I talk a lot about getting to know your players and how that effects how you run your game. The subject is incredibly deep, so think of this article as a primer for articles to come.
There are many, many types of players, and few ever sit firmly in a given category. A search on types of role players should send you down a very deep and oft entertaining rabbit hole. I will be focusing on just three broad types, the Role Player, the Roll Player, and the Accessory.
My preferred type but unfortunately a dying breed. The Role Player wants an immersive environment where they can live in the shoes of their lovingly crafted character. Their character will have a rich back story which will influence how they interact with the world you are providing.
In order to appeal to the Role Player, you need to create a world setting with meaning. Consistency is key, so take lots of notes. Let’s say they meet Tobias, owner of the Laughing Pony Inn in the town of Midshire. If the character returns to that place a year later they’ll want to visit the inn again so they can speak with Tobias. If the inns’ name or owners’ name is different, there had better be a reason for it.
Make sure your world has life and depth. This is actually achieved a lot more simply than many people seem to think. Depth isn’t about big grand political plots or town maps drawn to include every tree and bush. Depth is created by little things, like the blind girl who sings to earn enough coin to feed herself and her brother. The stray dog with a bite out of his ear that has taken a liking to the party barbarian and now follows him everywhere. Depth is all about little spontaneous details which build a story.
While not necessary, the Role Player also tends to enjoy an overarching meta-plot. If you can create recurring nemeses and generate a feeling of oppressive atmosphere it gives the Role Player more things to cling onto and work with. In fact, almost all of your work as a GM comes down to creating hooks for the Role Player to take up and run with. Then you just need to arbitrate the outcome and let them write the story.
Keeping party harmony among Role Players starts at character generation. Your party should have goals which are in alignment, or at least complimentary, otherwise conflict might arise. You’re the GM, you have the power to veto concepts which clash with how you want to run the story.
If you have a harmonious party, motivating the Role Players should be relatively simple. Work with their character backgrounds to create a role play reason to pursue the story. If the adventure calls for the rescue of a prince in distress, then, if they are good people they should need little motivation at all. If they are evil, post a handsome reward. If they are Lawful, have the request for aid come from someone in authority. As long as the motives make good story sense and is internally consistent with the personality of the characters, the Role Players will engage.
The Roll Player
Likely made more popular by the prevalence of computer games which label themselves as RPGs, the Roll Player is focused more on rolling the dice than on becoming invested in the role of their character. We are taught by computer games that an RPG is defined by the concept of having a character and levelling that character up. That definition has now been taken back to tabletop RPGs, where people only focus on killing monsters and seeing their characters grow. AD&D 4th edition further supported this idea through a rule system based around this computer game method of resolution.
If Roll Playing sparks joy for you, then that’s perfectly fine. It’s awesome that the hobby can be enjoyed in so many ways. However, what motivates the Roll Player tends to differ from that of the Role Player. A Role Player can go all session without picking up their dice and they can still leave happy. Not so for the Roll Player, who wants to see some action.
Roll Players seek two main things to feel accomplished. They want to see their character progress, and they want to see their carefully constructed character kick arse. A session without at least one combat will feel like a fail for them. As a GM, you will have to make sure every session is balanced to include some action.
As I’ve discussed before, balancing encounters, is not about putting every encounter on a knife edge. Include easier encounters which allow the Roll Player to show off their skills and feel powerful. Key encounters should be more challenging, forcing the Roll Player to push their abilities. Finally the climactic encounters should require some team work to complete due to the difficulty.
You might find Roll Players have to learn team work, as they might not have needed it in other games. As a broad generalisation, most Western computer RPGs focus on the player character as being the primary hero around which the world revolves. Eastern computer RPGs tend to be more team based. Team work is a cornerstone of the tabletop RPG, so do try to encourage it.
Keeping harmony among Roll Players will depend primarily on the disposition of the player, rather than the character. There is no easy fix for dealing with someone who’ll kill a companion over a piece of loot, and my answer if they fail to heed warnings is to ask them to leave. Most people however can be reasoned with out of game with a request to keep things fun for all involved and to work things out as a team.
