A Party of Adventurers is a Troupe of Investigators Exploring

Howdy, Adventurers. I started this blog because statements like “I believe a good game depends on the GM” seemed so wrong to me. Just do the math. A typical game table has 5 people around the table; 4 are players, the other is the GM. If four-fifths of the table are doing nothing, the GM just created the background, theme, mood and setting for a novel without the actions of characters. What is the responsibility of the players to the setting?

Let’s start from the top. What do the players do? With such a fundamental question, it’s best to start with some basic definitions.

Play Approaches

Party: A party is a gathering of people invited by a host for socializing, conversation and recreation.
Troupe: A troupe is a group of performers, aka a cast of characters. This term takes on a special definition in RPGs: in “troupe play” the traditional GM responsibilities are spread among the players. This is the core of collaborative roleplaying, in which every player has an equal share of creative agency.

Adventurer: An Adventurer is someone who undergoes exciting activities and faces great physical, financial, psychological or social risks. Adventurers prefer fast-paced games with encounters every half hour, games in which dice and heads frequently roll. Adventurous players can help keep the pace up by keeping their characters moving and doing things all the time.
Investigator: An Investigator is a researcher, often of crime or strange activities. This approach favors slower adventures in which most encounters are social, with maybe one or two conflicts per session. Investigative players need to be paying attention, and interacting both in and out of character to gather information that will reveal the hidden aspects of the GM’s story.
Explorer: Exploration is the act of searching, for the purpose of discovering new things. As you can probably guess, this approach is rather like a mixture of the previous two. In an exploration scenario, action occurs as we stumble into dangerous new territory. We pull out our notebooks as we dine… with new aliens. This is the most “sandboxy” of all the approaches. Exploratory players need to have natural curiosity of both the big pictures and small details of the world… what they seek is the new.
You can get all this off the Internet if you don’t trust me.
What does this really matter to you? Let’s take some time and think about it. If you let me muddy the water a bit by mixing metaphors we can get started. Let’s split that list into two halves.

Socially-Oriented Characters

What I see in the first half – the first two definitions - are two different styles of group play which are focused around socially-oriented activity. In the first, if you consider the GM as the host you can imagine how much pressure they’re under to make everyone happy, and how there might often be a lack of participation on the part of the guests/players.

(Sure, it’s true that sometimes you have a rocking host who doesn’t mind cooking, bartending and entertaining, but personally I’m a bigger fan of the potluck BYOB party. And that’s how I see troupe play: everyone works together to make the gathering a success. Throughout this blog I will argue for something close to the troupe style of play, because it requires more skillful players. But enough of that for now.)

Setting-Oriented Characters

Let’s turn our attention to the second half of the list. Notice that all those other terms define people of action. That’s the really important bit. Yes, we could play business people who hang out in towers or we could dither around in a sandbox, but it’s not exciting unless a thief steals your IP or your gold purse. If you’re in a sandbox, you need to find the action, right? Regardless of the group’s approach, we need action to move the story forward.

Looking closely at these three types of action people, you quickly notice that each seems to fit a certain gaming genre or setting more than others. For instance I see the “adventurer” type best suited for the fantasy genre - whether heroic or high fantasy. The “investigator” type seems to be ideal for spy stories, crime dramas or modern-age horror. When I think of “explorers” I think of deep space and people boldly discovering new worlds. You can probably think of others, but you can see how each type falls easily into a genre or type of setting.

Getting It Straight from the Start

As a group, we players should discuss which approach and activity we wish to pursue when sitting down to begin a new campaign. By getting this out on the table, so to speak, the group ensures that the resulting gameplay will fit closer to the players’ own objectives and styles. This in turn will have a direct effect on the players’ understanding and enjoyment of the campaign setting.

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