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Four Ways to Make Your Players Happy

Happy players (and remember, you’re a player, too [1]) make for a good game.

So how do you make your players happy? Try these four tips on for size…

1. Make props

Have you ever met a player who didn’t like props? Even the lamest attempt at making a prop of any kind makes my eyes light up when I play — and if you go all out, I will frame your props and put them on my wall [2].

Pound for pound, the amount of time you invest in prop-making for your game has one of the best game prep:value ratios around.

And if you’re one of those GMs who makes elaborate props for every session, I salute you — you have figured out something that, despite knowing it’s a good idea, I always fall short on.

2. Use their character backgrounds

What’s the single largest investment your players make in your campaign? Easy: it’s their characters.

Whether or not you ask for detailed character backgrounds (and there’s an art to doing that [3]) or just let the PCs evolve during play [4], use the PCs’ backgrounds.

Simple as that.

Every time you use a PC’s background in the game, you draw that PC’s player more deeply into the world, and get them more heavily invested in the game. And that investment pays off for everyone at the table, because an invested player makes the game more fun for everyone.

3. Incorporate spotlight moments

A rule of thumb I tried hard to follow in my last campaign was including a spotlight moment [5] for each PC in every single session. It didn’t always work out (it was harder than I thought!), but just having that goal in mind during prep made the game better.

Much as using PC backgrounds in play ups player investment, so does giving every character their time in the spotlight.

The sessions your players will likely remember most are the ones where they took center stage — or someone else was in the spotlight, and played their ass off.

4. Do what you’re best at

Man, did I spend years paddling upstream before I figured this out.

If you’re conscious and reflective when you GM [6], you’ll learn what you’re good at — especially if you pay attention to your players, and ask for feedback [7].

But if you’re anything like me, you might figure out what you’re best at but decide — foolishly, in my case — that that’s not what you want to be best at. That can be a fine decision, but it can also lead to tons of frustration for you and your players.

When you focus on your strengths, you make your GMing style clear to your players. The next time you play, they’ll have a better idea what to expect.

And you’ll have more fun, because when you do the thing you’re best at, you tend to be on. You’re in your zone, rocking it, and that vibe is infectious.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t stretch yourself; getting out of your comfort zone [8] is critical to becoming a better GM. Just don’t fight what you’re good at — instead, embrace it.

What would make your list of four ways to make your players happy?

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Four Ways to Make Your Players Happy"

#1 Comment By Clawfoot On May 8, 2009 @ 5:59 am

That’s a good list. Personally, I would probably combine 2 and 3 into one more over-arcing rule: listen and respond to your players. There’ve been a few times where I tossed a plot I thought was great at my players, and the reception it got was lukewarm at best. At that point, I had a choice: go ahead with the plot as I’d envisioned it and risk running a mediocre game, or tweak it on the fly (or even come up with something entirely new ad hoc) and hope for a better reception.

I won’t claim that I run an awesome game every single time, but going a head with a plot or an NPC or some sort of game element that I can tell isn’t getting my players very excited is not a recipe for an awesome game, and when it comes to running games, I’d rather try for awesome (and risk awful) than bet on mediocre.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 8, 2009 @ 7:32 am

This might be overreaching, here, but I think with some careful thought, D&D 4E skill challenges are good way to achieve NO. 3 (Spotlight moments), and to do so for more than one character at a time.

The key is creating the rising sense of drama in a 4E skill challenge — admittedly something that can easily get derailed. But in presenting one to the players, they certainly have an opportunity to create a spotlight moment for themselves.

#3 Comment By Argalek On May 8, 2009 @ 8:06 am

My problem is that what I’m best at is evil monologues, which isn’t much fun for players but tons of fun for me. I don’t give myself the opportunity very often (for the sake of my players’ sanity and so it doesn’t get stale) but when I do I relish the moment.

#4 Comment By LesInk On May 8, 2009 @ 8:16 am

In support of using props (something I can always do more of myself), I want to point out that props can be several things — a hat the DM wears while acting in character, a hand out of a map, a customized item with history description and picture on a 3×5 card, to a nerf gun handed to a player to act out a tense gun standoff scene (does he pull the trigger? you’ll know with certainty if the choice is made).

I’ve found that simple is fine. Even a scrawl of a simple puzzle on a sheet of paper gets everyone involved. So don’t think you have to do much.

#5 Comment By deadlytoque On May 8, 2009 @ 9:38 am

It should be important to note, for the people who gave themselves low numbers n the system promiscuity scale yesterday, that there are actually systems out there that incorporate 2 and 3 into gameplay, so it becomes even easier. I’m thinking particularly of games that use “Aspects” (or some variant) as a primary motive-force for the game: Spirit of the Century, Houses of the Blooded, With Great Power…, and Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies all leap to mind. There are also borderline cases like Dogs in the Vineyard where there’s still a great deal of GM prep, but the players will do everything they can to bring their character backgrounds into your story (because it gives them more dice!)

