What Players Really Want


As a gamemaster, your most important job is keeping the players happy. There are mundane reasons for this: if you don't have happy players, soon you won't have players at all. Ultimately you want to keep the players happy because roleplaying is a recreational activity; whether you're telling a good story or presenting difficult tactical problems, the point is to have fun.

As a gamemaster, your most important job is keeping the players happy. There are mundane reasons for this: if you don't have happy players, soon you won't have players at all. Ultimately you want to keep the players happy because roleplaying is a recreational activity; whether you're telling a good story or presenting difficult tactical problems, the point is to have fun.

Most players think they know what they define as fun. They'll often tell you in
no uncertain terms, hint at their desires by their actions or include them in their out-of-game conversations with other players. A good game master should be receptive to these direct requests and aware of the more indirect ones - but a great gamemaster knows which ones to listen to and which to disregard.

You see, players who think they know what they want are wrong - or, at the very least, they don't know what will actually make them happy with the game.

Most players say they want two categories of things. They want to play interesting characters, whether they define interesting as powerful, intelligent, emotionally complex, or a host of other things. They also say they want to succeed in their goals, be those goals defeating the bad guys, solving the mystery, or obtaining the magic sword.

Unfortunately, the players generally want immediate gratification on both counts. They want characters who start the game as powerful, interesting or cool; they want to succeed at their goals quickly and assuredly. These are perfectly reasonable things to want! After all, as players, they're extremely invested in their character's success, however they define the term. As a gamemaster, it's your job to create opportunities for character development and narrative challenge, and that means knowing when to stop giving the players what they want and when to start making them work for it.

Let's look at that first category: all players want to play interesting characters. They define "interesting" in different ways, of course. Some players will want to start the game with a character who is good in combat, others will create a very detailed and realistic character, and still others will develop elaborate back-story.

It's tempting to give into the desire for players to start with whatever characters they like, so long as it won't affect the enjoyment of the game for other players. Why shouldn't you let a player who wants their character to be good at combat take five Aspect, six cyber-combat, or seven single weapon? These are extreme values, to be sure, but they are within the fair and balanced limits of character creation. After all, the player has a vision for who their character is at the beginning of the game, and presumably realizing this vision will make them happy, right?


Unless the game is extremely short-term, a player whose character begins as a combat master (or an intellectual giant, or a social diva) is not going to be as satisfied as one whose character becomes that way over the course of the game. Though most players believe they want characters who just plain kick ass, in the long run players are happier when the ass-kicking is part of the character's story arc rather than a bare fact about them.

Here's a typical example from a game I've run: one character began the game with incredible skill at hand to hand combat. This knack was part of their character from the very beginning as, at character creation, he had a high strength and dexterity, a world class fighting skill, and the ability to grow brutally effective claws on his hands. However, as the game progressed, this character had basically no way to advance their primary ability, hand to hand combat. He was simply too good at it! As the game progressed and the character couldn't advance much, the other characters began to catch up in this area of specialty, making the player feel like he was losing what made him unique in the group. Additionally, he could never be offered rewards based on his primary abilities. Instead of having the game's challenges play to his strengths, his limited ability to advance meant the opportunities he gained played to his weaknesses. Not that having a balanced character is a bad thing, of course! But the player didn't feel nearly as happy with the combat aspects of the character as he'd thought he would.

This principle applies to more than just a character's statistics; it applies to their background as well. Consider the almost stereotypical example of the character whose parents were killed by orcs. If this is simply a part of their background, dictated by the player during character creation, it can only have a limited effect on the character. Every time the character meets an orc she will think, "My parents were killed by orcs, attack!" But if the parental death occurs during the game then the player will roleplay out the shock at learning of their parents' death, their horror at the mauled condition of the bodies, and possibly even the stages of grief that they went through. When the character encounters orcs she will be thinking of specific incidents that the player knows vividly because they played them out. The character's rage might even turn out to be fear or renewed grief depending on how the scenes involving their parents' death went. While it might sound like fun to have the death happen in the character's backstory, in the long run there's much more story to be gotten out of it if it happens during the game. Playing this incident out makes the incident more real for the player, and makes it more central to the character.

Now, this advice is great, but obviously you can't make every incident and talent that's part of the character happen after character creation. If you do there won't actually be a character to start the game with. The key is to be the advocate for character development during the game, because the player will almost certainly advocate for character developed-ness at the beginning of the game. Between the two of you, you should be able to create an interesting starting character who still has plenty of abilities to develop and events to experience. This needs to be a collaborative process; if you dictate these changes to your players you are going to end up with some very unhappy players, and that would make the entire exercise irrelevant.

Having a good game isn't simply about creating a character. A character's abilities and background can be fascinating, but the ultimate point is for the character to play through a story. Not only do you, as a game master, need to help the player balance their desires about who the character is, you also need to control what the character can do.

