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Author Topic: What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?  (Read 839 times)

Steven Mitchell

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I'm primarily interested in this question from the D&D perspective, but to the extent other fantasy RPGs overlap with it, they'll do too. Nor do I care exactly which edition you use or even various clones, though I think the activities shift some.  By "core activities" I'm talking about the major categories of things that characters routinely do.  Some things are too niche to be core, even if they do come up a lot.  Some things are too broad, in that almost all characters do them constantly--such as taking damage from creatures, the environment, etc.  A good way to think about it is that if your character had to choose to be good at one core activity at the expense of another, which ones would get serious consideration?  Or what would be your list such that you would consider it a notable opportunity cost to not have one?

This is a fuzzy question because if I knew how to ask it better, I wouldn't need to ask it. All I can do is give an approximation of my incomplete answer as a means to illustrate the question:

- Fighting monsters with weapons is probably in.  Ranged different enough to think of it differently?
- Casting spells -- sure.  Is it one category, or is it Arcane/Divine, or is it something else?
- Finding treasure and hauling it out for reasons -- in to iffy depending on edition?
- Running from monsters, hiding from monsters, talking to monsters -- probably in as one form or another but the nature changes quite a bit?
- Finding and avoiding traps and other hazards -- too niche?
- "Exploring" -- too broad!  Maybe if broken down somehow.  Wilderness and Dungeon (and to a lesser extent City and Seafaring) are the traditional categories. Though I think it is probably more likely "Dungeon" and "Everything Else".
- Politics and Intrigue -- when it is in, it is really in, but often it isn't.
- Followers -- see previous entry.

Finally, is this asking a wrong-headed question?  That is, is the act of classifying all the core activities likely to suck the magic out of all the oddball things that D&D characters do?

VisionStorm

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #1 on: June 29, 2020, 12:08:26 AM »
Last things first; to the degree that I understand the question (it's a bit oddly laid out and not sure how specific or general you want an answer), I believe that it's a useful question from a design POV as well as a GMing one. From a design POV it tells you what you should focus on when coming up with character abilities and certain rules (combat, chases, social, etc.). And from a GMing POV it tells you what sort of activities you should keep in mind when writing adventures and coming up with different types of scenarios and potentially challenges.

In terms general categories, some stuff that comes to mind includes:

  • Combat: Personal (Melee/Grappling/Ranged use different rules), Vehicle and Siege.
  • Magic: Spell Casting, Ritual Casting, Magic Research, Enchantment, Astral Projection/Trance Work (not common in D&D, but relevant to mystical work and some games). Personally I don't like the Arcane/Divine split and don't really think they're functionally district enough to be different activities.
  • Crafting: Build, Repair, Design, Cooking, Engineering, Create Medicine, Create Drugs, Create Poison.
  • Subterfuge: Scouting, Infiltration, Disable Devices, Sleight of Hand (Pickpocket, Slip, Palm), Sneaking, Assassination, Trailing/Stalking.
  • Investigation: Spot/Notice, Trap Finding, Secret Doors, Tracking, etc.
  • Travel: Foot, Mounted, Ground Vehicles, Water Vehicles, Space Vehicles. Focused on time/distance and special happenstance.
  • Chases: Same sub-categories as travel, but with round to round contested rolls.
  • Device Use: Magical or Technological.
  • Exploration: Dungeoneering, Navigation, Orienteering, Trailblazing.
  • Medicine: Stabilize, Treat Injuries, Treat Disease, Treat Toxin, Treat Psychosis.
  • Social: Trade, Negotiation, Diplomacy, Interrogation.
  • Animal Handling: Tame, Train, Calm.
And probably other stuff that I'm forgetting right now. Some of this stuff could narrowed further or refined. Maybe made into broader categories as well, but it wasn't entirely clear from the OP how broad or narrow specifically this needed to be.
« Last Edit: June 29, 2020, 12:13:00 AM by VisionStorm »

Steven Mitchell

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #2 on: June 29, 2020, 12:43:59 AM »
VisionStorm, it is where to draw the lines on too broad and too narrow that is prompting the question.  