As far as props go, I have never been able to get the hang of them. I run with such a seat-of-the-pants, player-driven, improvisational narrative that usually making props beforehand would be completely meaningless.

#6 Comment By Cole On May 8, 2009 @ 10:01 am

The GM is a player too. A gaming group should work together so everyone is happy. That is the problem right now with my group. Some are just happy being catered to without giving anything back.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 8, 2009 @ 10:59 am

Free beer (or wine for the Elves). Because any social activity is more fun with a slight buzz. 😉

Seriously, the best way I know to engage the players is to find out what makes them tick. Their character sheet may provide a clue, but if you can find a way to read the ‘player sheet’, then you’re golden. Get a peek at their likes/dislikes, the parts of gaming they like most (and least), and what they really want out of a gaming session.

This is not easy, especially in one-shots, con games, or the first few sessions of a campaign. It requires some sensitivity and a willingness to ask for (and take) feedback. Also, some players may change over time, with different genres, or even with different characters. But once you know what your players want, you can play them like an orchestra.

#8 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 9, 2009 @ 6:12 am

Cole is on to something.

But for a GM, the trick is cultivating an atmosphere of support and sharing.

Maybe it’s as simple as a GM simply asking his players for help with this, that, or the other. If the GM takes the first step to ask for help, then the players will stop assuming that they are there to be catered to.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 9, 2009 @ 10:30 am

[9] – I like skill challenges in principle, but my group has only done a couple of them, and they weren’t all that. I see the potential, though, and am hoping for a juicy one in tonight’s game — we’re attending a dinner with nobles, which seems like a golden opportunity.

#10 Comment By ben robbins On May 9, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

Just to add a counter-point, [10] You may be inadvertently putting the player in the hot seat when they don’t want the pressure.

#11 Comment By Timon On May 10, 2009 @ 3:32 am

Create tension and drama. That is what all these points are actually about. Move people into the setting and engage them by speaking to the unique skills and attributes of their characters, fleshing out the setting, using your voice, handouts, hats and performing animals to build suspense.

The best moment I had in GMing so far was in 3.5 for the group of 10-year-olds I run. The rogue had both hands inside the intricate, trapped lock mechanism and had to choose whether to pull the red vial of fluid out or the blue one. He was the only one doing anything, the rolls were already down, but the whole table had baited breath as he slowly pulled out a delicate vial of crimson fluid…

#12 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 10, 2009 @ 9:25 am

Martin: Let us know how the skill challenge went.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 10, 2009 @ 9:26 am


Is free beer a prop?

#14 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 10, 2009 @ 10:07 am

[12] – It turned out not to be that kind of dinner — so still no compelling skill challenge. 😉

We did, however, have one of those knife-edge, seat-of-your-pants combats that 4e is so damned good at delivering.

#15 Comment By Cole On May 13, 2009 @ 8:32 am

[13] – Thank you for the reply. Sometimes to make some players happy (including the GM), you have to kick other players out of the group. That’s what I have just recently done in my group. The important lesson to me was: The longer you wait, the worse it gets.

#16 Comment By dccarles On May 28, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

One technique I’ve used to some success is the Cut Scene. I write up some NPC dialogue/action (which the PCs may never see in character) and have the players perform it by reading our the lines.

It works best, I think, if you add one or more tricks:
* The context of Cut Scene makes no sense to the players at the time, but becomes clearer over the course of time (example: two distant NPCs talk about the torrid past of an unnamed character, who is revealed to be someone the PCs already know during play)

* The Cut Scene reveals gives otherwise expendable NPCs some depth (e.g., the bad guys debate what to do about the PC onslaught, acknowledging their mistakes and reacting like round rather than flat, characters)

* The Cut Scene foreshadows something Truly Dire (e.g., aforementioned bad guys conclude with ‘We need to call a cleaner’ or ‘institute Plan Omega’.)

* The players have some choice in what the NPCs they are obstensibly playing do. It’s easy enough to restict this to a pick A, B or C option.) This works best if they know the NPCs well and the GM is willing to prepare multiple story forks. (Another example: the player can choose whether or not the corrupt chancellor either tries to frame the PCs for his own misdeeds or eliminate the witnesses.)

–Devin Carless

#17 Comment By Reddo On July 1, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

Thaaaaaank you thank you thank you! THANK YOUYOUYOU!

I must say that making props may work MUCH better than most people will realise. I’m am totally not artistic and won’t be able to make anything nice, even when using “choose and use” programs. But then I said “Oh, whatever!” and made maps for almost every scene we would run into and little small characters for each of the players.
Even though they were simple and not that nice, they were the best I could offer and everyone loved them just because I made them after their characters…

It’s like saying “I like your character, please keep it up”, that’s why players will like whatever you make. They know you had to put some effort into it.

And I haven’t even gotten to how it makes every session more fun! Having that map and those character pieces over it makes the job of understanding what’s happening much easier, and then they can all focus on what to do… Having more fun while at it!

I still have to find what I’m good at when GMing, though >.>. Great post, thank you!