One Year Since "Six Cultures of Play"

I meant to do this thread on April 6, but time this past week has gotten away from me. So, I guess it’s “a year +4 days.”

So… It’s been a year since RetiredAdventurer’s “Six Cultures of Play” post.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our initial discussion around this post was a landmark moment for our community (specifically, on the Discord). It helped us refine our ideas about “one-true-wayism” in RPGs and push back against the originalist fiction bound up with the OSR.

But, I’ve also seen hints of criticism here and there over the past year about where the post might be imprecise or get things wrong. So, I wanted to create a place for people to talk about that now that a year has passed and we’ve all had time to collect our thoughts.

I might have a little something to say about the post myself, but I’ll let others weigh in first. Ready… Set… Discuss!

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I had (and have) a lot of reservations about the essay.

On the plus side, I think the general outlines of the groups he identifies are real. We can split hairs about breaking things down further if we want or drawing the boundaries differently, but it provides a starting point and shared understanding for discussion.

On the negative side, I have three kinds of objections: (a) nitpicking about imprecision towards the groups he seems to have less direct experience with, (b) criticizing some of the choices he made in talking about these groups given his own stated goals of cultivating greater understanding, and (c) seeing a serious omission that, while we could argue might be outside of the scope of his discussion, leads to an overall warped take on things.

I’m not going to bother here with my (a) nitpicking.

With regard to (b), I think his bias against the gaming culture related to the Forge gets in the way of him trying to foster better understanding: the section on “Storygames” opens by bringing up what people who dislike them call these games, goes on to talk about how “obtuse” the theory discussions at the Forge were, brings up controversies without providing any context, and talks about how many arguments were generated by Forge-related discussions – as if the other kinds of gaming mentioned were free from haters, jargon, controversial statements, and arguments. It’s odd because he actually acknowledges he has a bias (against the theory at least), but then leans into it rather than trying to present that material as sympathetically as he does with the other groups.

Along those lines, I think something that he doesn’t emphasize enough, but which might help foster better understanding, is that individuals often belonged to more than one of these groups at a time and that in certain geographical/historical situations the overlap was quite strong (it was fairly common to see the same people at both “Storygame” and “OSR” events in New York City in the early 2010s; I would regularly bring both Fiasco and my OSR-inspired scenario for Gamma World 1st edition to organized play events at this time).

Regarding (c): I get that this is a blog post that is meant to sketch a broad outline, to foster understanding and discussion, and not to be the final statement on these issues, but leaving out any kind of economic history – as if these cultures developed independently of various economic forces and incentives – is a major distortion. For example, Gary Gygax’s denunciations of Dungeons & Beavers (among other denunciations he made) isn’t just about him arguing about differences in style, it was part of any attempt to create and solidify brand loyalty to the books and magazines his company was publishing. Similarly, I think it’s a distortion to talk about the Traditional culture/playstyle without acknowledging how tied up it is with publishers’ desires to sell books to GMs (“Here’s another adventure you can take your players through”). Contrariwise, the Forge was founded not to cultivate a specific playstyle but rather to promote creator owned design and publishing and the OSR is as much a rejection of the economics of corporate “Dungeons & Dragons” as it is of the approach to play.

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As someone who regularly talks to Retired Adventurer regularly and doesn’t always/often agree with him I find the essay extremely useful despite my own reservations.

It isn’t perfect, and I don’t think he’d say it is, but it gives a nice breakdown of some general trends (which of course have overlap and interaction within the larger RPG scene) – it’s a taxonomy, it can never adequately describe the complexity of actual social interactions and trends, but it can give us tools to think more critically about them in a time when corrosive fandom is increasingly the way people approach hobbies. It’s also not a taxonomy of players, games, or specific forums, but rather of “Cultures” – so general trends, shared vocabularies and overlapping communities within the larger community of RPGs.