For example, I like a lot of the items in your list, but I'd say Animal Handling is usually too narrow.  Lots of players would give up that entire category for their characters in a typical D&D game, and they wouldn't think twice about it.  Whereas Medicine is maybe a little narrow, but it's not so open and shut in my mind.  That's one where the players want someone and a backup to have it, but they all don't necessarily want it bad enough to give up something to get it.

Though I suppose a better way to ask it is perhaps from the party approach, not the character.  Medicine is questionable as a character core activity but fairly strong as a party core activity.  That's where the "someone has to play the cleric" mindset comes in.

I'm considering this from both design, GM perspective, and players building characters perspective.

VisionStorm

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #3 on: June 29, 2020, 01:40:48 AM »
In that case I would say that "Animal Handling" is a subset of "Interaction" (Social), and could probably be placed along with other "social" activities, since it basically involves a type of interaction, but with animals. Maybe "Interaction" would be a more appropriate name for that category in that case, since having "animal handling" inside a "social" category might seem weird.

For Medicine the best broader category I can think of is "Support", which would also include buffer effects (which may sometimes overlap with Magic, but then again so does "medicine" if it's from healing spells) or any type of party aid.

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #4 on: June 29, 2020, 06:52:52 AM »
Interaction between the DM and the players. That's the essence of it.
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Steven Mitchell

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #5 on: June 29, 2020, 09:04:24 AM »
Quote from: bryce0lynch;1136915
Interaction between the DM and the players. That's the essence of it.

I'd say that's the core activity of the players (and the DM).  It's not the core activity of the characters.  Or is that your way of voting for my last option of the question is the wrong one to ask? :)

Chris24601

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #6 on: June 29, 2020, 09:28:32 AM »
It seems like what you're looking for is basically a skill list; not too detailed (i.e. not so trivial that it's not worth selecting; see your example of animal handling), but not to general either (i.e. your question about whether ranged is sufficiently distinct from melee combat to a separate item).

So, in that vein I'll just give you what my game uses...

Six Attributes with a dozen abilities and skill in weapons, armor and implements.

- Strength (no abilities; determines load, climb/jump/swim speed and is default for melee attacks*).

- Endurance (Fitness** ability; also determines your deep reserves of stamina used to keep going and fuel powerful spells).

- Reflexes (Acrobatics and Stealth• abilities; default for ranged attacks).

- Wits (Insight••, Medicine and Nature abilities; also used for primal magic).

- Intellect (Arcana, Culture and Engineering• abilities; also used for wizard and gadgeteering magic).

- Presence (Deceit, Intimidate and Persuade abilities; also used for astral magic).

* Fighter classes learn to use light melee weapons using Reflexes and to use bows using Strength (easier to aim when you can actually hold the draw weight for more than a second). Non-warriors are stuck using the defaults

** Fitness is endurance-based because it is mainly used to push past your normal limits of Strength and to resist fatigue, hold your breath and resist environmental extremes.

• Rather than have a specific "thief skill", sleight of hand/picking pockets is a function of stealth while picking locks and disabling traps is a function of Engineering. Climb, Hide/Move Silently and Find Traps have been separated out for awhile.

•• Perception as a skill you can train is silly to me. Your eyes see what they see, your ears hear what they hear. What you're training is your Insight; your ability to recognize what you're sensing as important and recall details of your environment. This is equally good at reading cues from people.

The above array has covered everything I've ever had a playtester attempt. Note that the reason weapons and magic aren't just abilities like Fitness, Arcana or Insight is because I've siloed the combat and non-combat options into classes and backgrounds respectively. Abilities are gained from your background (along with benefits called boons you gain as you level up; this includes non-combat spells), while skill with weapons and attack spells is gained from your class.

Classes are broken down into two groups; Fighters and Spellcasters;

Fighter classes are Brigand, Captain, Defender, Disabler, Mastermind, Sentinel, Sharpshooter, Slayer and Striker. Each class also chooses a combat style (Strong, Swift or Berserker) and combat focus (Daring, Tactical or Wary).

