Adventures In Gaming | Gamer Psychology 101: Part 2 – Know Your Players

Originally posted 2016-04-24 12:00:37.

As I mentioned in Part I of my contribution to this series.  I’ve been a part of a regular gamin group for about the past 4-5 years.  In our group, we take turns running games for the others and everyone gets a pretty good amount of play time and running time thus allowing everyone to get a good feel for each member of our group.  Over time I have learned that in all aspects of gaming (as either player or game runner) it’s important to understand what motivates your players…not necessarily their characters.

While we all play games to escape from reality from time to time (or on a weekly basis), we as people can’t help but inject some of our actual selves into our characters, no matter how different they may appear to be on the surface.  Ultimately there is always one fundamental aspect of a person that will be a building block of their character and how they act.  Your players may not even realize that they’re doing this.  But once you find out what makes them tick and you work that into your game, I have found that it makes for a better gaming experience in multiple ways.

  • If you’re the game master, understanding what makes your players tick is an asset. It allows you to drop hooks into your game to keep players engaged and enjoying the world you have laid out for them.

Example 1 – Me.  As I stated in my intro, I’m a writer at my core, A Storyteller.  When I construct a game, I have a story woven throughout it, a plot for the players to follow (even when they don’t).  For me there is a total joy in constructing a story for players to follow along and attempting to come up with substitutions when they take a complete left hand turn.

I am the same as a player, I love a good story and I always want to keep the story moving, which the others have picked up on.  So my DM’s know that if they need to get the plot moving, they just have to dangle a plot device in front of me (like a giant evil spear that is hurled from the heavens and skewers a paladin right in front of our group) and I’ll go for it full throttle.  I’ll pretty much do anything to keep the story rolling, no matter how much the party complains.  It also helps that I typically play a character somewhere on the “Lawful/Good” spectrum.

  • As a player, knowing your own character motivations and embracing this core part of yourself allows you to understand where you stand in the group and how that dynamic operates. More importantly remember that people (gamers included) can be stubborn!

I realize that part of the fun of roleplaying is playing someone that is different than you.  But humans are creatures of comfort and habit more than anything, and more often than not, I find myself falling into the same patterns of behavior.  Recently with a Shadowrun character, I attempted to not fall into this same pattern of behavior, attempting to do something different with the character – be more standoffish than helpful; reserved and cautioned instead of blindly gung-ho.  But after a few sessions with the story seeming to stagnate I finally bit the bullet and started playing my character as I normally do and felt an incredible amount of relief at feeling like something was being accomplished.  For me as a player, it was difficult decision to make.  I wanted to play my character a certain way, but because no one else was stepping up to the plate I had to change what I was doing.  This then also brings up another argument about whose responsibility is it to keep the game going – players or the DM?  But I’ll save that for another installment.

  • Despite stubborn tendencies, player evolution is possible! When this happens, it’s important to embrace the change and respond accordingly.  As a game master, this may mean tweaking your overall game plan or individual events.  As a player this means figuring out the change in group dynamic (a similar principle applies to new players).

Example 2 – my husband.  This one is a little bit more interesting because once upon a time, all the characters my husband played were pretty much the definition of “Lawful Evil.”  They all had a code that they followed, typically for more self-benefit than anything else…the best example of this would have been his LARP character, Dwyer, who was the picture of an assassin for hire and would do whatever job you had for him as long as it met his 2 qualifications: 1) you paid him enough gold to do it and 2) no kids.  While he’s not really an assassin, his core was built upon self-reliant characters who worked well with groups, but wouldn’t be terribly upset to leave/turn on them given the appropriate circumstances.

More recently however (and I’d like to think it’s my influence on him) he has started playing more like a “gray knight.”  As opposed to a “white knight” – that saves the damsel and saves the day while remain morally pure – the “gray knight” allows for moral ambiguity.  Much like Malcom Reynolds from Firefly, he plays a good person who isn’t afraid to use underhanded means to save the girl/town/whatever.  While his characters are all over the spectrum, in terms of alignment and background, his Achilles heel is that he will almost always save the <insert noun> in distress.