To respond to @forager23, and with no intent to be critical, I know a lot of people in the larger story games community have made claims that the post is somehow derogatory towards the story games, misunderstands the Forge, shouldn’t link to the “Brain Damage” essay etc. They have often added it must therefore be wrong. I don’t feel it’s too nice about the kind of games I like either (Classic - though I am outside of the community, if that’s what KKA & /TG/OSRG are, as I can’t stand hateful grognards or Gygaxian fantasy) and I’ve heard OSR, Contemporary Traditional (what the post calls OC), and people associated with Nordic LARP get pretty mad as well. I do note that the essay has been edited to use “Story Games” rather then “Storygames” directly in response to a single story gamer who complained. I also note that others (Reddit I think? So ummm) then complained about the use of “Story game” rather then “Storygames”.

My point is that the essay rubs some members of most communities a bit raw, largely on small issues but I haven’t seen anyone either A) offer a constructive alternative structure B) disagree with the fundamental categories. There’s also constant dispute within cultures of play about what they constitute (It’s never worth it to ask “Is ITO/OD&D/2E AD&D/Mork Borg/ OSR?” in most self identified OSR spaces these days), so overall I think the essay does well.

I agree with the point that the cultures of play are tied into their history, economic conditions, specific creators and specific games. I’m positive Retired Adventurer would also, but perhaps he’d say these historical specifics are beyond the scope of the essay, and perhaps even beyond the scope of many of the cultures. Trad and Classic for example diverged precisely both because of different visions of and expectations of what RPGs could be and because Gygax wanted his style of design and his products to rule the hobby – but Trad ate TSR all the same. At this point the folks attempting to play Classic style games or design new rules focused on the same experience of play are long outside of any material conditions that helped produce them. Same with the OSR (or more specifically it’s successors) and presumably the post-Forge Story Game community.

I find the essay extremely useful in the sense that it helps separate play cultures from both play styles and the leading figures within those cultures, allowing for less heated discussions. In a time when a lot of the work and ideas that were created by the Mid-OSR (2010 - 2017) are lost to blog collapses, the death of G+ and people leaving the hobby, it seems helpful to have a framework to preserve or present them that is less tied to the contested legacy and meaning of the scene.

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To be clear, I’m not saying that I think it’s derogatory and therefore wrong. I’m saying it is comparatively less charitable in its portrait of the culture that came out of the Forge, and therefore does a bad job in terms of its own stated goal of fostering a better understanding among people from these groups.

That people who identify with other groups he talked about also were rubbed the wrong way doesn’t change the points I made about the comparatively more negative language used in his discussion of Storygames. The other descriptions show a good faith effort to understand those cultures on their own terms: the section on Storygames does not. That’s not surprising given that he admits a bias against aspects of that culture, but since he knew he had a bias it is, as I said, disappointing that he leans into it. (It’s also not surprising that someone who shares those biases would minimize these kinds of concerns).

Let me put it this way: the essay was obviously helpful for a lot of people in terms of how it differentiates Classic from OSR in a way that let them figure out their own relationship to those groups. I have yet to encounter anyone who felt it gave the similar insights into the relationship of The Forge derived culture to the other groups, and I think by taking such a negative slant it acts as a barrier to his stated goals of promoting cross-cultural conversation.

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My two cents is that I know of the article and the styles of play, but am myself not familiar enough with the terms to automatically use them. I instinctively fall back on the flawed “Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist” categories to try and describe things. It’s probably because I have less time to be on forums discussing things these days.

I was constantly online on forums when the GNS terms were being used. They were also the first categories I learned to try and describe styles of play, and thus it stuck, I guess. I probably should make an effort to incorporate these more modern styles/terms in my way of discussing RPG’s.

What I like about the GNS system though, is that you can use it as a sort of axis, where a game (or game experience) can be more or less of any of these three extremes. Or it could have aspects to it that are one, but not the other, etc. I’m not sure the Six Cultures of Play can be used like that this easily, as it seems to want to clearly define play styles/cultures, rather than giving a sort of spectrum on which your play style/culture can move around.

Dunno, first thoughts while drinking my coffee in the morning.

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In Six Cultures of Play, RetiredAdventurer specifically calls out that the essay is not about strict categories.

To quote:

When I first presented these on a forum, someone joked that I ought to create a quiz for people to determine which culture they belonged to, but I’d rather not. Truthfully, I think most individual gamers and groups are a blend of cultures, with that blend realised as an individual style. The play cultures are more like paradigms - they cohere at the level of value and reflection on what “excellent play” could mean (put more formally, they share teloi of play). To be a part of a play culture is in some sense the capacity to recognise when someone else is playing in accord with a set of values you share with them.

