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About Needs

A few introductory thoughts on needs.

Needs are value-neutral.

This is pretty important to me.  In looking objectively at how RPGs get put together, the goal shouldn’t be to push a single agenda, but rather to understand how things can fit together.  Physics doesn’t tell you how you should move objects, around, it just tells you how the forces you put into place will play out.

Just the same, I’m interested in looking at how needs of players and the techniques used to support them interact with each other.  I’m utterly uninterested in promoting “a good game does this,” except in the most generic terms.  I’m also utterly uninterested in condemning, vilifying, or praising any needs, ‘types’ of players, game systems, games, mechanics, or anything else.  It’s too easy of a trap to fall into, and reduces the value of any work done.

Ideally, the result of this work will be a catalogue of common needs, techniques which can meet those needs, and how those needs and techniques interact.  As such, my hope is that it serves as a useful reference that tells someone how to make games that satisfy different types of needs.  If I judge needs as “good” or “bad”, this reduces that value.

Needs should be written in a positive fashion.

I don’t mean that you can’t have a need like I don’t want to worry about character optimization.  That’s a perfectly valid need.  This point isn’t about that.

This is an extension of the first point.  If I’m going to write a need, I’m going to describe it in a way that doesn’t make the person with that need seem like a jackass.

And if I can’t do that, I’m just not going to write that need down.

BTW, if you do see something that seems offensive, I ask you to kindly remember that I’m deliberately trying to not be pejorative in my descriptions.  Please try to read what I’m saying from a non-aggressive view, and if it still seems offensive, please let me know so that I can either explain myself or change the wording.

At the end of the day, I can’t catalogue every need ever, since they’re inherently personal.  If I can’t find a way to sympathetically phrase a need, I see one of two reasons for this:  Either I just am out of touch with it to the point where I can’t understand it, or it’s just inherently the product of somebody with some level of abnormal, harmful psychology.

Now, the majority of needs that I can’t figure out how to phrase in a positive light will be the first category.  They’ll be perceived as negative by me because my worldview and understanding is just so foreign that I can’t see the value in them.  Since I’m unwilling to use pejoratives to discuss them, I’d rather just “back-burner” them, and hopefully someone will work on these with me and be able to explain more positively what the real driving need is.

Is it possible that this will introduce bias into any work done here by omission?  Of course.  But I’d rather suffer from bias by omission than bias by insulting people.  I also want to bring other people into this work, and make any needs that I “omit” available to them for re-wording, as a way to control for this bias.

I’m uninterested in enabling anti-social jackasses.

Now, if a need truly is I want to abuse people at my table, or I want to be as disruptive as possible and deliberately frustrate people or even I want a place where I can get away with yelling at people, then I’m just not interested in those types of things.  I would call these things abusive behavior, and it’s not something I want to promote by even listing it as a player need.  If you feel like that’s something you want to promote in your game or system, knock yourself out.  But I’m not going to contribute to that.

Now, as part of this, I’m also not going to dwell on these types of needs, at least partially because of potential inability to disambiguate between truly anti-social needs, and simply me not understanding the actual needs of players.

People know what they like.  They know what they need.  They may not know how to express that.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that any of this will be as simple as just collecting data.  My experience, in general, is that people tend to focus more on what things they’ve experienced that meet their needs, rather than those needs themselves.

Someone may claim that they have the need I want a flexible character creation system.  To me, flexible character creation is a technique (and utterly vague – it can mean very different things).  The technique of flexible character creation can satisfy many needs:

  • I enjoy character optimization
  • I want to continually learn things
  • I want to show off my system mastery
  • I want my characters to be mechanically distinct
  • I want my character sheet to reflect my character’s individuality
  • I don’t like being told what I can’t do
  • I want to be able to make a unique character
  • I want to play the character that’s in my head

These are all different, and valid needs.  “Flexible character creation” may meet many of these needs, but it’s secondary – conceivably, another technique could meet one of these needs quite well.  Additionally, different forms of “flexible character creation” may meet only a subset of these needs – while a system allowing for a high degree of character optimization may engage those that have the need I enjoy character optimization, the implied forcing of not having sub-standard builds may, in actual play, lead to exactly the type of “cookie-cutter” character builds that those with the need I want to be able to make a unique character or I want to play the character that’s in my head.

Unfortunately, when discussing what people get out of RPGs, or like in RPGs, this type of issue is incredibly common.  People will often respond with either specific techniques that may satisfy several needs, vague descriptions that could mean very different things coming from different people, or even buzzwords that have very little inherent meaning.  I suspect that a lot of the work I will do on this subject will involve driving down to the actual needs that people have.

Posted in RPG Theory.


Rob’s RPG Theory – Theory Kernel

Hey all, so I’ve got a lot of crazy thoughts about RPG theory, and I figured this would be a better place to discuss them than someplace I’d be spamming everyone.  So here we go!

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that RPG theory is a… touchy subject.  And so I do want to say that my goal here isn’t to say that anybody, or any way of playing, or even any game is bad.

And calling this even a theory is a little premature.  It’s like the beginnings of a hypothesis, really.  What I’m hoping is that it’s enough of a beginning to develop towards an actual theory, and preferably one that builds upon some of the interesting work done in the past, while avoiding some of those pitfalls.

So, here goes.  This first post is really about definitions of things, and some basic presumptions I’m making.

1) An RPG is an activity where a number of people take part in a shared ‘game’, and take the role of individual characters.

This is incredibly open.  It includes Fiasco, D&D, and Descent:  Journeys in the Dark.  If you think I should be more exclusionary, then you’re probably not going to like the rest of this.  So, sorry.

2) People play games to meet needs that they have.

And by ‘needs’, I mean that in the ‘hey, this meets my needs’ fashion, not suggesting that RPG players are needy, or have psychological issues.

This is a pretty fundamental thing, by the way.  A lot of what I hope to talk about is differing needs, how they interact, and how they’re met by games.

By the way, when I talk about “needs”, I don’t necessarily mean just things that are satisfied by a particular system, but anything that is satisfied by the time period that people play a game – common “non-game” needs may include Spending Time With My Friends or Proving I’m the Best or Meeting New People.  These aren’t game mechanics, but they are reasons that people play games, and they are things that various mechanics may facilitate or make more difficult.

3) A game system is a codified set of instructions for playing a game.

Hopefully there’s nothing here that’s too crazy sounding.  The only thing that might sound a bit odd is that I differentiate it from…

4) A game is a particular set of activities that occur at a particular time period, generally using one or more game systems.

Okay, now I may have lost you.  But all this means is that a ‘game’ can only be really looked at in the context of a bunch of people playing it.  Two groups of people may play the same game system in totally different ways, whether that’s due to interpretation, emphasis and de-emphasis of various elements, or simple misunderstanding.  But really, it’s very rare that two groups play, for instance “D&D” the same way.  There’s similarities, sure, and a new player may be able to get over those similarities in short order, but it’s very likely that those two groups will differ in serious aspects, be it what is emphasized, what is de-emphasized, house rules, level of challenge presented, etc.  Even a number of social interactions will be different based on the tolerances and personalities involved, and that’s all part of the “game”, as well!

5) Techniques are things that game systems (or even games) use to try to achieve player needs

Okay, so let’s look at an example of this.  A player need may be I want to feel like there is real danger.  Great!  A game may choose to implement this by having High lethality.
Techniques can be viewed in a number of ways – they can help achieve some needs, and they may be opposed to others.  They may commonly be associated with other techniques, as well.

Posted in RPG Theory.


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Posted in Uncategorized.