Book Review: The GM’s Field Guide to Players by Cherie “Jade” Arbuckle from rpgGM.COM

As a gamer with 30 years of experience both playing and running RPGs, I’ve had my share of disagreements both at and away from the game table. Sometimes the disagreements are with the GM, but usually it was with other players. And some of my least favorite of those have been when I have had issues with players when I was running the game. Not my finest hour. I so wish I had had The GM’s Field Guide to Players about 15 years ago.

No two players are exactly alike. No two GMs are exactly alike. We’re all like snowflakes, right? Well… not exactly.

If you just look at certain key properties and behaviors, you can broadly characterize players and their characters. For instance, if I say a particular character is a “Brick” you can make some guesses about it without too much trouble. Probably a fighter-type, big and brawny, built to take damage and give it right back. But what about the player playing the Brick? What guesses can you make there?

So yes, you can broadly characterize players like you do their characters. That player who loves playing Bricks probably loves combat, wouldn’t you say? Might not be all that useful talking their way out of a situation, but you’d want them on your side in a fight.

Jade (aka Cherie Arbuckle of rpgGM.com fame) is following up her great book The Adventure Creation Handbook
with The GM’s Field Guide to Players, which not only talks about some of the different broad categories of players, but dives into the touchy subject of dealing with problem players as well. No, it’s not a psychology handbook, nor is it “touchy feely” in any way. This is a practical guide to dealing with the part of the game none of us ever really want to think about too often unless it’s too late.

The book deals with seven broad types of players: Character Actor, Combat Monger, Mechanic, Power Gamer, Socialite, Solver, and Storyteller. For each, she offers an overall description along with a few sub-categories, deals with their “virtues and vices,” and offers concrete suggestions on how to use their abilities at the table and what to do and not to do when dealing with them.

Let’s look at one of my least favorite groups of gamers – Power Gamers. These folks want every single XP and GP to go towards making their characters the most powerful around. Merging aspects of the Mechanic and the Combat Monger, Power Gamers use combat to gain the experience or gold they need to get the next shiny item or power and show off what they’ve collected so far. They probably know the system (especially character creation and combat) inside and out and are usually more interested in making powerful characters than creating a character for role-playing. And, we all know that terrible state of “Munchkinism” is just around the bend.

Obviously not every Power Gamer is like this, but you have probably played with one in the past or know of someone today who fits some parts of this description. Jade is careful to make that point at the very beginning. “People are complex. Because of that, you’ll rarely find a player that fits perfectly into one type and no other. Most players will have traits from more than one type but each will usually fit one or two of them better than the others.” (p1) The point is to use this book as a way to identify key attributes and try to address things to make the game more fun for everybody at your table, not to pigeonhole people forever.

What’s a Power Gamer’s virtue? “Power Gamers are great at maximizing their character options and can easily figure out the most effective combinations of character stats, powers, and skills.” (p13) And their vice? “Power Gamers have a difficult time getting past the numbers. They see little point in developing a personality that’s separate from their own or in creating more than a minimal backstory for their characters.”

But don’t be so quick to dismiss them. They can be useful! Use a Power Gamer, like a Mechanic or Combat Monger, as a consultant to help with NPCs or to help other players maximize their advancement choices. Power Gamers can be great to have at the table really at any point in a game.

What not to do with these folks? Don’t punish them for doing what they do best, even if it becomes a problem. Scale any XP rewards based on how difficult it was for the character – but make sure you do this for everybody and don’t single out the Power Gamer. And definitely be willing to say “No.” This is something I have difficulty with in my own gaming and sometimes a hard lesson to learn.

Each of the player types is discussed in this sort of detail, with concrete examples and ideas to help you shape the game so you (as GM) and them (as players) get the most out of every session. Remember, it takes work to run a game but in the end, the goal is to have FUN! It is a GAME after all. :)

As you might expect, the sections on dealing with problem players are just as detailed and informative. Even beyond just figuring out the different problem player types, I think the section “Dealing with Problem Players” should be mandatory reading for every GM, whether new or experienced.

Jade offers a five step method for dealing with problems, but cautions that sometimes you need to skip the first four and go straight to five. Kicking a player out of a group is never easy, but sometimes it can be necessary before things get too far out of hand. But before you get to that point, hopefully there’s been some free communication between GM and player as well as between the players themselves. Step Two sums it up very well – “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.”

The 60-page book offers a clean two-column layout with clear headings, boxes breaking out key quotes, and great images to keep pages from getting too much like a textbook. And the cover is great by artist NJ Huff. The guy hanging out in the palm tree is just one of the different players pictured.

I do have a couple of nits, but I promise they’re really small. I would have liked to have had a worksheet or checklist to apply the lessons learned from the book to the game table. Perhaps a simple worksheet for a gaming group of 3-5 players and the list of player types so you could check a box or two for each of them and take notes beside them. I also might have liked a section that mapped player types to common character types (i.e. Combat Monger => Brick), but maybe that will be a blog topic for another day.

Long story short, The GM’s Field Guide to Players should be on the top of your reading list if you’re a GM. And whether or not you’re in a group with problem players, it will make a great gift to your GM if you’re not the one in charge.

For more from Jade…

 

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