Glenn Blacow's "Aspects of Adventure Gaming"

         This an early division of player types, formulated by Glenn Blacow and published in Different Worlds #10 (October 1980). It postulated four basic types of RPG players: "Roleplaying", "Story Telling", "Powergaming", and "Wargaming". This can easily be seen as an early precursor to future divisions such as the Threefold Model and the GNS Model. Many people have only heard about the original model by word of mouth, and I think it is more thoughtful than many people assume. The thrust of the article is acceptance of other styles of play.

NOTE: I have reproduced this article in its entirety for documentary purposes. The author has passed away, and I have been unable to find any estate. I contacted the original publishers, but they did not hold reprint rights. If anyone has objections please contact me.

         Incidentally, there were three related articles in later issues of Different Worlds. The first was "The Fourfold Way of FRP" by Jeffrey Johnson (DW#11, pg 18-19). The second was "Personalities of Role-Playing Gamers" by Lewis Pulsipher (DW#11, pg 42). The third was "Profiles from the Four-Fold Way" by Greg Costikyan (DW#37, pg 22-23).

Aspects of Adventure Gaming

         Adventure gaming (also known as FRP, for fantasy role-playing) is a relative newcomer to the field of gaming. The original game which introduced the genre, Dungeons & Dragons by TSR Hobbies, has since been joined by a flood of new games based on the same general idea: Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, Traveller, Space Quest, Chivalry & Sorcery, and many others. These games are now a major source of entertainment to hundreds of thousands of players, including most of the readers of this magazine.

         They are also a source of violent arguments in the pages of game magazines, APAs, and fanzines. All too often one hears Game Masters (GMs) complaining about 22nd level mages, 15th level split ranger/illusionists, and 30th level werebears equipped with the Orb of the Dragon Kings. Or players griping about the "killer dungeon" where their favorite umpteenth level character got butchered by kobolds. Writers sneer abou the stupidity and lack of sense shown by monsters of another GM. Caustic remarks concerning the lack of realism in background and motivation in another's campaign are made. No small amount of heat gets generated as a result.

         A bystander, reading the furious discussions and noting the feuds that develop might be inclined to feel bewildered. "Are we all playing the same game? Do the terms mean the same to everyone?"

         The answer is no. While the people arguing may be using identical sets of rules, they are not necessarily using them in the same way or for the same purpose. Arguments rage the fiercest between players whose minds operate along different axes of game development. For there are four aspects of FRP gaming, and they tend to produce very divergent ideas of what makes a good game. And the flame grow most fiery when the two debaters have never played in games that have contained the same elements...

         What are the four aspects of adventure gaming? They are:

I. Power Gaming
II. Role-Playing
III. Wargaming
IV. Story Telling

         Every game contains these aspects in at least a rudimentary degree, and the feeling of any given world is determined by the interaction of these four elements. But there are a large number of universes where development has overwhelmingly concentrated on a single one of the above facets. Much light on the question of ill-will within the hobby can be shed by first considering games with just a single major emphasis. So let us begin with...


This is how most FRP games start out, and is by far the most common form. It's where the 20th+ level wizards, 13th/13th/13th split fighter/mage/clerics most often come from. The Mace of Cuthbert, Stormbringer, the One Ring, and other mighty artifacts often appear on the equipment lists of player characters who hail from them, usually to the distress of GMs of other schools.

         The purpose of the game is neither role-playing (as such) nor the development of skills. Instead, the main drive of the players is power. Levels, magic, special abilities, divine favor, and other sources of individual strength are what matters. The personality of the typical character is that of the player, decked out with labels such as "class" and "alignment."

         A typical exchange in some games of this sort might sound like this:

"I'm gonna run my 20th level cleric with the +5 plage and shield, the Sceptre of the Demon Kings, the Ring of Arkyn, and the Spell Turning Ring."
"OK, what's his name?"
"Uh, name? Er, call him Jocko."
"Got it! What's he a cleric of?"
"Huh? Oh, I never thought of that. But he's lawful/good."

         It's usually the amount of power available that determines the outcome of battles, and an inadequate supply of it can be disastrous. Given this and the way games of this sort operate, then an abundance of magic is only to be expected. Power gaming causes much competition among the players, "winning" being possible by the accumulation of magic and other means of power. In some cases this has led to inter-character treachery, murder, and theft over ownership of especially good magic, or even to prevent another character from overshadowing one's own.