  • When dealing with difficult players…embrace the challenge, but understand that you also need to pick and choose your battles wisely. There will come a point in every gamer’s career that they’ll have to take a stand against a player like this.  While no one wants outright conflict (it is just a game after all) but finding an in game solution to punish a certain behavior is pretty effective and sometimes a necessity.

Example 3 – Friend 1, Rae.  The third player in our merry band of gamers, who I’m using the pseudonym of Rae for, is the true neutral curmudgeon.  Seeming lacking any and all motivation to do anything in game other than be contrary to the rest of the group, argue ever action, and play ‘devil’s advocate’, the curmudgeon is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome as a DM. As both a player and a DM, it frustrating to deal with someone who (for all intents and purposes) seem like they don’t want to play at all.  Up until recently, I had no clue how to deal with this player type, but lately I have had an epiphany.

As a DM the answer is simple: ignore them.  I know this seems completely unfair and downright rude, but if you think about it that player made the decision to play in that manner.  Realistically, there are only so many baited hooks to can create for a game, if the player chooses not to bite, it’s not your fault.  This has been one of the hardest things for me to personally overcome.  You want to make sure your players are having fun, but if someone wants to be contrary for the sake of being contrary, let them.  After a few sessions of not participating and watching the others do things they’ll do one of two things: change their character or quit.  While the latter is the less favorable of the two options, you can’t dictate how a person plays their character or how they react when getting left behind.  RPG’s are a fluid ever evolving stories and actions (as well as non-action) has its consequences.

  • Sometimes a character corner stone is that they never play the same type of character twice. Ever evolving players/characters are a challenge to keep up with…but in a good way.  As a Game Master you can rely on them to take a left hand turn away from your plot.  As a player they going to be the one that suggests the crazy plan that really shouldn’t work but is the only option the group can seem to come up with.

Example 4 – Friend 2, Kyle.  The fourth player, Kyle, is what I would call A Misfit.  Not that he causes trouble in character, but that he always plays a character with a serious quirk.  In a Serenity game, he played a “reader” with an incredibly leaky brain pan that would eventually lead us to where we needed to go but only after taking an incredibly scenic route to get there.  In another game he played and incredibly old and frail man.  Another time he played a man missing an arm.  It doesn’t matter what the game is, he always plays a character with a serious flaw more often than not it seems he does this to see if he can throw the DM off their game.  Playing with A Misfit is interesting because they’re always (well usually) the most well-meaning members of the party but inevitably wind up doing something take makes the group’s goal that much more difficult.  However, when he intentionally wants to make a mess of things, things get messy pretty quick.

And now the why…why share all of this information about my gaming group?  Is nothing sacred?!  I shared to illustrate that a core understanding of your players is essential when running a game.  As with anything, the above points that I make are not written in stone, and people can (and do) play outside their habits.  In the game that I am currently running (a modern day spin on D&D) my husband (the Gray Knight) is playing a (rogue class) medical examiner who is more at ease talking with the dead than the living.  In a recent session a beautiful tiefling woman asked him (one of their suspects) for assistance and his character was tripping over himself to talk to her while swearing to her that he’d clear her name.  Knowing this about his character then tells me that if I want the group to do something, I can use that as a lure.

Understanding your players and their characters’ motivation, I believe, are essential to running an engaging game.  If you find yourself struggling with group cohesion, getting a game running, or getting the characters to move outside of a 2 story farmhouse (that last one has happened in games my husband has run at least twice), and it’s a serial game, have your players write down 3 aspects/goal of their character…it doesn’t have to be a guessing game!  5th edition D&D does an incredibly good job of fleshing out a round character with their new character backgrounds based on class.

As you embark on a new adventure (or perhaps continue with a long running campaign) think about what’s driving your players’ characters and don’t be afraid to tap into them for new avenues to pursue or a new way of set up and game play.