Knowing Your Players

The encounters are built, the maps are drawn, and the story has been loosely organized on 3×5 note cards to make them easily interchangeable upon the whims of a die roll – lights, camera… Actors?


It’s a dirty term, but the players of any DnD session are essentially a motley crew of actors who come together several times a month to not only play, but to play a part in a world completely constructed on the thin strands of imagination we all have nearly forgotten when falling into the world of adulthood (and succumbing to all that entails). Each player builds a role, a character, an archetype they would love to experience this new world through, and then fills that role to the best of their abilities, the whole while being subjected to the whims and fancies of their sometimes patient, sometimes deviant director: the Dungeon Master. Using this analogy further, there isn’t one piece, or talent, of this troupe that isn’t more important than the other (regardless of what anyone tries to tell you). With out a director the actors don’t know which edge of the stage to fling themselves from, and with out the actors the director is a sad man, alone, on an empty stage with a head full of things no one will ever see. No one person at the gaming table has the right to feel that they are the center focus beyond when it is their turn or moment, just like no actor should try to steal the limelight during another actors dramatic entrance, or exit, because they feel that they alone deserve to be center stage. Each player plays their part, both in and out of character, and it heavily impacts not only the landscape of the world in which they play but it also challenges the DM to play to those characters individual strengths. But to do so the DM has to identify what type of players they have filling the roles of the heroes. Luckily, these players generally fall into four archetypes that are pretty easy to spot, if you know what you’re looking for. (I know, I ended a sentence with a preposition!)

The Role Player
Some players have more of a thespian flare in their approach to table top gaming, and they are given the vaguely, all encompassing, name of the Role Player. They like acting out each individual action or movement, throwing in a distinguishing accent or a character quirk that really goes beyond what their player stats can tell us at first glance. A roll of the dice for this player is little more than an inconvenience, or, if they are a bit self-conscious, an earmark for them to know that maybe they should work on their acting chops before trying to woo the DM with their performance. These players usually do fine at my table, when at my table, mainly because after playing through DnD 4e, the tactical crossbred spawn of getting your warhammer in my DnD slop, it’s nice to see a character act out an action, or describe how they do something with a certain finesse that, honestly, the dice and stats cannot relay. And usually, when putting on the performance, I let them do whatever it was that they wanted – or at the very least give them a bonus to their roll (or even advantage). The only real issue with a Role Player would be “spotlight” stealing, or even the fated “over acting.” To bring it down, I like to think of the Role Player as that kid in the classroom who always has something to say, sometimes its gut bustingly hilarious, while other times it turns the entire game into a session of “look at me.” A good DM would do well to let these players sprinkle their individual flare into the gaming session, allowing them to really play “make believe” and immerse themselves in the fantasy world which you have put forth for them; but a better DM would also know when the actions, or acted actions and glibs and whips and retorts of the Role Player have started to bog down the other players, and then utters the “shush.”

Having a Roleplayer challenges the DM to be more like them, be a roleplayer, to breath life into the stats and numbers on the paper and really make the moments at the gaming table last a life time, as well as help in building improvisational techniques which can only be taught through trial and error (after error after error after error).

The Power Player
Other players love fourth edition, and sorry if that joke seemed a little bit more bitter than I intended it to (I am a recovering fourth edition DM, and all). These players are the tacticians, the power houses, the characters that need to know how far they are from the baddies, how fast they can climb up a rope using their dex modifier instead of their strength, and the players who try to explain, or convince, the DM that yes, their half-orc rogue CAN use a spear as a sneak attack weapon because there isn’t a rule against it. These are the power players, the Min-Maxers if you will, are players who forgo making a well rounded character and stick to dealing as much damage as they can. While the table top thespian is busy trying to convince the Archamge lich not to destroy a nearby village and perhaps working out some type of agreement where both parties avoid using their hit dice, this tactical mastermind is wondering if they have advantage on the Archmage lich and how much HP they can knock away before the DM makes the party roll initiative. Even though Min/Max seems to be a dirty word in the table top community, every party would be good to have one, but perhaps only one. Just like the Role Player, min/maxers have the ability to really slog out a session by stealing some of the spotlight; the only difference is while the thespian is doing his “look at me” routine, the power player is stealing game time to present how and why they should be able to sneak with a martial weapon at every conceivable angle, much to the chagrin of the other players and DM alike. With the down sides though, these players play it by the numbers, that’s their fun and that’s fine. As a DM it keeps you on your toes when trying to create balanced experiences that cater to the entire party, as well as giving the DM opportunities to create house rules that bring an individual flair to the gaming table. Min/Maxing is only a dirty word when you let it outshine the rest of the game.

