Series Info...#6: Everything I Know, I Learned From My Players

by Travis S. Casey
April 20, 2001

No one is an expert at anything the first time they try to do it. It takes time, practice, and patience to become an expert. More than anything else, it takes a willingness to learn. Designing and running games is about entertainment – which means that, ultimately, it's about people.

To run or design games well, you have to know something about people. Specifically, you need to know something about the people who will play the game. The more you know about them, the better equipped you'll be to create a game that they'll enjoy.

Unfortunately, there's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem here – you often don't really know who your players are going to be until you've already got a game going – especially when you're designing an online game. So where do you start? Personally, I like to start with the player I know best; myself. I don't design games or adventures that I wouldn't enjoy playing. That doesn't mean that every game or adventure has to be tuned particularly to me – just that I won't do anything that I'd flat out not want to play.

Listen To Your Players

There's only so far that you can go with just yourself as a point of reference, though, so sooner or later you're going to have to start thinking about other players. In order to have any hope of understanding them, you're going to have to listen to them. By this, I don't mean give them survey forms on what they like and dislike – I mean listen to them as they're playing the game. People aren't always capable of expressing what they really like or dislike about a game, so you have to learn to read between the lines.

The main thing you're looking for is to find out what's on the player's minds. What aspects of the game or setting are they talking about? How are they talking about it? Is it something that frustrates them? That interests them? If you listen to what they talk about in the game, players can become one of your best sources of ideas. Their speculations about what a set of clues they've found really means, or why a particular NPC is doing something, where they ought to go next, and other game elements are valuable clues to how you can make your game really grip them.

There are a couple of things you should keep in mind when listening to your players: first, don't fall into the trap of letting the players dictate to you. It's good to pick up ideas or cues from the player and work them into your setting on your terms, but it's not good to simply drop player's ideas in willy-nilly without considering how they're going to impact the overall game. Player ideas are a good source of development ideas that you can use to flesh out something you've already decided to have in the game world, but it's generally not good to add something completely new to the game world from a player idea – and if you do it anyways, think about it carefully first.

Second, don't use too many of the players' ideas – if you do, the players are quickly going to catch on to what you're doing. This will make future borrowings from them less surprising, and some players may even deliberately try to manipulate you if they realize you're incorporating ideas they mention. Remember that it's your choice if and when to use any idea. If you like an idea, but it doesn't fit into your game right now, you can always use it later.

Talk to Your Players

Listening to your players goes beyond just "listening in" as they talk during and after the game, though. You should actively talk to your players about what they want out of the game, whether they like it, what's giving them a problem, etc. In doing this, you may sometimes run into players who are complainers, or who want everything to be easy for their character, but in my experience, those are the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, they tend to talk a lot more than the more reasonable players, so it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all players want to have it easy for their characters.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Beyond listening to what players say, it's important to watch what they do. This is especially important in that what people say doesn't always quite line up with what they do. Players may say that they want a serious game, but if they keep acting consistently silly even in the midst of such a game, you might want to consider loosening things up a bit. Further, the actions that players have their characters take are often a better indicator of what interests them in the game than what they say is.

Watching player's actions is also a good source of ideas – especially in a multiplayer online environment, where there are a lot of players to watch. If the players stumble onto a particularly effective combat strategy in a combat-oriented RPG, many people's initial response is to ban it. Personally, I like to make the NPCs start using it on the players.

For Example...

OK... that's a lot of "should"s and "shouldn't"s. Let's look at some more concrete examples of how this works:

I do a lot of listening to player speculation whenever I have a mystery in one of my games. If the players are rapidly closing in on the correct solution, I may give them fewer clues, or even throw in a false lead. If they're following the wrong trails and seem to be stuck on them, I might give them some new evidence.

Once in a game I was running, I was throwing clues at the players that they needed to undertake a quest to the far north to find an ancient ruin and look for a demon there who could answer questions. Unfortunately, the players didn't pick up on the clues I'd given them, and headed off towards the wrong place. By listening to them, I realized well in advance what they were going to do. So, I did two things – first, I started thinking of new clues to indicate they were going the wrong way, and second, I started deciding what to do if they kept going that way anyways. I could have simply let them go there and find nothing, but that didn't seem very interesting. I could have rearranged things so that what they were looking for would be there, but I didn't really want to do that – if I did and they looked carefully, they'd find discrepancies in things, and I don't like that. So instead, I chose a middle road of putting some other clues there – not what they were looking for, but other clues to the mystery that was the core of the campaign. Because I listened to the players, I was able to do it seamlessly, so that the players had no idea that this hadn't been part of what I had in mind all along.

Whether or not an NPC becomes a recurring character in my campaigns often hinges on player interest. If an NPC sparks player interest, I'll keep him or her around for return engagements; an NPC who the players find to be boring, however, is going to head out the door quickly. Note here that interest doesn't have to be positive interest – an interesting NPC can be a rival, or a police officer who's suspicious of the PCs, or otherwise be unfriendly to them. The key is that the NPC sparks something in the players.

These days, I plan for that in advance. For example, in a Star Trek-based game I was running, before the first game session I came up with a list of about seventy crew members for the ship – about ten in each department that had a PC in charge of it, and half a dozen for each of the others. All those NPCs had was one-line descriptions – name, rank, race, specialty, one major personality feature. In the course of the first couple of sessions, whenever I needed to talk about an NPC, I looked at the sheet and chose an appropriate one. By the end of those first two sessions, the players had interacted heavily with about a dozen of the NPCs, and I had started to see relationships forming... so at that point, I took those NPCs and the notes that I'd made about them in the course of play, and fleshed them out, and started using them as permanent fixtures.

