Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #2: Know your DMing Style

As discussed in the last post, many DMs realize that their players do not play the game like expected.  I’ve read and heard countless game masters bemoan how players aren’t interested in roleplaying* or how they couldn’t care less about tactical combat and so on. I think many DMs expect players to adapt to whatever they prepared. I strongly believe that therein does not lie the secret of a successful campaign. Rather, I think DMs should learn to reach beyond their natural styles and  meet the players’ own expectations halfway.

Yet before we explore this further, I think it is fundamental for DMs to learn what key motivators brings them to the table week after week. In fact, its good that DMs become aware of their style so they can grow that range of motivations to encompass those of their players.

Player traits have been discussed since the early 90s. Famous game designer Robin Laws has written many times on this subject, first in his seminal book Robin Laws of Good Game Mastering and then in various iterations of the Dungeon Master Guide. The following is a summary of the main traits that drive players to play RPGs and was adapted from a list published in the 4e version of the DMG:

  • Power Gaming: Collect new powers, use them often, use them efficiently.
  • Butt-Kicking: Enjoy combat and pwning NPCs!
  • Tactics: Triumph over complex situations through thoughtful planning and cunning.
  • Specialty: Play a similar character archetype over and over like cat ninjas and good-aligned Drow Rangers.
  • Method Acting: Go for total immersion in a character’s assumed persona, whatever the costs.
  • Storytelling: Explore a story’s unfolding around the characters’ actions and choices.
  • Watching/Lurking: Hang out with friends and bask in the social energies of the group.
  • Instigating: Likes to make things happen, pull levers, kick doors and trigger awkward situations.

We’ll study this list as it applies to players in more details in the next post. For the moment I want to focus on something I’ve noticed these last few years: what motivates a player to play RPGs is very similar to what motivates them as Dungeon Masters. In fact I’d go as far as saying that they map out almost one on one.

Here’s how I see it:

Power Gaming

Encourage optimized characters equipped with powerful magic items facing  insanely powerful enemies and world-threatening plots. Certain groups develop a DM vs players dynamic that some find really motivating and challenging but leave others with an intense dislike of the pace and confrontational aspect of the game.


Focus game sessions on combat and set-pieces. The DM creates a series of challenges that engage the characters’ combat abilities and powers. The D&D Encounters in-store organized play events are very much focused on that play style.  In fact, I believe the 4th edition ruleset makes this style very easy to implement.


The DM likes to create complex, often multi-layered challenges that combine several encounter and environmental mechanics to challenge players. Mixing monsters with traps with parallel objectives in a very hostile environment is the kind of thing a tactician DM thrives on. The D&D Lair Assault in-store events and my buddy’s Sersa Victory’s Fourthcore adventures are very much focused on that playstyle.


Play similar types of campaigns, themes and stories. I’d place DMs who prefer campaigns lasting 2+ years into this category.  Recurring themes like Good vs Evil, Law vs Chaos, Gods vs Fiends, Humanoids vs Elder Ones are themes I’ve seen some DMs revisit often. For exemple, Monte Cook has often had Lovecraftian themes to many of his campaigns (and derived commercial adventure/settings)

Method Acting

Some DMs like to make running games an exercise in drama. They always play highly textured, unique NPCs in character. When taken to extreme, you get dark lights, candles and, sometimes, a DMPC that transcends obnoxiousness well into Marty Stu territory. Playing with a Method Actor DM is never boring… unless the DM forgets himself and starts playing alone.


This is the category of world builders and great sweeping stories. DMs who share this motivation dream awake of dynasties, wars and corrupted empires  (soundtrack included). It has been my experience that DMs who are motivated by storytelling are the most likely to say that their players won’t  roleplay… and THIS will be a key point in my next post. But for now, let me state that some of the VERY best Dungeon Masters out there are very much into storytelling.


You’d think this type of motivation ill suits a DM right? I’m not so sure. I’ve seen some Dungeon Master be more interested in hanging out with friends and chilling than actually running the game. The game becomes an excuse to get together, drink beer and talk about life and such. I’ve seen this in groups that have played so long together that the game practically runs itself, Ed Greenwood’s D&D campaign comes to mind, they’ve stopped using rules years ago. These kinds of DMs can aggravate some players who are expecting a more serious, committed experience.


The Instigator DMs likes to make things move forward. They take adventuring hooks and turns them into plot explosions. They keep a mad pace and have low tolerance for analysis paralysis. They’ll push players outside of their zone of comfort by playing with themes that can be awkward like sexuality, religion and very difficult moral choices. Again, when taken to extreme, this can lead the game way passed the personal/private limits of some players.

It’s important to note that no DM is motivated by one trait. Everyone fall between two or more such traits.  For instance, when I run a D&D campaign, I’m very much the Instigator, driving the game at a rapid and exhilarating pace. I’m also a specialist as my campaign usually always pits 2 sides with the players as pawn/power-brokers in the middle. I’m also a Tactician because I love to create complex encounters when I have the time to design them. Finally, I’m also somewhat of a Watcher because I love to observe the fun that my players have in my games.

So with that list, I think may better understand what makes you tick as a DM.  Next, we’ll revisit player motivations, discuss how ignoring them almost always leads to failure and how DMs can manage to marry their own with their players.

So where do you stand as a DM, what do you seek when you run a game, or rather, what do you look forward the most in your upcoming games?

*For a DM’s very narrow definition of roleplaying. That corker is going to have a post of its own very soon.


  1. SpectacledBear says:

    Wow! Good article! I’m more of a Storyteller DM with a dash of Buttkicking. I’m running multiple games right now, a Pathfinder Adventure Path, Star Wars Saga Edition home campaign and a Savage Worlds game based on Ender’s Game. In each one I try and think of what would make it interesting and how to involve setting and opponents to make it interesting.

    I noted one difference in what you wrote and what is true for me. We have a variety of experience at the table, so I ask that player’s be accountable for their own rules (spellcasters know how to cast, barbarians know how to rage) and I focus on the story, consistency and challenges. I find this way that I focus on the rules that I use the most and keep things light, not because of socializing or complacency, but because it allows us to get to interactions with NPCs and the setting.

    I very much look forward to the article about compromising with roleplaying between players and the DM, as I find that it’s hard to engage them when they’re constantly being distracted.

  2. I agree, it’s true, and I never noticed it until now. I’m more of a butt-kicking instigator.

  3. When I play, I’m definitely a butt kicker and tactitian. With a hint of story.

    When I GM I find kick the players’s butts to be far less enjoyable (I think I struggle with keeping things fair when I also control the NPC resource allocation). I find myself most strongly associated with story telling. And thus frustrated when PCs (whom I dont blame) don’t care or throw huge monkey wrenches into the system.

  4. Scrabble Online Against Computer says:

    Those player types are spot on! I’d add a few others, I don’t think it covers all of the bases, but it certainly does a pretty good job of covering the most common types of players. I’d add the “exploiter”- somebody looking to take advantage or find an advantage through exploiting a technicality, etc. I’ve seen a few people try to do this. Not to necessarily outsmart the DM, but just to have fun and try to take advantage of certain situations that the DM might not have prepared for.

  5. @Scrabble: What you call an exploiter, is usually a tactician applying that same love for problem solving to character building. After all, building the right character for the right situation is part of tactics…

    (Myself I am a tactician/storyteller.)


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