The Rules Lawyer
While the Role player is gallivanting about the tavern, trying to convince the party that an alliance with an Archmage Lich would be a good idea, and while the power player is wondering why the party didn’t just kill the Lich and crush phylactery just for the experience; the Rules Lawyer is there trying to figure out the DC of the Role Players Persuasion checks and how the Power Player can use sneak attack with a martial weapon. Always thought of as any given party’s “stick in the mud,” the Rules Lawyer gets a bad, if not sometimes earned, rap; but they are almost a necessity for any good DM. Being Dungeon Master takes a lot of memory and concentration, from remembering WHY the players wanted to make a business in selling to-scale phylacteries to deciding whether or not this will win over the Archmage Lich, there simply isn’t enough space in the average person’s head to also remember every single rule that has been written – and that’s where the Rules Lawyer comes into play.

Utilized to their potential, the Rules Lawyer can be a DM’s right hand man (or woman, or other, or whatever). Can’t remember how much a character takes for falling, ask the Rules Lawyer. Don’t remember the penalties for quarter coverage, ask the Rules Lawyer. Can’t remember at what level characters get a feat, don’t worry, just ask your local Rules Lawyer. These guys are walking, talking, encyclopedic knowledge of the engine that runs your game and are there to make sure that you have dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s. But too much of a good thing can be bad, really bad. In the case of a Rules Lawyer, they can become a game halting force more powerful than the antics of the Role Player and the brooding, AC crushing desire of the Power Player; but even worse, unchecked they can also start instilling a sense incompetency and ignorance on your behalf into the players. Do no pass go, do not collect 200 dollars, and there’s now way that this character survived falling from such a height. The best things to do with a Rules Lawyer is to let them know what rules you are keeping and throwing out, and reminding them that while there are rules, there are also DM rules. Allow them to make their case, but during a gaming session be quick, firm, and, more importantly, consistent with your rulings. Rules Lawyers are players, remember that, they are here to have fun with the rest of us, they just play the game by, well, the rules. Keep one around, but don’t let them push you around.

The “I’m Just Here to Play” Player
While the three players above are parading around, adding their individual flavors to the session (sometimes to the woe of the DM), the “I’m Just Here to Play” player is sitting back and waiting for their turn. Whether they are a newbie, disinterested in the immersion of the game but enjoy hanging out with their friends, or whatever the case, they are a player none-the-less. The problem with these types of players is that it is hard for the DM to get a read on them, which can lead to a lot of internal conflict such as: Are they having fun, am I ignoring them, are they bored, are they nervous, what am I DOING WRONG? Don’t worry. Take a deep breath, have a glass of water, and just ask them. Nine out of ten times this player will tell you that yes, they are having fun, so there’s no need to be overly worried. They are here to play, to play a game, to play a game with friends; and that’s all sorts of important (if not the most important) when playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Mechanically, the “just here to play” player is a load off the DM’s mind. While the other players are trying to outwit the DM or scour through the rules, extending there battle turns from seconds into minutes, the Just here to Play player just does his action, makes his movement, and then moves on with it. It’s almost breathtaking to see. No squabble, no fuss, just a game in motion. If you have a “just here to play” player at the table, don’t prod or poke them. If they aren’t into roleplaying, don’t force it on them, if they aren’t maxing out their damage, don’t hold it against them, and for gods’ sake, don’t make them the bloody party leader thinking that it will help them “come out of their shell” – they’re comfortable in there, leave them alone.

Just as any good director knows how to use each actors strengths and weakness to the advantage of the production, a good will know how to utilize the strengths and weakness to the advantage of the game. While not every single player will fall directly into each category, each player does favor one side or another; and spotting and using those attributes can really help the gaming table become a singular unit. Just don’t force it. Don’t shoehorn the Just here to Play player into the party leader role, don’t tell the power player NO before hearing why he wants to do something, and don’t saturate the entire gaming session with combat so that the Role Player doesn’t have at least one or two chances to shine; work with them, not against them, but make sure that none of their decisions or actions take precedents over another player, or the enjoyment of the entire game.


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