants isn’t particularly useful as a taxonomy, though like Blacow’s original model it might still provide language for gamers to help explain what they want in their play experience. Still, there are two important statements made by this thought experiment. First, we need to think critically about what taxonomies today are lacking, and how to write something that is more useful for the breadth of games today. Optimization play still exists in role-playing rulesets, though I’d argue there are more games which suffer for its inclusion than are elevated by it. ‘Wargaming’ has significantly contracted in importance in the role-playing world by virtue of the dramatically improved (and for many players superior) small-unit tactics experiences available in board, miniatures, and video games. Like optimization play, wargame rules exist in many games because of incumbency rather than need. But, when intense character-driven play sees optimization play joined by journaling games, and when alongside wargame-style rulesets are those that allow for non-diegetic, strategic manipulation of the narrative, it does seem like we need some newer, more inclusive words.
The second statement is more about the contrast of mapping playstyles to mapping rules. D&D is clearly in the upper-right quadrant, but that doesn’t prevent players from spending whole sessions in-character or tracing an epic, world-saving storyline across 20 levels. There is a massive difference between what role-playing games have rules for and what players actually do while playing. And from that comes different approaches: maybe you want to write games that more closely align with what you’re doing at the table, or maybe you want to write games with fewer rules because it seems that you didn’t need them in the first place. I think there is a great deal of impact from looking at play spread across four quadrants, rules mostly located in one, and remembering that the majority of our hobby all traces back to one arbitrary starting point. There are two conflicting messages here: we could be making games all across this map, but also there’s one place where we already know how to have fun.
Role-playing games are a weird medium; in no other hobby can you find as many different ways to play, from a designer’s point of view, the exact same game. This fundamental complication is both why RPG taxonomy is hard but also why looking back can be so illuminating. In 1980, role-playing was just starting to evolve beyond ‘versions of D&D’. Theorists of the time, gamers like Glenn Blacow, provided a lot of the insight upon which our current understanding of the hobby is built. It’s instructive to go back to these original ideas and see what works and what doesn’t.
Found this article interesting? The stories of Glenn Blacow and other gamers who contributed to early RPG theory are compiled in Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, and it was that book which inspired this article. Check out my review, and find the book on sale here.
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