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Understanding your players

Aaron Allston died February 27th of this year, and the gaming community lost a big contributor to its long and varied history.  I was particularly sorry to hear this, because Allston had written one of the biggest influences to my own gamemastering, the Champions II supplement Strike Force.  I have written about Strike Force at length on this blog before, but for those who missed it Strike Force was essentially a campaign journal in which Allston shares what he learned managing a superhero campaign that spanned several years and multiple gaming groups playing in the same "universe."

I mention this because right now, as my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign winds down and I enter into a months-long hiatus, I have been thinking about doing a more intentional job of constructing the next campaign.  That means first understanding the needs and tendencies of the players, and Allston wrote a brilliant little segment that has been borrowed heavily in many other games about this.  He outlined some broad categories of players, which I have briefly listed below with a description and what for me is a typical quote:


  • Builder: the player who wants to have a significant impact on the campaign world.  Between gaming sessions I'd like to start an orphanage for that NPC we found last session.
  • Buddy: the player who is there mostly hang out with friends or a spouse.  I'll play whatever.
  • Combat Monster: the player who enjoys combat as a primary gameplay.  I'm lighting this guy up. (Rolls dice) Oh yeah, baby!
  • Genre Fiend: the player who is intensely interested in the right "feel" of the literary style of the game.  We need to make sure we pick the right name for this team.
  • Copier: the player who emulates an established persona from established book/movie/television series.  I'm playing a drow ranger with two scimitars.
  • Mad Slasher: the id-driven, violent anarchist whose personal interests often outweigh the group's or what makes sense for the story.  The king is given me lip?  Fuck that guy, I shoot him with my crossbow.
  • Mad Thinker: the player who likes to out-think his opponents.  I'm looking around the room.  Do I see anything that might be helpful?
  • Plumber: the player that enjoys exploring the personal depths of his own character.  I've written down some notes about the history of my PC's dwarven clan.
  • Pro from Dover: the player who has to be the best in the group at something, e.g. stealth, negotiating, some field of science.  The ship needs to be repaired?  I've got a +9 in that.
  • Romantic: the player for whom romantic angle holds the most appeal.  I hope we see that ship captain again soon.
  • Rules Lawyer: the player who enjoys finding the most effective player through manipulating the rules.  I built my character using these three different supplements.
  • Showoff: the player who must be the center of attention and hog the spotlight.  I thumb my nose in your general direction!
  • Tragedian: the player who is particularly attracted to plots involving pathos and personal drama.  My character has made a deal with a demon to get back at the people who killed my parents.
In anticipation of my next campaign, then, I'm creating a roster of my players and my general sense of which category into which they fall, along with some notations about what really seemed to hook them as players of the last couple of years.  I think that most players actually fall into several categories, a sort of "primary" and "secondary" category, so I'm listing at least two.

As an example of how this works, let's take Union Galactic's player (he's pretty safe, as well as pretty obvious).  In addition to his propensity for coming up with unusual names (i.e. Union Galactic, Positive Crisis, and of course the Ultimate Posse) Ben is the player who will show up for the campaign with a three-page backstory. He roleplays in character more than most of the group, and once said that what would interest him the most in the sci-fi game would be learning about the culture and philosophy of alien peoples.  So Ben's pretty solidly a Plumber.  When I think about when Ben was really engaged in the game, two incidences come to mind: when he overcame his robot duplicate by playing upon their shared personality traits and history, and when he drew a gun on Doctor Mind for mind-controlling a non-violent but antagonistic NPC.  Ben has mentioned that second one often.  That suggests that his secondary might be a Tragedian, since he seems to enjoy healthy intra-party conflict.  So Ben's record on my cheat sheet looks like this:

Pondering this, I can honestly see that I haven't been shaping the game much to Ben's personality.  I never explored the alien race that kidnapped Union Galactic and gave him his powers, or followed up with a chance for the Union Galactic/Doctor Mind conflict to develop.  That's something to consider in the future.

So going forward, when I begin to think about the campaign sessions, I can look at my checklist and ask myself, whose "sweet spots" will this session be hitting?  Ben's?  What about Doctor Mind's player (a Mad Thinker/Genre Fiend) or Samkhara's (a Tragedian/Combat Monster)?  I might even keep track to make sure I haven't been favoring one or more players over the others as the campaign goes on.

Thoughts?  Comments always appreciated.

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