So You Want to Be a Game Master Issue #2: Something for Everyone

One of the great joys of roleplaying games is that they attract people from all different walks of life. Anyone can benefit from sitting down for a few hours and escaping into a world of sorcery or super heroes. That escape is so appealing, but not everyone approaches their game the same way. As a Game Master, it’s your challenge to provide a fun and engaging experience for everyone who sits at your table. Fortunately, it isn’t as daunting as it sounds.

The first thing a Game Master needs to know when it comes to catering to each player’s taste is exactly what kinds of playstyles are out there. It’s impossible to capture the nuance of every single player in the hobby, but there are a number of accepted categories. I’ve included these below along with a brief description.

  1. The Actor: This player is here to play their character and all of the drama associated with that. They will often adopt an accent or dialect, adjust their physical mannerisms, and speak as if they were the character. This person wants to deliver meaningful monologues, engage with NPCs, and develop emotional arcs for their character. All the world's a stage, but especially your table, for this player.

  2. The Hack N’ Slasher: This player wants to knock in the door and start rolling heads. Combat is a massive part of roleplaying games and it’s the be-all end-all for this person. They are most engaged when they are sinking their blades into ferocious opponents, thinking of tactical approaches to invading a dungeon, or brawling in a tavern. They see everything as a nail and they’re the perfect hammer.

  3. The Power Gamer: This player knows all of the math and rules that makes their character work and they strive to constantly to always be the absolute best. Also known as a Rules Lawyer, this player is more concerned with finding ways to exploit the game on a meta level, finding the most efficient way through any scenario presented by the Game Master, and essentially solving the riddle of roleplaying games. They are most engaged when they encounter something unfamiliar, complicated puzzles/combats, and when they’re characters improve (either through leveling up or gaining new powers and items.)

  4. The Socializer: This player is mostly interested in the social aspect of the game. They are there to hang out with the friends for a few hours, eat some pizza, and maybe beat up some bad guys. This person usually doesn’t engage with the rules, doesn’t often take notes of what’s going on, but still has a great time. They are most engaged when the game gets off on a tangent, in combat, and when something hilarious or unexpected happens.

  5. The Storyteller: This player is similar to the Actor but they’re more interested in the world as a whole than any one character. Many Game Masters fall into this category themselves. This person is an archiver, taking detailed notes, enjoying interesting new setting details, and constantly wondering how big the world truly is. They are most engaged when they encounter new cultures or cities, when they’re learning the details of an in depth magic system or history, and when the players are the movers and shakers in the setting.

These are broad generalizations and most players embody aspects of different categories. Now, you might be one of the lucky few who’s entire group trends in the same direction, that’s rare but it does happen. The typical group, however, has a wide range of tastes and expectations. It’s up to you to make sure everyone gets what they need.  There’s a number of ways to accomplish this.

The first step is to establish exactly what kind of players you’re dealing with. The easiest way to do this may sound simple, but ask them. Asking your friends straight up, “What kind of game are you looking to play?” will do wonders for you in the planning phase. I also love to ask, “What kind of things (monsters, villains, situations, themes, etc.) do you want to see in this game?”As I mentioned in TV to Tabletop #3, a session zero is a great chance to communicate with all of your players so you know exactly what they’re looking for in the game.

Armed with this information, you can dive into the second step, preparation. The best way to make sure every player gets what they need out of each session comes is plan moments in each adventure that appeal to the kinds of players you have. Don’t plan the whole adventure around one type of encounter. If you write a four-hour block of sequential combats you’re going to lose your Actors and Storytellers. Variety will make your adventures more memorable and will hook your players.

For example, say you’re writing a four-hour adventure that revolves around a series of battles within a gladiatorial pit. It would be easy enough to plan out four one hour battles that increase in difficulty, using varied terrain and villains. That would certainly be loud and exciting for the Hack N’ Slasher and Power Gamers and the cheering Socializer in the group, but after the third hour of combat you’re going to find that your Actors and Storytellers have glazed over. What if instead, you planned three combats, each, two that are 45 minutes, and one that’s an hour, but in between each fight the heroes had a chance to influence the coming fight by jockeying for sponsorship by the corrupt aristocrats who run the event or by getting the chance to study the strange aliens they’re competing against for physical or psychology weaknesses. This opens up segments where the Actors and Storytellers are free to shine and feel like their actions are having as much of an impact as any critical hit from the Hack N’ Slasher. This does require more preparation on your behalf, because you have to think about what the aristocrats each want, how the sponsors react if they’re rejected by the party, and it forces you to dive deeper into their motivations. This kind of planning and big picture thinking will lead to better games.

The third step is execution during the game itself. There are going to be times when the game proceeds in a direction that you weren’t expecting, but you still have to ensure that everyone is engaged and is having a good time. Say a scene you were hoping would be a negotiation is derailed when one of the players lashes out unexpectedly. You have to roll with the punches and switch into combat, but you can still appeal to the Actors or Storytellers. This is going to boil down to the way you portray the monsters and NPCs and the detail of your descriptions. When a creature attacks your Actor, give them a scene partner. Use a voice, throw in some banter, make it feel personal, even if it’s just Goblin Number 5. For the Storyteller, give them something to notice, rather as a possible weakness to be exploited by the observant or just to show that your monsters have some kind of tie to the world. Every goblin clan should be different, sprinkle in some lore about how the Clawspark Goblins were cursed with an electrified touch. The Storyteller or Power Gamer might infer that wet attacks could be more effective against them, reward that engagement by making it true.

I know that having to cater to all of these options can seem overwhelming, but if you put in that effort, your games will be better. It boils down to identifying the types of players you have, by communicating with them and establishing expectations, preparing adventures that are varied and offer a little something for everyone, and adding little touches that appeal to each player while running the game itself. Match their energy, put a little extra work into your adventure notes, and your game night will reach the next level.