Apr 6, 2021

Six Cultures of Play

In this post I am going to present the taxonomy of the six main play cultures as well as a few notes about their historical origins. I am doing this to help people from different play cultures both understand their own values better as well as to encourage stronger and more productive cross-cultural discussion.

There are at least six main cultures of play that have emerged over the course of the roleplaying game hobby. There may be more: my analysis is mainly restricted to English-language RPG cultures, tho' at least three of them have significant non-English presences as well. In addition to these six cultures, there's a proto-culture that existed from 1970-1976 before organisation into cultures really began. 

A culture of play is a set of shared norms (goals, values, taboos, etc.), considerations, and techniques that inform a group of people who are large enough that they are not all in direct contact with one another (let's call that a "community"). These cultures of play are transmitted through a variety of media, ranging from books and adventures to individuals teaching one another to magazine articles to online streaming shows. A culture of play is broadly similar to a "network of practice" if you're familiar with that jargon. 

Individuals in the hobby, having been aligned to and trained in one or more of these cultures, then develop individual styles. I want to point out that I think talking about specific games as inherently part of some culture is misleading, because games can be played in multiple different styles in line with the values of different cultures. But, many games contain text that advocates for them to be played in a way that is in line with a particular culture, or they contain elements that express the creator's adoption of a particular culture's set of values.

The Six Cultures

1) Classic

Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly". This is explicit in the AD&D 1e DMG's advice to dungeon masters, but recurs in a number of other places, perhaps most obviously in tournament modules, especially the R-series put out by the RPGA in its first three years of operation, which emphasise periodic resets between sections of the adventure to create a "fair" experience for players as they cycle around from tournament table to tournament table playing the sections.

The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge. At some point, PCs become powerful enough to command domains, and this opens up the scope of challenges further, by allowing mass hordes to engage in wargame-style clashes. The point of playing the game in classic play is not to tell a story (tho' it's fine if you do), but rather the focus of play is coping with challenges and threats that smoothly escalate in scope and power as the PCs rise in level. The idea of longer campaigns with slow but steady progression in PC power interrupted only by the occasional death is a game play ideal for classic culture.

This comes into being sometime between 1976-1977, when Gygax shifts from his early idea that OD&D is a "non-game" into trying to stabilise the play experience. It starts with him denouncing "Dungeons and Beavers" and other deviations from his own style in the April 1976 Strategic Review, but this turns into a larger shift in TSR's publishing schedule from 1977 onwards. Specifically, they begin providing concrete play examples - sample dungeons and scenarios, including modules - and specific advice about proper play procedures and values to consumers.

This shift begins with the publication of Holmes Basic (1977) and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (1977), before eventually culminating in AD&D (1977-1979) and the Mentzer-written BECMI (1983-1986) line. Judges Guild, the RPGA, Dragon Magazine, and even other publishers (e.g. Mayfair Games) get on board with this and spread Classic norms around before Gygax and Mentzer leave TSR in late 1985 / early 1986. Judges Guild  loses its license to print D&D material in 1985, and the RPGA's tournaments have shifted away from classic play by about 1983. Most of the other creators at TSR have shifted to "trad" (see below) by the mid-1980s, and so the institutional support for this style starts dries up, even tho' people continue to run and play in "classic" games.

Classic is revived in the early 2000s when the holdouts who've continued to play in that style use the internet to come together on forums like DragonsfootKnights and Knaves Alehouse, and others, and this revival is part of what motivates OSRIC (2006) to be released. NB: This is the only name in this essay where it's not an autonym used by the practitioners themselves, tho' Gus L. of All Dead Generations is interested in many of their ideas and does call his own style "Classic".

One weird quirk of history is that people who were trying to revive classic in the early 2000s are often lumped into the OSR, despite the two groups really having distinct norms and values. Some of the confusion is because a few key notable individuals (e.g. Matt Finch) actually did shift from being classic revivalists to being early founders of the OSR. Because both groups are interested in challenge-based play, even if they have different takes on challenge's meaning, there are moment of productive overlap and interaction (and also lots of silly disputes and sneering; such is life).

This intermingling of people from different play cultures who initially appear to be part of the same movement but turn out to be interested in different things is pretty common - story games and Nordic LARP go through a similar intermingling before they split off into different things (more on that in a sec).

2) Trad (short for "traditional") 

Its own adherents and advocates call it "trad", but we shouldn't think of it as the oldest way of roleplaying (it is not). Trad is not what Gary and co. did (that's "classic"), but rather is the reaction to what they were doing.

Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision. The PCs can contribute, but their contributions are secondary in value and authority to the DM's. If you ever hear people complain about (or exalt!) games that feel like going through a fantasy novel, that's trad. Trad prizes gaming that produces experiences comparable to other media, like movies, novels, television, myths, etc., and its values often encourage adapting techniques from those media.

Trad emerges in the late 1970s, with an early intellectually hub in the Dungeons and Beavers crew at Caltech, but also in Tracy and Laura Hickman's gaming circle in Utah. The defining incident for Tracy was evidently running into a vampire in a dungeon and thinking that it really needed a story to explain what it was doing down there wandering around. Hickman wrote a series of adventures in 1980 (the Night Verse series) that tried to bring in more narrative elements, but the company that was supposed to publish them went bust. So he decided to sell them to TSR instead, and they would only buy them if he came to work for them. So in 1982, he went to work at TSR and within a few years, his ideas would spread throughout the company and become its dominant vision of "roleplaying".

Trad gets its first major publication articulating its vision of play outside of TSR in Sandy Petersen's Call of Cthulhu (1981), which tells readers that the goal of play is to create an experience like a horror story, and provides specific advice (the "onion layer" model) for creating that. The values of trad crystallise as a major and distinct culture of play in D&D with the Ravenloft (1983) and Dragonlance (1984) modules written by Hickman. TSR published Ravenloft in response to Call of Cthulhu's critical and commercial success, and then won a fistful of awards and sold tons of copies themselves. 

Within a few years, the idea of "roleplaying, not rollplaying" and the importance of a Dungeon Master creating an elaborate, emotionally-satisfying narrative had taken over. I think probably the ability to import terms and ideas from other art forms probably helped a great deal as well, since understanding trad could be done by anyone who'd gone through a few humanities classes in university.

Trad is the hegemonic culture of play from at least the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, and it's still a fairly common style of play. For an example of a fairly well-thought through style of trad by someone who's been influential on the last 15 or so years, check out S. John Ross's RPG Lexicon. 

Both of the next two styles emerge out of problems with trad, especially the experience of playing Vampire (a tradder-than-trad game in its authors' aspirations), but the details of that are larger than this essay can contain so I'm just going to mention it and leave it for another time.

3) Nordic Larp

This is again an autonym. The "Nordic" part is more about origins and mass of the player base than a true regional limitation of any sort. The "Larp" designation is part of the name for reasons that are unclear to me, even tho' its ideas started in tabletop roleplaying, and its philosophy and aspirations are realisable in tabletop games just as much as in dress-up games. (Edit: Spelling it as if it wasn't an acronym is a shibboleth of Nordic Larp, so in keeping with the autonym principle I've edited it to follow that convention when referring to the culture, but kept the activity as LARP)

Nordic Larp is built around the idea that the primary goal of a roleplaying game is immersion in an experience. Usually in a specific character's experiences, but sometimes in another kind of experience where player and character are not sharply distinguished - the experimental Jeep group often uses abstract games to affect the player directly. The more "bleed" you can create between a player and the role they occupy within the game, the better. Nordic Larps often feature quite long "sessions" (like weekend excursions) followed by long debriefs in which one processes the experiences one had as the character.

Embedding the player's character within a larger story can be one way of producing vivid, absorbing experiences, but it's not necessary and may even interfere with pulling it off (especially when done badly). Nordic Larp players emphasise their collaborative aspects, but when you drill into this, it's a rejection of trad's idea of a single DM-auteur crafting an experience, and the collaboration is there in service of improving immersion by blending player and character agency more thoroughly.

I think LARP conjures up images of people doing fantasy cosplay, and there are sometimes elements of that in some Nordic Larps, but I actually think the trend has been away from fantastical games to scenarios and set-ups that are closer to real life since it allows the incorporation of modern architecture, technology, and other details from the real world to facilitate immersion.

Nordic Larp's first major publication that I know of is the very self-conscious Manifesto of the Turku School by Mike Pohjola in 2000, and I think the early community is in dialogue with the Forge crew, tho' the two groups have very different ideals of play. By 2005 you have specific groups like Jeep developing these ideas, and in 2010 you get the publication of the Nordic Larp book. Nowadays there's also a wiki and an official website

Nordic Larp is the part of roleplaying that seems to receive the most grants and funding for academic study. I'm never sure why, tho' I suspect some of it has to do with the interest in commodifying LARP ideas to create immersive entertainment experiences for tourists at mega-resorts in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. I'm not going to link to any specific individuals connected to Nordic Larp who have jobs there to avoid doxing private individuals, but they exist (please don't dox anyone in the comments, either).