Spellcasting classes are Abjurer, Benedictor, Empowered, Interdictor, Maledictor and Summoner. They also pick a spellcasting path (Astral, Gadeteering, Primal or Wizardry) and each path has sub-subpaths (astral has the faithful, militant and zealous paths; gageteers have the big lug, monkeywrencher, troubleshooter and mad genius; primal has covenant and sorcerous origin with patron spirits that are either potent, swift, clever or insightful; and wizards have lore, social and war variations).

These then combine with a background; Arcanist, Aristocrat, Artisan, Barbarian, Commoner, Entertainer, Military, Outlaw, Religious or Traveler. Each background has a list of six of the abilities associated with it. The character gets two and then any one other ability (on the list or not on the grounds that no background can cover every permutation) and two boons from the background's list (for arcanists these are usually utility magic while an artisan might get "burn the midnight oil" or "rapid jury-rig" (aka McGyver-ing) and a military character might get "battlefield medicine" or "combat engineering").

So that's how I have things divided out in my system.

Omega

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #7 on: June 29, 2020, 09:41:21 AM »
Quote from: Steven Mitchell;1136878
By "core activities" I'm talking about the major categories of things that characters routinely do.  Some things are too niche to be core, even if they do come up a lot.  Some things are too broad, in that almost all characters do them constantly--such as taking damage from creatures, the environment, etc.  A good way to think about it is that if your character had to choose to be good at one core activity at the expense of another, which ones would get serious consideration?  Or what would be your list such that you would consider it a notable opportunity cost to not have one?

This is a fuzzy question because if I knew how to ask it better, I wouldn't need to ask it. All I can do is give an approximation of my incomplete answer as a means to illustrate the question:

- Fighting monsters with weapons is probably in.  Ranged different enough to think of it differently?
- Casting spells -- sure.  Is it one category, or is it Arcane/Divine, or is it something else?
- Finding treasure and hauling it out for reasons -- in to iffy depending on edition?
- Running from monsters, hiding from monsters, talking to monsters -- probably in as one form or another but the nature changes quite a bit?
- Finding and avoiding traps and other hazards -- too niche?
- "Exploring" -- too broad!  Maybe if broken down somehow.  Wilderness and Dungeon (and to a lesser extent City and Seafaring) are the traditional categories. Though I think it is probably more likely "Dungeon" and "Everything Else".
- Politics and Intrigue -- when it is in, it is really in, but often it isn't.
- Followers -- see previous entry.

Finally, is this asking a wrong-headed question?  That is, is the act of classifying all the core activities likely to suck the magic out of all the oddball things that D&D characters do?

1: Lets see. In D&D and any RPG nothing is actually core because each tables idea of what is important can vary so massively.

2:
In original play combat was not core. It was actually something to be avoided. That was also true with the first group I joined as a player.
Casting spells is also not core. In fact early on mages are encourages to NOT cast spells. Save them for emergencies. This was also a thing in that first group.
Finding treasure has shifted back and fourth ALOT. Early play it was the focus. Then not so much a focus, then somewere in between or whatever.
Avoiding monsters ties into the fighting part. As one takes presedence the other falls away and back and fourth. Interaction is not the same thing.
Traps are somewhat a core of the game, or were. It feels like in 5e they have fallen out of the focus in favour of more monsters and fighting or interacting.
Exploring is broad and its not allways core in the sense its a focus for every table. Dungeon exploring, wilderness exploring. Those are the two big ones with city exploring coming in on rare occasions. And again not everyone explores.
Interaction is one of those from table to table things and never a core feature. Some players love to, some hate to and some campaigns are all intrigue and some you never hear a peep of it.
Followers has probably taken the biggest hit. Its gone from a core and vital aspect to practically non-existent now.

3: Its more that you are trying to classify something that cannot be classified. There is no core because there is no one style. Its like trying to define "the core style of playing D&D". Its impossible because no such thing really exists due to the sheer variety in approaches in all aspects.

