Roleplayer #22, November 1990

Are You and Your Players Playing the Same Game?

Matching Play Style with GM Style

by John Sgammato

One summer I tried an experiment. I wanted to run a campaign that would satisfy all of my players. Some of them had been dissatisfied recently, while others loved every adventure. I realized that they had different needs and expectations, and that I wasn't satisfying all of them.

Put in those words, it sounds like a formidable task. Yet every week we GMs assume that we can cook up our best work and everyone will eat it. The same GM who wouldn't dream of ordering a large pizza with anchovies will create a beautiful elven forest without knowing how the party feels about unicorns. It's a question of compatibility. But how do we know if we're compatible with our players?

Well, I did it. They played six weeks and met ghosts and headhunters and a lost subterranean temple full of scorpions and spiders and even hordes of loathsome frog people. Everyone enjoyed it. Except me; I burned out.

Sure, I learned what I had set out to, but now I wish I hadn't. You see, my players all liked roleplaying, but they all liked it differently. They had widely differing goals in playing. I found out that I couldn't satisfy all of them and still keep my style of GMing. So I told them what my ideal campaign would include. Those who liked my style formed a group with me; the rest formed a group with a different GM, more suited to their style of play.

Say one player likes political intrigue, and another wants to kill monsters and take their treasure, while a third wants to unravel the underlying foundations of magic. You, as GM, may have to sacrifice your artistic leanings for number-juggling of encounters to satisfy everyone. Sooner or later, something will break. A player may leave, or the GM may burn out.

Before you burn out, it's a good idea to ask yourself these two questions:

What game are my players playing?

What game am I giving them?

What Players Want

The first step toward satisfying your players is identifying their needs. Let's start by looking at different types of gamers. Most styles of play are distinguished by a few basic issues:

  1. The extent to which the GM controls an encounter.
  2. The importance of their creativity and imagination.
  3. Character and campaign development.

The secret to a successful roleplaying group lies in addressing these issues in a way that both players and GM enjoy.

Randomness and Trust

The extent to which the dice control the outcome of an encounter, and by extension the fate of the character, is critically important. This issue reflects the control that the players expect the GM to have over the game and the characters. It is an issue of trust and control that is central to the player-GM relationship.

Playing the Numbers

On one end of the spectrum lies the "dice-roller." This player finds enjoyment in the uncertainty of the dice, of the thrill of not knowing if even their best efforts were good enough. The dice-roller GM enjoys creating adventures so carefully balanced that he knows that a party of X characters equipped with Y skills and abilities will go into the adventure at 100% and return at 20% strength, one casualty, and Z treasure.

Telling Stories

On the other end of the spectrum is the "interactor." This player likes to deal with NPCs, PCs, and events in ways that often cannot be reduced to die rolls. The interactor GM is disappointed when the party finds out what they need from a carefully crafted NPC and walks away without learning his dreadful personal secret. This requires that the player trust the GM to be as fair and impartial as the dice. Without that trust, you can end up with a campaign where the players happily take arbitrary rewards, but require the fairness of the dice before they accept a setback.

Stimulating the Imagination

The next issue has to do with creativity and imagination. Those of us to whom creativity is an essential part of our happiness may turn to RPGs for satisfaction. A campaign that doesn't stimulate our imagination and reward our creativity is a supreme frustration.

Players want their imaginations stimulated. Of course, not everyone requires the same kind of stimulation. Many gamers are happy simply solving endless series of puzzles. Others need to be creative. Puzzle-solving is not the same thing as creativity: the puzzle-solver deduces an existing solution, the creator creates something that never existed. Both can stimulate the imagination. They are not mutually exclusive, nor is one better than the other except to the extent that it matches the preferred style of the GM.

(To proclaim that your strongest character will be a fighter is puzzle-solving. To say that he escaped from the gladiatorial pits of Sik'al is still puzzle-solving, if such a place exists on your gameworld. To say that his name is Moe, that he plays the Sik'alese oud, and that his favorite color is pink (but he won't admit it) is creative.)

