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Oh this image makes me smile. Our poor, adorable hero seems to be having a tough time of it, no matter the story.

I tend to prefer playing Man vs. Nature stories, but i suppose that is because they are traditional, and straight-forward and mostly cooperative. I have way less gaming experience than most of my friends. I’ve only played for a couple of years. Many of my friends have played for over a decade. I’m told that I’ll eventually grow out of that, and find these stories rote and predictable.

I’m supposed to evolve into preferring Man vs. Man stories. Now to be fair, most of the games I run are Man vs. Man, but not Player vs. Player. I’m still attached to the idea of a cohesive party that works together more than it works against itself, but often players find the most interesting characters to be the ones embroiled in PvP conflict. And I suppose I can at least get behind the idea that NPCs make more interesting villains than an animal that attacks randomly. It’s much more satisfying if there is a mastermind behind it that you can stop.

Man vs. Self stories I find work very well in LARP settings, but I have trouble implementing them in tabletops. In a LARP, everyone is the hero of their own story, and the stories run simultaneously and somewhat independent of each other. This avoids the situation where Man vs. Self plots that don’t involve anyone else in the party take up significance screen time in a tabletop. One solution is to parallel the problem for every party member. Together they have to deal with their doppelgangers or some such. A more interesting, and long term solution, is to have the plot impact the other party members. A character battling depression is one thing. A character battling depression who tells his therapist everything and whose therapist is selling the secrets to the enemy is another matter entirely. Alternately, these Man vs. Self plots can be explored in solo sessions, but those add significant time investment to the game, especially for a GM with multiple plots that require solo sessions to address.

Man vs. Dice is at first glance just a tongue in cheek comment on the bad luck that sometimes stalks gamers. Some days the dice apparently refuse to follow the laws of randomness, and repeatedly roll crit-fails. These situations lead to some great stories later, but in the moment, are no fun at all. Hence our little hero in the image is managing to shoot himself with his own arrow, a feat that would not normally be possible.

There is a more meaningful version of this phenomenon that reflects the discrepancy between player knowledge and character knowledge.  We call it “meta-knowledge” when the players know things the characters don’t, but I don’t have a term for the reverse. I personally know next to nothing about linguistics for example. But I might have a character that is very knowledgeable of such things. In this case, I roll dice to represent my character’s knowledge. Equivalently, my character might be a great detective, but I am not so clever as a player. I might roll my “investigation” skill or if we’re playing Mage the Ascension, “enigmas” or “occult” to try to have key insights into solving a problem.

To take this one step further, dice rolling is our preferred mechanism for abstracting actions. We abstract a lot of things, from mortal combat to extended investigations. In all of these cases, it is a matter of Man vs. Dice for how successful the endeavor, or at least how long it takes to complete.

And lastly, we come to Man vs. DM. Again, the illustration suggests the humorous interpretation that a player or character has pissed off the GM and the GM conceives of a situation the character is not supposed to be able to escape from or succeed at – presumably as a punishment. I won’t say I am completely above such actions; I have definitely stacked decks in favor of certain outcomes. But I do hope my players do not think me that unfair.

As with the previous concept, there is another version of Man vs. DM that bears discussion. There is definitely a style of play in which the DM presents the party with a problem, and the players go about finding the solution, and then figure out how to implement the solution as characters. In such a situation, players may be expected to tap into meta-knowledge  (or expected to resist that temptation) or at least a more objective and “whole picture” view than the characters have access to.

This is definitely the kind of story I shy away from the most. I am simply not clever enough to create a story with the fundamental nature of being a puzzle for the players. If I tried to do that, it would either be self-contradictory or trivial for the players to solve. Instead, mild versions of this form naturally simply because the players don’t have all of the information. It seems a player’s nature to be curious, and to speculate about what they don’t yet know.

And so we come to the not-so-surprising conclusion that a good campaign should incorporate all of these types of stories. Well integrated, each one lends important aspects to the story being told.