RPGs: That Player Got Game

“Don’t hate the player.”

Then again, it isn’t always the game’s fault either.

This second article contains my observations of the certain types of player you will eventually encounter around a roleplaying table. My aim of course is not to character assassinate different roleplayers, maybe just gently parody them a little. Diversity is brilliant in every area of society. The gaming table, as a microcosm of social behaviours both in real-life (the players) and envisioned (their characters) settings, is wonderfully enriched by a variety of playing and storytelling styles. Therefore, everything written in this article is to be taken with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Also this is by no means a definitive list, just a few of my own musings.

 

The Collector.

Firstly, well done those of you revelling in your own private Guardians of the Galaxy induced sense of self-nerdiness. But let’s keep this to RPGing shall we? There is usually one player amongst the group, sometimes the most experienced but not always, whose key aim is to farm as much experience (XP or Exp) as possible and level up, level up, level up. Essentially they must have all the shiny. But that isn’t limited only to gold coins and jewel-encrusted crowns. Picture the X-Box owner who systematically unlocks every achievement in every game they own, sometimes to the detriment of the intended game experience, although they will tell you they derive the most gratification from seeing that little ‘Unlocked’ box flash up in the corner of the screen. Their character must be bigger, faster, stronger, tougher and better equipped than the last session, every session.

There are two tell-tale signs that give away a collector. Firstly, they tend to play strictly in character – all the time – in the hope of claiming those few extra XPs that DMs dish out for maintaining character throughout the game. Secondly, they always have one eye on their character sheet. They will know the race/class/skill thresholds better than the rules for combat and will remain mindful of just how many XPs they need to reach that next level. There might even be an obsessive desire to find exactly the right spend of points between game sessions to maximise level up results.

I have no real issue with collectors. After all, they are just grown up Boy Scouts looking for badges. They are also likely to be fielding the strongest character in the band and they often come in handy when everyone else has failed vital checks. As long as they aren’t smug about their character’s level and abilities then they will prove useful in a tight spot. The collector may well storm into battle just to be the one to kill the most monsters or be first to make a successful search, siphoning off the few extra XP that comes with such a feat. These are players you can hide behind when the going gets really tough. The interesting thing is, they won’t necessarily want to lead the group and the collector is not always the strongest player in terms of controlling game play and group decisions, because, well let’s face it, they are inherently a selfish bunch with an eye on the prize awaiting them. There is, however, always the added bonus that they will know small and/or obscure rules and stipulations even the DM has forgotten, given the need to juice the session for everything its worth.

It is up to the DM in most cases to ensure that collectors don’t grind (repeat the same skill or activity over and over again) to farm XP. There is nothing wrong with players optimising their XP collecting but game play that becomes repetitive or restrictive to other players will ultimately put the rest of the group off playing with collectors. I have known game groups to cast out collectors’ characters for self-serving behaviour, although, personally I think this trait can become fun when roleplayed properly by the collector themselves. Encourage the collector to make their own obsessions become their character’s fixations also.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed Logo
Dungeons And Dragons 4th Edition Logo © Wizards Of The Coast

Collectors are best served by roleplay games with multiple streams of XP income. Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives are known for their generous (sometimes excessive) use of XP to aid character progression, although almost all traditional RPGs will use some form of in-game currency for buying the shiny new things so highly sought after by the collector.

 

The Orc Slayer

Orc, dragon, kobold, Dark Elf, henchman, mutant. It really doesn’t matter what flavour of villainous NPC is before them, they are ready to take them down. Amongst you sit the frustrated and the brow-beaten. They are typically suited and booted for 90% of the week and unable to unwind unless they are round the gaming table. Take a good look next session, they are probably still wearing their crisp-white, work shirt. Now, amongst understanding friends, they have the ability and the setting to cast off the shackles and really stick it to the man.

The orc slayer is probably picturing his or her boss whilst in the act of hacking and slashing their hapless victims. If they are the boss, then the evil hordes before them are their incompetent, undermining minions and the hacking and slashing will be twice as brutal. The character will be simple, the character sheet sketchy. They didn’t have time to prepare fanciful names and backgrounds. Typically they will be barbarians or warriors, mechs or droids with singular pronouns. Barbarians are perfect because you can grunt and be playing flawlessly in role.

I love players who are so unaffected by pride or appearance that they would embrace such a persona. Very young players often have these characters foisted on them because they rarely demand tactical thinking. Run in, draw your huge bastard sword and roll a few dice. And that is pretty much it for the orc slayer. Keep rolling that handful of dice until they are dead. All dead. It sounds simple but there is an attention to detail that other players can miss when they have a warrior in the party. Because you are there just to fight off the bad guys and become a human shield for your wizards and bards, right? It goes without saying that Conan is fairly useless in a delicate social situation that requires charismatic qualities. But the orc slayer needs to find just where they fit in the group beyond being hired muscle. What if the team needs you to flex your wits and tact? A good DM will ensure you can’t play dumb forever. Sooner or later the fighter will need to play the hero for entirely different reasons. And there is a collective sense of excitement and gratitude when the big lumbering ape pulls it off.