Satisfying Creative Players

So on one end of the creativity spectrum are the players who want constant creative stimulation. This require a lot of the GM. He must develop encounters with many options, be ready to handle off-the-wall solutions, and most important, let hare-brained schemes work sometimes, lest they become disheartened. People-oriented encounters are usually the best for the creative player.

Satisfying Puzzle-Solvers

Of course, the players on the other end of the spectrum probably won't mind an imaginative masterwork of a campaign, but don't expect a lot of feedback. This is especially frustrating for the GM who knows he can do more, but his audience doesn't want it. "Tricks and Traps" adventures work well for puzzlers.

Character Development

The third important issue has to do with character advancement. Part of the GM's job is to reward the players for good work. Don't make the mistake of passing around experience points and thinking the job is done. They just might prefer a map of long-lost Hyperborea.

Some players consider a powerful character to be the ultimate reward for long, hard play. The power might be measured in character points, but it could be in the form of wealth, status, or an impregnable fortress.

Other players don't want to advance! Back in my AD&D days, I had a couple of players who preferred to keep their characters at fourth level forever, an attitude considered demented by their more power-conscious dungeonmates. I call this the "steady-state" as opposed to the "expanding" universe preferred by the other players.

Satisfying "Steady-State" Players

The difference between steady-state and expanding universe players is their gratification level. Steady-state players usually get their gratification from the adventure itself. They don't feel a need for a reward that they can write down on their character sheets. These players are not as easy to please as those who want wealth and power. When they don't tell you what they like and don't like, you can be in for some real angst whenever you try to please them! This is like the "weekend parent syndrome" – you can't throw them a ton of gold at the end of the adventure and go to sleep knowing you've done a good job.

Steady-state players tend to like their adventures episodic in nature. These adventures stand alone as self-contained stories. Episodic characters abound in popular literature, in the forms of heroes like James Bond, Doc Savage, and Batman. These worthies saved the world from certain doom many a time, without getting more powerful in the process.

Satisfying "Expanding Universe" Players

Constantly-improving characters are less common in literature, and are usually confined to fantasy trilogies. In the gaming community, however, they far outnumber their more static brethren. There are two reasons for this:

First, the easiest way to reward players is to give their characters something that makes them more powerful.

Second, the ongoing, expository campaign gradually builds in complexity and danger, requiring progressively more powerful characters to handle it.

The inevitable result of an expository campaign is that the characters get so powerful that they must either retire or give up some of their power. If the players don't go for this, the GM is stuck.


The expanding universe player likes a developing character and campaign for many reasons. The simplistic statement that "some players only understands tangible rewards" ignores a far deeper issue of player satisfaction. This is that the goal-oriented style of play gives the player a sense of personal continuity. There is a sense that great things are foreordained, that they are unfolding to a set plan, and that each character is an integral part of the plan, fated to accomplish important things.

The episodic (steady-state) campaign gets its continuity from a well-developed and internally consistent world. The player enjoys interacting with the elements of the game world in new and challenging situations. A world that is texturally rich need not be filled with plots and counterplots for him. He may prefer exploration-oriented scenarios to vast cosmos-shaking plots.

The biggest problem with the steady-state campaign is that it misses that sense of constant urgency that comes with the players' heartfelt conviction that things will get much worse if they don't make real progress this game session.

"What Do They Really Want?"

Ask them. The next time you get together, talk about the three issues. Ask each player to rate his position on each issue, on a scale from one to ten. Let them talk it out; you can learn a lot that way. When they decide how each of them feels about each issue, ask how they feel you've been addressing it. Then tell them where you stand on it.

If there are points of difference, maybe they'll be in areas that you, personally, don't feel strongly about. If so, you can change to better suit their needs. Otherwise, tell them the kind of campaign you want to run. Those who like that, and those to whom the group is more important than their personal preference, will stay. You're better off without the rest; you couldn't please them anyway.

If you don't know players' attitudes about these three issues, you may be doing them and yourself an avoidable disservice. Find out what your players want to play. Then determine if it's the game you like. GMing is much easier when you and your players play the same game.

(Back to Roleplayer #22 Table of Contents)

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