Player Types: The 4 Love Languages of D&D 5e (and every other TRPG)
This is not an article about Player Romance, topics of sexuality or love at the table, or anything of that nature. This a DM tool for engaging Tabletop Roleplayers through cunning use of psychology and four buckets. That’s not to say that players can’t benefit, as well. In fact, I’d be interested to see what archetypes all of you fall into, so be sure to comment below.
Player archetypes are kind of a touchy subject. As a rule, I find that while nerds love to categorize and factionalize other nerds (Star Wars v. Star Trek, Xbox or PlayStation, Comics or Anime), there’s a knee-jerk reaction against being put into a box. I think it has to do with being shoved into lockers –notably a box. We can cover the geek social fallacies some time in the future, because psychology is fertile ground for tailoring games and ensuring that your table is the best it can be, but that’s not this article.
Today, we’re covering player archetypes, the fundamental reasons why your players are coming to the table to pretend to be elves or dwarves, Fighters or Wizards, heroes or murderhobos. Everyone who plays for any given length of time has a reason that RPGs resonate with them. There’s something in their psychology that is rewarded when they pick up the dice. Otherwise, they’d find another hobby. There are lots of them. They could spend that Friday night roasting weenies over a campfire, or stay in with a book, or practice the pyrophone.
Something’s drawing them back, because when you say, “Friday night at 7:00 sound okay for this weeks game?” they say, “Sure!” So what is it? The answer, as you may have guessed, isn’t simple. But, that’s okay. It won’t take long to explain anyway. I will, however, need a deck of cards.
Richard Bartle wrote an article called “HEARTS, CLUBS, DIAMONDS, SPADES: PLAYERS WHO SUIT MUDS” about…twenty four years ago that categorized people who played MUDs, a kind of text-based dungeon-crawling video game from the early days of the internet, and while it’s not a one to one conversion ratio the points he brings up are pretty valid as far as Dungeons and Dragons and every other RPG is concerned. I’ll drop a link to that article below. Bartle was a smarter guy than I have any right to claim myself to be, being that he holds a Doctorate in Artificial Intelligence, created the first Massively Multiplayer Online Game ever as an undergraduate, and wrote a book on categorizing players just like I’m about to do in a glib little article. I, contrariwise, am going to write a glib little article adapting this guy’s thesis to the tabletop. Hold my beer and watch this.
Every Game is a House of Cards
The central premise of Dr. Bartle’s argument is that there are four different outlooks that exist simultaneously in a game. These are easily represented by the four suits in a deck of playing cards: Diamonds, Spades, Hearts, and Clubs. Bartle enumerates them as Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers. Now, I tinker a little bit with that, because I’m a tinkerer by nature. Dungeons and Dragons is not a MUD, at least not the way I play it. There’s a little more breadth of content and behavior to sort out, so our suits become Achievers, Mechanics, Actors, and Tacticians.
You’re probably seeing where I’m going with this. If not, then stand by a moment, because we’re going to get a little more of an in depth look at these suits in a second. For the moment, I want to emphasize that I have never met a player who falls neatly into a single category here–except Anthony (hey, Anthony, you bloody-minded Wildman!) People are idiosyncratic enough to need more buckets than I can comfortably enumerate in order to catch all of them, but blend a couple of colors on the palette and I can easily categorize every person that I’ve ever played this game with.
Each of these archetypes have reasons for coming to the table. They’re getting something out of the game every time they sit down. Or they’re hoping that they get something out the game. They might the one who gets mad if there’s no call for initiative that night, or else count it as a wasted game if your party only got through four rooms of the dungeon and failed to find a single magical item. They might be the ones cackling loudest about the side NPC they got to joke with, or they might be glowing after their class ability combo saved the party’s bacon. Furthermore, you should know that DMs fall into these schema as well. If you really want to engage your players, ensure that there’s content to engage their lizard brains. If you want to avoid burnout, be sure that you’re doing what you think is fun, too.
Okay. Enough belaboring the point. Let’s shuffle up and deal.
Diamonds: The Achiever
Diamonds seem to make up the greater population of Dungeons and Dragons players these days. Brought up on tales of their forebears, they come armed with the expectation of a dungeon, some fighting, a trap, a dragon, and then loads of treasure and experience. They want to do cool stuff, they want to find cool stuff, and they want to feel a sense of progression both narrative and mechanical. These are the players that want to grow in power but, usually–and there are exceptions– only after they feel that they’ve earned it.
Diamonds are some of the best players to invite to your table because they will give your party a sense of direction. Moreover, they’ll provide some much needed forward momentum when the party starts to lag under its own indecision. If this never happens at your table, you’ve probably got a strong Achiever in your group.
Be aware that Achievers are not always outspoken. It’s a common misconception that all Achievers are rabidly type-A personalities, overbearing and forward. I’ve had a number of players who got frustrated when the game stalled out, but never raise their voice and ask why we were still trying to seek out secret doors when there was a perfectly good normal door ahead of them. Even if they’re quiet, the Achiever wants to be given the chance to continue the story, complete the quest, save the beautiful dragon, and slay the fearsome princess.
