Why do we all have different preferences in RPGs?

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The NSR Discord server is really something unique, I think. For one thing, it's the only server that's got me hanging out regularly! But, more importantly, it has a wide range of people who hail from a wide variety of play cultures. (This is essential reading if you don't know what I mean by that.)

We have a lot of days where those partial to a Culture A and those partial to a Culture B have a conversation along the lines of:

CULTURE A PEOPLE: "I just don't get Culture B for reasons X, Y, and Z."

CULTURE B PEOPLE: detailed explanation and/or theoretical refutation of X, Y, and Z

SOMEONE, EVENTUALLY: "Well, at the end of the day we all have different preferences and that's okay!"

Don't get me wrong for a moment: These are often fantastic conversations, people learn a lot, and some people end up discovering a new style of play that they enjoy. And, yes, we all do have different preferences, and that is okay! Just saying that in and of itself is a huge step above RPG discussions in many (dare I say, most) corners of the internet.

But I think we can take the conversation further.

When we end the conversation with "we all have different preferences," I think there's a certain unspoken implication or unexamined assumption that our preferences are something immutable, something we're born with. We like what we like, and that's not something that can be understood or explained.

And, sure, there are almost certainly quirks of our genetic material that manifest in our personalities and have some affect on what we like. But, I think there are at least three factors that are far more significant in determining what RPGs we like--and they're not things we're born with, they're things that change and develop over time.

But, first, why am I writing about all of this? Is this just some pet peeve I want to rant about?

No, that isn't the point. I genuinely think that trying to understand where other peoples' preferences come from helps you develop a much richer understanding of game design, not to mention that it makes conversations among RPG hobbyists considerably more pleasant.

Factor #1: Familiarity

This one is pretty obvious, on a basic level. People like the RPGs they've played before, because (a) they have good memories associated with the system and (b) they don't have to get over the hump of learning the rules. There's a reason that the majority of RPG players, according to an old Matt Colville livestream I'm too lazy to find and cite, stick to one system no matter how many years they play.

But, there's also genre familiarity. If you're not familiar with the media that influences a given RPG, you're less likely to be interested in playing it (and more likely to need a good GM or well-written introductory materials to get you over that hump). I know that I was frustrated trying to DM 5E, starting out, because I knew little to nothing about elves and fairy-folklore. "Can't I please just get rid of all these fantasy races?"

There's familiarity with materials--are we using dice? Cards? A Jenga tower? There's games familiarity--have you ever played a game where you "gained XP" and "leveled up" before? There's familiarity with basic cultural assumptions, and with the language the game is written in, if you want to go that far.

It's easy to recognize this factor when you're trying to explain why the vast majority of people don't play RPGs. But, I think many of us designers like to imagine we aren't affected by it. We get defensive at any hint of an accusation that our preferences come down to "nostalgia."

"Nostalgia" is something of a dirty word. "Familiarity" has sides to it. At the end of the day, we're all here to have a good time, and your warm memories of rolling a d20 or 2d6 or Xd10 might outweigh other, more "pure" design considerations.

Factor #2: Assumed Context of Play

This is the one that, for some reason, people just don't talk about. It's like the invisible factor. In the rare event it does come up, the conversation breezes right past it.

I'm probably exaggerating slightly for effect, but let it be known that it took me months of hanging out on this server with PbtA players before one of them mentioned offhand, "Oh, I improvise all of my dungeons." And I said... "I'm sorry, you do what?" And it turned out that this is a basic assumption behind games like Dungeon World that no one had ever mentioned and that was never clear to me from skimming the text.

Original Dungeons & Dragons (or, Classic Play)

Let me back up a bit. There are certain questions that inevitably arise when modern players and designers encounter OD&D for the first time.

"Why is it so easy to die? Why don't ability scores do much of anything? Why do I have so few class features? Why does failing a save kill me instantly, and why does succeeding on a save mean that nothing interesting happens at all?"

Well, as this recent post on All Dead Generations outlines, early D&D assumed longer sessions, longer campaigns, more players, and more PCs. With so many characters walking around and so many players at the table, who wants to track complex abilities or conditions beyond "dead or not dead?" And, who cares if you die--we'll be playing for several more hours today, so it's not like you're going home unhappy. Just roll a new character or two and we'll meet them in the next room!

This is the easiest example because OD&D has been around a long time and the way it was originally played has been studied by professional historians. I'm going to base a lot of the rest of this section on conjecture and anecdotal evidence, but I'm not trying to be 100% correct here or cover everything, I'm trying to start a conversation about the assumed context of play.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (or, OC / Neo-Trad Play)

"Why do 5E players obsess over such complex rules? Why is the game so overwhelmingly focused on combat? Why is it so difficult to design encounters and otherwise make content for the game?"

