Thursday, May 20, 2010

Munchkins, Laws and a Bartle

This is the second part of my essays dissecting the “Player Types” that circulate in gaming circles. Today, I’ll be taking a look at the infamous Munchkin Files, Robin Laws’ additions to those files, and Richard Bartle’s suit-based ideas on player motivations.

The Munchkin File

The Munchkin File breaks players down into four key archetypes. Whether this is to be taken seriously or not is up to some debate, as the archetypes are as ridden with holes as Rosewater’s psychographics when it comes to RPGs. The archetypes are: The Real Man, the Real Roleplayer, the Loonie, and the Munchkin. Players are supposed to fall into a range of these character types as described thus:

The Real Man

The tough macho type who walks up to the attacking dragon and orders it to leave before he gets hurt.

The Real Roleplayer

The intelligent cunning guy who tricks the constable into letting you all out of prison.

The Loonie

The guy who will do anything for a cheap laugh, including casting a fireball at ground zero.

The Munchkin

Need we say more?

Well yes, actually, we do. Munchkins get a bit of a bad rap in the role-playing community. They are, to go back to Rosewater’s terms, Spikes. They play to win, and are willing to use whatever resources are available to them to do so. If that means twinking a character to hit for 600 damage at a range of 50ft at-will for the rest of the game, well… Okay, let’s do that.

For those unfamiliar with the term (I’m sure there are at least a few), a Munchkin is a player who derives entertainment or a sense of self-worth from creating powerful characters in a role-playing game. The more powerful the character, the better. It’s usually a term of derision, but we won’t be using it as such in this article, because the object of the article is to understand the motivations behind play.

The problem with the above archetype distinctions is that they are pretty exclusive of other kinds of play. Where would a player who likes to build twinked-out Charisma machines fit in – especially if that player uses the high Charisma to power some intense role-playing scenarios? More to the point, where would the average player fit in?

Still, from this, we can garner some interesting ideas as to why each of the above archetypes wants to play a role-playing game. The Real Man has something to prove, wants to get into the thick of it, and loves combat encounters. The Real Roleplayer’s wants to act, wants to create interesting stories through word and action. The Loonie is looking to get a reaction from the other players. The Munchkin is looking for a power-fantasy outlet. All of these drives exist, and I’ve seen players who exibit these traits to one degree or another, but I hardly believe it to be a comprehensive list of player motivations. Even the Five Gamers only picks up for those looking for an intellectual challenge.

Robin D. Laws

Robin Laws knows a lot about games, and he knows a lot about Game Mastery. He wrote a really good book on how to not suck as a Game Master, and if you’re serious about becoming a more adept GM, it’s something I would highly recommend you pick up. It’s worth every fucking penny.

Mr. Laws adds a few archetypes to the mix, in particular the Specialist, the Storytellers and the Casual Gamers. A specialist is the type of player who plays the same character type over and over again, regardless of game type, sometimes with the same name as in other games. The personality rarely changes, the general abilities stay roughly the same, the set-dressing never differs. Storytellers are in it for the plot, and they’re willing to put their characters through hell to get it (these are, for the record, my favorite types of players to Game Master for). Casual Gamers show up to play once in a while, like the game and like he people playing it, and when it’s done, they put it away.

The thing I like the most about Mr. Laws’ archetypes is that so few other writers touch on them. To bring it back to Mr. Rosewater’s archetypes, a Specialist is a sort of Timmy who is in the game to experience one particular thing. They like being the assassin or the brawler, and will be that character in every game they play forever. A storyteller is very Vorthosian, in that the flavor is all that really matters for them, and experiencing that flavor is important.

The casual gamer… Well, she’s a harder creature to pin down. What motivates a casual player can be difficult to understand for those of us so deeply immersed in the hobby that we plan games, play in them on a regular basis or, gods forbid, read blogs about it. What brings her out to the table every third session to eat nachos and swill Mountain Dew with the rest of the group?

I think the next set of archetypes will answer that a little more clearly.

Richard Bartle

In 1996, Richard Bartle put together a lengthy article on the types of players who play in Multi-User Domains, or MUDs. This article summarized a huge debate on his own MUD’s forums on the topic of “What do people want out of a MUD?” While that may seem a bit removed from table-top role-playing, I think that the archetype work he put together can, like the archetype work on Magic: The Gathering, be used to shed light on our hobby in a way we haven’t really looked at previously.

The things that he posits a game-player wants are:

  1. Achievement within the game context
  2. Exploration of the game
  3. Socializing with others
  4. Imposition upon others

Each player is going to have these drives to one degree or another. Everyone has goals they want to achieve within the game, and everyone sits down to play a role-playing game to socialize. The amount of each that a player desires from a game creates an interesting scale on which one can place oneself.

Personally, I rate myself thus: achievement, socialization, exploration, imposition, with achievement being the highest and imposition the lowest. You will likely rate yourself differently.

When you throw percentages into the mix (I’m 34% achievement oriented, for instance), you get a much more accurate idea of what sort of gamer you are.

Bartle’s essay has graphs, and examples of the style of play you might see in a MUD from a particular type of player. We aren’t going to do that here. What is more interesting is his association of player types with suits of cards.

Diamonds: Go for the goals of the game, whatever those are.

Spades: Explore the game world.

Hearts: Hang out with other players.

Clubs: Play to have an effect on other players.

I think part of what I like about this delineation is that it’s easy to grok. In many ways, that’s what drew me to Mr. Rosewater’s archetypes in the first place, was the idea that you could easily describe the tendencies of a group of players with a single word. If the player you are speaking about wants to win, and will do everything in his or her power to do so, that player is a Spike. Awesome, that’s easy to figure out. He or she is also a Diamond. Or, depending on your definition of the goals of the game, a Munchkin.

Part of what role-playing games need is a unifying language that describes underlying player motivations. Some published products have attempted to make that happen (see: the Game Master’s Guides), but the definitions they give for player motivations are surprisingly limited and inflexible. What I aim to create here is a language through which we can better understand why our players do the things they do.

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