Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Five People At My Table

I believe that when you design a game, it helps to have an audience in mind, the more specific the better. Trying to make a game for everyone seems noble, but it's unlikely to challenge you as a designer, and it's more likely to produce something that's fairly weak sauce. Yes, targeting an audience runs the risk of making your focus too narrow, but the alternative is vastly more boring.

For me, there's a table of five players that I keep in my head when I design. They raise questions and challenges to my work that I would not raise myself. They're all real people, dear friends and loved ones, but today I want to talk about them in terms of the roles they play.

First and foremost, we have the Connector. She plays for story, and for her, stories are about people much more than they are about grand, exciting things. She has negligible patience for rules, especially for rules pertaining to things she views as uninteresting or unimportant to play. However, she is intensely motivated to engage the fiction, very organized and outright driven in her play. Left unchecked, she will take over discrete but very tidy portions of the game world.

She teaches me to ask myself whether a rule really makes the game better, and she forces me to make sure that the fiction is engaging and robust enough to survive her interest.

Next, we have the Evil Muppet. He's creative, whimsical, engaged and is himself a fantastic GM, so he's a huge help at the table, but he also has a strong agenda of play - he wants me to bring the pain. He wants play to be personal, intense, laying bare buckets of blood and pain.

Just as the Connector makes me look at the fiction, the Evil Muppet makes me look at the characters and ask if I'm giving the tools to make these into the kind of people capable of driving and feeling that kind of intensity, or am I just providing interesting numbers. He also forces me to raise the bar on my design because if I don't, he'll casually make it better.

After that is The Swooshy Giant Brain. The Brain is smart. Really, really smart - probably smarter than anyone else at the table, certainly smarter than me. Yet despite that, her big interest is to swoosh around, stab things, and occasionally do something totally unexpected. But she's still going to almost absent-mindedly deconstruct or extrapolate the most complex things you put in front of her with terrifying ease, whether they're rules, puzzles or the very underlying logic of your game.

The Brain teaches me to build bulletproof. Complexity has its place, but she makes me really question whether it is adding to things. But strangely, she also reminds me to check for the fun.

Next is The Rookie who, in fairness, has been at this table long enough that the name is no-longer really fair, but sometimes these things stick. The Rookie is enthusiastic, rules saavy, willing to learn and all around a great player, but his experience has been both narrower and briefer than mine. In many ways, the rookie is very much like myself, minus most of a decade.

The Rookie teaches me not to take things for granted, whether techniques or rules history. He's smart enough that I don't need to hold his hand, but that doesn't mean I should leave him hanging.

Last is the Wildcard, who alternates between being the greatest inspiration and the most maddening player at the table with reckless abandon. He's a great player with enough system patience to try something out followed by an enthusiastic willingness to dump anything he thinks is crap. To call him a proactive player would be an understatement, and he couples that initiative with a twisted, creative mind that guarantees to take things in directions you would never expect.

The Wildcard is something like the mirror image of The Swooshy Brain - just as I need to design for her scalpel, I must design for his oncoming freight train. He forces me to build robustly, but more than that, he forces me to challenge my own assumptions. When I ask myself what he would do in a given situation, the answer often allows me to surprise myself.

So those are my five. They help me out, whether I'm designing a game, planning an adventure or just kicking around an idea. So I guess the question is: who's at your table?


  1. I've gathered a few similar personalities over the years that I keep in my head. I've never actually played with most of them, but I try to account for them.

    One of the more interesting is RegularGuy, a user from the old AEG Spycraft forums. His handle was apropos. Unlike most Spycraft players, who look to the edges of high octane, high pressure action, RegularGuy worked to solve problems in the most predictable, safest way possible. He was a great fan of "take 10", occasionally to the point of abusing it. He also was one of the strongest proponents of the "if you draw your gun, you've already blown the mission" school of thought. A lot of the social skills had been left deliberately vague, and he exploited the hell out the blank space there. His base character was essentially Kevin Mitnick, who would use social engineering and knowledge of bureaucracy to simply waltz past all the security. Not only was he a key touchstone when we were playtesting, but I've always kept his style of play in mind as I look at rules for "social combat."

  2. As an Evil Muppet, I approve of this message. Recently I stumbled upon the idea of user profiles (personas) which seems to be a rather related concept. I posted a half-dozen fictional "players" who I could use to calibrate my own designs.

    I am wondering about your thoughts on the merits and flaws of using real people rather than fictional ones for these purposes.

  3. I am afraid to GM for your table.

  4. Fantastic breakdown, Rob. I'd love to play with that group. I think I'm kind of all of those, depending on who I'm playing with. Mostly a Wildcard Muppet Connector, I suppose.

    My last regular group was Power Fantasist, Performer, Problem-Solver. No way in hell am I gonna try to design for that.

    The one player type I most consciously try to design for is Not Me. That is, someone who enjoys system manipulation for its own sake and doesn't like being put on the spot to make stuff up out of the blue. If I didn't keep Not Me in mind, all my RPGs would be freeform creativity-fests.

    After that, I check my designs against Logical Extension Man. The breaker of worlds. The one who combines the velocity of the Sandstorm spell with the mass of the Increase Density spell to fill my fantasy world with machine gun bullets.

    The final checkpoint is Videogame Man, who has vastly different assumptions than I do about what's relevant and solvable.

    (These last 2 are real individuals. Not Me, on the other hand, has many forms.)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.