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How to Mind Read Your Players!

Written by Nicholas - Published on November 16, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

As dungeon masters a great deal of time and effort goes towards making sure that our players are engaged and having fun at the table. You try to craft stories and encounters that they will like, but how can you be sure what they want? Well, I have some good news for you. Odds are good they have already told you! Even if they don’t know it, your players are giving you clues all the time. You just need to know how to spot them.

The Character Sheet

Pick up a player’s character sheet. Ideally, these sheets are designed to tell you everything you need to know about the character. But they can also reveal a great deal about the player and his interests. Some of it is pretty obvious. If a player put a lot in social skills, he’s a roleplaying sort. A player with a ton of endurance wants to have that tested by desert condition, forced marches and resisting torture. A character loaded down with big boom spells wants chances to blow stuff up!

Magnify down a bit deeper, look at the powers, feats, spells and equipment your characters have. If you have a character with an awesome jump ability, ring of feather falling and a flight powers, he was probably made by a player daydreaming of a fight on top of narrow spires that jut a hundred feet out of the ground! The rogue with maximized mobility wants to fight in big spaces with obstacles and traps. The wizard with sweeping area of effect spells wants to battle an army of mooks. The character with a ton of illusion rituals wants advanced warning to plot and fool his enemies.

Players want to be rewarded for the abilities they take but they also choose those  in particular because they seemed like fun. You don’t need to indulge them every encounter or plotline, but I’ll bet if you take a look at the sheets you will find some facet or talent that has never been given the spotlight.

Background

I doubt I need to tell you that character backgrounds are ripe with plot hooks from the character’s past life. But you may not realize that they have another valuable planning use! Character backgrounds offer a glimpse into what the player thinks makes for a good story. Say that a player of a rogue wrote that he was committing a daring heist against a corrupt noble and got caught. He was thrown in  jail, which is where he met the rest of the party who were wrongfully imprisoned. Not only has your player given you the specific corrupt noble to work with, he has also told you that he envisions his character committing heists and punishing corruption in the ruling class. Players will often talk about some of the coolest situations their characters could be in with their background stories. Disguise them a bit and introduce them into your game. It is almost as good as reading their minds.

The Stories

If you let them, your average roleplayer will regale you with stories of triumphs past until the end of the universe. Most of these stories are about awesome things the player or his fellow party members did, but pay attention to the backdrop. How did the dungeon master set up the situation to enable these great stories? The players probably don’t even notice how the DM enabled them, but you can capture the spirit of their favorite moments.

How do you read your players? Tell us in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

11 Responses to “How to Mind Read Your Players!”
  1. Great advice, I don’t do enough of this. Not DMing at the moment, but spending all that free time gathering tips and ideas.

  2. Mike K says:

    Great advice, thanks! I used to use questionnaires to get some of that information, but my players looked at it like a chore. This is nice because they’re going to fill out a character sheet anyway.

  3. Yax says:

    @Mike K.: Questionnaire? Hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I’ll give it a shot next time I start a campaign.

  4. Typically I have the character sheet and have two pages of background and descriptions for the characters that I reward the players with xp for filling out. Typically it’s information like attitudes and motivations and character goals. Quite useful for setting up tailored objectives for the players or running one offs when doing a bigger campagin.

  5. Erin says:

    I was reading along until I got to the sentence, “The wizard with sweeping area of effect spells wants to battle an army of mooks.” Then I thought, wait, aren’t mooks a Wizardry PC race, not a D&D race? And then I felt really nerdy. Was I the only one who took it that way, or is there some other definition of “mook” I don’t know about? (For those of you going, “HUH?”, check out the Wizardry computer RPG series, starting with “Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord” in 1981. The best, in my opinion, was “Bane of the Cosmic Forge,” 1990, which was the sixth title.)

  6. Mike K says:

    @Erin, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mook I always thought it originated in the military, but I also liked Wizardy 6 the best

    @Yax Newbie DM has a pretty good pre-campaign questionnaire: http://newbiedm.com/2009/10/28/pre-campaign-player-questionaire/

  7. Nicholas says:

    @Erin: I was using mook as a generic term for the expendable henchmen character, represented as minions in 4e. Martial arts movie enemies are often called mooks. I quick google search revealed that the term is not as widely known as I thought.

  8. Erin says:

    @Nicholas: No worries. I’m sure my reference was more esoteric than yours.

  9. Yax says:

    @Erin: Yes, that was an uber-geek moments. I like having those.

  10. GroovyTaxi says:

    So true, so obvious, yet I had never thought about any of these things seriously (except for the background). Thanks a lot for this great piece of advice!

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