X: Other things that might be core for group A but not group B.
-Start towns and home towns and base towns: totally not a thing for travelling groups that never settle. Or not a factor for groups that dont do anything in town other than shop and get quests.
-Mounts: even for a travelling party mounts may not be a factor. For others its vital. Same for mobile bases like caravan homes.
-Encumbrance: this ones another thats gone back and fourth and currently seems on the decline again. Some hold it as a core element, others hate it.
-Food and shelter: This is a odd one as to some players and parties its vital and to others it for all intents and purposes doesnt exist.
-Friendly monsters: This one really varies from table to table. You'll have ones where everything that isnt the PCs is hostile, to ones where the hostile critters are few and far between. Same with NPCs.
- NPCs: This is another weird one. Some tables theres lots of NPCs doing this or that. And in others you'd think the PCs are the only people on the planet and everything else is monsters.

And so much more.

Steven Mitchell

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #8 on: June 29, 2020, 11:29:49 AM »
Chris and Omega,

I'm interested in the discussion itself as much as the particulars.  In that sense, both of your answers are helpful, but both of your answers put together are even more helpful. :D  

For what is worth, I'm monkeying around with a design that I'm almost assuredly not going to finish. Rather, the process itself is an exercise for me to get some design concepts straight in a much more manageable package than my main design (which isn't really D&D at all).  I'll probably get it to a prototype stage, test it a little, and then shelve it.  (At least until WotC goes completely off the deep end and I need to finish to scratch my D&D itch.)  You could describe the design as BEMCI level of complexity but willing to basically abandon almost any tradition if doing so simplifies the design while preserving those core activities.

Steven Mitchell

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« Reply #9 on: June 29, 2020, 11:39:52 AM »
Quote from: Chris24601;1136924
It seems like what you're looking for is basically a skill list; not too detailed (i.e. not so trivial that it's not worth selecting; see your example of animal handling), but not to general either (i.e. your question about whether ranged is sufficiently distinct from melee combat to a separate item).

So, in that vein I'll just give you what my game uses...

Six Attributes with a dozen abilities and skill in weapons, armor and implements.

- Strength (no abilities; determines load, climb/jump/swim speed and is default for melee attacks*).

- Endurance (Fitness** ability; also determines your deep reserves of stamina used to keep going and fuel powerful spells).

- Reflexes (Acrobatics and Stealth• abilities; default for ranged attacks).

- Wits (Insight••, Medicine and Nature abilities; also used for primal magic).

- Intellect (Arcana, Culture and Engineering• abilities; also used for wizard and gadgeteering magic).

- Presence (Deceit, Intimidate and Persuade abilities; also used for astral magic).

* Fighter classes learn to use light melee weapons using Reflexes and to use bows using Strength (easier to aim when you can actually hold the draw weight for more than a second). Non-warriors are stuck using the defaults

** Fitness is endurance-based because it is mainly used to push past your normal limits of Strength and to resist fatigue, hold your breath and resist environmental extremes.

• Rather than have a specific "thief skill", sleight of hand/picking pockets is a function of stealth while picking locks and disabling traps is a function of Engineering. Climb, Hide/Move Silently and Find Traps have been separated out for awhile.

•• Perception as a skill you can train is silly to me. Your eyes see what they see, your ears hear what they hear. What you're training is your Insight; your ability to recognize what you're sensing as important and recall details of your environment. This is equally good at reading cues from people.

The above array has covered everything I've ever had a playtester attempt. Note that the reason weapons and magic aren't just abilities like Fitness, Arcana or Insight is because I've siloed the combat and non-combat options into classes and backgrounds respectively. Abilities are gained from your background (along with benefits called boons you gain as you level up; this includes non-combat spells), while skill with weapons and attack spells is gained from your class.

Classes are broken down into two groups; Fighters and Spellcasters;

Fighter classes are Brigand, Captain, Defender, Disabler, Mastermind, Sentinel, Sharpshooter, Slayer and Striker. Each class also chooses a combat style (Strong, Swift or Berserker) and combat focus (Daring, Tactical or Wary).

