I’ve just finished Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, and it has me thinking about one of the major quagmires of RPG theory — namely, player taxonomies.
It is very common for RPG theorists to begin with a player taxonomy — some way of dividing gamers into a set of archetypes. The earliest example I’m aware of is the Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer scheme in Douglas Niles’ Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986), though I’m not sure how old the Real Men/Real Roleplayers/Loonies/Munchkins scheme is. Arguably, however, the taxonomic approach achieved its golden age with the emergence of the RGFA Threefold in the late ’90s, soon to be followed by the GNS scheme which is popular at The Forge, and a slew of other less-popular ways of dividing things up (including, for example, my own spectator/sportsman dyad from a few months ago).
I think, however, that the taxonomic impulse is fundamentally flawed. Dividing the world into X number of types is a good way to form a prescriptive scheme for characterizing fictional characters in the building (and an even better way to round out a game line with splatbooks); as a way to describe the infinite multiplicity of real people, it invariably fails to cover someone. And no matter how much the author hems and haws, saying that the types are general, and encompass only the majority of players, excluded people will always be pissed. If there’s an ongoing discussion, it devolves into definitional arguments; if there’s a fixed piece, anything which builds upon the taxonomy will not ring true to anyone who disputes the taxonomy.
This is, to return to where I came in, why I think Robin’s Laws is a good book, but not a great one. A player taxonomy is the foundation of the book, and if you find the taxonomy not entirely satisfying, it makes everything which follows a bit tenuous. It’s still packed with tidbits and ideas which are excellent stuff, but it’s very hard to build a satisfying core on a player taxonomy.
In a nutshell (though I recognize this is subjective), I can’t find myself in Laws’ taxonomy, nor most of the people I usually play with, and it makes the whole thing a bit suspect. And I suspect that many people will have trouble finding themselves adequately described in any system which divides the whole of gaming experience into three to six chunks.
Now, I think it’s important to analyze play styles for the very real insights they give, but lately I find myself more drawn to identifying aesthetics without trying to place them in an exhaustive schema. For example, the simulationist aesthetic is real and important to any understanding of RPG play style, but I’ve never seen any attempt to resolve the question of what the opposite of simulationist is that ended well. Nor do I feel that an examination of simulationism needs to be flanked by an exhaustive study of other possible aesthetics, or that the simulationist aesthetic must coincide with or exclude any other aesthetic.
To put it another way, analyzing playstyles in terms of X and not-X enables anyone who doesn’t see themselves in X to put themselves in not-X, and thus to receive the analysis without feeling excluded by it. Not-X is big and all-inclusive; it’s the House Ex Miscellanea of critical theory.