Within the pure role-playing campaign, the most important element is the player character and his or her life. The personalities of the characters are worked out in loving detail, and favorite characters tend to have great emotional investments made in them. Their owners do not hold the lives of these beings to be cheap. Characters tend to act within the personalities accorded to them and by the beliefs they're supposed to hold, and the players speak in persona. An example of this might be:

The party discussed the possibility that the young nobleman they were searching for was held prisoner in the castle ahead. Cunnerith and Hippoclates the Sot are the most vocal, but the clever young elf-maid Violet and quiet Aris the Mariner have their own points to make. Much more seldom, dour and vinegary Waldo the Silent makes a brief but incisive comment. And, inevitably, there is a constant stream of chatter from Naomi. Not that anyone ever pays any attention to that thimblewit.
The last was almost a fatal mistake. For as the party entered the great hall the next day, Naomi looked around confusedly and asked (one of the party, fortunately), "Where's the man we're supposed to rescue?"
Well, nobody ever said she had any brains!
"Shut up, Naomi!" came the chorus.

         In a game of this sort, the world is just a stage on which the characters live out their lives, with the spotlight directed at them. They suffer, they triumph, they have their loves, hates, and sorrows; and in some way they are as alive as the players who created them.

         As might be expected, the above tends to influence the structure of the game. Given the emotional attachment of the player to his characters, a high casualty rate is downright counter-productive. The players will withdraw the precious "lives" from the game to a place of safety. As a result, the GM tends to exercise a considerable amount of discretion with regard to the player characters, utilizing methods such as "soft-keying" (willingness to adjus the opposition's strength after the fighting has started so that the party won't be overmatched) and subtly trying to warn off the expedition if they're approaching something that they can't handle.

         It should be noted that this is a particularly cooperative form of FRP gaming. Inter-player rivalry -- except as demanded by characterization -- tends to be relatively rare. The GM usually helps things along by providing the players chances to interact with the universe and each other.


Here one might say that the emphasis is almost the reverse of the role-playing oriented game. The most important facets of this type of game are the tactical abilities of the players and GM, and the mechanics of play. There is a strong tendency towards a relatively low level of magic here, both in quantity and quality, since it is upsetting the GM to have a tactically brilliant setup destroyed when a character pulls out a gadget.

         Wargaming FRP is a competition between the players (as a group) and the GM in which they match wits and skills. He sets up tactical problems which they have to solve for their experience and treasure. Knowhow is all-important, and detailed knowledge of rules a vast help. Since there is a fine edge of danger in the game, developing a character's personality may result in it doing things dysfunctional to survival. Hence the role-playing aspect of the "pure" wargaming approach is often minimal.

         It should be obvious that in a game dominated by this way of thinkng, soft-keying is an extremely dubious practice. The ethic demands that the players survive by their wits, with bad play being rewarded by death. For the GM to arbitrarily reduce the opposition in order to save the party would be as much cheating as adding monsters to raise the death rate would.

         Unlike role-playing based games, killing player characters is an integral and logical part of the game; in fact, many Gms of this school set themselves a desired kill ratio and try to meet it. While this fosters a competitive approach between the GM and players, it usually tends to reduce inter-character fighting. The world is foe enough...


In the most general sense of the term, any successful FRP game requires some story telling ability. There are few players who will abide a GM who is so inept that they can't figure out what's going on most of the time, or whose tale limps so badly that suspension of disbelief is impossible.

         However, the term as used here means something beyond this basic approach.

         All of the game types mentioned above have background of some sort. The GM may be content with the basic gilded hole with attached false front town, or he might indulge in the splendid pageantry of empire, complete with ruling dynasty, elaborate history, and detailed geography. Regardless of the extent of the universe, however, in most games it's just stage setting. Unless the players characters walk into a scene, the non-player characters there remain frozen and inactive, just stringless puppets.

         In a story telling world, the non-player characters are alive offstage. History is a continuing and developing process, with the actions of both player and non-player characters affecting the course of events. Moreover, the GM has usually a very good idea of how the general trend of events is going. Also, of how the actions of the adventurers can affect things.

         Now, the pure form of the story telling game is rare, and every campaign emphasizing it is unique. The details of what's going on depend entirely on what story the GM is telling. A role-player encountering such a game for the first time will usually find it a trifle odd, for unlike the heavily role-playing game, the player characters are not on the center of the stage, not the element about which events revolve. The player characters can only act within the tale, and their freedom is somewhat limited...