This is the second category of what players think they want: to have their characters succeed at what they attempt. They might want to kill the orc chieftain, get elected president, or insult their rival in public - but no matter which goal they aspire to, they want to see it happen, because that's what's fun, right?

Actually, no: wrong again. Sure, it seems obvious a player who does successfully hack off the orc chieftain's head is going to feel pretty pleased. Assuming you run things well, that moment when sword separates head from shoulders is going to be talked about forever (or at least until you create a story just as good next week).

But the orc-head-hacking itself isn't what will get and keep the players' interest. Walking into camp and decapitating an orc, no matter how well-described, will make the players feel as though the victory has been handed to them, not won by them. What makes things interesting are the obstacles you place between the players and that moment of victory, and especially the times they fail when confronting those obstacles.

There can be, and should be, a thousand hurdles to jump before the orc chieftain is killed, and in fact even before the players attack him. There are guards to defeat, an orc siege to lift, and evil clerics to destroy. Less obvious obstacles might include deserts to cross or secret spells to learn. Each obstacle the players defeat brings them one step closer to killing the final foe and adds to the story of the struggle. Each setback they face adds to the story as well, and makes the foe seem even more worthy. If the players have been defeated in the course of trying to destroy the foe they will savor the eventual victory even more. Prison camps, stolen items, and maimed limbs are just a few sorts of (mostly) temporary setbacks the players can endure as they struggle to defeat their foe. When they finally win they won't just be celebrating because the foe is dead, but because they have endured every challenge and faced down the bleakest odds to achieve victory.

This technique can enhance non-combative play as well. One character in a session I ran recently was involved in a long term social rivalry with a non-player character. The NPC had slightly more social standing than the player character and always seemed to have a witty retort to anything the PC could say.

With some effort the PC was able to discover a rumor about the NPCs political ambitions from outside sources and throw the rumor into conversation in a surprising way. The NPC, quite surprised by this, was stunned into silence. Objectively this barely seems like a victory since the player character didn't really gain much except for an ephemeral social coup - but the players are still talking about the incident. Because the foe was so competent and the player suffered so many defeats before he won, even such a minor victory was seen as a major accomplishment.

Your players will be most rewarded by successes they achieve against the odds and through their own perseverance and intelligence. Don't get afraid to drag your characters through the mud before they get a shot at the Big Bad. In fact, you should be worried if they haven't gone through hell before the denouement of your adventure. Each obstacle you throw in their way makes the climax of the story, and the success they say they want, seem that much more worthwhile.

So often what the players think they want, be it at character creation or during session, is not what they really want. As a gamemaster it's important to be able to tell the difference. Most players would never say so, but they like to be challenged. They don't want to be handed cool powers, an exciting back story, or victory over the villain - they want to earn it. So push your players as hard as you can. Push them so hard that they fail. Force them to develop their characters to the fullest against all odds. Make struggle so common that success is that much more rewarding. Because - whether or not they say so - it's what your players really want.

Quite true, but it is also really obvious to long time GMs. Mainly because if they don't understand it they would not be long time GMs.

With all due respect, just because ‘Bob’ is a long term DM does not make him a good GM. I know some people that flat out manipulate others to stay as DM. Those people use techniques like ‘Deus Ex Machina’ to keep (influential) players eating out of their hand. I do, however, hope that these people are far and few in between.

Great article. My RPG group has been hack-and-slash, but recently I started adding in some storyline and directing them away from combat as the sole objective. So far the results have been good.

Milow, I suppose you commented my comment. I don't personally known such people but according you there are some (and I have certainly no reason to not to believe you). It makes me think that why players are keeping such a GM (obvious answer: there is nothing better available). If I like to split hairs then I would mention the fact that I didn't mention that they would all do as they know is the best, but because I don't like hairsplitting, I don't mention it (but, I did it already).

VBM, I see where you're coming from. Its just that the GMs I am referring to are extreme munchkins (and run their games accordingly). Since two of the other players are also munchkins all the current GM has to do is keep them happy (to stay in power). I have been GM in the past and used the techniques above; they voted me out a session later. I was simply applying brevity to my above post, which lead you not to know the situation (in enough detail) that I am dealing with. It was simply too early in the morning for me to be able to write well (note the switch from DM to GM). This was because some Jehovah’s Witnesses decided to drop by and spread the 'word' uninvited at 5:30am.

Although, I have made progress in this situation, one of the munchkin players left which allowed me a few sessions to run a D:tF chronicle. Since I am not a munchkin I will not dole out power like the other GMs do. This will probably be a very short D:tF chronicle…

Milow, three munchkins in group? If I would suffer from that I would not be very happy (I have played with only one nearly muchkin - and it was not so fun). But three or two or even one player less is sometimes very fatal to some groups (it would be very fatal to our group which, unfortunately, consist only me and my best friend). I did not mention munchkins, even so that I thought it that munchins and powergamers are probably only players who would accept such a behauviour from GM.