I personally like 6 cultures more when I talk about games bc it is rooted in real trends, while GNS is more theoretical and barebones view of rpgs.

Also, 6 cultures are really more about the culture of playing games, rather than pointing at specific games or individual experiences. Cultures are not boxes or spectrums in which games or players fit into. They are more like… well… cultures, they influence and inform the games texts written, and how those texts will be interpreted. Several cultures can influence a single text/player, and they can change over time of course.

To quote again:

My main purpose in the above taxonomy is to help people better understand that there are distinct paradigms of play that esteem different things, tho’ they can be sutured together (with all sorts of fun results) in concrete situations. I doubt this list is exhaustive, and there are probably cultures I’ve left out as well as ones that are yet to emerge. The purpose of the list is mainly to briefly illustrate that there are many different values of play, and to discuss the logic animating some of the more well-known ones.

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That’s an interesting point, the old GNS essays are still absolutely worth a read, but I think that by virtue of their age alone they are less useful at looking at the RPGs of 2022.

“System Matters” came out in 1999 and the rest of the Edwards essays in 2000 or 2001. All derived from a couple years of discussion on forums during the late 90’s. Over 20 years ago. Looking at the GNS essays in 2022 is the same as looking back at the 1979 AD&D DMG for insight on how to play Dogs in the Vineyard. There’s fascinating stuff there, but also a profound amount of change and design in the space between the two.

The conflict between GNS/Forge/Story design and OSR design is one of the things that continues to annoy me about RPG discourse, and I think part of it is Edward’s fault, but if one wants to distribute blame there’s plenty to go around. What’s so frustrating is that (at least coming from the Classic design space) there are useful mechanics, interesting idea and a lot of inspiration to be had from story games, Edwards project and the OSR project seem to me to be fundamentally the same - to move away from the design elements of late 90’s early aughts “Trad”, but there’s not a shared way of discussing games, and there’s so much old scene drama to pick through, which can make it hard.

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The first place I was introduced to this Six Cultures of Play post was here, on this forum.

I am definitely of like mind with @forager23. I think the post is MORE negative and condescending towards story games than it is to the other cultures. I don’t think it gives a good way forward to understand the perspectives of folks who like story games.

To be perfectly honest, I read the blog post and forgot it and discounted it BECAUSE of how poorly it treated story games.

I was not in the online scene of TTRPGs when The Forge was active. I have no love and no nostalgia for it. Was also not a participant of the later story games forum either. But I would say that the games I enjoy most are often called story games.

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Totally agree. I think that there is a lot similarity between those two cultures. I think that a lot of folks can enjoy playing in the other culture (or in both).

I also absolutely think there are some fundamental differences about what is prioritized and ends up in the game texts. I think those differences stem from a few fundamental differences in design philosophy. But again few differences, mostly agree.

To me, it FEELS like when two subsects of the same religion are fighting and arguing. They agree on a lot, but are very very vocal about the small minor differences.

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My problems with that article are… many :sweat_smile:
First, I don’t find the subdivision into cultures particularly “useful”. It’s interesting, and it presents a couple of ideas that I personally found novel and noteworthy.

But overall it feels, to me at least, extremely messy and confusing in its focus, chaotically talking at the same time of broad “cultures” and individual “styles” and concrete games and design theory… as if it was all the same. Sometimes he tries to untangle things a bit, but it’s not very effective.

Then there is the matter of the glaring bias, which is quite vexing to me as it reads as quite superficial, misinformed and misinformative. To hell with meaningless details such as “storygames” vs “story games”, there are much more serious problems with what he writes :stuck_out_tongue:

As a result, I feel like the article simply puts more fuel on the conflict already mentioned by @GusL and @yoshi. The 6 cultures become a reinforcement of the idea that deep dividing lines really do separate people in the hobby, drawing away attention from more concrete and researchable points of analysis.