Spellcasting classes are Abjurer, Benedictor, Empowered, Interdictor, Maledictor and Summoner. They also pick a spellcasting path (Astral, Gadeteering, Primal or Wizardry) and each path has sub-subpaths (astral has the faithful, militant and zealous paths; gageteers have the big lug, monkeywrencher, troubleshooter and mad genius; primal has covenant and sorcerous origin with patron spirits that are either potent, swift, clever or insightful; and wizards have lore, social and war variations).

These then combine with a background; Arcanist, Aristocrat, Artisan, Barbarian, Commoner, Entertainer, Military, Outlaw, Religious or Traveler. Each background has a list of six of the abilities associated with it. The character gets two and then any one other ability (on the list or not on the grounds that no background can cover every permutation) and two boons from the background's list (for arcanists these are usually utility magic while an artisan might get "burn the midnight oil" or "rapid jury-rig" (aka McGyver-ing) and a military character might get "battlefield medicine" or "combat engineering").

So that's how I have things divided out in my system.


Using skills is one way to approach it, though perhaps a little more detailed than what I'm thinking. I admit to developing a little bit of a twitch when it comes to skills in D&D.  Though I very much agree with you on perception not being one, at least not in a fantasy game.  (In a modern or future game with advanced specialization training available, I can kind of see it, though even that is a special case of recognizing what you are seeing.)

I can see "primal" magic being in there, though I don't otherwise have a beef with arcane/divine.  I was going wizardry/divine so far, but I could see wizardry/primal/spirit as a useful breakdown, too.  

Your ideas on "thief" skills are similar to mine, though again perhaps some minor differences in details.  I like "Stealth" as very much its own narrow thing, because like Perception as an activity, so many characters want to do it.  Where you've got Engineering I've got Devices, but probably not a dime's worth of difference in practical application.  It's still something rogues and dwarves are going to be attracted to, which for a dungeon crawl work out about the same.

If every class is either a fighter or spellcaster, then points back to your silos, right?

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #10 on: June 29, 2020, 11:46:12 AM »
1. Killing them.
2. Taking their stuff.

Steven Mitchell

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« Reply #11 on: June 29, 2020, 11:46:37 AM »
Quote from: Omega;1136925
1: Lets see. In D&D and any RPG nothing is actually core because each tables idea of what is important can vary so massively.

2:
In original play combat was not core. It was actually something to be avoided. That was also true with the first group I joined as a player.
Casting spells is also not core. In fact early on mages are encourages to NOT cast spells. Save them for emergencies. This was also a thing in that first group.
Finding treasure has shifted back and fourth ALOT. Early play it was the focus. Then not so much a focus, then somewere in between or whatever.
Avoiding monsters ties into the fighting part. As one takes presedence the other falls away and back and fourth. Interaction is not the same thing.
Traps are somewhat a core of the game, or were. It feels like in 5e they have fallen out of the focus in favour of more monsters and fighting or interacting.
Exploring is broad and its not allways core in the sense its a focus for every table. Dungeon exploring, wilderness exploring. Those are the two big ones with city exploring coming in on rare occasions. And again not everyone explores.
Interaction is one of those from table to table things and never a core feature. Some players love to, some hate to and some campaigns are all intrigue and some you never hear a peep of it.
Followers has probably taken the biggest hit. Its gone from a core and vital aspect to practically non-existent now.

3: Its more that you are trying to classify something that cannot be classified. There is no core because there is no one style. Its like trying to define "the core style of playing D&D". Its impossible because no such thing really exists due to the sheer variety in approaches in all aspects.

X: Other things that might be core for group A but not group B.
-Start towns and home towns and base towns: totally not a thing for travelling groups that never settle. Or not a factor for groups that dont do anything in town other than shop and get quests.
-Mounts: even for a travelling party mounts may not be a factor. For others its vital. Same for mobile bases like caravan homes.
-Encumbrance: this ones another thats gone back and fourth and currently seems on the decline again. Some hold it as a core element, others hate it.
-Food and shelter: This is a odd one as to some players and parties its vital and to others it for all intents and purposes doesnt exist.
-Friendly monsters: This one really varies from table to table. You'll have ones where everything that isnt the PCs is hostile, to ones where the hostile critters are few and far between. Same with NPCs.
- NPCs: This is another weird one. Some tables theres lots of NPCs doing this or that. And in others you'd think the PCs are the only people on the planet and everything else is monsters.