4) Story Games

Again, an autonym. Most people who dislike them call them stuff like "Forge games" or "post-Forge indies" after the Forge indie RPG forums. "Indie RPGs" was a term for these at one point as well, but I don't think it was particularly distinctive or edifying, and evidently neither did the adherents to this culture since they mostly abandoned it. Here's a post discussing the origin of the term "story game" from Across the Table.

The Big Model is notoriously obtuse and post-Forge theory has a lot of ideas I strongly disagree with, but I think a fair characterisation of their position that doesn't use their own terminology is that the ideal play experience minimises ludonarrative dissonance. A good game has a strong consonance between the desires of the people playing it, the rules themselves, and the dynamics of the those things interacting. Together, these things allow the people to achieve their desires, whatever they may be. "Incoherence" is to be avoided as creating "zilch play" or "brain damage" as Ron Edwards once called it.

The story games crowd, to their credit, is willing to be very radical in terms of techniques towards that end - both the mechanics proper and the development of positions (story gamers often call them "Creative Agendas") like "narrativism" are meant to produce consonance and avoid dissonance on as many levels as they can picture it happening.

Story games starts with Ron Edwards in 1999, when he writes System Does Matter and sets up the Forge. By 2004 you have the Provisional Glossary and the Big Model, and one million arguments on the internet about what is or isn't "narrativist" and how much brain damage RPGs are causing, etc. The Story games forums themselves are founded in 2006 as a successor to the Forge. For the past decade, the big cluster of story game design has tended to orient itself around "Powered by the Apocalypse" games patterned after or building on Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker.

BTW, if you want a great example of someone applying the cultural norms of story games to a game that was written to be played in a trad way, The Sacrament of Death by Eero Tuovinen describes his experiences doing just that.

5) The OSR ("Old School Renaissance / Revival") 

Yes, it's this late in this chronological listing. And yes, the OSR is not "classic" play. It's a romantic reinvention, not an unbroken chain of tradition. 

The OSR draws on the challenge-based gameplay from the proto-culture of D&D and combines it with an interest in PC agency, particularly in the form of decision-making. The goal is a game where PC decision-making, especially diegetic decision-making, is the driver of play. I think you can see this in a very pure form in the advice Chris McDowall gives out on his blog for running Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland. 

An important note I will make here is to distinguish the progressive challenge-based play of the "classic" culture from the more variable challenge-based play of the OSR. The OSR mostly doesn't care about "fairness" in the context of "game balance" (Gygax did). The variation in player agency across a series of decisions is far more interesting to most OSR players than it is to classic players.

The OSR specifically refuses the authoritative mediation of a pre-existing rules structure in order to encourage diegetic interactions using what S. John Ross would call "ephemeral resources" and "invisible rulebooks", and that the OSR calls "playing the world" and "player skill", respectively. Basically, by not being bound by the rules, you can play with a wider space of resources that contribute to framing differences in PC agency in potentially very precise and finely graded ways, and this allows you to throw a wider variety of challenges at players for them to overcome. I could write an entire post on just what random tables are meant to do, but they tie into the variance in agency and introduce surprise and unpredictability, ensuring that agency does vary over time.

I tend to date the start of the OSR from shortly after the publication of OSRIC (2006), which blew open the ability to use the OGL to republish the mechanics of old, pre-3.x D&D. With this new option, you had people who mainly wanted to revive AD&D 1e as a living game, and people who wanted to use old rule-sets as a springboard for their own creations. 2007 brought Labyrinth Lord, and the avalanche followed thereafter. The early OSR had Grognardia to provide it with a reconstructed vision of the past to position itself as the inheritors of, it had distinct intellectual developments like "Melan diagrams" of dungeons and Chris Kutalik's pointcrawls, and I would say it spent the time between 2006 and roughly 2012 forming its norms into a relatively self-consistent body of ideas about proper play.

6) OC / Neo-trad

This is the only one of the terms that isn't fully an autonym, tho' "OC" can be appended to a "looking for game" post online to recruit people from this culture consistently, so it's closer. I also call it "neo-trad", firstly because the OC RPG culture shares a lot of the same norms as trad, secondly because I think people who belong to this culture believe they are part of trad. You also see this style sometimes called "the modern style" when being contrasted to the OSR. Here's an example of someone who calls it "neo-trad" elaborating a very pure vision of the style (tho' I disagree with the list of games provided as examples of neo-trad at the end of the article). On Reddit, "OC" is often called "modern" as in "the modern way to play" or "modern games".