For an example of what I mean, I could share an essay I wrote for my studies, where I analyse the cybernetic relationship between players and rulebooks: how rulebooks affect player behaviour (thus culture) and vice versa how play culture and behavior in turn affect how new rulebooks are made.
I’ll leave it here, in case anyone is interested:

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I agree, and it used to be very frustrating to me - not that people played their games differently, but that there seemed to be an inability or unwillingness to understand where Classic play was coming from many n the Story scene and vice versa. I think that has improved, most people who are involved in either space now at least understand the goals and methods of the other scene are different then their own aiming at delivering a different play experience. Though at the same time the OSR has crumbled, shattered, or bloomed into a wide variety of things and I suspect (but am not in the know) that the Story space has plenty of subgroups (maybe not atomized as the post-OSR).

It would be interesting to map how subgroups in both areas relate: e.g. rules heavy v. rules light etc.

Perhaps we’re ripe for the first “StOSry” crossover hit? Is it Trophy Gold? Will it be someone else’s hybrid or something entirely new?

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I would love for there to be a game that is a great crossover. Though, to be honest I am not holding my breath waiting for it. This is because, to me, one of the big differences that actually exists between those two cultures is what is of value to put in a game text. So a game text is actually one of the harder places for those two groups to meet. I think you can absolutely have campaigns, sessions, games that have crossover… but as soon as you try to put a text out for it, that’s where you hit some of those differences.

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I also find the article suffers from someone outside a scene trying to write about it in a way that doesn’t feel like they are missing something important or subtle. But on the whole I think it was pretty informative and good. The section on OC/Neo-trad was maybe the most interesting to me. The article feels like a good jumping off point for other discussion if people feel the post is weak. The beauty of the internet is someone else can show up and do it better. I’m sure John would be happy to see that.

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I’m going to regret this post, but there it is.
Please use charitable reading, as I am expressing personal opinions meant with the most positive of intentions :heart:

This is what baffles me. I agree. But I can’t honestly figure out why things are like they are. Or rather, I have an opinion about that, but I’m afraid it is mostly critical of OSR idiosyncrasies than anything else :sweat_smile:

If we consider as “OSR” only what this nice article explains ( LINK ) then there is no possible dialogue. OSR is the production of new material for old D&D rulesets. Period.

If instead we go past that… into the “OSR” that is open to modifying or reinventing those original rulesets, and even flat out creating new originals that aim at the Classic play experience without necessarily sticking to the Classic designs… then yes, there could and should be A LOT of cross-pollination.
Especially with the young NSR :smiley:

But here is where the cultural problems come into play, in my opinion :frowning:

Modern rpg design (I can’t bear myself to call it storygame design, considering that “stories” are a minimal part of the whole picture) is simply about designing rules that represent, as best they can, what really happens at the table.
This way, when you use those rules, the play experience that happens at the table is the one promised by the game. And vice versa, the closer play activity sticks to the rules as written, the better it will produce the play experience everyone expects and hopes for.

For this reason, the focus of the rules, the thing they describe and model, has shifted away from the impossible task of representing directly all of the imaginable diegetic minutiae (the idea that “rules can’t cover everything” is correct) to instead explain and model the real actions and interactions among Players… with only marginal attention to some diegetic minutiae if and when they are of particular importance to achieve some specific game effect, some specific play experience.

Also, one basic concept is that human brains are quite crappy at judging odds and probabilities, especially when personal interests are involved, while they are exceedingly good at judging what feels reasonable and sensible. So rules should focus on handling the first (resolving conflicts) while letting people freely do what they do best naturally, only interfering to achieve a specific effect (promoting a certain kind of fiction rather than another).

The problem is, we are all talking about “rules”, but truly we are talking about quite different concepts.

CONTENT WARNING
I am going to express pretty critical opinions about how I see the current situation with the RPG Cultures. They are my personal, albeit informed, opinions. I’m happy to discuss about them. And to change them.

  • OSR and Trad games say “rules” and think about the die size to roll on an attack. Or the “stats” they need in order to measure any given diegetic minutia they care to list into the rulebook.

