This month, I want to delve a bit into different styles of games. There are tons of different ways of playing a game, and in many cases it’s a mix ‘n’ match of different styles all merging into a cohesive thing. Some games lend themselves toward a certain style of play, but most of them are freeform enough to allow for almost any approach to be used.
If I were to catalog every style of game, your eyes would glaze over from reading the thesis paper. Instead of trying capture everything, I’m just going to hit the most common styles of play I’ve encountered over the past 30 years of gaming.
Monty Haul is a classic style of play loosely named after Monty Hall of the “Let’s Make a Deal” game show where contestants can wheel n’ deal for greater and greater prizes that sometimes reach the ridiculous levels. Monty Hauling is great fun at younger ages because of the rapid escalation of power characters go through. The basic premise of this style is that all treasure from all monsters is nearly maxed out, and the characters are allowed (through hand-waving or magic items or spells) to carry every last copper piece they scraped from the floor of the dragon’s lair. Back in the days of “one gold piece of treasure value equals one experience point” rapid level gains happened as well. The whole point of Monty Haul is to amass as large of a treasure store as possible while spending as little of it as you could get away with.
Hack ‘n’ Slash (aka: Slaughterhouse)
This style is similar to Monty Haul, but instead of gathering up as much gold as possible, a kill count is kept. The player with the highest kill count is generally considered the “best” player in this style. There are even some players that count how much damage they’ve done over the lifespan of their character or will track what the most amount of damage they’ve done in a single round. (My record is 172 points of damage with a 2nd Edition AD&D Irdan Ranger from Dragonlance.) Again, this style is geared more toward the younger players as the storytelling does not get very in-depth, and the GM’s main job is running the monsters during combat.
A dungeon crawls is a style of play where, you guessed it, the characters are basically stuck in or exploring some sort of underground area. Sometimes there is a city nearby that is used for resupply, licking wounds, getting new party members, or selling loot. This is not always the case, though. In The World’s Largest Dungeon (Alderac Entertainment Group, 2004), we were trapped within the dungeon and could not leave at all. Sometimes a dungeon crawls is through small areas, caves or ruins. Other times, they can be massive in scale. As an example, The World’s Largest Dungeon included many wall-poster maps, and the book was a hefty 1,000 pages in length and weighed in at over five pounds!
Sometimes the GM will allow the players to roam around a broad area with their characters. These adventures or campaigns have a sandbox style because the players are free to play in the GM’s sandbox as they see fit. One of the earliest sandbox adventures was Isle of Dread for D&D. There were certain elements, encounters, and sub-plots they would encounter as they moved about, but they could go and do as they please. Sandbox adventures are very hard for the GM to manage because it’s highly difficult for the GM to plan for the random, “We go north” when the GM expected to hear, “We go south.” Having great improv skills and a deep level of knowledge about the areas within the sandbox go a long way to running a great game.
The opposite of the sandbox game is the railroad. This usually occurs when the GM has a specific story in mind to tell and wants the players to go along with it. If the railroading has been setup in the beginning and the players completely buy into the story, then this can create a good tale. However, the phrase “railroading” is derogatory in nature because it means the GM has taken free will away from the players. This is never a good thing.
Beer and Pretzels
There aren’t many beer and pretzels style games out there, but it’s what you imagine it to be: goofy fun and juvenile humor with adult beverages. The #1 game I can think of that always falls into this category is Paranoia. The basic ideas here is to blatantly ignore social decorum and have fun with silliness and stupidity to the Nth degree. Beer and pretzels games are a good hoot to play on occasion, but I’ve never seen one last as a long-term campaign because of dangers of permanent liver damage.
Some games lend themselves to very tactical game play. This is where miniatures, grid boards and detailed tracking of stats come into play. It’s almost taking RPGs back to their wargaming roots. They can be quite fun, but because of the intense book keeping required, the intensity of the game tends to burn most people out in a rapid manner.
The opposite of tactical play is the storytelling style. In this case, it’s rare for precise measurements to be used. When a rule is forgotten the GM is encouraged to make up something on the fly that fits the flow of the story. In this case, the GM and the players are in high cooperation mode to come out with the best story for the characters, NPCs, setting, and scenarios as possible. It feels to me that this style is enjoyed the most by older or more veteran role players.
Of course, if I missed one of your favorite approaches at running or playing an RPG, please let me know in the comments!
J.T. Evans morphed into an avid role player at the tender age of ten with the release of the Dungeons & Dragons red box set. The vision of a warrior fighting a dragon on the cover of the box caused a new passion to leap upon J.T.. He's explored more worlds, planes, star systems, and settings than he can remember. When J.T's not tossing dice around the table with his friends, he works on his fantasy novels at his home outside Monument, CO.