- Solo unstructured. This is where the player reads, imagines or writes about his character or the world without using any kind of pre-defined structure.
- Solo structured. This is where the player uses mechanics, whether in-game-based or more widely defined ones, to create or manipulate characters or aspects of the world under his control.
- Group unstructured. This is basically roleplaying where you aren't using any kind of system beyond UNSPECIFIED social and creative contracts. The talking part of roleplaying.
- Group structured. This is where the players interact with the setting space via the system provided, either by the rulebook or EXPLICITLY by the GM or other players.
Obviously the lines between these groups can be blurred. If you call your GM and ask him if you can have a motorbike, then go back to drawing a picture of it, you are only barely entering Group Unstructured for a moment. Likewise a lot of indie games like to blur the lines between structured and unstructured (while others try to make them far more explicit, sometimes to the point of all-but eliminating Group Unstructured play). But these are still useful categories.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about people who buy games but never play them, and how this could be a negative thing in terms of design trends. It occurs to me that since there are four basic methods of interaction, it might be said better for design to spread our attention around equally. However I think that - perhaps without even knowing it - a lot of RPG design has been doing this from the beginning. I know one of the things I loved about Palladium games, one of the things that got me into roleplaying, was their constant attention to Solo Structured play, beyond even chargen. Superhero games also tend to focus on chargen and that, I hazard is a huge part of their popularity (because, as even comics tend to show, hero/villain origins are often more appealing to read than hero fighting villain stories). To rephrase, people like supers games because they offer double the experience - a game they can play with others and a game they can play with themselves. I know I bought M&M SOLELY WITH THE INTENT of enjoying it solo, both structured and unstructured.
So design, for both commercial and enjoyment reasons, is pretty much on page with this. However, as with Forge ideas, I wonder what could be done if such dedication was made more explicit. Could we go back to designing games, as there once were, that fully cater for the first two categories, including ways to play solo (I loved the choose-your-own-adventure intro in Paranoia, it was brilliant)? Could we design games that actively cut out the latter categories, and almost entirely focus on the first two? Would anyone buy an RPG that didn't play well with others?
Conventional computer game wisdom is that Space Invaders far out-sold Pong because Pong required you to have friends, and computer gamers generally don't. What can we learn from this? Is the next financial juggernaut of the RPG industry going to learn from WoW and other MMORPGs, and finally remove the terrible impediment most people have with roleplaying: the horror of finding a group?
I'd like to see that.