I recently re-read Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling,” in which he draws a distinction between a sport, which is an event based on the “demonstration of excellence,” and a spectacle, which is a ritualized narrative embodying a struggle of moral values. He identifies professional wrestling, in which the show is compelling despite its outcome never being in doubt, as a spectacle. Its counterpart, boxing, is a contest of strength and skill, and thus its outcome cannot be predetermined without obviating the whole point of the match.
I think this distinction illuminates a dyad of aesthetics of play: an RPG can be either sport or spectacle (or neither), and which it is to be has profound effects at every level from rules design to actual play.
The sportsman aesthetic perceives the realm of play as a field for achievement. Players pit their characters against challenges, test their skills, and win victories (or suffer defeats). This may be an adversarial competition between the players and the GM, or even between players, but it need not be: RPG as sport can equally easily be a contest of each player against themself. In every case, however, the point is to play well: to build an optimally designed character, to plan the best heist, to select the best tactics.
Now consider, by comparison, games in which the player characters are never really in jeopardy, and their ultimate victory is never in doubt. These games confuse and disgust the sportsman; one might wonder why they even bother to roll dice if it doesn’t actually matter.
To the lover of spectacle, however, the point is the experience. The players come together not to test their skill, but to participate in a ritual narrative. You don’t worry about whether Robin Hood is actually going to get captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham; Wile E. Coyote is not going to catch the Road Runner by optimizing his ACME purchases. In this mode, randomizers aren’t a factor to struggle against, but an infusion of the unexpected which permits the players to be simultaneously actor and audience. They know, more or less, what will happen, but they don’t know how. The essence of spectacle is the satisfaction of seeing events unfold as you knew they would, leavened with the joy of surprise at exactly how they did.