A few days ago, after running a session, a thought struck me. It’s one of the most important things that I think can be asked by any Game Master: What do my players really want out of the game?  While it’s a simple question, and something that doesn’t seem like it would be hard to figure out, a lot of groups get into the groove of playing a game and don’t really think about more than accomplishing the goals of the game.

Ask Yourself First
While the players can definitely answer this question for you, it’s important that you ask it of yourself first. If you’ve been playing with your group for any appreciable amount of time then you are fairly familiar with them and their tastes. You know that Jimmy always plays assassin type characters. You know that Sally always plays chaotic characters. You know a lot of little facts about your players and what they do in your game. Asking yourself what they want, and trying to answer it using all the little bits of knowledge you have about them can help you put together a better picture of your players.

Moe was always my favoriteIf you were to ask Jimmy or Sally what they want out of your game they’re likely to give an incomplete answer.  Sally may say she wants more social interaction scenes. Think about that from the perspective of her play style. She might really be asking for more opportunities to throw monkey wrenches into carefully crafted situations. Her most fun session probably doesn’t have anything to do with defeating the great evil facing the land, but in turning the ambassador’s ball into a recreation of a 3 stooges  short. 

Go Beneath the Surface
More important than just asking the question What do my players really want out of the game? is going deeper and asking Why do my players want what they want? Why does sally like making situations chaotic? Why does Jimmy always play assassin style characters? If Jimmy seems to have the most fun when he takes out an opponent before he is even seen, it might mean that he is a strategist at heart. His preference for the quick kill in game might be more about controlling the situation. There are a multitude of clues in every player’s play style and their choices in the game. Asking What and Why can help you pick those out.

Ask The Players
After you’ve asked yourself what your players want, and after you’ve dug a little deeper and put some connections together, go ahead and ask the players. Ask them what they want from your game in such a way that it links it to their characters. Ask them in a way that gets them to go a bit expository.  If the answers differ from what you thought they were going to be, don’t worry about it. The players might see it as an opportunity to try out some new things. They might play their characters a certain way because it is easy or well known, but when asked, they might talk about things that they didn’t think would be possible in the current adventure, campaign or even in the system itself. They might give you the answers you expected. Whatever answers they give, and whatever ones you came up with on your own, the important thing is to ask the question and get yourself thinking.

So what is it that you think your players want from your game? If you asked them, what do you think they would say?

9 replies
  1. Nicholas
    Nicholas says:

    I really like games with goals or belief systems. That way the player is telling you straight out what they want to do.

  2. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    We are terrible judges of what we really want, often consciously or subconsciously changing our goals into what we think the group around us wants. If you’ve ever been talking about what’s for dinner, and thinking “Chinese”, but weren’t willing to say it until someone else did, you know what I mean.

    The solution is to talk in a relaxed environment. We all bring a huge set of expectations into a game, and when we bring them out into the open and share them, it can make the game much more enjoyable.

  3. Swordgleam
    Swordgleam says:

    My players want plot and character development. I know this because even when I try to make a session pure hack’n’slash, plot and character development happen.

    If I asked them, “What do you want from the game?” the fighter would hand me a list of magic weapons (already has, actually), the paladin would tell me where he wants his subplot to go, the ranger tell me it’s going fine, and the cleric and the warlock would probably try to get out of answering the question.

  4. Troy E. Taylor
    Troy E. Taylor says:

    Knowing when to make the leap from 1) offering up the game/gaming style/motif that you’re interested in; to 2) customizing that game to fit player expectations can be hard to discern. Sometimes, players don’t know what they want. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time — a few wrong turns — and a misunderstanding along the way. Hopefully, if everyone’s goal is to have fun — something can be worked out.

  5. LeighBarlow
    LeighBarlow says:

    The players in our group all want different things:

    Michael wants to just turn up and roll dice. Sometimes he wants to do lots of damage, but mostly he just wants to roll dice.

    Mark wants a great character with lots of quirks that make it through into the main story arc.