Running sessions for a Roll Player tends to be very easy, as you can just chain combat encounters together. Dungeon crawl adventures tend to work well. Adventures by Gary Gygax tend to suit the Roll Player as they are wall to wall hack and slash, with the only problem solving coming in the form of team work.
Most Roll Players need little motivation to enter into a story. The moment they showed up ready to play they declared their intention to get involved. The larger challenge is keeping them on track once the story has begun. Ideally, you want to get them emotionally committed in some way towards the desired outcome. If you can get their attention with an NPC they like, or some vice they enjoy, you can use that to help mould the story towards the desired end. This isn’t to say you have to control them, but for party harmony it helps to keep everyone on the same page.
When you have a romantic couple at the table, there is a fair chance one of them is just their for the sake of their partner, not the game. I call them an Accessory, because they come attached to the other gamer, and without that attachment they wouldn’t be there. Of course there are a great many couples who game together on equal terms, but they don’t need a category of their own in the same way the Accessory does.
The first thing you must recognise as a GM is that the Accessory is every bit as important as any other player at the table. At the most basic level, without them there the partner might not be there either. More importantly though, they came because they want to enjoy the hobbies their partner enjoys, so you owe it to them to help them find that joy.
Look for what they do take joy in. Don’t dump them right in the middle of something huge because that will likely overwhelm them. Give them space but keep offering small ways they can interact. If they are a druid then have some stray animal show in interest in them. If they are a cleric (because they are so often forced into the role), have people petition them for a blessing. Keep it light, but wait to see what elicits a smile or a deeper level of interaction.
When you find something that draws them further into the game, resist the temptation to go all in. You have planted a seed, now help that seed grow through careful tending. They liked helping people through their blessings? Then have a fellow cleric comment positively on their devotion to the people. Build the world for them one small step at a time and make them feel valued, if not by the other players, then by the NPCs.
Another way in which you can help the Accessory is to help them recognise they have control over their character. Often other players try to be ‘helpful’ and tell the Accessory what to do for each action. That’s fine at first, but it shouldn’t remain the way things work. Ask questions like “What do you think [character name] would do?”
If nurtured, the Accessory can quickly evolve into one of the other types. While they are often resistant to the idea, it also really helps if you can encourage them to read the rules. Get them to start with Race and Class (or whatever is appropriate for your system) and build from there over time. Just remember, you have a unique opportunity to shape the gaming style of a new player here, so use that power wisely and value the commitment of that player for coming as far as they have.
Mixing the Types
Of course it’s unlikely any player will fit a nice neat box, so your party will probably have a mix of types. It’s your job to find a way to balance it all out.
Before you even started the game you should have asked people what style of game they want to play, clearly indicating your own preferences. No point complaining three sessions down the track that your campaign of political intrigue isn’t being enjoyed by the Roll Players, or that the Role Players are bored by your 20 level dungeon dive. This stuff needs to be sorted at the start so everyone can know what they signed up for.
Most games should seek a balance, with time being a calculated factor. How the pacing works will depend a lot on the system, but you should aim to include a mixture of interactions into every session. A session that is pure combat will only really suit the Roll Player. Have some action, but also allow players time to express their characters in other ways.
Do not bulldozer a player for trying to interact with your world. Unless they are selfishly taking all the time from other players, interactions should be encouraged. If it means delaying the big fight you had planned until next session, that’s fine as long as the majority of the players are still being entertained.
It’s not uncommon to find one or two players withdraw a little from the group. This happens for many reasons and warrants an article of its own. Within the context of this article, try to be aware of what motivates them and actively seek to reengage them. Treat them as an Accessory if needed, because as GM, you should be encouraging the input of all players. If you don’t want their input, then as GM it’s your responsibility to replace them.
As always, the key to a good session is to have fun. Understanding what your players consider fun is vital to your role as GM to arbitrate. It’s a heavy responsibility, but if done well it’s so very rewarding.