Ideas aren't the only thing to look to the players for, though – there's also less concrete things, like mood. I try to observe the mood of the players and adjust the game to fit where I can. If what I initially set up just can't fit the mood at all (e.g., a serious murder mystery when the players are being silly), I'll run something else. If I notice it early enough, I may try to do a seamless transition.

For example, last Thursday night, it turned out that several people weren't going to be making it to our regular D&D game. Dale, the usual DM, didn't want to run his game without the missing players, so I volunteered to run a substitute game. I initially came up with an idea about a city that had been cursed so that the residents were getting a plague, but two minutes into the game, it was rapidly becoming obvious that two of the three players were feeling silly. So instead, I changed things a bit... there was a curse on the city all right – the mayor had been turned into a frog. I let my own silly side out, and... well, the game hasn't been wrapped up yet, but we're definitely being very silly.


Looking back at what I've written, it seems that a lot of this particular column has been slanted more towards pencil-and-paper games than towards online games. I'd like to make up for that a bit by talking about a kind of player interaction that's more common in online games than paper ones: namely, dealing with player complaints.

If you run, or help to run, an online game for any period of time, you're going to have to deal with player complaints. These run the gamut from "X is broken, can you please fix it" to vendettas against other players, or even against game implementors. In the time I've spent running muds, I've dealt with my share of complaints – both from players and from implementors – and I'd like to share some of my techniques for handling complaints, particularly of the angry kind.

Always remember that there's a human being on the other end. They may be angry, cursing, even threatening – but they're still people. It's easy to get angry back at them, but it's always a bad idea. Chances are that the angriest people aren't angry at anything in the game – they're angry about something outside the game, and they can't express their anger about that, so it's spilling over to you. Don't take it personally, don't get angry back at them. Let them vent it out – and not in a cold way, but as if they were a friend of yours. Encourage them to talk.

(It can be hard to keep from getting angry back at someone who's acting angry at you, but to the best of your ability, do it. An old boss of mine at a computer lab once told me a story about a woman who had gotten extremely angry there once, and he'd had to come in to intervene and talk her down, because the lab assistant had gotten mad back. It took him about twenty minutes to calm her down, and when he did, she started crying, and then told him what really had her angry – she'd been raped earlier that week, and knew who had done it, but the local DA didn't want to prosecute the case. People can be angry for all kinds of reasons, and getting angry back rarely does any good.)

If you can help fix something, of course do so. But if it's a complaint where you can't fix it right away, try to be as positive as you can about it and still be realistic. Don't promise things you can't do, but to the extent that you can, reassure the person that their complaint will be given a fair hearing. If you can't help, try to stay in touch with the person until someone who can help can deal with them, so they don't feel abandoned and ignored.

It's often – I'm tempted to say always – more important that the person complaining feels like they're treated with respect and taken seriously than that the problem actually gets fixed. For example, the other day I logged into a mud that I rarely visit any more. I used to be an administrator there, though, and my character still has admin rank and privileges. So I logged in, started looking around for people that I knew to talk to, chatted a bit... and then got asked by a player to look at a broken droid (it's a Star Wars-themed mud). I could have ignored that player, but since I show up as an admin, I represent the mud to the players... so I tried to help. Well, I haven't really done anything there in three years, and everything's changed, so as it turned out, I wasn't much help. But I did talk to the player, confirm that something really was wrong, try for about fifteen minutes to fix it, and narrowed down the possibilities of what was wrong. But I couldn't fix it.

I didn't really do anything – but the player was nevertheless very grateful that one of the administrators of the mud – especially a "retired" administrator, who didn't have to do anything – would actually take twenty minutes to try to solve her problem. As it turned out in the end, her problem was an alias she'd forgotten she had, and another player helped her fix it – but she was still very grateful to me, and, by extension, to the mud administrators in general.

Listening to players and treating them with respect also helps in other areas. While I was trying to help the player with her droid problem, at one point I had the droid dump its inventory on the floor. At that point, another player came through the room, and picked up a ship ownership card that the droid had dropped, without either me or the player I was helping noticing.

About ten minutes after I'd given up on trying to fix the droid problem (and been thanked profusely for taking as long as I did), the original player discovered that her ship card had been stolen and contacted me. I went and talked to the player who'd taken the card, and told him that the card had only been out there where he could take it because I was helping to deal with a bug.

He complained that he'd taken the card fair and square, and that there was no rule against it. I could have taken the card from him, and returned it to the original player. I could have jailed his character if I wanted to. Instead, I simply told him that he was right – he hadn't broken any rules. However, since the card wouldn't have been on the ground except for the fact that I was trying to help the other player with a bug, I didn't think it was really fair to take advantage of it. Since no rules were broken, I wouldn't make him give the ship back... I was asking him to, but I'd leave the decision up to his own sense of fairness. And then I logged out of the mud, needing to get to other things.

The next day I logged in... and the player who'd taken the card was on. I didn't ask him about what he'd done, but he contacted me to let me know that he'd thought about what I said for a few minutes, and then he'd returned the ship, because after thinking about it, it didn't seem fair to him either. And he thanked me for not forcing him to give it back, but instead letting him do the right thing.

Well, I think I'm running way over my quota on words here, so that's it for this time! See you in two weeks, or sooner in the forum!

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