We’ve been talking a lot about improvisation and working with your players, but we haven’t given you nearly enough background for the topic. There’s a book that I found years ago called Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, and I lend or recommend it to every one of my friends who asks me for tips on how to be a good storyteller. I like it so much that when I started looking through my old copy again while I was starting this article, I had to stop myself from simply quoting the book word for word. It’s more than just a good place to start; the book has an impressively down-to-earth approach that will give you a basis for campaign and adventure design, for preparing easy improvisation, and for reading and managing your gaming group’s social (and problem solving) dynamics. It also offers a very simple gamer typology that should allow you to identify what drives you and your players and what rewards them most in the realm of RPGs. If you’re interested in gaming or in group dynamics, I couldn’t recommend a better read.
Despite the temptation, I’m not just going to copy the book here for you. If you want to read it, you can acquire a pdf for $8 by following the link in the book title. What I am going to do is tell you all about how awesome one piece of it is: the gamer typology.
Robin Laws describes 7 different types of gamers, though he gives better detail than I can offer here:
- Power Gamers want their numbers to go up and usually love to tinker with the rules to create ‘optimal’ characters, and they will feel rewarded when they can acquire yet more powerful game items
- Butt Kickers thrive on doing unto others, and feel rewarded when they are offered an opportunity to do just that
- Tacticians want to use the game’s rules set to solve problems, they often focus on the internal consistency of mechanics and how well those fit with their understanding of the world, and they love overcoming obstacles logically
- Specialists want to do one thing and do it well, often the same thing in every game. They’ll feel rewarded when the game offers them a chance to shine at their specialty
- Method Actors love the roleplaying part of RPGs, feel most rewarded when they can confront their character’s personality and personal drama, and may not give a damn about the rules
- Storytellers also prefer the roleplaying side of things, but cares less about any one character’s experience than about the larger narrative, preferring instead to have plenty of developing plot threads and story progression
- Casual Gamers are there because they like socializing with their friends. They may become a different type of gamer over time, but for the most part they’re having fun when everyone is having fun, and may help moderate the more volatile members of your gaming group.
It is rare that someone is only one of those types, but it is often possible to see how people most strongly identify. These identities may also shift over time. For example, I used to be a Buttkicker and a Specialist, with a dash of Power Gamer. These days, I identify more strongly as a Storyteller and Method Actor, with a healthy dose of Buttkicker. It’s not that I can’t enjoy getting more cool toys and powers, or solving in-game puzzles that require a knowledge of how the system and world work, it’s just that the central draw for me these days lies in playing my character as best as I can and seeing the story that I’m in unfold. I also like occasionally being able to throw down and dominate the field of battle, but that isn’t necessary for every character.
Now that you have some inkling of how this all works, try typing out your friends and fellow gamers. Sometimes it’ll be hard, and you might just have to ask them what it is that they want most from their gaming. That’s ok. It’s not like you have to keep this sort of thing secret, after all. You and your friends probably already do this unconsciously when thinking about the other gamers you know.
There’s a little more nuance to be gained yet: once you’ve got a little grid marking out your names and what type of gamer you most strongly identify with, try noting what gives each player their emotional kick. It will probably be related to the type of gamer that they are, but it’s ok to have this part be a little longer; you can account for the fact that someone isn’t just a power gamer, they like being a specialist too. Now, if you’re the storyteller, when you think up what might happen in the next session just look at the chart that you have made. How many of those emotional kicks are present? Are you giving your players what they want?
One more note: you don’t have to satisfy everyone in every session. You can alternate who you gratify, and just try to keep in mind situations that would please the other people. As long as you don’t leave someone unappreciated for too long, they’ll probably still have a good time.
Okay, I was joking, here’s another last note. This framework, much like any other conceptual framework by which you can organize your world, is not perfect. There will be times when things fall through the cracks and the model doesn’t quite work as well as you’d hoped. But Robin Laws’ gamer typology, much like the rest of his brief booklet, offers a solid conceptual starting point that you can build on. It’s most accessible to those who’ve already had a little gaming experience, and doesn’t try to cover all of the basics of running a game (there are plenty of articles about How To GM anyways), but it’s a carefully thought-out piece that does an excellent job of familiarizing you with running your gaming group comfortably and easily.