Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Psychographics in Role-playing Games

This is the first of three articles I’m writing on the topic of Player Types. This first will be a look at Mark Rosewater’s Magic: The Gathering psychographics, and how they apply to Dungeons & Dragons (and, perhaps, any other game).

When you’re trying to sell games for a living, it’s pretty important to try and figure out why people play games. That’s part of the reason I love reading Mark Rosewater’s articles over at Wizards of the Coast; he talks at length about why people play games, and how we can get people to play them more. A lot of that comes from a design perspective, which I appreciate, because it gives me a bit of an inside look at the motivations of the person in charge of making Magic lack suck. 

But Magic is not a role-playing game. It really should be a role-playing game which is a thing I’ll talk about in a future post, I’m sure, but it’s not actually a role-playing game. It’s a card game, and the reasons people play card games are pretty different from the reasons we play role-playing games.

Or are they?

Timmy, Johnny, Spike

Rosewater posits that there are three key psychological demographics (“psychographics” to marketing and buzzword folks) that play Magic: The Gathering. He has named these psychographics Timmy, Johnny and Spike.

Timmy plays the game because he wants to experience something. In the world of Magic: The Gathering, that means he wants the rush of throwing down a huge creature and beating face with it. He wants to take one look at a card and go “HOLY CARP I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT THIS!!!” He’s looking for the Wow Factor of a card or a deck or whatever.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the idea of “experiencing something” opens up in a huge way. Each situation in a role-playing game has the opportunity to evoke emotion. And, honestly, that’s always been one of the biggest draws to the game. The idea that a game can affect you in the same way that a novel or a television show might is a powerful motivating factor in playing it. I have seen people cry during sad moments in a role-playing game. I’ve never seen that happen at a Magic tournament.

(Well, that’s not strictly true, but it had nothing to do with a sad moment in the fictional game world and was instead the result of having lost a game to that person’s significant other during a tournament…)

Johnny plays the game as a form of self-expression. In Magic, this is through creativity in deck design. He puts the pieces of the puzzle together in a way no one else has, and even if the deck doesn’t win, as long as it pulls off that one amazing trick once it still pulls it off and gives him a story to tell later.

In Dungeons and Dragons, we have the opportunity to tell stories as part of the game. And a lot of players take a special sort of delight in doing so. Personally, as a GM, I love crafting elaborate plots through which my player characters navigate. I love creating fleshed out, interesting worlds in which to play. I especially love giving my players interesting non-player characters with whom to interact. I am, in nearly every way possible, a D&D Johnny.

Another incarnation of this would be the person who has tried out every crazy build for every character class and race combination with a billion different feat choices. Sometimes that’s the domain of a Spike (trying to build the character that wins), but a lot of the time, the combinations aren’t great. Sometimes you build a goliath earthsong warden with optimized everything. Sometimes you build a drow paladin airship captain with a boomerang (+1 Dex! Woo!). But if a Johnny gets to tell great stories with the character (or about the character later), then it’s all good.

Spike plays to win. In Magic, this means finding the best decks, playing them against the best decks, finding ways to beat the decks that beat your decks and learning to optimize your own play to the point that you never, ever fail at Magic. For Dungeons and Dragons, this falls a little more into the category of the power-gamer. They trawl online boards looking for character optimization options that will help them live longer, fight harder, kill faster and rake in the experience points.

But as in all things D&D, there is more than one way to “win.” You win if you do your job better than anyone else could. You win if you did the coolest thing anyone had done that night. You win if you’re the guy who gets all the spotlight time. You win if you got the most loot. There are a lot of ways to win at Dungeons & Dragons, and a lot of ways to consider yourself successful.

Also, because D&D is a cooperative sport (most of the time), it can be difficult to actually say you’ve won the game. Honestly, I think of all the Magic psychographics currently catered to in Dungeons & Dragons, Spikes are the ones left in the dust. That’s part of the reason I’ve established Warp One’s first D&D tournament, a three-on-three contest of skill and brute strength. It should be a blast.