Orc slayers often have very little to go on when roleplaying their character. This is usually by choice and it suits the desire to just ‘run, hack, roll’. But sparsely written character notes can create mystery and intrigue. Why doesn’t the big man say much? Just what is he running from anyway? What is he compensating for? In the right hands, an orc slayer’s choice of archetype can prove as deep and interesting a role as the niftiest of shadow rogues or brainiest of computer-hacking nerds. Don’t underestimate the player who chooses the non-noble warrior class and neither the character they play.

Vampire The Masquerade Logo
Vampire The Masquerade Logo © White Wolf Publishing

Orc slayers can find races, classes and archetypes across the whole RPG range. From the most standard of genre tropes, the loincloth wearing He-Man, to the humble, stock NPC kobold – who more recently has become better understood and tolerated. Even vampires buy into the concept of the thuggish brute, in the form of the Brujah clan in Masquerade.

 

The General

Possibly the most divisive player in my experience and there is usually always one of them lurking around the table. If you can’t spot one in your gaming group, then it might just be you. Traditionally wargamers and tabletop miniature gamers, the general is the one who will bring the plastic figures to the session. They’ve specifically chosen the right model for each member of the party so they can push them round a map like Churchill in his Cabinet War Rooms in 1941. Generals tend to gravitate to becoming DMs, for the reasons I shall put forward in a moment, but that is not always the case. Sometimes they get more enjoyment from commanding their army (the other players) in battle. This can lead them to meta-generaling: employing their own NPC group to boss around when they comprehend that the other gamers aren’t playing ball.

The general enjoys a certain gritty realism in their roleplaying experience, maybe even demands it. Not content unless giving orders and commands, even if just to themselves, they enjoy the tactical elements of combat and problem resolution. This sense of desired realism actually makes them pretty consistent RPGers, rarely deviating from the script of ‘attack’, ‘rally’, ‘defend’, and so on. Also they tend to make their views known at all times, so their actions should spring few surprises. They can, of course, be ignored and the DM needs to maintain a balance of who is really in charge of the session. Sometimes the models and the dry wipe gridded map need to go back in the bag. However, nothing ruins an atmosphere more than procrastination and the general will take it upon themselves to keep the session in shipshape and Bristol fashion.

You can spot a general before they start with the ordering about. They will be found obsessing over line of sight and distance between and positions of targets. The general will be thinking about cover, escape routes and supplies, three things most likely to be forgotten by other players. And they will make it quite clear when they think another player should have remembered. I envisage generals to like RPGs with hand management and myriad charts to refer to, rather than the more unrealistic and luck-driven effects of dice rolling. Whatever their preferences, there are a multitude of RPGs suitable for the general.

Achtung Cthulhu Logo
Achtung Cthulhu Logo © Modiphius

The most obvious fits would be universes where generals could play characters who actually are generals: Achtung Cthulhu and Warhammer 40k spring to mind, even though these are dice driven. It wouldn’t stop an armchair general from becoming one if the class types didn’t allow for it, even if their character is a Halfling cook. After all, Shadowrun cyberpunk mobs need leaders too.

 

The Professional

Not so much a professional in the sense of earning money for playing RPGs, although wouldn’t that be a dream job? This player is interested in playing particular character types. Really, really specific ones. I remember always playing High Elf characters as a young roleplayer but I’m talking about the guy with all the source books, class specialism companions and tech tree expansions. The ‘casual’ professional (if that isn’t an oxymoron) will just stick to playing a particular archetype in every game: popular ones include pirates, rogues, wizards and ninjas. Normally something that allows them to play somebody cooler than they are in real life.

They can be quite pushy, these professional types. The DM will know that when the professional enters the room they will expect their character to be able to do the things that make them cool. So plenty of stealthy night manoeuvres or fireball casting in dank dungeons will ensue. They picked this character for a reason and they are going to make the most of it. On the plus side, professionals tend to know everything about their character/class type and the skill set they come with. Play a dwarf miner in a fantasy pseudo-medieval setting and the same set of statistics and skills are likely to be present in a steampunk future campaign world too. Let’s face it: a dwarf is a dwarf at the end of the day. This means that the professional will come armed to every session with knowledge and insights the other players will only ever dreaming of having. They play quickly and efficiently, if for no other reason than to show off the affinity they have with their character, like a slightly perverse symbiotic relationship. These people (you know the ones) often know these character types better than they know actual people.