  • At the same time they refuse to consider GM/Player behaviour. It is a sin to teach people how to play a specific game. But this is necessary knowledge, which ends up being provided by “the culture”.
    Interestingly Classic and therefore OSR culture (and, guess what, FKR) have super strict cultural dictats and traditions. A whole rulebook of quite inflexible rules that determine if you are for real or just a n00b poser that is having “wrong fun” … but hey, as long as they are unwritten, we are happy to have them. So we can still crap on how “rules” are obstacle to play

  • Modern games say “rules” and think about how GM and Players should behave, and then which mechanics can trick them into doing exactly that, as effortlessly and with as much satisfaction as possible. This can, among many other things, also mean thinking about which die to roll for an attack.

This sends me crawling up a wall when considering how, actually, Classic designs had many elements in common with the Modern approach! :smiley:

Classic designs were too new. RPGs were still finding their own identity, a bit wargames, a bit narration, a bit whatever else they might be. There was no “culture” about how to write rules for a non-hardcore audience. So some stuff is unclear. A lot of other stuff was not made explicit because of course people in the know didn’t need it to be spelled out. And some were maybe just botched experiments, or unwieldy formulations, etc.
But some seeds where there!

Consider some examples…

The Classic rules giving XPs for Gold. XP for cash? It’s unrelated! It’s unrealistic!
Yes, from a diegetic point of view that may be the case.
But the point was not to be realistic at all costs.
The point was to manipulate Player behaviour by rewarding the activities the designer deemed more important and desirable for active play to match their vision of how the game should be.
This is effing Modern, if you ask me :stuck_out_tongue:

And again, the whole existence of clearly defined procedures to run dungeon explorations. Have a look at this video by Questing Beast ( LINK ).
One detail among many: dungeon doors will always close after Players pass them, unless specific resources are spent to prevent it. While at the same time doors will always be open for all dungeon dwellers, be they monsters, animals or people.
Unrealistic!
Yes, but “WHO CARES?!” … these mechanics are effective at shaping the table experience of a dungeon crawl in the way the designer wants, so they are in the rulebook.

Not all are perfect, not all are effective, today we can surely come up with better ways to achieve the same result (or can we? :wink: ) but the underlying design philosophy is quite clear, and feels pretty similar to the Modern one.

The cultural damage and disconnect comes, in my opinion, due to the decades of Trad design that followed the Classic era.
Incoherent design focusing on the impossible task of simulating all the diegetic minutiae of a boundless imagined reality… while also not providing much needed explanations on how to play, exactly, this one game in your hands.
Of course they stand in the way!
Of course they require someone (usually the GM) to “fix” them on the fly, to add their own design work to plug the holes the rulebook has.

THIS affected the people that, amidst the Trad culture, thought it would be cool to revive the Old School. When rules felt like they were not in the way.
This fostered the later trend towards minimalism, although it was never really part of Classic designs.

Fix the OSR and NSR cultural bias against “rules” and I see no obstacle in them crossing streams with Modern designs. They are already very similar (if not identical) things :slight_smile:

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It’s much more of a difference in semantics than an actual underlying philosophical difference (in my opinion):

One group uses “rules” to mean only the mechanical instrumentation as detailed in the text.

The other group uses “rules” to mean the mechanical instrumentation as detailed in the text as well as all of the other procedures needed to make play go.

The first group also has those procedures, but they don’t call them rules and push back against the idea of them as rules because that has become part of the group identity.

On the other hand, many people in the second group look at a perfectly good procedure/rule like “in circumstances not otherwise covered by these mechanics, the DM makes a principled decision to say what happens” and say it is deficient or lacking in some way. That also leads to a breakdown in communication between the groups.

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to me it is a difference in goals.

Story game (or modern) culture of play focuses on minimizing ludo-narrative dissonance. As you say, rules dictate what happens at the table, and ideally they deliver the promised experience.

OSR culture tends to focus on providing a challenge to the players. The challenges are based on player ingenuity, so they are not coded into rule sets. Instead, the rules provide the ‘worst case scenarios’, like rolling saves or combat. In the OSR games that I play, I almost never engage with the rules, because our play is outside of it’s boundaries (solving challenges with player skill).

This is where the weirdness of combining the two cultures in a rules text begins for me. One focuses on maximizing the usefulness of rules at the table, while the other tries to minimize it.

