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RPG (Role-Playing Game) Research - How To Use Knowledge of Role-Playing Game Play Styles

How To Use Knowledge of Role-Playing Game Play Styles - Beware current popularity leading to increased "Balkanization"

 · 3 min read



From the Role-playing Game Professional exam: 

QUESTION: If you know your players’ play style preferences, despite the current pop-culture trends in recent years, decades of research and evidence-in-practice shows that the best approach, especially for long-term campaigns, is that you should not (a) _________ different play styles.

The GM needs to ensure that all of the players (b) ____________ play styles are being (c) ______________.

The best solution is to encourage (d) ______________ of play styles at the table not (e) “_____________ by fiat”.


There are many player variables that impact the RPG experience, including cooperative attitude, Aphantasia, and a willingness to suspend disbelief.  However, one of the most powerful impacts, especially for long-term campaigns, regards mixing diverse play versus matching play styles.

In recent years, popular on social media and streaming media, are those who claim when you know your player's play styles, you should match all players with the same play styles together in a group.

While that is the “easier” approach for the GM, it is not the optimal approach for the best RPG experience, and indeed is downright harmful to the RPG industries and communities as a whole.

Instead, the best approach is a well-rounded variety of play styles in the group, which the other players all respect even if they don’t share, and a GM that does an excellent job balancing the adventures to give them all opportunities to shine. This mixture also grows all the other players, expanding their horizons, from their interaction with others from very different perspectives. This is basically another form of illustrating the benefits of allowing diversely different viewpoints to work together, rather than segregate.

To an extreme we see this enhanced benefits for everyone running sessions and programs that include even more of a “melting pot” approach to mixing group members toegher rather than the unfortunately increasing “Balkanization” approach we're seeing as people become more polarized politically and otherwise, including:

  • Mixed ethnic groups

  • Rival gang members

  • Mixed age groups (with some caveats)

To illustrate this to the extreme, we have run programs with high-risk and incarcerated populations from rival groups/gangs, and highly combative racial, even racist, divides, learning how to set aside their preconceptions and work together successfully. Games with all of the following at the same table: Native American, Vietnamese, Black, Mexican, Columbian, neo-nazi white supremacists, and rival gangs, all at the same table together! All setting aside their issues and working well together cooperatively through the TRPG experience! This is an extreme example we have experienced, but it is important to note for the more subtle and less risky debate about mixed play styles.

It IS very helpful for a GM to know the play styles of all the players, to make sure no one is left out, it is not so important for the players to know this in advance. As the group goes through the forming phase, they will lean about each other’s differences, strengths, weaknesses, etc., stumbling through the storming phases, and trying to find a means to reach norming, and in the hopes of eventually achieving the performing group dynamics.


Other important considerations:

  • Cooperative attitude (compared to competitive, combative, domineering, or entitled (you must entertain me)), willing to forgive gaps or mistakes of the other players and especially the GM, because understands it is a group cooperative effort, rather than “you are all here to entertain me” entitlement attitude.

  • Willingness to suspend disbelief

  • The multi-sensory “visualization” strengths and weaknesses (aphantasia can greatly reduce the experience for the player, and frustrate other players due to their either constant confusion or seeming lack of engagement).

  • CRITICALLY IMPORTANT, ESPECIALLY FOR LONG-TERM CAMPAIGN OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE: Mixed play styles (either within the player, or between the different player’s styles). Mono-play-style groups end up having lower and lower enjoyment and immersion scores, compared to well-managed (by GM) and well-integrated (by players group) variety of play styles. Avoid “Balkanization”!




Hawke Robinson

A Washington State Department of Health Registered Recreational Therapist with a background in Therapeutic Recreation, computer science, neuroscience, cognitive neuropsychology, research psychology, nursing, play therapy, education, and role-playing gaming.
Hawke Robinson has been involved with role-playing games in community settings since 1977. Studying methods for optimizing the experience of role-playing games since 1979. A paid professional game master since 1982. Studying the effects of role-playing games upon participants since 1983. Providing role-playing games in educational settings and for educational goals since 1985. Working with incarcerated populations since 1989. Researching and using role-playing games to achieve therapeutic goals for a wide range of populations from 2 years old through senior adults since 2004.
Founder and CEO of the non-profit 501(c)3 charitable research and human services organization, RPG Research.
Founder and President of the for-profit <https://rpgtherapy.com">RPG Therapeutics LLC and RPG.LLC.
Author of the RPG Professional Workbook available on Amazon.
Creator of the wheelchair accessible RPG Mobile fleet.
Founder of the RPG Museum.

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