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

In part one, I broached how DMs had to be take into account their players’ 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 post, I’ll tackle Specialty, Method Acting and the much discussed, often misunderstood, Storytelling.


Specialist players are sending you a very loud and clear message about what they want out of your game. It’s not just  “Drows Rangers Rock.” They want their characters to play a significant role within the group and they want to look as cool as possible while doing it. While this can be easy for those who play decked out min-maxed ranged-based rangers, things aren’t always as easy for those who insist on playing sub-optimal/weird characters like mute bards specializing in tribal belly dancing.

Yes, I’ve seen those.

To make a specialist feel… Well, special, you should

  • Set encounters that appeals or calls to the uniqueness of the character. Cat Ninjas need to infiltrate castles and Mime Bards need to… Hmm… Act as distractions while mobs of angry NPCs try to lynch them
  • Build the origins of the character (or his clan/family/race… etc) into one of the key plots of your campaign
  • Have at least one short to mid term Crowning Moment of Awesome planned for the character. Foreshadow it  more  the further down the planned timeline you place it
You should not
  • Make the player feel his character is useless, stupid or unoriginal. Preference in characters is one of those “eye of the beholder” things
  • Create or impose setting elements that invalidate the existence of the character. The classic “Setting canon trumps what you want” is an unfortunate, if classic, argument you should avoid. Work with the player to make what they want work within your establish setting.

Method Acting

Players in this broad category are around the table to explore, play out and tell the story of their characters from an inner perspective. They may want to speak in character. They will play impossibly weird character combinations. They will likely relish having to surmount terrible obstacles that will make their PCs grow, not so much in power but as fully-fleshed characters.

If the table’s a stage and you have Method Actors sitting at it, you should

  • Enforce tolerance and patience in yourself and other to let players get really into their characters a few times and accept weird, uncomfortable character concepts (Cross-Gender, Gay, Religious… etc).
  • Tweak some scenes where your story and the character motivation meet, or better yet, clash violently.
  • Force unbearable moral and characterial choices on players and let them wade in the ensuing drama

You should not

  • Allow such players to hog the spotlight. A 2 min soliloquy is fine, a 15 minute requiem for a dead NPC isin’t… unless everyone really liked that NPC
  • Unnecessarily interrupt the players in mid-sentence or make fun of them for speaking in character. Manage the spotlight, don’t be a tyrant about it.


This is likely the biggest contention between DMs and players. To many DMs, roleplaying and storytelling  are synonymous and equivalent. It isn’t. I’ll make sure to dedicate a whole post on just that very soon.

Players who prefer storytelling want their characters to be part of something  greater than the sum of their adventures. They want to see a world live and breathe around them. This includes players who love to explore for new lore and legends. Where DMs and players often diverge on that point is that players want to be THE main players of that world whereas DMs may consider the worlds they made to be the main characters. Players don’t want to feel like some insignificant worker bee whose job is to act as a glorified Fed Ex service.

If you have Storytellers gathered around your fire, you should

  • Make every encounter play a significant role in the larger story. You need to be able to explain why anything happens in regards to your plots
  • Make most NPCs, even those involved in combat, have goals, fears and a general outlook that storytellers can discover and exploit. Be ready to invent them for minor, nameless NPCs, you never know
  • Make the characters integral, fundamental part of the plot. Make them lost princes, disowned lords or descendants of spiteful tyrants

You should not

  • Chain together combat encounters with generic opponents. They need more complex motivations  than “guard this room”
  • Drop PCs into a dungeon without it having a clear link to a larger story or several areas of exploration that give insight to the setting or the campaign’s plots.

Up next: Watching/Lurking, Instigating and a secret bonus


  1. IME setting up a ‘crowning moment of awesome’ is about the most dangerous thing a GM can do. It requires the player to Step On Up and actually Be Awesome. If they see your set-piece, curl up and Turtle, it turns into a massive disaster.

    Have you read http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/you-are-responsible-for-your-own-orgasm.html ? In general I think that creating the conditions where players can create their own Moments of Awesome is a better approach to trying to cater specifically to player desires through heavy scripting.

  2. Hi.

    I think there should be a distinction in the Storytelling type.

    We should distinguish between the ones who want to PARTICIPATE in a greater story, like you watch a great TV show, like in a more or less preplaned campaign storyline, and the ones who want to BUILD a great story, open-ended to the end, which is IMHO what makes our hobby so unique.

    It’s a huge difference that can radically changes the GM’s behavior, from a director role to a open-ended situations broker one.

    I don’t know how you can put that in your typology :
    – architects and audience ?
    – disruptors and collaborators ?
    – Storyliving and storybuilding ?