       The friends sang merrily, toasting their luck in fine Golidene wine in the public room of the Red Wolf Inn.

       "By the White Christ!" hiccuped Rhodri, "Tomorrow we head for the Alarghi Hills and enough gold to make us rich for the rest of our lives!"

       The other fighter, a pretty lass named Susanna, and the half-drunk mage Gondor, both nodded happily, aglow with anticipation.

       Gondor looked up at the sound of footsteps. "Sergeant Orse! Sit down and have a drink! We're leaving tomorrow. Gonna get rich!"

       The sergeant grinned, poured himself a glass of wine, and let the sparkling vintage wash the dust from his parched throat. Then he smiled benevolently at the group, "Oh no, you're not."

       "Huh?!" chorused the group, "Why not???"

       "Because," said the sergeant, cheerfully sipping away at his glass, "the Hadurnei just broke out in rebellion, and you're all drafted into the militia for the duration."

         The amount of freedom can vary enormously. In some games of this kind, there is a distinct impression that the GM has already determined the entire future of the universe, and that the player characters are just improvising the script. In more free-form versions of this game type, the flow of the story and the form of the script are decided by interactions between the GM's general outline of events and the actions of individuals within the campaign.

         Much of the attraction of this kind of world comes from the fact that there is a story being told in which one's character is participating. The world has a purpose, a reason for being, independent of what the adventurers do. Living in such a world is not a little like being a character within a novel. It does require a constant effort on the part of its creator to make the universe -- whether it's a county or a continent -- rational and consistent. And as an FRP forum, it requires a cooperative group of players.

         The statements above are, of course, generalizations. They are useful, however.

         Most of the older games in existence long ago passed beyond the simple forms described above. Wargamers have learned how to role-play, role-players have learned to see the advantages of well-done rules, and there has been a growing drive across the hobby towards more reasonable and consistent worlds. But this does not mean that all adventure gamers have common attitudes. The mind sets generated by the original approaches still live on, and even among the most sophisticated players and GMs can produce raging disputes, mostly through lack of understanding about the assumptions that the other side is operating under.

         Consider the cases that might occur at an ordinary convention...

         Ben Jones has been running a successful dungeon for years. He's a role-playing GM from the word go, and has been working smoothly with a group of similar-minded players for almost as long. He was asked to prepare a special scenario for the con and run three groups through it, one per day. Ben really gets into the spirit of the thing and produces an adventure to remember. There's a castle wiht suitably gruesome garrison, some interesting magic, and an exciting random encounter. After a moment's thought, he also provides for a meeting with one of his most fascinating non-player characters, Arilla of the Silver Lake. Arilla is a personality his regulars always enjoy meeting, visiting players consistently go out of their way to encounter. A great chance for some role-playing.

         Unknown to Ben Jones, the three groups are unmixed collections of people brought up in the other three FRP traditions. The first party to experience the scenario is the people from a story telling world, the second is a batch of wargamers, and the last a collection of power gamers.

         1) Ben sets up the first trip and begins. As an adventure it seems to go quite well. The players, however, instead of just appreciating and experiencing Arilla, keep asking a lot of irritating queries about the castle and its owner. A fuming Ben begins to wonder if they're trying to show him up. Why don't they just hurry up and get along with the scenario?

         The run comes to an end with Ben somewhat annoyed about their taste for nitpicking detail. They depart convinced that he hasn't quite gotten his act together.

         2) The wargamers run through next. They organize the expedition quickly and without any of the pre-game role-playing Ben dearly loves to hear. They march out to the castle, almost ignoring Lady Arilla. Once there, they spend 20 minutes setting up an assault plan. The actual assault may take even less time than the planning. It is also done with startling efficiency and an almost total lack of character (as opposed to player) interaction.

         Ben watches them leave with the conviction that while they know their stuff, they're a dull and uninteresting lot.

         In the eyes of the wargamers, he's probably proved himself to be incompetant. The trouble that they had with his monsters would almost certainly seem minor ("Why, I've had more trouble with a room full of Kevin's kobolds"), and the rewards disproportionately great.

         3) The last expedition is the one that really sours Ben. Looking at the group with some caution, he insists on only accepting characters of the proper level, and refuses to allow some of the more extravagant items into the game. The expedition starts in the midst of much discussion about who gets to go where in the marching order. ("Well, my paladin has 18 strength, 78 hits, and a Vorpal Sword!" "Yeah, but my fighter has a Belt of Storm Giant Strength, a Rod of Lordly Might, and +5 armor.")