The two newer pseudo-psychographics, Melvin and Vorthos, also have a place in the Dungeons & Dragons equivalence discussion. Melvin, for those who haven’t read the Magic: The Gathering articles (linked at the bottom of the post), is a player who likes the crunchy number bits of a card, the rules, the interactions and turn sequences and the like. Vorthos is all about the flavor of a card, what the card feels like and looks like, how it interacts with their idea of the fictional world in which the card interacts.

Melvin exists in Dungeons & Dragons. We call him a rules-lawyer at his most extreme, but to be fair, it’s a major motivating factor in why he’s playing the game. He isn’t being a dick about the rules to be a dick. He’s being a dick about the rules because he really, genuinely cares about the rules. This is the sort of player who loves when a new edition comes out, or a new game, the sort of guy who will rummage through Savage Worlds or Mouse Guard and steal rules from them to use in a D&D game, or vice versa. Melvin loves rules, loves systems, and loves playing with them until they do exactly what he wants them to do.

Vorthos, too, exists in Dungeons & Dragons. He’s read every Forgotten Realms novel, and is prepared for any eventuality, knowing who to talk to and where to go to get things done. He can be hell on a plot sometimes, or he can be an amazing boon to your campaign, a driving force that brings your party where they need to be as often as possible.

Or, he’s the guy who has pored over every map in every world book ever produced for every edition of the game. He knows the GDP of Zilargo, their major exports, their major imports, and how many gnomes it takes to build an airship. Again, this guy can be both a boon and a detractor from your game, depending on how much you want your players to know before hand.

The problem with labelling these guys as psychographics in terms of a role-playing game is that flavor and mechanics, while motivating factors in playing, are not the core reasons people will play. I will not play a game of… well, anything, if the only reason to play it is to experience the flavor of that game. I could just read a book and get the same experience. And I certainly won’t play a game just because the rules look pretty kick-ass. There has to be some other draw for me.

I am, however, both a Vorthos and a Melvin. I love rules, I love tinkering with them and making them up on the spot, I love house ruling things that I don’t have rules for, I love stealing rules from other games to use later, or hijacking a rules system to play a game that I think that system would be better for than the one it’s using. But I also love flavor. I pore over Eberron books, not because I need a new feat for my drow paladin airship captain, but because I want to. I love the history of the world, the nations, the people who move and shake within it. It’s lonely fun at its best.

Your Psychograph Can’t Hold Me!

The problem with these psychographics is that they aren’t completely inclusive of role-playing game motivations. For instance, I can’t figure out where a player who wants to annoy other players (or the GM) fits into the psychographics. Or the guy who only wants to watch and will roll dice when needed. While Mr. Rosewater’s psychographics give us a good launching-off point from which to explore the profiles of role-playing gamers, they don’t cover quite enough ground to be wholly useful in figuring out our players’ motivations.

So in my next post, we’ll be looking at the profiles other folks in the games industry have put out for role-playing gamers. In particular, I hope to be dissecting The Munchkin File, Robin Laws’ archetypes, and Richard Bartle’s exploration of MUD players.

Join me next time, when I won’t be biting Mark Rosewater’s style!

Until then, may your graphics be as far from the psychos as possible.


Small Correction said...

Paragraph 2:
"quite a it about why"

Last line:
"Until then, may your graphics be as far from the psychos as possible."

There's nothing actually really WRONG with this last line, it's just a really, really cheesy turn of phrase.

Yeah, I'm a Melvin.

Johnni said...

So...Timmy Vorthos?

SlurpeeMoney said...

Melvin: The second paragraph is fixed. And yes, the parting note is pretty cheesy; Mr.Rosewater has a tendency to sign off with pure fromage.

Johnni: Yeah, that's where I'd set you right now. Keep in mind, though, that you're still pretty new to the game, and your motivations for playing will likely shift and change over time.

Guest said...

"For instance, I can’t figure out where a player who wants to annoy other players (or the GM) fits into the psychographics."

This has been covered already on the Wizards site, just not by Mark Rosewater. The idea of a 'Griefer Timmy' was put forward as a player who wants to experience something by making other players suffer.