Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 4
All About Players
So, here we are: the very beginning of a campaign as according to Jamison. Probably the most important thing he says in this chapter is his introductory note, I would wager – that people like to classify things, but that commonly when it comes to categorizing people we tend to not do a very solid job. Probably because people are complicated and don’t fit neatly into categories. Nonetheless, Jamison offers his reduction of players into the categories that he finds to be most useful in preparing a game.
He divides players into three dichotomies leading to eight possible combinations: chaos vs. balance, acting vs.action, and storytellers vs. realists.
Chaos vs. Balance
Chaos vs. balance is the player equivalent to the traditional chaos vs. lawful axis in D&D’s alignment system: one likes to break the conventions of the fictional universe and the other likes to fit in with them. While he suggests these two kinds of players won’t get along, I think there is an important caveat. Consider beer’n’pretzels style D&D: Sir Bearington fighting alongside Prissy Pants the Paladin fighting alongside the Eladrin Corsair Calico Knifegutz because somebody’s gotta stop the end of the world and loot every village on the way there. The less the players care about immersion and realism the less they’ll care about mixing law with chaos. So I am not sure this axis is as distinct from the “Acting vs. Action” axis as it may seem.
Acting vs. Action
Speaking of which, in this dichotomy the former likes to play-act as their character (which often involves dialogue and emotion) and the latter likes to treat their character as an avatar for doing Cool Action Stuff ™.
This reminds me of the first time I played D&D online. Word got out the DM was running two separate campaigns, one that was a bit more action and the other that was a bit more “serious roleplaying.” None of us really had any experience besides the DM, but for whatever reason we all suddenly wanted to be in the serious roleplaying campaign.
I’ve found that, given the choice, most people will say the same. But that’s not actually true. This was the great lesson of Howard Moskowitz’s work in the food industry (as described nicely in this TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell). When you ask people what kind of coffee they like they will usually report that they like bold dark coffee. But if this was true then how could Starbucks possibly survive when 90% of its menu consists of weak coffee-flavored milkshakes? It turns out that people will report liking what they are “supposed” to like according to their culture regardless of their actual preferences – hence blind tasting panels being the food industry standard these days.
I have similar worries, sometimes, about player preferences. How do we most often report them? We just ask the player. Giving them what they ask for is good, but it’s not necessarily the same as giving them what they want. Perhaps that’s another point in favor of the convention/online “take it or leave it” model. For what it’s worth, I usually ask new players in my games to tell me a story about a time they played an RPG before. Their go-to story tends to be related to their preferences in a way a simple self-report would fail to capture (but telling a story is a lot less obnoxious than a questionnaire).
Storytellers vs. Realists
The final dichotomy presented has a similar historical pedigree to the first: it’s basically narrativism and simulationism in the GNS (gamist/narrativist/simulationist) theory from The Forge. I seem to recall a particularly sharp expectation mismatch from my last campaign where a player wanted more “cinematic” description – in the literal sense of describing camera movement and portraying scenes to the players that their characters were not present for. The game was advertised as emphasizing simulation. That combination did not last long.
Other models of player desires?
In my time researching game design I have found numerous different taxonomies of player desires. Raph Koster suggested in A Theory of Fun for Game Design that really all games are fun because they are about learning in a particularly interesting way.
Richard Bartle’s Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs suggests there are two axes: acting-interacting and players-world. Killers like acting on players (PvP), achievers like acting on the world (PvE), socializers like interacting with players (cooperation/guilds), and explorers like interacting with the world (finding secrets).
Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubec’s MDA Framework suggests there are possibly eight kinds of things players experience that they enjoy:
- Aesthetics/sensory input (novel or pleasing figures, graphics, etc.).
- Fantasy (immersion).
- Narrative (story).
- Challenge (winning/losing/mastery).
- Fellowship (other people).
- Discovery (learning something new).
- Expression (making something new).
- Submission (as an identity for the player, for use in relaxing).
Nick Yee’s Quantic Foundry video game model breaks gamer motivations into six associated pairs:
And his board game model breaks motivations into four categories with seven sub-categories:
My point here, really, is that we’ve been trying to classify gamers for a long time. Rigorous attempts have existed since at least the 1990s. And I think something I’ve said before about unreliable personality tests applies here as well.
Lots of people have heard of the Meyers-Briggs personality test. Those of you keeping up with your academic psychology will know that it has poor test-retest reliability, which makes it a very poor test of character traits (which are supposed to be stable across time). These gaming motivation tests are probably pretty similar in that regard: they are not very reliable or highly accurate.
Nonetheless, if you gave a group of people a 50 question quiz about how much they like Star Wars (which by all means does not sound like a very useful personality test) and then grouped them into “likes Star Wars” groups and “does not like Star Wars” groups you would wind up with two groups who get along better than the whole group overall. Even if the box you use is stupid and arbitrary and not very reliable, the very fact that you introduce boxes into which to sort players provides a sort of service. At the very least it will get you the equivalent of the Robbers Cave experiment and get you a feeling of being an in-group together.
Now, do I recommend throwing personality surveys at your players? No. I’ve tried it and it wasn’t as helpful as the effort warranted. But you can certainly ask your players a couple questions and, assuming their self-reports are accurate, you can get a pretty alright idea of what they want based on what they say they want, or what they have enjoyed in the past.
Finally, Jamison ends his section on players with a few small asides. First, he claims wargamers care too much about winning to be effective RPG participants. I don’t agree with this on two counts. First, the original RPG inventors and players were all wargamers. Maybe Gygax and Arneson and their crew of 40 friends were all terrible at RPGs, but that seems extremely unlikely. The second count is the idea that to win is to have losers. Players win RPGs all the time – in fact, that is their expected condition. Jamison himself said the referee cannot be “neutral” because they should be ultimately giving the players wins. RPGs are cooperative games – you can win 100% of the time with no losers if you like. So how is a player set on winning – who will be doing so constantly through the nature of Jamison’s system – going to disrupt the game? Wasn’t our creed to give ’em what they want? I think the more likely explanation is that Jamison has simply had some bad experiences with people he met playing Warhammer at his local game store or something. I know the kind of problem player he is describing here, but I would not call them a “wargamer” – I would call them a socially underdeveloped person. Plenty of people play wargames and make perfectly fine RPG players. Wargames have little to do with it.
Second, he suggests the fewer the players the better (to a certain point). Collaborating is fun, but being crowded out is not. The longer I have played RPGs the more I find myself agreeing with him: more than 4 players starts to be a bit of a mess in a modern story-laden game. An exercise I strongly recommend for any among you who haven’t played in a while: give playing alongside 5 other people a go sometime and take note of how much time you spend doing nothing. Since the GM is often the portal through which all gameplay must flow that keeps the GM very busy. It’s easy not to notice just how much time players spend waiting on other players. Empathy in this regard is very important.
Finally, everything he says about pitching a game is great advice. Separating the discussion of whether to play from what to play is probably smart given his premises, and it’s just good life advice to have your ideas polished down to an elevator-pitch-level sheen. I was very careful in my last online game, for example, to keep my pitch to a single page of text.
Picking the game system & creating the universe. Yay world-building!