I’ve been dabbling in tabletop roleplaying games for around fifteen-plus years at this point in my life, and have been a serious player for the last ten. Having been an amateur writer for as long as I have, I naturally gravitated towards running games rather than acting as a player. Those of you who have acted as GM/DM before will understand that a life of running games is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you get to control the story, come up with vast settings and awe-inspiring battles, act out all of the various NPCs, and watch the looks on your players’ faces when they overcome a powerful foe (or better yet, when they are wiped out by a powerful foe!). On the other, you also have to do all that prep work from week to week: drawing maps, coming up with the characters, moving your big-bads around in the background scenery, and inevitably having to throw out entire sections of your adventure because your players went off on a tangent or completely ignored the obvious clues you’ve been throwing at their faces. It is a life that is never dull, and it can end up being one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.
Now, we’ve talked about all sorts of tips and tricks for GMs, including wordbuilding, character creation, how to find inspiration, and more. However, there is one aspect of any tabletop game that you as a GM absolutely cannot function without: your players. It doesn’t matter if you create the greatest story ever told. If you can’t get people to your table and invested in the game, then you’re essentially just writing a book. Your players need to be engaged and wanting to come back week after week, and if they stop caring or even stop showing up, your game is done. There are a thousand articles on keeping players interested and coming back, but many of those articles tend to refer to the party as a whole, rather than as individual players. I think that while considering the whole group is important, it is just as important to treat your players as individuals, because no two people play a game the same way.
Adding this whole new level of planning will take time and adaptation on your part, but I promise your game will be better because of it. Just spending five minutes before session analyzing your players and their characters can make a world of difference. I’d like to share with you a few different player types I have had, how they played, and how I tailored all my adventures and individual sessions to make sure everyone had their time in the spotlight.
There are a couple of different types of storytellers that I have dealt with over the years. Those who put their characters’ stories first, those who put the overall story of the campaign first, and those who kind of fall into the middle. I think that there is this negative impression that people who emphasize their characters’ personal stories are bad roleplayers, or that they’re not contributing to the group, or that they’re just being selfish. Personally, I do not believe that is true; I think these players care very much about the rest of the group and the stories being told, they’re just more invested in how their character evolves from the beginning to the end of the story rather than HOW the story ends. I like to challenge players with this play style by giving them moral quandaries, having them interact with people from their past, and so on. I find that it’s a good idea to talk with these players out of game to get a sense of how they view their characters and what they want to see happen over time. Treat their character arcs as a subplot in the larger world that is your story.
Those players who emphasize the overall campaign story can be a real boon for a GM, but it is also important to reel them in a little bit if they’re becoming a bit “too much”. I personally love having players say, “this will make for a much better story!” even if the planned course of action is more dangerous and/or could potentially result in the deaths of one or more characters. Typically, these are the players that you can lean on to move the story forward (thus, being a huge boon for you) and they’ll often play a part in creating some of the best scenes in your campaign. However, keep an eye on the rest of the group when these guys are active. They can tend to hog a little bit of the spotlight and it’s important to make sure that everyone gets their turn to shine. I like to feed these players tasks over the course of the session, asking them to describe a location that isn’t particularly plot relevant, or calling for a description of a spell they’ve just fired. These guys love to talk and knowing when to let them and when to have them dial it back is the key to playing with them.
The Numbers Guys
You know exactly who these guys are. Their stats are min-maxed, they know exactly what feats they’re taking from now all the way to max level, their downtime is spent crafting the most powerful weapons, and they can drop your big bad in a single swipe. These are your number crunchers and power gamers. They’ve got a bad rep, and you’re going to deal with them during your tenure as GM. First of all, their reputation is ill-deserved. After all, aren’t you playing a roleplaying game? Shouldn’t people be, you know…trying to win? These players will carry the party through combat after combat, soaking every spell and injury sent their way, dealing crazy amounts of damage to the enemy, and no party is complete without them. I like to look at my party and figure out which of my players are the ones that are here to win. I will take a sneak peek at their character sheets and then find appropriate challenges to throw at them. Do you have a rogue in your party who’s maximized his stealth score and does a ridiculous amount of sneak attack damage when he’s hidden? It’s time to come up with an infiltration mission, or better yet, add in a sneaking element to an adventure you’ve already written. Have a character with a silver tongue who excels at courtly intrigue? Then you’re going to put them in a crowd of nobles at dinner and let them have fun.
I think the numbers guys get much more flak than they deserve, and there are so many RPers out there that act like they’re better than them because, “well, my character has flaws and yours doesn’t so you don’t really care about the story!” and, “obviously you’re not good at roleplay because you want to blunt force your way through everything with a dice roll!”. I believe that’s incredibly unfair and I personally can’t stand anyone who acts like they’re better than anyone else at the table. It’s important that you give these players their turn in the spotlight doing whatever it is that they’ve made their character do best, and it’s equally important to act as the barrier between them and other players who might look at them the wrong way. Numbers crunching and roleplaying are two entirely different aspects of the game, and there’s no reason whatsoever that a person can’t do both.
Lastly, you have this breed of player: the ones who are just there week to week to have a blast with their friends. These guys are there to have fun and may not even particularly care how they’re having it; they just want to be doing it with their buddies. Maybe they’re new to tabletop and have no idea what they’re doing, so they show up, you hand them a character sheet, and they figure it out as they go. They’re going to be enthusiastic pretty much the entire time, asking questions, eyes lighting up when they roll that first ever natural 20. These are people that you should welcome and nurture, because if they have a great time, they’ll keep coming back. The trick with these guys is to be patient, walk them through things, and make suggestions so they know that you’re invested in their success.
Maybe you have that one player in your group that just has the worst possible luck when it comes to dice rolling, so they’ve made a joke out of it, always making themselves the brunt of all humor and enjoying the good-natured ribbing they’ll get from other members of the party. They don’t particularly care whether they live or die, having burned through so many characters over the years, so they live by the mantra of, “I hope my death is at least entertaining”. These guys are quick to crack a joke and get a round of laughter from the rest of the group, they’ll keep everyone’s spirits up, and they’ve got an invaluable place at the table. I take the reins off and let these guys do their own thing; they’re kind of like assistant DMs/GMs who keep the party going when I’m knee deep in initiative order, looking up stat blocks, or trying to remember just what the heck that one NPCs name was in that one town eight sessions ago. What kinds of players have you dealt with over the years, and how did you tailor your games to accommodate them? Let us know in the comments!