Your players already look to you to resolve uncertainty in the rules. Such uncertainty is a form of conflict that you mediate, sometimes with When we choose between the three core mechanics to resolve the situation (attribute check vs. success check vs. scene checks) we're exercising GM fiat in the spirit of rulings over rules. GM fiat is that broad latitude you're entrusted with to make executive decisions like this. fiat , sometimes in accordance with the rules-as-written. Because of the trust and authority vested in you as the GM, your players will also look to you to resolve conflict outside the game.
Now in an ideal world, it shouldn't rest on you alone to shepherd your table's behavior. But the reality is that your responsibilities as GM will bleed into the real world, just like the things our characters feel can sometimes bleed into our feelings in the real world. Being prepared for this will help you manage whatever comes your way.
It should go without saying that it's outside the scope of this guide to tell you how to resolve conflicts in your social group. But what this guide can help you with is learning about the personalities you might encounter at the table, and how to consider them in whatever conflict resolution method works for you.
Oftentimes, half the battle is in understanding what your players want out of playing the game. The other half is figuring out how to create a table where all those wants can be compatible with each other.
To this end, this guide contains a system for identifying player personality types called player ethos (to mirror the ethos of PCs). Player ethos can help you identify and measure your players' intent of play against their play style so that you can determine their compatibility with other players at the table.
Intent of Play
Intent of play is not to be confused with narrative fulfillment, which simply defines the object of the game for all players; intent of play describes what players get out of playing, on a personal level.
Here are three dimensions of intent to consider:
“I play because I get to engage with the shared narrative and see my ideas expand it (through clever mechanical choices or storytelling). I want to share my ideas and see them realized in the fiction.”
"I play because I get to do things in the fiction that are not possible in the real world. I want control over the narrative so I can have more freedom in the game."
"I play because of the social energy I get out of engaging with the shared narrative and other people. I want everybody to have a good time engaging with me and the narrative."
If you can figure out a player's intent of play, you'll be better prepared to create satisfying adventures for them at the table. And while nobody ranks 100% in any one dimension, each individual player tends to care about one of these things more than the others.
GNS Theory by Ron Edwards introduces three categories of engagement for players that correlate to the way RPG games are designed: gamist, narrativist, and simulationist. For our purposes, these are the aspects of the game that a player most enjoys when playing, so we'll call this their play style.
Like intent of play, no player ranks 100% in any one dimension:
"I care about overcoming challenges in the game. I most enjoy the 'game' part of roleplaying and use the mechanics to maximize my enjoyment in that regard."
"I care about developing an engaging story. I most enjoy the 'role'-play aspect of the game and mechanics that empower me to take control of the narrative."
"I care about immersion in a fantasy world. I most enjoy moments in the game where the mechanics and the roleplaying align seamlessly to create a rich fictional experience."
Where intent of play and play style align, we arrive at nine player archetypes that can speak to the vast majority of player personalities you'll encounter at the table. Let's take a look at these, and the challenges and benefits each personality brings to the table.
The Star thrives when he's in the spotlight. He loves improvising and contributing to the shared narrative and will often wow the table with his delivery. The "role" in roleplaying is the most satisfying aspect of the game to him.
The Star may hog the spotlight without realizing it, so you have to be mindful how much you spotlight him. You’ll also want to make sure that his contributions don’t overshadow the contributions of other players. Remind him that this is a collaborative game, and encourage him to give others a chance to shine.
The Role Player
The Role Player is a world builder at heart. She may not care too much about being in the spotlight all the time, but she wants to see the fiction realized in a coherent and narratively satisfying way.
While the Role Player is a fantastic helper when it comes to building a consistent world at the table, she can become more concerned with backstory than emergent storytelling and miss the forest for the trees. You’ll need to help her create story hooks that tie into the here and now, otherwise she will end up railroading herself in trying to achieve specific narrative outcomes through play.
The Power Gamer
The Power Gamer is a master of using the mechanics to their maximum effect so he can be effective in overcoming challenges in the game. He cares about making his character the best that they can be according to the rules, and draws satisfaction when his thoughtful preparation pays off.
While the Power Gamer is often reviled by game masters for his greed and one-upmanship, he makes an excellent mentor to other players who underuse their PCs’ abilities. The Power Gamer can help the table come up with creative solutions in play, due to his deep mastery of the system. He’s also a constant source of inspiration for the tactical behavior of NPCs and villains.
