Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #3: Mind your Players’ Styles, Part 1 of 4

(This post ended up being more than 3000 words long, I therefore made the decision to break it into four pieces to make them easier to digest. They will be posted over the next week. Sorry about that)

Last time we tackled the subject of making DMs aware of their own play style preferences. In the next four post, I want to push this concept further and discuss the motivations that keeps players around a game table in a series of “Do” and “Do Not” to help DMs reach common grounds with their players.

Back in 2007, I wrote a post whose main point went something like:

Unless you are dealing with hopelessly selfish players, what they collectively want in a game trumps what you want. You have to shape your game and grow outside your natural DMing style to accommodate their needs and expectations. Your players’ free time is worth too much to be ignored or be downplayed as “Playing it Wrong”

As I mentioned in my last post, what players expect from playing RPG can be grouped in eight broad categories (summarized from various sources, including Robin D. Laws’ contributions to multiple editions of the D&D Dungeon Master Guide):

  • 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 Elven Pirates and clones of copyrighted literary or cinematic heroes.
  • 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.

While many players tend to find their motivations from one categories, most dip into two or more. For instance, my personal playing style tends very much toward being an instigator. I’m also very motivated by Butt-Kicking and method acting as I make deeply conflicted, often insane characters, and Butt-Kicking.

Now let’s get one key point across. Players do not expect DMs to cater to their needs of a continuous basis. Usually, non-jerk RPG players are willing to compromise at the table for the greater fun, given that a significant encounter, focused on some of their motivations, is played at least every other session or so.

This means that extending your natural style to meet your players halfway is not that hard of a job. The trick is to tweak your encounters (combat and non-combat ones) to hit the tastes of a few of your players at a time. Then make sure that you distribute their “tasty treats” fairly. This will allow you to still get what you want from the game, provided you serve some side-orders of what the others want too.

I’ll cover each category in the next few posts, but before I break this down to bullet points, as a DM you need to accept that none of these motivations are bad or represent a wrong way to play the game. It might not be how you would like to play it all the time but mixing and matching any or all of these styles is part of the broader definition of “roleplaying”. None of those are uncool or wrong.  My experience shows that if you have trouble with this concept, you likely are or will experience trouble at the game table. Sadly, most of it will be caused by your inflexible expectations clashing with those of your players. That’s why I strongly encourage you discuss a campaign’s theme and style before players start making characters.

Are you ready? Stay tuned, the whole series has been scheduled to appear over the next few days.

Up Next: We explore Power Gaming,  Butt Kicking and Tactics


  1. Optimal DM says:

    It would be appropriate to source Robin Laws in your article. You pulled content directly from his book on Game Mastering without giving credit.

  2. While I edited the article accordingly, the reference was a summary of several sources including Robin’s original work. I linked and gave credited in the previous article where I first used that paraphrased list.

    I appreciate your solicitude. I hope you enjoyed the article beyond that.

  3. Optimal DM says:

    Sorry. My post was abrupt and sudden. Your article series is great and is a wonderful read. I should have chosen my words more carefully 🙂

  4. No worries, I appreciate 🙂

  5. Hey again,

    thanks for another good post. Do you think it is possible to appeal to butt-kickers and power-gamers at the same time (assuming that these two cannot be in part merged – I would think that someone who wanted to kick-butt in appropriately challenging encounters would invest in some power play in order to attain that goal)? I can see how if there are no or few power-gamers in a group that the ‘every other session’ would work but in a full mixture of all these traits it can be that in a hard combat it may be that only the butt-kickers who are also power-gamers and the power-gamers who will achieve relative success.

  6. Hey dk,

    Let me parse your question so I make sure I understand it correctly:

    Can Butt-Kickers and Power-Gamers be made happy at the same time? Hell yes, usually players who are motivated by one are often at least partly motivated by the other. Fighting makes you level up and more powers make you better at fighting. So don’t worry too much there.

    A real hard combat, if done for a story-significant reason, and if it offers more than one way to win it other than “kill all the monsters” will likely bring all your players to participate actively, no matter their personal preferences… provided that this big fight does not occur at 10PM after 4 hours of minor skirmishes and other mindless fights.

    Stay tuned for the next posts where I’ll break down each motivations and discuss them in more details.


  7. B.J. Morgan says:

    Great article! I will confess that I am a new DM. The articles have opened my eyes to catering to everyone’s needs.I am looking forward to the next article because I think many of the players at my table fall under either the Power Gamers category or Butt-Kicking category.

    That being said, I am still struggling with keeping all players engaged out side of combat. A couple of the players in our group are “roll players” instead of “role players.” As a new DM, it is really frustrating to have a couple of players check out totally once the last monster falls. The devolve into personal conversations about video games outside of our game. Once combat starts back up… Bam! They return to the world having not a clue as to what has gone on. They end up missing pertinent information outside of combat, but any and all attempts to rope them back in are usually met with failure. Granted, they are both pretty young, but it’s still frustrating to try and address this issue when the Power-Gaming/Butt-Kicking qualities these two adhere to are so extreme. I don’t want to label the a jerk gamers, but it’s becoming hard not to do so!

    I hope you can/will address how to deal with the engagement issues!

  8. Long time since I last read anything on critical-hits, and the first one is a bulls-eye. Where’s the like-button? Nice read Chatty, thx a lot^^. I’ll now go read and enjoy the rest of this series.

    One thing I would like to add though, a thing that the ‘players’ often forget about : The DM/GM is also a player. So he ought to get his share of the fun as well as all the others around the table. I think it only fair, if that “meeting of expectations on half-way” you talked about really comes from both sides, and not just from the DM/GM who tries to accomodate his player’s styles, but also vice versa.

    As you put it, “non-jerk RPG players are willing to compromise at the table for the greater fun”, but after some of my own experiences I just want to underline this, as many players often forget that without the DM/GM putting in work, there would not have been any monster to slay, no treasure to loot, no rewards to spend on ale and whatnot….in other words no game-session at all.

    Anyway, keep up that good writing.


  1. […] Part One, I introduced the subject that a DM had to be aware of his players preferred playing styles and […]

  2. […] Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #3: Mind your Players’ Styles, Part 1 of 4 at Critical Hits: Here’s the start of Chatty DM’s 4-part series on dealing with different player styles at your table. […]

  3. […] part one, I broached how DMs had to be take into account their players’ motivations to play RPGs in […]

  4. […] RPGs and how they can make sure both DMs and players find what they seek. After the introduction in part one, I discussed how DMs can tweak adventure to address Power Gaming, Butt-Kicking and Tactics in part […]

  5. […] here if they aren’t doing anything? Reasons are many and a good intro to player psychology is ChattyDM’s Player Types, which he overtook and improved on from generations of GM’s who pondered this question. The […]