I don't usually give much for example magical items - in our GURPS campaign (genre: Fantasy) we have not even single magical item in party (Starting Point Total: 100, Point Total now: somewhere above 150) which consist three PCs (all controlled by same person) and six NPCs. Player should be happy about that because I think that cursed items are much more funny.

One funny thing to do to munchkins and powergamers is to allow them get what they want and then because they are too overconfident to avoid danger make their characters blind, lose hand or something similar. I have not tested that but it could be fun... although they migh be very angry about it (perhaps more angrier than otherwise).

VBM, I too, share an affinity with cursed magical items, especially the made up ones. The second session starts tomorrow and I can not wait to try out your suggestions. Although they may be angsty because of the torture methods I will use. They may take it all in stride (although I do not believe the bouncer will take going bald well).

I sometimes wish that I could go back to the days of being the GM of only one PC. Those are often the most rewarding stories to tell because you don’t have to worry as much about offending someone with the content in the campaign or the dramatic scenes that tend to make groups of people antsy.

I also think that part of the point of the article is that wanting instant gratification isn't just something that powergamers and munchkins want. I've had people submit twenty-page character histories which left me pretty much no emotional or dramatic twists and turns to throw at the during the course of the story that they hadn't already come up with on their own, for example. Even if on the surface it looks like a good idea to give the players what they want when it isn't upsetting game balance, sometimes it makes a better story and a more fun experience to make them work for it in-game.

Jess, you are right that powergamers and munchkins are not only ones to want it, but in my opinion they are more likely to be displeased if they don't get it.

Milow, yes being GM to only one PC has some advantages (icluding also that it is easier to get the group together). My reason to want more players is that I have been over two years only player under GM and about four years GM of only one player. I have been nearly year as a GM of two players. And very little time (about mont or two) as a one of two players under GM. So I have been most of my time part of the group of two.

I have to say I greatly disagree with the statement regarding starting players as combat masters. One of my favorite characters was a Mekton II character with 10 ranks (out of 10) in Hand to hand combat. That is not what made him interesting. What made him interesting was the relationship between him and another PC, a non-combatant thrown suddenly into a world of interstellar espionage, running for his life with only my PC to guide him out of danger. As we progressed, my PC taught his charge some basic techniques to defend himself, and the other PC kept surprising him with his cunning, often getting them out of tight spots mine would have tried unsuccessfully to fight his way out of. It was a great campaign, with most of my XP being spent to improve my "teach" skill, of all things. The focus was on the relationship, not combat. Sort of like an intergalactic version of "The Professional" (although it wasn't out yet at the time). Sure there was action, but nothing as memorable as several of the scenes we roleplayed. The trick, I think is not to allow munchkins to start as power gamers, but players looking for a different focus in their games will still find satisfaction without improving their combat skills.

VBM, sounds just like the past few years of my game. The only big difference is that about a year ago I simply stoped GMing a group of my own and joined another group.

I agree with the main premise- giving characters everything to start off with is not always the best idea. I agree even more with the idea that the best (most valuable, what have you) twists and emotions originate in play, not as dry history.

But. Campaign style has a lot to do with it. If I'm playing a typical fantasy-esque power spiral (from farm boy to ruler of kingdoms, as a popular example), then starting out less competent is fine. For most D&D like games, it's ideal... concepts rarely work if they incorporate an older/experienced person, since the quick level gain mocks their previous experience. Shorter "campaigns", where experience isn't going to significantly influence character power, allows you to design a scenario/ short campaign/ what have you with characters as originally conceived- without backing off power levels, life experiences, etc.

It's mostly a style thing (short games mean less change means that your character is better off as imagined). For typical endless/long term campaigns both of your suggestions are spot on. I've done the climb to power enough times that I enjoy the idea of quick settings- a short story of a few sessions instead of a very long fantasy novel. That said, I am enjoying my druid's current climb to power... and for many of the hardship/stat deprived reasons that you suggest.

Good article.

I my goush I agree to! Those pants make your butt look way to big! Seriously Work out! Oh Yeah I agree on the issues pertaing to the article. Oh i wish your werer here because my ass is sticking out of my pants horribly! I want to play eventhough Iam a blonde.

You sound like a loser! Were talking about games not your ass!

I couldnt help but read the last 2 messages on what you said. What losers! I was laughing so hard! Anyways I have been working on this article alot! I added a few stuff in there

WHAT? I am confused!

I am new here hello to all the gamers!

Welcome Louis!

What kinds of games do you play (D&D, GURPS, ICE, LoTR)? What made you choose this article to post a reply on? I hadn't read this article until now -- it seems to have been dead for a long time. Did something here pique your interest?