And so much more.

Omega, fair enough.   Where would you draw the lines for a table of you and like-minded individuals?  

I get that a lot of people don't like encumbrance for example.  I can't say that I'm terribly enamored of the details in most games, either.  However, I do very much like the sense of "mundane resource management" to a degree, and some kind of economy and practical carrying limits has to be a part of that.  Or to put it another way, to me a core activity in D&D is choosing between that extra quiver of arrows and the climbing gear, but it is only fun to me when the player has a handful of such decisions.  (I've got too many casual players that go into complete analysis paralysis when confronted with something like the AD&D equipment list.)

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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #12 on: June 29, 2020, 11:54:57 AM »
Dunno if this will help, but when writing up an adventure, I tend to use some broad categories when designing encounters.

There are three basic types of activities.

1. Combat. This is the bread and butter of many RPGs. A bunch of baddies that oppose the characters. The solution to this encounter may be to defeat them, or kill them, or drive them off or avoid them.
2. Problem solving. This is any encounter where the characters have to use their skills and abilities, or the players have to decide on a course of action to overcome an obstacle. Can be a trap or locked door, a suspect to question, or a river to cross.
3. Role playing. This is my catch-all for encounters that deliver lore about the world, or the NPCs that inhabit it. Tomes of history, frescoes on the walls, NPCs to meet and talk to. Technically, everything in an RPG is role-playing, but this category is more about the role playing and less about the gaming systems.

Those things are not mutually exclusive. An encounter can involve two or three categories easily, but by organizing them into these three categories in my head, I can make an adventure as varied and interesting as possible.
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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #13 on: June 29, 2020, 01:58:11 PM »
Separating activities along ability scores is one way to approach this, another could be to separate them epistemologically. For example, it's popular to include Climbing and Swimming under a single umbrella, but while both might entail a "strength roll" of some sort, IMO the effects of that role are different enough to warrant their own section of explanation. Sometimes, I see the umbrella category being used, with a separate stanza of description for each specific application ... in which cases the umbrella itself seems vestigial and feels contrived to me.

Conversely, activities such as searching for secret doors, tracking, or finding traps all can be described as a single mechanic: if you succeed at your roll, you find the thing.

I like this approach because it focuses on clarity, comprehension, and ease of use. I find that it translates to play better than, say, going for an abstract and balanced aesthetic. Overall, I feel that if categorization itself doesn't add information, then it's just cognitive noise.
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What are the core activities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying?
« Reply #14 on: June 29, 2020, 02:39:39 PM »
Quote from: Valatar;1136948
1. Killing them.
2. Taking their stuff.

In my opinion, that's it right there. It's a cliche, but it's your starting point for "core activities."

 to broaden it out, you could change it to "defeat enemies and take their stuff." How you defeat them will vary. Main force, magic, deception, whatever.  Likewise, why you want their stuff and what you do with it will vary too.

 to that core, I would add "stay alive." That's how you keep going. That core goal includes your tricks and traps, running away from threats, sweet-talking them etc.

 I would also add "progressively increase your personal abilities, power and resources." That's your skill growth, new toys and tools, magic knowledge and items, and of course, wealth.

And finally, explore the world the DM has (hopefully) created, but (more likely) purchased.

Diplomacy and intrigue play into all of those core goals.

So, the core is, 1) stay alive and 2) increase your abilities/resources so you can 3)defeat progressively nastier things and take progressively better stuff, allowing you to 4) more deeply explore the DMs world.

Maybe broader than you're looking for, but seems like the core to me.
« Last Edit: June 29, 2020, 02:42:30 PM by Zirunel »