Thursday, July 15, 2021

Discourse - What Do Players Find Meaningful?

Summary: This is an unscripted, no-notes, one-take discussion of what game elements, in my experience, RPG players seem to find meaningful and engaging. I decided it would be a fun and interesting challenge to just try and hash this out as a subject without planning what I would go into or even thinking too much about it ahead of time. That way my experiences could manifest naturally as the most salient of them made themselves apparent in the course of the discussion. That said, I have thought about this before.

I recorded this around the time I did the second Making Your Bones story.

0:00 Intro and justification

0:44 Background and origins

2:49 Few pleasures greater in the world

4:17 Let’s define meaning

5:22 What things have I found create maximum meaning for players?

5:35 Give the Devil his due: character chassis development

7:46 Potentiality becoming actuality in combat / a high minimum bar

9:27 Load-bearing combat

12:02 The greatest battles that I’ve ever seen in an RPG were stacked around a great question; a hinge moment

13:07 What creates buy-in for players for non-murderhobo conflicts/enterprises? (Ownership, affection)

14:56 How is deep investment in a place or conflict actually established? (Something almost every player enjoys: establishing an organization or enterprise around/under their PC)

20:46 Players as generals, players as the elite squad. RPG as war game (use caution)

24:43 A party to a conflict- investment or property as citizenship (uh-oh!)

25:36 The nihilistic criminal turns into Santa Claus when he gets his own thieves’ guild (as long as they don’t get any ideas)

26:20 Personal PC vignettes at the start of a game / commanding one’s personal, self-established troops, escalating war fiction

28:00 Things to invest in (remember Breezehome?), and side-hustles

29:45 Player-run enterprises as source of social NPCs and legitimate support (and tragedy)

30:49 You don’t want to do Mary Sue GMPCs- but you CAN have powerful allies that the PCs have earned (so long as they aren’t stealing the PCs’ thunder)

31:36 Vendettas & villain-killing: extraordinarily dramatic

33:00 Using powerful allies: battle report as sports game (“held in rapt attention”)

36:59 Let’s get experimental: romance. How do you do romance when you’ve got a player group that’s all straight guys and you’re a straight guy?

41:38 Intensity curve experiment (archetypal storytelling is more about psychological states along the path from integration to disintegration to reintegration than of specific plot points, so it’s improvisable)

47:22 Having the world seem alive (plan ongoing place and world events that will occur even without party input, though they might be preventable and/or alterable if the party cared to intercede)

51:19 Villains are disposable, don’t be a cocktease

52:06 Don’t neglect a robust character chassis development system when creating your own ruleset

53:07 Conclusion

I’ll probably do this again on something else I find interesting and want to figure out, and at some point I’d like to have similarly unscripted discussions on specific elements of gaming and fiction with other people in or out of the RPG blogosphere. We’ll see what happens!


  1. This was fascinating. Thanks very much for doing it.

    Your observations about D&D in general and combat in particular are really interesting, and they ring true to me. I started playing D&D when I was probably 5 or 6 – which, to date myself, would have been in 1979 or 1980. So I’ve been through pretty much each edition (with the exception of 4th, which I never played) in the time that the edition came out. I’ve found some of the same thing you did – that in order to really challenge a party I have to throw something at them that is way past their "challenge level." Something else with D&D is that this gets progressively more difficult to do as players advance in level. I generally stop campaigns around level 14 or so because it really, really does get to be ridiculous after that. When I was in about 5th grade, I was exposed to a bunch of other systems (still have a weak spot in my heart for Star Frontiers), but the majority of my RPG experience has been D&D because that's what it seems most people want to play. So I take liberties with the game world to make it interesting to me.

    One thing I found more recently is that I could more easily bring back the “knife’s edge” where combat is really interesting and dangerous to players by splitting them up. This can be done through magic or confusion / charm spells etc though that is not much fun for the player who is kind of "sitting things out" (possessed though – they have had some fun with that). Another way I did it recently was by literally splitting all the party members up – I had four players and I wound up running four separate sessions a week for about two months. It was kind of exhausting, but it worked incredibly well, and the reunion, when it finally happened and they realized they’d all had slightly different experiences, was pretty awesome. My point being that it’s much easier to create that knife’s edge feeling in D&D combat with a single player – when they start doing their “our powers combined” thing, yeah, it’s got to be like dragons and demon lords whose very presence makes them suicidal and shit at this point. I suspect this has something to do with resource accumulation as players level up – especially in 5th edition, where cantrips scale and can ALWAYS be casted. I was able to do that knife’s edge thing with large pigs at level one (well, boars) but at level 10, it’s magic users with time stop and stuff.

    Also a really great observation about player plans and “the ambush” – I took my latest group through Deep Carbon Observatory at one point, and they managed to set things up to kind of fend off the Crows all the way up river (they had zombie pool lights among other things). Finally, when they were in the Observatory itself, one of them caught on to the fact that they were being followed, and managed to figure out where the Crows were in the observatory. A clever use of flying potions, prepared actions, and the geography of the Observatory later, and they absolutely SLAUGHTERED the Crows in like two or maybe three rounds. Ghar stayed alive long enough to tell them a little bit about his worldview and they decided to toss him onto the gravity knife. I do believe that when the players set up a plan the would really work, they should be allowed for it to work. On the other hand, one of them picked up the ability to change gravity direction in the observatory, and in the next dungeon used the ability without informing any party members he was about to do so. It was total chaos, and a lot of fun I think for everyone. When they do stuff like that, things should go totally sideways for them.

  2. Ran out of space last post.

    I think that letting the players create something gives them a lot of investment in it as opposed to something ready made that the DM comes up with. That game of chance you talk about reminds me of the Men are born for games bit from Blood Meridian, where in war the wager is the player themselves and “all.”

    Yeah, I have sort of the same rule about acting against the rest of the party. I used to not have a rule either, but I’ve seen the same thing. I don’t know if I’ve seen lasting rancor, but certainly short term, and it’s not worth it. A lot of people do not have the skills to solve that kind of emotional discord once it starts, so it’s better not to let it start.

    I absolutely agree that allowing players to create an organization of their own is super meaningful, I think at one point I told you about the “slave escape” campaign, and it’s formulated with that idea foremost in mind that essentially the entire narrative comes from the players rather than the DM (though I'd probably keep a couple decent villains tucked away and maybe a pregenerated cave complex or two)

    I have always had a REALLY hard time with big battles in RPGs. I was thinking about the wargame overlay as well, but I’ve never tried it.

    REALLY interesting observations on romance. Yeah, I have not tried this for the reasons for fear of it being either completely comedic or just awkward. I would take the former if I had to pick, but to generate the kind of meaning I'm after for the player it would have to fall into a third bucket, and I'm not sure how to make that happen. I thought it was interesting you have delved into romance novels as well, reading one of the more recent Dart stories made me think I should do exactly that, since I don't have a great handle on making romance work on the page or in games but it can be such an amazingly powerful driver.

    Anyway, many thanks for putting this up! I'd love to hear more.


Art - First Run