OC basically agrees with trad that the goal of the game is to tell a story, but it deprioritises the authority of the DM as the creator of that story and elevates the players' roles as contributors and creators. The DM becomes a curator and facilitator who primarily works with material derived from other sources - publishers and players, in practice. OC culture has a different sense of what a "story" is, one that focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation as the best way to produce "fun" for the players.

This focus on realising player aspirations is what allows both the Wizard 20 casting Meteor Swarm to annihilate a foe and the people who are using D&D 5e to play out running their own restaurant to be part of a shared culture of play. This culture is sometimes pejoratively called the "Tyranny of Fun" (a term coined in the OSR) because of its focus on relatively rapid gratification compared to other styles.

The term "OC" means "original character" and comes from online freeform fandom roleplaying that was popular on Livejournal and similar platforms back in the early 2000s. "OC" is when you bring an original character into a roleplaying game set in the Harry Potter universe, rather than playing as Harold the Cop himself. Despite being "freeform" (meaning no die rolls and no Dungeon Master) these games often had extensive rulesets around the kinds of statements one could introduce to play, with players appealing to the ruleset itself against one another to settle disputes. For the younger generations of roleplayers, these kinds of games were often their introduction to the hobby. 

I think OC RPG emerges during the 3.x era (2000-2008), probably with the growth of Living Greyhawk Core Adventures and the apparatus of "organised play" and online play with strangers more generally. Organised play ended up diminishing the power of the DM to shift authority onto rules texts, publishers, administrators, and really, to players. Since DMs may change from adventure to adventure but player characters endure, they become more important, with standard rules texts providing compatibility between game. DM discretion and invention become things that interfere with this intercompatibility, and thus depreciated. This is where the emphases on "RAW" and using only official material (but also the idea that if it's published it must be available at the table) come from - it undermines DM power and places that power in the hands of the PCs.

These norms were reinforced and spread by "character optimization" forums that relied solely on text and rhetorically deprecated "DM fiat", and by official character builders in D&D and other games. Modules, which importantly limit the DM's discretion to provide a consistent set of conditions for players, are another important textual support for this style. OC styles are also particularly popular with online streaming games like Critical Role since when done well they produce games that are fairly easy to watch as television shows. The characters in the stream become aspirational figures that a fanbase develops parasocial relationships with and cheers on as they realise their "arcs".

No Quizzes, No Buckets

When I first presented these on a forum, someone joked that I ought to create a quiz for people to determine which culture they belonged to, but I'd rather not. Truthfully, I think most individual gamers and groups are a blend of cultures, with that blend realised as an individual style. The play cultures are more like paradigms - they cohere at the level of value and reflection on what "excellent play" could mean (put more formally, they share teloi of play). To be a part of a play culture is in some sense the capacity to recognise when someone else is playing in accord with a set of values you share with them.

My main purpose in the above taxonomy is to help people better understand that there are distinct paradigms of play that esteem different things, tho' they can be sutured together (with all sorts of fun results) in concrete situations. I doubt this list is exhaustive, and there are probably cultures I've left out as well as ones that are yet to emerge. The purpose of the list is mainly to briefly illustrate that there are many different values of play, and to discuss the logic animating some of the more well-known ones.

The original purpose of this essay was to talk about OC roleplaying, since I think it's the least well-characterised out in the wild, and most characterisations are relatively pejorative (see the above "tyranny of fun"). There also tends to be a lot of confusion between people working within the paradigm of OC and trad, since they often use the same terms to refer to very different things. 

Also, without wanting to be a jerk, OC roleplaying tends to be the default paradigm of new players coming to the hobby through streaming, and thus has the largest group of people who are low-skill and ignorant of the history of roleplaying. I'm hopeful that articulating their values and relation to the larger hobby will encourage them to develop OC roleplaying culture in interesting and robust ways, while also steering them away from arrogance about the universality of their vision.

I am hopeful that the above taxonomy will help people to apprehend and navigate the differences between cultures and styles rather than constantly running into dead-ends as it turns out that the baseline assumptions about play that one is working from simply aren't shared with one's interlocutor(s).

I unfortunately can't respond to comments on the blog directly, so if people leave comments or questions about the above taxonomy, I will collect them up and respond in a blog post.