Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #3: Mind Your Players’ Styles, Part 2 of 4

In Part One, I introduced the subject that a DM had to be aware of his players preferred playing styles and had to make some efforts to tweak his campaign/adventures to periodically address the need of each one. In this post, I share advice on doing just that for players whose motivation lie in Power Gaming, Butt-Kicking and Tactics.

Power Gaming

Power Gaming is, at its most basic expression, the need for new, shiny things to do with one’s character.  This points to players who like to focus on the mechanical development of their PCs  in order to make them more powerful, efficient and deadly. Such players plan several levels in advance and buy class-specific supplements to pour over them Some even act like CCG tournament players, digging deep for the ultimate combo that will put their characters at the top of the performance range.

To Power On with such players,  you should

  • Take time to learn how their PCs work, at least in broad strokes
  • Review and approve any new power or magic item, make an effort to understand how they may impact the game and say yes as much as possible
  • Create some encounters where recently obtained powers shine
  • Be on the lookout for out of control combos that steal everybody else’s thunder on a consistent basis

You shouldn’t

  • Break, steal or nullify the effect of an item unless you plan to provide a way to rapidly return/replace them
  • Nerf a power in the middle of an encounter because it short-circuits it, that happens and is OK
  • Call players Munchkins or accuse them of breaking your game, if you remain vigilant, that should not happen

If you have many Power Gamers in your group and you have a hard time keeping up with them, feel free to crank the difficulty level a few notch without increasing tangible rewards. See this 4e-focused series where I share tips that can help you.


Butt-Kickers are likely the easiest category of players to please in most RPGs. They show up to throw dice and bash enemies. I’ve played enough convention games to know that many players are content to do this 12 hours a day. Don’t dismiss this gift of the gods, it can save your prep if most of your group likes butt-kicking and you are short on time.

If your players are itching to open a can of whup-ass, you should

  • Monitor your group’s energy and attention level. If it wavers to the point of disruption, drop a fight on them!
  • Make physical conflict a common encounter-type in your game, but not necessarily the most common
  • Mix and match combat encounters types to keep it fresh and exciting for all players
You should not
  • Have back-to-back, multi-hour sessions without combat
  • Come to a game without at least one combat encounter prepped or a way to get one ready in a pinch


These players love to plan. There’s nothing more satisfying to them than seeing a well thought-out plan unfold beautifully as mechanics mesh and inter-character combos go off. You can often see the glee spread around the table when that happens. Tacticians seek to make the most of what the game can do. They’ll take the game’s engine well into the red and draw satisfaction when the intellectual efforts they put into a problem are rewarded.

In the presence of such polyhedral generals, you should

  • Resist the urge to fudge dice rolls behind the screen to “make things harder” when a plan works flawlessly. That’s why they spend so much brain juice in the first place
  • Tweak scenes where players can set ambushes or turn the table on the opponents
  • Set  non-combat encounters based on Mission Impossible models where players can plan and play the roles of Masterminds in complex, Xanatos Gabit-like plans. Capers and con jobs are great examples
  • Mix combat encounters with secondary/parallel objectives, forcing players to make choices and manage limited resources
You should not
  • Let analysis paralysis set in. Nudge your players, summarize what they discussed and don’t hesitate to steer them away from false assumptions
  • Make all combat encounters as “Guardians in this empty room”, add interactive elements to the room that players can learn about and exploit

Up next: Specialty, Method Acting and Storytelling


  1. Thanks for this series, as a fairly new DM (well about a year now, wow that’s flown) I appreciate it! My players seem to have pretty strong tactician tendencies. To keep them entertained, I sometimes try to create combat encounters where the goal isn’t to just kill everyone, things like defend the peasant group from attack as they try to cross the river, or stop as many enemy reinforcements arriving as you can, it always seems to work pretty well. SometimesI can also get away with coming to a game where I can’t actually see any way for them to get out of a situation and just trust them to come up with something ingenious, but it feels a bit cheap so I try not to do that too often!

  2. As a follow up though, what would you suggest for a slightly unbalanced group. I had seven players, six planners and one action guy. It made sense to run the type of game that would appeal to the masses, but the other guy got disassociated very quickly, and I struggled to provide him with an in. I could have run combat, but the other players would have avoided it, meaning a party split and almost certain fatal consequences for the last action hero.

  3. @katat: Thanks for the kudos. Actually, you nopt knowing how players will resolve a particular tactical/strategic challenge is exactly what you should strive for. It’s not cheap at all and will prevent your tendency to expect just one possible solution and therefore discard potentially cool, if crazy, solutions your players come with. Keep up the good work, I firmly believe you are on the right track.

    @Shorty: I’m happy my advice helps. As for your 7th player (boy you run a large group bro), I suggest making the action guy the first to go into the action when the others hatch a plan up. Depending on his abilities and role in the party, he could be the face, the scout, the bruiser or the decoy. But always try to give him the first significant roll in a non-combat scene and let him describe how things go if he succeeds or fails.

    Also, and here’s an easy trick, sometimes, let the Kick-Butting guy do the talking… chances are, he’ll throw a punch at the NPC and an inevitable fight will occur. If your tacticians have been having it too easy… lets see how they react in the middle of unfolding chaos like a tavern brawl where hidden agents of the bad guy get ready to make it REAL deadly with explosives, poison, trapped civilians, and a rowdy action hero that has too much fun to leave soon enough.

    My 2 cents.

  4. For strategists, also don’t listen to the plan that they spent 30 minutes concocting without saying a word only to thwart it by DM fiat in the first 30 seconds of action.

  5. @Target: That is a VERY astute comment. That is a surefire way to create ressentment and sow the seeds of a campaign’s failure. Thanks for bringing this up.


  1. […] motivations to play RPGs in order to keep them interested and involved in a prolonged campaign. In part two, I talked about three categories of motivators: Power Gaming, Butt-Kicking and Tactics.  In this […]