Player and Character motivations
When I've examined my playing group to fit the game style around them (which seems to be part of the goal of this question - "how can I run my game 'better' for my players" and "what does my game need") I break my analysis down into two sections:
- What do the players want?
- What do the characters want?
My assessment for both these break down entirely into a motivation/goal interest for each of these; this isn't so much a classification scheme into generic types as a list of things I mentally know that the players want or enjoy and what the characters want or enjoy - which can be entirely different things!
A player in my Pathfinder game is playing a Ogre character, the character is a simplistic warlike brute who is looking to make a name for themselves to tell great stories to their kinsmen when he returns to the tribes in years to come.
The player however is a veteran gamer who likes intrigue and cloak-and-dagger style games with intricate plots, complex NPCs and layered and believable worlds.
So what does this tell me? This tells me that for this player to keep the game "fun" and interesting, I need the following:
Engaging combat. The Ogre character wants to be able to boast of epic battles and combats, all too often fights may be about challenging the players, but a few combats here and there where the Ogre can wade through hordes of minions slaying them left and right will give him those stories of glory. I don't focus too closely on map based combat and I need to emphasise this to the player, but by the same straw given the player has a keen story focus I can give them rope to try things beyond the simple "roll d20 to hit" that can feel like the mechanics sometimes.
A believable world. Ie actions and NPCs that suffer analysis. Although the Ogre is mentally simplistic the player is far from it; they want to be sure the motivations and world feels "real" that NPCs aren't doing things purely to provide combat for the players and that treasure isn't just lying around for no reason that NPCs should be using in the first place. Systems like The five whys help immensely with this.
Obviously I can put down more goals for each player and character than this, but this is just an example. To add to this I want to work out what the other players want as well and mix it all up and then when I have a story/idea in mind blend the two together to help me make something that they will enjoy - or at the very least colour what I'm doing with these goals in mind so
For example again, if I know I have one player in the group who really hates romance in stories and the rest of the players are not bothered by such things then it's not worth my while doing a romance style plot. Instead I can adapt it so, perhaps take it a step away by making it an NPC with a romance who hires the players to do related things - but not get involved in the "romance" element of it.
What has been the result?
When I've ignored examining player/character goals the games have always felt more forced and awkward and less fun to play; once I've examined and worked more on running the game the players/characters want everything has flowed much better, the game has been more enjoyable and after the investigation it has been easier to run as I know what the audience wants.
So. What I do is draw up almost a "requirements specification" (Too much project management) for my players listing what they and their characters want from the game. Until now for me this has largely been an entirely mental exercise so that I can steer my game towards this and make it more enjoyable for all, I know (for me) the most rewarding part of a game is when a session ends at the players are still pumped from it and like to chat about it, for ages afterwards perhaps. :) I want them to enjoy themselves!
But in thinking about this question I've realised that as I've been mentally doing this for a long time now I think writing it all down and goading players into telling me more (or explaining, asking for feedback, etc) and actually recording it to keep me focused on it will really aid me in making my game all the better.
Obviously there are things that all players want and I need to keep in mind - that they've being involved, that what they're doing is helpful, that their character is useful (although, I can think of players who wanted their characters to be useless!) and so on! These can be added to group motivations; if elements for players crop up more than once then I can prioritise the game towards that goal.
For example if several of the players like thwarting villains then I can create a layered command system for my big bad villain and they can go from boss to boss James Bond style, with the big bad guy escaping until there is a grand finale!
Aids to doing this
Character goals Backgrounds, this is a key thing to helping find out what a character wants.
Game write ups: Unbelievably invaluable; I love doing these as a GM and player, but what these do is provide an insight into how the character thinks and such insight helps me colour want/where the character can go.
Watching the game: Character actions, especially outside combat can tell a lot about what the character's goals are.
Players: Knowing someone for a long time is the best sure fire way for this, know the person, know the player.
Talking: Talking to a player about what games they've played (most players love to do this anyway!) and what they've enjoyed or what they don't like is well worth the effort. One shot games can make this very hard and your first impression of a player can be very wrong.
OOC Banter: Keeping an ear open on the out of character banter during a game can tell a lot about what they want, what players talk about is what players are interested in, one way or another, i.e. what they want more of, or what they want less of.