The Numbers Guy
The Numbers Guy is an obsessive type of player who's concerned with testing the limits of the rules to maximize her freedom in the fiction. She might only ever play spellcasters due to the intricacies of magic, or approach combat with a tactical flair that's unmatched by other players. This type of player tends to be highly rational, but her efforts to push the rules to the limits will often result in interesting scenarios in play that the table may never have considered before.
Beware a Numbers Guy who repeatedly challenges your rulings in bad faith. Oftentimes, such challenges over the interpretation of a rule stems from an underlying issue unrelated to the rule itself (the player is frustrated with a ruling you've made, or feels like her contributions to the narrative are being ignored). You want to address these concerns head on outside of the game, where there's ample room to talk.
The Rules Lawyer
The Rules Lawyer wants to see the rules applied in a consistent way because it helps contribute to an immersive experience and keeps everything fair and predictable for everyone at the table. A Rules Lawyer can be a tremendous help to the GM because he oftens care more about a fair ruling for the table than a fair ruling for their party, and will always call out a forgetful or cheating player.
At the same time, you have to be careful that the Rules Lawyer doesn't waste time over minutia. You'll have to remind the Rules Lawyer that this is a collaborative game with little room for protracted arguments over the rules to take place in-game. Put the discussion on hold until after the session is over, so that you can keep the action flowing and other players engaged. If it turns out that you did make a mistake in your ruling, you can always address it at the start of the next session.
The Lone Wolf
The Lone Wolf is similar to the Star in that he has a creative agenda in mind for the narrative, and is good at the "role" playing aspect of roleplaying. However, The Lone Wolf's flaw is that often his agenda separates him from the party, or deviates from the party's concerns as a group. The benefit of the Lone Wolf is that his out-of-box thinking will often steer the party into making novel decisions they wouldn't have considered otherwise.
At the same time, you must remind the Lone Wolf that the game is for everyone and his agenda has to overlap with the party's the majority of the time. Encourage him to think about why his character would be traveling with the party in the first place—and why the party would be putting up with him. Work with him to turn his story hooks into meaningful plot beats that still satisfy his desire to be “different.”
The Collaborator cares about party cohesion and the social dynamics that arise from the fiction most of all. She often plays "support" characters, or wants to glom onto the expert role-playing of dramatists like the Star. The Collaborator wants to be immersed in the game, so she desires to resolve conflicts that break such immersion both narratively and mechanically.
Obviously, the Collaborator is a boon to the GM because she likes to share the spotlight, but as a GM you have to give the Collaborator opportunities to shine all by herself, since she won't take the spotlight unless it's handed to her. Ask her to consider what her character’s goals are without thinking about what the rest of the party wants. Bring her story hooks to the fore by designing situations tailored to her strengths, so that she can take center stage from time to time.
The Comedian is sometimes maligned as the "casual roleplayer" who's only at the table to have a good time. More charitably, the Comedian is a player who derives satisfaction from the positive social energy that's generated by a party that's successful in its aims. To this end, the Comedian brings good humor and the mechanics to bear, and like the Collaborator tries his best to protect the table from a failure to drive the narrative forward.
You should be wary of a Comedian who can't take anything seriously and turns the game into a running joke. If he acts in a way that consistently breaks immersion, you may need to pause the session to ask him what he's trying to achieve from the perspective of his character. If he keeps that behavior up, you may need to talk to him one-on-one outside of a session about whether his goals align with the campaign you’re trying to run.
The Wallflower, like the Lone Wolf, has an agenda in mind for his character and is probably very good at playing a role, but too much attention directed his way de-energizes him. A Wallflower tends to be very introspective and reluctant to take the spotlight, whether because he has social anxiety about being singled out, or needs encouragement from the GM to share his ideas.
It's important for you to identify your Wallflowers and support them, otherwise they'll fade into the background unnoticed. Because the Wallflower is uneasy about group attention, you should talk to him one-on-one in a way that highlights his roleplaying goals rather than his quiet nature. In other words, ask, “What would you like your character to do?” instead of, “Why are you being so quiet?”
When you're thinking about designing your adventure, you can sidestep many of the conflicts that arise at the table by making sure player personalities appreciate your premise.
For example, a table full of Numbers Guys may not appreciate a high drama game of court intrigue, and a table full of Stars may not want to play a tactical hex crawl in the overworld. A lot of the disparity between player archetypes cancels out if the party has a mixed composition: Rules Lawyers can tolerate Role Players if there's a Collaborator involved; Power Gamers who desire to succeed via the mechanics pair nicely with Comedians who want everybody to have a great time and thrive off positive social energy.
Most importantly: remember that your actual players aren't archetypes, and their actual personalities will be a mix of what these archetypes describe. Nobody is a monolith!