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This is an example of what I see as a semantic difference: it doesn’t matter if we’re playing (nominally) Apocalypse World or (nominally) Tunnel Goons: someone (in the case of both these games it’s the same someone - the GM) has to come up with background information, create NPCs, play the opposition, say where everyone starts, manage the passage of time (as well as a bunch of other stuff). That the Apocalypse World text is explicit about the rules/procedures related to these responsibilities and the Tunnel Goons text is silent about all this doesn’t really matter: the Tunnel Goons group will still need to come to some understanding (which may be unspoken and implicit) about what rules/procedures they are using to handle those responsibilities. We can generalize to say that the OSR (and similar traditions) offloads a lot of the necessary rules/procedures to play to an oral/written tradition that has been transmitted to a certain extent outside of game texts (and when present in game texts is presented as “advice” and not rules/procedures).

This is an important cultural difference: however, it is not an actual philosophical difference when it comes to actual play at the table. Any successful instance of play requires we’re using rules/procedures that tell us who gets to say what about what as well as telling us what it is that constrains any statements they make. At the table, it doesn’t matter if some of those procedures are coming straight from the text and some of them are coming from advice from Chris McDowall’s blog.

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Can we select a different way to phrase this?

To me, this feels patronizing and overly negative, especially as a way to classify a group.

I am not saying that this perspective is incorrect or not valid, but if we are going to classify a group let’s not use a double negative and instead use a positive phrase.

For me, I am a fan of, “story game (or modern) culture of play aims to have rules, procedures, and text that support players for that style of story”.

To me, these mean basically the same thing, but one is a double negative and one is positive.

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I’m all for using the terms that make people comfortable talking about things, but I’m not sure if the definition offered helps because I think we could say the same thing about OSR/Post-OSR or even Classic play?

The distinction I take from @mayv’s post is the question of how appeals to tools of play work, including but not limited RAW, house rules, unwritten rules, individual referee stare decisis, and procedures (“Rules”). In both cases, providing the game is well designed, the Rules function to direct play in certain ways, the distinctions seems to be A) what ways (this is not the important one here though) B) the mechanism involved.

In a classic style “challenge” game the Rules form a sort of a baseline set of scenarios for action, and are often potentially punitive, because the challenges are designed to provide challenge, requiring novel solutions, and the standard solutions are encompassed by the Rules. The players goal (and part of the ludic joy of play) is to figure out alternatives to the puzzles/challenges that largely avoid the standard solutions and the so Rules, or tilt the Rules into the players favor. The Rules are useful as guidelines and baselines, but the key to success is to interact with them as little as possible, to present alternatives for the referee alone to adjudicate, and to have sufficiently supported your alternatives with fiction so the referee must rule in the players favor. This is also why Classic style rule sets tend towards expansiveness, and seek to cover wide numbers of genres and situations - because the referee or designer wants to offer a wide variety of challenges.

I don’t believe this is how Rules function in story game design. I also understand that the goal of play is less puzzle solving and more crafting a narrative that follows the genre of the game. The Rules are focused on facilitating the specific genre and tend to

So in one culture of play the aim is challenge, the other narrative – these are themselves obviously complex, freighted, terms worthy of their own discussions, and no game is entirely one or the other, these a general cultural goals, not exclusive ones. The way the Rules function within the cultures though is also different, Classic design used rules largely to fence in player problem solving while Story design uses them most often to support or encourage specific player actions that better follow the genre/type of narrative.

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You are absolutely correct that Rules in story game design are not focused exclusively on challenge play. You are correct that the goal of play is not puzzle solving. From my experience story game play is often setup to avoid puzzle solving, if you end up doing puzzle solving your in a fail state of story game play.

Okay, so I am confused. But I think this is a confusion of communication. I think we are on the same page.

To me, “rules, procedures, and text” is more specific and clear than “Rules”.
To me, “facilitating the specific genre” is equivalent to “supports players for that style of story”.
To me, “supports players” is more clear than “facilitating”.
To me, “specific style of story” is better than “genre” because some games my trying to tell a story in a specific style that is not a well defined genre.

So, to me, those two statements say the same thing, only I like my wording better than the wording you chose.