         Once again the party encounters Arilla of the Silver Lake. This time, there's no conversation at all. The player characters eye the magical crown, the cool looking belt, and powerful staff -- and kill her! Poor Ben sits there in a state of shock while the adventurers commit atrocities on her followers, destroy the bodies, and divide the loot among them. When they finish and look expectantly at him, he grinds his teeth in rage and begins handing out appropriate punishments for their crimes. The paladin is stripped of his paladinhood, alignments are changed, and various weapons argue at great length with their (former) owners.

         By the time the expedition reaches the castle, there is no small amount of ill-will in the air. A still furious Ben attempts to avenge Arilla, whle the players buckle down with grim determination to show him up. Given the power of the players characters on the expedition, they win. The GM watches them leave, growling about "over-equipped turkeys" under his breath. The players in turn consider him to be a poor loser and a sorehead.

Variations of the theme could be endlessly devised, but the basics are visible above. To the role-player, the wargaming GM is the master of a "killer dungeon"; to the GM concerned, characters are just "dice," and there are plenty more where the player characters he just killed came from. Power gamers find other games dull restrictive, and comparatively unrewarding. Players inured to a wargaming approach tend to impeach the skills of GMs and players of other game types, and are apt to mutter the words "Monty Hall" more often than is likely to earn them good will.

         ALl of the above cases derive from mutual inability to perceive differences in game philosophy. Ben Jones, contrary to the assumptions of the three groups of players, has his act together, is quite competent, and was not being a sorehead. He is not really trying to write an epic, he was not interested in killing the characters of the second group, and his outrage at the killing of the non-player character was justified. What he was offering was a chance to role-play.

         Conversely, none of the three groups were trying to be difficult. The first group was looking for something important to them that wasn't there. The wargamers were looking for a tactical challenge. And the last group was interested in having fun, according to their own perceptions of it. To them, Arilla was not an important and interesting person, but a wandering monster. And what else are wandering monsters for, if not to kill and loot?

Sadly enough, one of the biggest gulfs between groups is increasingly one that coincides with age. Overwhelmingly the newcomers to the hobby are high school age or younger. By their very numbers, it becomes almost certain that they will begin their FRP careers in new games. And, as has been said, most campaigns start out emphasizing the power gaming aspect of the craft. It is obvious that the older games contain older players. Most of these campaigns went beyond power gaming long ago, and the people running in them have increasingly associated power gaming with the youth of its most numerous proponents -- and labeled them both "childish." This statement is both false and extremely harmful. It's true that power gaming is the most basic of the approaches, but this doesn't make it childish. There are older players aplenty, even in more developed games, who operate on exactly the same principle. The statement is harmful because while statistically true, it's conceptually false. Younger players do indeed largely play in power gaming campaigns. But they don't do so "because they're young," they do so because they're new to the hobby.

         I'd say that there are enough substantial questions in the field of adventure gaming to keep us arguing for decades. I can't see any reason to add to the unpleasantness by dragging in irrelevant question of age.

Hopefully, this article will help reduce the amount of heat in some of the arguments about FRP. An argument in which neither side realizes the vast gaps in the fundamental assumptions that underlie what they're discussing is an argument apt to result in nothing more productive than angry name calling. If the aggrieved player can understand that the death of a beloved character is an integral part of the campaign he's in, then he may appreciate that the GM is not evil; if another finds the rewards too easily come by, he may realize that the GM is using a different set of parameters for the game and refrain from uttering the word "turkey." Then we can get down to really important matters, such as what people want in a game, and how to achieve it in practice. It's important to remember, however, that we do not all want the same thing.

         So, when you're at a con getting ready to run your own patented, super-duper, error-free, guaranteed-to-promote-role-playing, tactically flawless, polished to the last degree, builds-strong-bodies-eight-ways game -- and up strolls this eager adolescent who wants to run his 100th level druid/illusionist/samurai -- don't scream at him. Young he is. Ignorant of everything you think is important about FRP he may be. This does not mean that he's either stupid or incompetant. Give him a chance.

         Just remember that you aren't going to convince him that your way is superior by insulting him. Nor will killing off his character, or cleverly finding a way to strip it of its magic, or ignoring him during the run. While I've seen all of the above used, in no case have they caused a conversion. Instead, you might try explaining things to him, or better yet showing him how Your Way is better...