I think 5E is a game principally designed for two contexts: (a) Adventurer's League--that is, organized play in game stores--and (b) casual players who just want to relax with their friends at the end of a long work week (and not have to think about the game through the rest of the week).

The rules have to be subject to a central authority, and they have to cover a lot of bases, if you want PCs to be able to move between games and have a consistent experience where their power level doesn't outstrip whoever happens to be at the table that day.

I don't think WotC really expects DMs to work out encounter balancing and Challenge Rating--otherwise they might have put more effort into the CR system (as it is in the core books, it's not very useful).

I think they expect DMs to buy their adventure modules where everything is handled for them. I think they expect players to show up once a week for three or four hours where they do a little role-playing and kill some monsters, so the DM doesn't even have to read or prep that far ahead.

And, here's the thing... Rules-heavy combat is relaxing in 5E, in my experience, in a way that role-playing is not. You get into the groove in the same way you can get into the groove playing a videogame. And relaxation is what the casual audience wants at the end of the work week.

Dungeon World / Powered by the Apocalypse (or, Story Games)

"Why would you play a game where your actions are so restricted, both as a player and as a GM? Why do mixed successes and failures force me to bring in narrative elements that I haven't planned for or established? Why do we need so many rules when we could just have conversations at the table and trust eachother?"

Okay, so, let's imagine you're in the same position as our Standard 5E DM. You have a job and a life outside of games (lucky you) and you want to run without a lot of prep. But for whatever reason, you don't like what 5E's adventure modules have on offer and you want to do something different.

PbtA systems are great for you. You can just grab a dungeon starter or something like that and put together a dungeon live at the table, while the results of moves introduce dramatically interesting elements at a nice and steady pace.

Finally, the story game crowd seems to assume accessibility for people with depression, anxiety, trauma, and the like. I can't say my own experience with depression and anxiety has greatly affected how I play games, but I can see why a "conversation at the table" might not cut it for some people who experience such things. You don't always know what you can handle until you encounter the thing you can't handle. So, I can see why it might help to have a list of everything the GM might do in writing.

FKR / Ultralight

Fairly or unfairly, all the questions for this crowd come down to this: "What's so bad about rules?"

You know the worst thing about rules? Teaching people rules.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the FKR has really taken off in the time since the pandemic began. People are running a lot of games online, over voice or over play-by-post, and teaching someone rules over the internet is an abysmal experience. You just can't ask and answer questions or communicate effectively in the same way.

This is where I have to respond to Sam Doebler / Dreaming Dragonslayer's post, "Rules, Laws, and Worlds," which he has proclaimed as perhaps the "most important post" he's written in a year. There are interesting points in this post, notwithstanding the terminology he chooses, but he begins by lamenting gamers' obsession with rules and calling in-depth rules discussions "nauseating."

Sam, I would appeal to you to recognize: You are running online games for children. It's hard to imagine a worse position in which to teach your players the rules! And, your games have become lighter and lighter the more and more you've played online with kids over the past couple years.

This is what works for you in a very specific context of play, and I would contend that your tolerance for rules is influenced above all by that context. There's not some great failure of the hobby at large to recognize the futility of rules.

The spark behind this post in the first place was how the ultralight style became much more attractive to me the moment I committed myself to prepping an asynchronous play-by-post game. I don't want anyone to think I'm collapsing all preference for FKR to this one factor--there are two other capital-F Factors!--but for me, it was a huge paradigm shift.

Factor #3: Bad Experiences

This one is a consequence of the first two, and it compounds on them. When you join a game and discover you're not familiar with some of its basic assumptions, or it doesn't match up with your assumptions for how play is supposed to work, you're probably going to get frustrated and bounce off.

That bad experience sticks with you. Someone on the Discord brings up That Game and you think, "Ugh! That game!" And you feel compelled to let loose all your frustrations about That Game and your whole story about how horrible that time you played it is. Or, maybe you just disengage with the conversation and go back to your corner of the internet where it's warm and cozy.

I would appeal to you, if you have moments like this, to imagine yourself as what you are: a being in motion. In a past context, you didn't enjoy the game. In present contexts, many others are actively enjoying the game. In a future context, you, too, might enjoy the game.


It's tempting to imagine, when you've found the perfect ruleset that works for you, that "This is it!" Some day, the entire hobby will discover Into the Odd or what-have-you, renounce their foolish ways and play that game until the end of time in a great triumph of this, the Perfect System.

The truth is, we live in history. Remember what I said about how, in 1974, people assumed a lot more players and a lot more time investment? The basic, assumed context of play in our culture is going to keep shifting underneath our feet. It's shifting right now, so slowly that the change is impossible to perceive from one day to the next. But the change is still happening, and in a few years from now it'll be as clear as day.

Good luck to all you designers and theoreticians trying to keep up.


  1. Sam has since edited his post in response to my criticisms here, such that the criticisms no longer apply.


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