In our group there's me (85% of the time as GM) and two other players. We have played for about three years, approx. 20 times a year. Sometimes we see each other outside sessions as well, we're childhood friends. We all have extensive background in fantasy & sci-fi literature and movies. The problem is that I have a hard time to get them to speak their minds. Sometimes I'm frustrated but in general I have come to terms with it.

My games range from mysteries to action, from political fantasy to space exploring, horror, dragons, agents, real world. Part of the reason I have always changed the world and style is because at some level I need them to say something. I'd be delighted if either one of them would say that the game tonight was dragging. They always react the same, doesn't matter what kind of game we are playing That has me thinking about the game being just a way for them to be with friends. But at the same time they give me mixed signals because they often talk rhetorically about the potential of RPG games and the game types and worlds we could play.

As players they are very reactive, I as a GM have to usually carry out the plot. Or bring in something that will help them resolve.

  1. The one player likes to roll; everything is pretty fun when he just gets to roll some nice dice. Every situation and challenge seems to be okay, it just has to present itself to him.

  2. The other player likes rules and mechanics. He's in a habit of optimising situations and occasionally thinking so much that it freezes the table. It's the con of having only two players.

(I'm in a search of a third, more proactive player who could take the plot reins so that the other two could play the game as the kind of players they are. The search has started only recently so we'll see what'll happen. I have no interest in changing anyone's playing style, I just want everyone to be happy, me included.)

GM style

I am the kind of GM who gets his rewards from unpredictable plot turns, imaginative solutions and new character motivations. I'm quite creative as a person and I really like to improvise. But often I seem to already know precisely how my players are going to react in certain situations. The improvising feels to be for naught.

But our game nights surely amount to having fun. I just think there's free, unused space for more fun if we just communicated better. But because I use countless hours making storylines, reading pre-mades, making my own worlds etc. I want to know why and to whom and to what kind of play I am making them. Roleplaying is also more fun (or so I have read) when people get to play the types of adventures they really like. I'm thinking that maybe my friends would open up if they'd get to play something they really identified with. But as they are now, they smile and shrug. Everything goes. It just doesn't matter.

  • Did I just stumble on the answer myself? Can it really not matter to someone what kind of style or genre the game is?

Sometimes I write them in length, trying various questions that could ease their minds open even a bit. But they have trouble expressing themselves in writing (which is odd because the other player also writes RPG campaigns and even fantasy short stories). But nevertheless, short answers would be okay. Even one word ones. We have gone for a beer and there they open up a little: roleplaying is cool fun and so on, but they still struggle when I ask them what kind of games they would want to play.

In my opinion we get stuck playing mediocre games, sometimes even low quality games, because "everything goes" and the players really do not have any opinions on anything. Perhaps my question is irrelevant because they seem to have fun. Sometimes I just feel bad imposing my own ideas upon them. I would want this to be more of a group effort. I'd be ready to serve their needs but I'm just left to serve my own. Perhaps I need to find more fun in myself.

What are the ways to understand your players' tastes? Do I just have to experiment more with gaming styles and make a mental note every time their spirits elevate?

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The real problem is that tastes are always subjective, and the devil is in the details.

I could tell you I like superhero movies but if you took me to see Fantastic Four (any incarnation) I'd be like "That was the craptastic four amirite?"

So much like with any product management problem, you have to half elicit from your consumers what it is they want, and half come up with cool stuff they didn't know they wanted but like anyway. The iPhone and Dropbox didn't come from asking all the mouth-breathers what they wanted, that's how you get the Zune and every file sharing solution prior to Dropbox. As you get gud with experience you'll be able to tell when to do which.

  1. Guided asking. I've played a lot of games and own maybe 1000 RPGs, no joke. So if you ask me "what kind of game do you want to play," I legit don't care that much except to keep it changing. In our group what we usually end up doing is, when one game is coming to an end, anyone who's up for running something will put in a pitch, usually a couple. "I could run the egyptian tomb raiding Pathfinder adventure path using Dungeon World, or I could run a superhero game focusing on teens and relationships like Young Justice, or..." Just like with toddlers, asking "what do you want" is going to end up with someone crying, but by offering some choices and then having some discussion, you can both pick something people like and also get more insight into why ("I like the mummy hunting thing but don't really like Dungeon World...") for next time.

    "Session Zero" is too late for that. Usually that's something happening the week before the first session, to align people on tone and whatnot. You're looking for something way earlier that will help you choose and develop campaigns.

  2. Learn from them without asking. As you note, maybe you just gotta pay attention to what they like. In my current gaming group, they really tend towards a "kill them and take their boots," empire-building kind of gameplay. I tried to run a game that was much more narrative and genre emulating for them and they didn't like it. So guess what, I don't do that any more.