On the flip side of the ‘casual’ professional is the ‘committed’ professional. Now we really are walking into the realms of roleplaying nerddom. Their character choices are often far more specific than their casual counterparts. A monster type may be involved (cats, wookies, lycanthropes), or a selection of particular magic wielders far narrower than just a plain old wizard (paladin, shaman, magi). You’ll spot these players immediately, long before they’ve started reeling off a list of sub-classes and their respective traits. A committed professional will have class companions from third party publishers. Probably more than one, to fit each game genre and rule system. But they brought them all because there’s some really useful cross-reference information. There will be an intricate back-story and probably a house crest and family tree.

The DM has a duty to keep the professional in check so things do not always have to be resolved the way they choose to suit their character. But the professional can be great fun to play with since they’ve already immersed themselves in the lore of their character long before they arrived at the table. My favourite game experiences tend to happen with deeply thematic, storytelling games, so thinking about it as I write this, the committed professional is probably the closest I get to an RPG gamer type.

PathfinderRPG Logo
PathfinderRPG Logo © Paizo Publishing

Any game system with race or class specific companions will suit the professional. Open source systems such as d20 have plenty of scope, but fan friendly settings such as Pathfinder and Savage Worlds have just as much breadth and depth. The specialisation decks that Fantasy Flight has produced for Edge of Empire and Age of Rebellion may just scratch the itch of a professional.

 

The Social Gamer

We all started somewhere. We may not have been casual gamers per se, but many of us roleplayed as a form of social interaction. All our friends were doing it and it looked cool, so we joined in. The social gamer isn’t necessarily the newbie or the friend who came when you used to only play Settlers or Hanabi, and stayed. Some people stay social gamers for life. They’d have a t-shirt with that very motto on it but they’re just not into geek culture enough to wear a t-shirt with an in-joke printed on it. Social gamers make great RPGers in my experience. They watch enough genre TV and film to pull off the lingo, even if they favour the more mainstream efforts (Game of Thrones over Kingdom of Heaven, Star Trek instead of Serenity). They keep everyone grounded and keep things fun and undemanding. You can’t really be a social gamer who DMs mind. They are probably likely to understand why it’s important to ‘let the wookie win’ and that you’ll ‘be back’ but less inclined to know why you ‘maybe dead but still pretty’ and even less sure why someone ‘knew you’d say that’. However, they will know most of what is expected of them, even if they shy away from silly voices, so they shouldn’t be underestimated.

In my experience, social gamers also like dice. I think my genuine affection for the little critters (dice, not gamers) wore off when rolling handfuls during Warhammer battles and hitting with none of them. But there is a nice novelty to rolling multi-faceted die, especially custom ones with funny symbols, if your adolescence wasn’t scarred by bad dice rolling.

DMs need to keep social gamers up to speed otherwise the game tends to enter that frantic stage of close quarters combat or hopping from moving airship to bursting through a window, when the dice rolling and statistic cross-checking just becomes too much. Couple these stressful moments with generals barking orders and collectors scene-stealing (and more precisely, XP-stealing) and the social gamer might be done for the night!

Fiasco Game
Fiasco © Bully Pulpit Games

The social gamer would probably be down with giving any system a try, it’s just a game right? It doesn’t matter if they don’t get every last detail correct first time. But familiar settings with plenty of name dropping might help to keep them involved and in character. Failing that then maybe it’s time for the group to try a more social system in their next session. Fate and Fiasco offer players a full on RPG experience with a little less stat checking and a lot more action defined by social interaction amongst the gamers and their DM. Both are highly recommended, whether in the company of social gamers or not.

 

The Conclusion

No, not another roleplayer, just the general summing up of my thoughts. In my opinion, RPG groups need a mix of gamer types. You can’t all be generals, you’d fall out. You can’t all be orc slayers, you’d kill each other. Mixing and matching is fun and allowing a player’s natural instincts to come through can help them to get fully into the game. There is nothing worse than bringing a general to the table, having them play a system they are unfamiliar with or are not keen on, and then persecuting them for trying to take command. Game nights should be fun and playful and people don’t like to feel that they are being suppressed. Yes, it can be annoying when a player isn’t listening to sound advice, or will only grunt monosyllabically, or flies off alone to face a fleet of alien ships without consulting the group. But using these moments and turning them into conflict points and plot twists within the game can be fun for the DM, as well as the players.

Everyone has a voice around a roleplay table. They should be allowed to express it as they wish. A lot of the time they haven’t chosen to game that way, it comes naturally, even if it’s natural ignorance or arrogance. Don’t hate the other players for being the gamers they are. You must not hate the game either. So, you know, if a gamer type does start to rattle the group just a few quiet words might help everyone enjoy the game a little more.

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