Creighton’s Corner: Know Your Players

So you’re a GM thinking about starting a new campaign. No doubt, you’ve got some cool ideas and are champing at the bit to get started, but how do you know your players will enjoy what you’ve planned? Better yet, wouldn’t it be cool to know what your players enjoy about gaming before spending hours and hours crafting a module or campaign?

One of the most vital aspects of a GM’s “job” is to know the players sitting at his table. While it is likely that you may have known and even gamed with some of your players for years (or decades) it is still important to understand exactly what each of the participants wants from a gaming session. For example, if most of your players love combat crafting a highly complex political game is probably going to be a waste of time.

So even before you start to think about what adventures you are going to run you need to think about your players (and of course yourself) want from the game. Successful campaigns are those that all participants feel excited and energised about and if a campaign or adventure contains elements designed to play to the participants’ likes, the game is much more likely to be a success.

Challenge/Role-Play Matrix

Several years ago, I ran into a problem during one of my campaigns. I was running a 3.5 conversion of the classic Temple of Elemental Evil and the campaign had started well, but game play had hit a dead spot. Energy was low around the table and some of the players seemed frustrated. The campaign had clearly hit a stale patch – most of the participants didn’t really seem to be enjoying themselves and I didn’t know why.

Luckily, the (real life) job I held at the time presented a solution. We’d been playing with Eisenhower matrixes and I decided to design one to illustrate what we all wanted to get out of the game.

The challenge/role-play matrix measures gamers’ enjoyment of challenges (combat, skill challenges and so on) and role-playing (character portrayal and development, campaign back-story, plot and so on) and plots them in a handy visual format.

Using the matrix is simple; ask each participant to grade challenge and role-play on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being dislike a lot and 10 being like a lot) before plotting their positions on the matrix. Plotting them thusly lets a GM easily see exactly how his goals for gaming relate to his players (and to see how alike his players are). The matrix also acts as an excellent reminder of the players’ likes and dislikes while designing encounters and adventures, enabling the GM to better create situations the players will enjoy.

While the matrix is a handy visual reference it is still important to talk with the players about the course and flavour of the game; using the matrix, however, gives the GM an excellent place to start that conversion.

The attached example shows the results of the original matrix. It was immediately obvious what the problem was. One of the players (and as it turned out the most vocal) much preferred combat to role-play and wherever possible steered the group towards those situation exclusively. Understanding this problem enabled me to design more role-play situation while keeping a large element of combat for the other player.

Next Time

Next time I’ll consider exactly what a campaign is and discuss several approaches to starting a new one!

About the Designer

Creighton is a keen gamer who passionately believes in the Open Gaming License and is dedicated to making his games as fun and easy to enjoy as possible for all participants. Reducing or removing entry barriers, simplifying pre-game prep and easing the GM’s workload are the key underpinning principles of the products he releases through Raging Swan Press.

Over the last 11 years, Creighton has worked with Expeditious Press, Paizo and Wizards of the Coast. He now releases his own products through Raging Swan Press. You can read his thoughts on game design at raging-swan.livejournal.com.

Creighton lives in Torquay, England where, apparently, the palm trees are plastic and the weather is warm. He shares a ramshackle old mansion with his two children (“Genghis” and “Khan”) and his patient wife. Famed for his unending love affair with booze and pizza he is an enduring GREYHAWK fan.

[Editor's Note: Creighton has graciously offered the opportunity for U.S. readers to check out this series of columns originally posted at the UK Roleplayers site about a year ago. This is the first article in a series. It first appeared here on 5-MAR-2011.]

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5 comments to Creighton’s Corner: Know Your Players

  • Guest

    I like the idea but not the axes; there’s more to RPGs than silly voices and skill rolls. Combat is essential but shouldn’t be the focus.

    I might even score as a non-gamer on this graph because my tastes are orthogonal to both. Consider classic D&D based games like Nethack, Eye of the Beholder and Warlock on Firetop Mountain. They’re recognisably D&D-ish with no acting, only a little combat and wouldn’t be improved by adding more of either.

  • forged

    Welcome aboard Creighton.

    What you suggest is an interesting way to look at what the players are interested in. Another common suggestion I’ve seen is to use a survey when trying to narrow down the concepts for a campaign to run.

  • Creighton Broadhurst

    Thanks chaps! I’m glad you found it interesting.

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