Roleplayer Vs. Rollplayer: A GM’s Guide
People will find themselves sitting at your table, be it physical or virtual, for scores of reasons.
Tabletop RPGs offer different things to different people, after all, and to try and list them all here would be a nigh-impossible task. What we can do, however, is try to sort these varying reasons into two broad, yet distinctive, camps. Two different attitudes towards playing a game and how to go about playing it, alternative approaches to character creation, interaction and story engagement.
The first of these two groups we can call “roleplayers”.
Speaking again in broad terms, ‘roleplayers’ are the folks who arrive at your table hoping to help tell a story. They are character and narrative driven, aiming to engage with the plot and the NPCs you throw at them in addition to other members of the group. How their character is built matters less to them than who their character is: given the right motivation and encouragement, a roleplayer can really embrace the world you’re depicting for them, diving into the plot in a big way whilst bringing the other characters along with them.
A roleplayer wants challenge, too, though not necessarily in the usual ways RPGs offer this. A cunning social opponent attempting to out manoeuvre their character can offer far, far more to a roleplayer in terms of challenge than a dangerous combat encounter ever will: offer this in your games and they will really come to life.
The second of these types we can call “rollplayers”.
‘Rollplayer’ is often a derivative word in some RP communities, thrown around to put down other people, but it does still encapsulate the outlook of a person who’s come to your table looking to roll dice, fight monsters, get loot and win it big (or die trying). They have a focus on the numerical, statistical aspect of RPGs (this will be especially true if you’re running a system with a lot of crunch), constructing their characters in order to maximise their potential for various actions.
Some might write such players off as min/max-ers or munchkins, but this is an unfair way to dismiss the aspects of a game that they enjoy. A rollplayer will often come into their element when faced with a challenge geared towards their more competitive, tactical style of play: complex dungeons filled with difficult enemies and powerful traps, a risky infiltration mission that requires significant talent and planning to carry out well. These are the sorts of challenges that will engage a rollplayer well.
Why is it important for GMs to understand the sorts of players they have at their table? Because ultimately, you as a GM are trying to create a fun, engaging experiece for your players. To do this, it is vital to identify the aspects of a game your players enjoy, and cater your games to these interests. Communication and discussion prior to a campaign starting is thus a vital process of beginning a game: a simple chat with your players about what they enjoy and what their hopes for the game are can be all you really need to ensure that everyone gets the most out of the experience.
Few GMs are ever fortunate enough to have an entire group of roleplayers or an entire group of rollplayers sitting around their table: most groups are combinations of both. This makes GMing such a group something akin to a balancing act, providing enough material to keep these two broad varieties of player engaged throughout a session. This may sound daunting, given how different these outlooks are, but the advantage of tabletop is that it is, ultimately, a collaborative effort (unless you’re playing Paranoia). All but the most objectionable of players come to the table aware of the fact that they are going to need to work with others to make any progress in-game, and you can use this to your advantage.
The trick is to combine challenges that engage differing players. Let’s say, for example, that you set up a powerful social adversary out to undermine the party’s efforts. This creates a challenge that engages your roleplayers, building a target for them to play off, work against and attempt to out-manoeuvre. At the same time, you could create a network of mercenaries and thugs that this social adversary employs to do his dirty work, a network that must be tracked down and defeated. Now your rollplayers come into their element, as their characters’ skills (be they combat-related or not) can have a direct impact on the story whilst giving them a fun challenge to go up against.
Ensuring that each session has enough to give everyone a spot in the limelight can be tricky to manage each and every time, particularly when your players are so varied in their focuses. In such a case, mini-sessions (side games that focus specifically on one or two characters) can be of great benefit. It allows you to create scenarios that are directly relevent to that character (or characters) specifically, ensuring they come away with a positive experience.
Managing players with very different expectations can seem like an act of juggling burning torches at points, but through communication and some simple planning you can still very easily build fun, dynamic campaigns for the whole group to enjoy. Ultimately, the trick is to understand what your players are looking for in your game, and work towards giving them a chance to achieve this.