    Andrew isn’t bothered about the rules at all as long as the story is good (to the point where his favourite games are diceless).

    Tim wants to do as much as possible, regardless of the other players. It’s not that he wants to be the centre of attention, it’s just that he wants to do it all. He would be happy if the other PCs were really NPCs.

    Luke wants to finesse the rules to create a fantastic and effective character where no one else thought one was possible.

    Alan wants to power game the system to the highest possible effect. Systems he can’t power game he loses interest in and doesn’t turn up for.

    I want to have lots of character interaction in a great adventure story. I also want space opera, but no one else does. 😉

    We’ve played together for over twenty years, I know all this about the players, most of them know it about themselves; we’ve talked about it many times. We work as a group (just, sometimes 😉 ). Those of us who GM try our best to fit something in for everyone, or point players at a character type which will make them happy (i.e. giving Michael a spell casters is not good because there are too many things to read, a fighter, on the other hand, is great because he can just roll a dice and do lots of damage).

    Knowing what the players want means you can help them enjoy their gaming time. Them understanding what a GM can and can’t do stops mitigates the frustration when they don’t get everything they want.

  6. Storyteller
    Storyteller says:

    A trick that I’ve used to good results in the past is handing each player a slip of paper and having them write down three goals their character has. Based on their responses, be it “smashing more goblins in the face” or “discover the mysteries of my past hinted at by the strange beggar” or “nothing, really.” I can gauge which of my players want more fights, more plots, or are perfectly content. This is a pretty easy way at getting to what my players are looking for – not just generally out of the campaign, but in terms of their specific players.

    And of course, DMs must not neglect to think about what they want out of a campaign as well! An unhappy DM can be a dangerous thing!

  7. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    Most of my players don’t want Star Trek. So I don’t run Star Trek. I was pretty disgruntled about that for quite a while until I realized that they wouldn’t enjoy Star Trek as much as I do and there would be no point in running a game for people if they wouldn’t enjoy it.

    So yeah, it is important to be on the same page with your players when it comes to what they want out of a game or even what game they want to play in the first place. Good advice John.

  8. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Nicholas – Games like that are great. I like it when the system encourages players to put down goals, but I find it difficult when the goals/beliefs are mechanically attached to the system. I prefer them to be a little more detached from the system so that they come out in role playing. I’ve found players tend to treat them as one more way to get experience or reward if they are mechanical elements.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – “We are terrible judges of what we really want, often consciously or subconsciously changing our goals into what we think the group around us wants.”

    I fully agree. Often, I’ll start out a game with one expectation for a character and find the way the rest of the group plays it changing where I think things will go.

    @Swordgleam – That’s great that they like plot and character development. I’ve got a few players like that, and a few who are usually just along for the ride/killing.

    @Troy E. Taylor – “Knowing when to make the leap from 1) offering up the game/gaming style/motif that you’re interested in; to 2) customizing that game to fit player expectations can be hard to discern.” Very true. I’ve found very few of my games ever stick to the genre they start out in. Dungeon crawl D&D 3.5 games I’ve run become more nuanced as characters develop. I’ve had some where we’ve thought about switching systems because the current one wasn’t working well for the style of game that was occurring, based on changing player wants.

    @LeighBarlow – Sounds like you’ve got a diverse group. What system do you usually end up playing, or do you jump between systems?

    @Storyteller – Players writing down their goals is a great way to get better answers from players. Like Kurt says, a player might change their mind because they think it won’t fit in with the group’s goals. Writing it down bypasses that and might help get better answers.

    @BryanB – When the GM and the players have a bit of a disconnect in styles, it can definitely be hard to get on the same page. It’s good that you work towards a god group experience. Do you ever get any compromise in your group and get any Star Trek style games?

  9. Lord Inar
    Lord Inar says:

    I want to actually play the game and not have the way the story moves result in me sitting watching others play for a few hours while I’m wondering what fun things my kids are doing at home.

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