    You often need to prioritize real results over what people say. I've had lots of cases where players say they want X in a game but end up not liking X. That's human nature and as a GM you have to get comfortable with it.

  3. Your passion spurs their passion. If they don't have strong opinions, run what you really like and they'll respond to it. I'd rather play a fantasy game the GM is way into than a sci-fi game they're running as some kind of game tax even if when you asked me in isolation I said "I prefer sci-fi to fantasy." You can always adapt as you go.

    Putting decisions in their hands in-game is also good (there are games that do this, like the Powered by the Apocalypse games) but you can do it largely in any game)

  4. Formalize the design. Do this once and if they hate it don't do it again, but there are games that deliberately involve player decisions - like in Dresden Files part of the actual game is the group cooperatively designs the city, or in Microscope the group defines a world, society, and history that can be used as a setting. It's hard to tell with your group whether there's creativity to unlock there, or not really. So try this and maybe they get into it, but if they really just don't care and aren't that creative, move along.

    Your group may just be thinking "quit it with the questions and run me a story you freak!" Or they may be just needing the right channels to contribute. Keep it fresh, cycle in new players, experiment.

In closing, take feedback well. Sometimes when you hear tales like this it's really because the GM was dismissive or hostile to feedback and the group's now like "look, we like playing, he blew up when we told him we didn't like that thing that one time, just keep your opinions to yourself and let him do his thing." So be careful that while you are trying to elicit feedback you're not cutting your own throat by discouraging feedback.

For players with weaker communication skills it helps a lot to have frames of reference. Asking vague questions is fine if they are skilled communicators, but for getting more general ideas from players, it helps a lot to have some easier frames of reference to use so they don't need to think so much. Here are several.

  1. Media. Players tend to like certain stories. Maybe they like Game of Thrones, or Bleach, or Lucifer. So, one easy way to get some feedback on things they like is to ask them. If they say "Yeah, I loved Bleach because there were all these cool powers and they developed new skills and had awesome transformations and their teachers were so cool." Then you know that a story where people venture into hellish and heavenly realms to learn secrets and mysteries from old and powerful and strange creatures and save the world from colourful people with odd powers is appreciated. If they say "I loved how cool Lucifer was solving all those cases with his awesome devil powers." You know they want a supernatural detective story where they get to be cool and suave and quickly solve cases.

  2. Have a session zero. At the start of any campaign, have a session zero where you all talk about what sort of world you want. Name a few potential factions they might encounter- fairies, wizards, warriors, lizard people who control world governments, ninja assassins, police, Hitler and his robotic army, bankers with bottomless gold, monster cities. Whatever. Name a bunch of plot elements they could encounter, and ask them what they'd like most. Referencing media can help here, because they can say which things they liked most.

When doing this- never shame them. Even if they have dumb ideas, roll with them, support them in speaking up about what they have cool. Work with them on their smallest ideas. You should be working from an environment of everything they say is an idea, and be friendly to all ideas.

What are the ways to understand your players' tastes?

There are a few ways to get this information.

  • Organize a Session Zero. The obvious way — gather the group and talk to your players about the upcoming game. See What is a session 0? for more details.
  • Use The Same Page Tool. Use this list of options to discuss and determine general players' attitude. A good point to start with.
  • Ask for feedback after the first session. What did players like, what they did not, what do they want to change. For this session, be consistent with your own play style (if you're playing D&D 5e, read the "Play Style" chapter, page 34) and game genre (if you're playing comedy — don't turn it into a horror, and vice versa), but feel free to change it if your players didn't like the result.
  • Learn theories about player types. That could be Bartle taxonomy or another more complicated player types list (like the one from D&D 4E DM Guide). Stick to the idea that your players might have different vision of the game. As a Game Master, keep your mind open to these ideas.
  • Ask a player to be your co-GM, or just let your players participate in collaborative storytelling allowing player fiat. There are more suitable systems for this, like Fate of various PbtA games (Dungeon World is a good example).

See also

I think you might want to experiment with Powered by the Apocalypse games, for two reasons:

  1. Because the players are then supposed to provide input within the game (the narration is shared).
  2. Because this input is made easier by the way most PbtA games work.

A good place to start could be Monster of the Week; it's easy to learn and perfect for one-shots, but also shines in short campaigns. In this game, by choosing certain options for their archetypes for example, your players will reveal the kind of things they want to see in their games.

This kind of processes might then help when you get back to less fiction-driven games.

It may be that part of the reason your friends don't give you a straight answer is that they don't want to sound critical of the campaign you're running. (Yes, yes, you're explicitly asking for critique. That doesn't necessarily make it easier for them.)

So, ask them "is there some particular game you'd like me to run next?" when you're between campaigns. If you're not currently running anything, they're less likely to feel as if what they say might be construed as a complaint.

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