Engaging the Achiever
Engaging an Achiever is not difficult. Give them a goal, and then let them take steps to complete it. It’s as simple as that. If you give them cool stuff, give them an opportunity to use it. They worked hard for that cool stuff, and it wouldn’t be right to not let them bask in the glory of a hunt well…hunted.
If your Achiever is drifting away from the game, glancing down at their phone, side-chatting, and just overall not engaged, all you need to do is dangle some kind of progression in front of their nose. What sort might vary. There are people more concerned with the narrative just like there are people more concerned with gear or gold. Find what it is that your Diamond is most interested in and then let them push the party in that direction. If there’s a good payoff, either in tension or resolution, xp, or gold, then you can bet that they’ll keep jumping at all of your hooks. They won’t be able to help it.
Spades: The Mechanic
Spades are a tricky subset of the gaming community to nail down. They are, at their heart, explorers. However, unlike their compatriots up above, the Diamonds, they aren’t as interested in the end goal. This tribe is composed of two distinct groups that seem to blend into each other. There are optimizers and then there are the game-world explorers. You see why Spades is getting tricky.
Drake, you’re saying, how are you conflating optimizers with the people who are most interested in investigating the Gameworld? I hear you, straw-man argument. At first, I had trouble rationalizing it as well. But when you boil it down, both of those subsets of gamers are fiddlers by nature. Optimizers fiddle with the interlocking mechanical systems in the rules. If it’s more about winning than the joy of finding new ways to accomplish things, they go in the Diamond box. Maybe Clubs if they really just want to be combat monsters. Otherwise, I lump them in with the same people who want to know why this door has two knobs or what the mystic properties of those blue mushrooms might be. Mechanics are curious, and curiosity can only be satisfied by fiddling.
Mechanics tend to be a counterweight to the forward motion of Achievers. This keeps the pacing of the game manageable rather than breakneck. They are the ones who ferret out details, solve mysteries, and ensure that the details and mysteries fit into the overall puzzle of the narrative. They’ll explore, almost as if they’re looking for that 100% map completion achievement. If they’re optimizers as well, then you can be sure that the mechanics of the world and the bounds of the rules will be explored just as thoroughly.
Engaging the Mechanic
Mechanics are some of the best players to invite to the table because they push the bounds of your Gameworld. They will take that Spade and start digging. To engage a Mechanic, give them leave to satisfy their curiosity. Whether that is fiddling with the ancient machine to see if they can figure out what it does, or letting them multiclass and see what the world does when they take disparate tool-kits and fuse them together. Both of these approaches to exploration are valid and enjoyable, so long as everyone is on the same page.
The kind of content that Mechanics enjoy most will vary. I’ve had players who couldn’t get enough puzzles and riddles, and then I’ve gotten people who were on a single-minded quest to complete an exhaustive study of natural plants and their alchemical uses. These players want to immerse themselves in the world and then see how it reacts when they start poking it. If you let them be curious, let them indulge their curiosity, they’re going to have a good time.
Heart: The Actor
Hearts are social creatures. Typically, they’re the one who brought the funny accent and the enthusiasm for interrogating all of your NPCs, so they’re often not hard to spot. Actors are the subset of players that are often the ones who get misconstrued as the “Roleplayers” of the bunch, but that’s reductive. Everyone can be a roleplayer. The funny accents and speaking in character aren’t necessarily hallmarks of roleplaying, that’s just funny accents and speaking in character. We might do an article down the road about roleplaying and how all of these schema engage in that, but let’s set that aside for now. What Actors are excited about is the social aspect of the game, getting to act out their part and engage firsthand. While Achievers are pushing the story forward and Mechanics are fiddling with the knobs, Actors are adding richness by focusing on the emotive aspects of the game.
That’s not all they do, though. Actors will typically be the ones who are most interested in tying their characters into the world, providing a ream of backstory if you give them leave to. More, they’ll be thrilled if you go ahead and tie them into the world, giving them hooks and stakes to further engage with your content. Give the Actor their motivation, and they’ll give you a performance.
Engaging the Actor
Actors are some of the best people to invite to your table because they add so much to the social aspect of the game, both in and out of character. They’ll encourage other people to “get into character.” Something about Jeff from Accounting grumbling like an angry volcano in broken English when he’s Thudrug the Orc tends to make a session more memorable. Even beyond that, their dedication to the narrative and the emotional content thereof tends to provide a richer gaming experience.
Engaging the Actor is as simple as allowing space for them to contribute to the narrative. Give them someone, an NPC, to bounce off of. Put an obstacle in their way that will tie into their backstory, their heritage, their vices. Make them choose. Make them react. The Actor will sink their teeth in. Be careful, though. Don’t let them chew the scenery overmuch if it begins to detract from pacing. You can usually get a good feel when a scene has run its course.
At the extreme end of the Heart spectrum, a player becomes less of an Actor and more of the Socializer that Dr. Bartle was referring to in his article. These are the “along-for-the-ride” guys who are typically present at the table because their buddies are there and they like doing stuff with their buddies. That’s cool, too. Not everyone engages in the same way. Give them space, and if they want to step forward and take a turn in the spotlight, make it available for them.
Club: The Tactician
Clubs are in this to beat people. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, huh? This category includes the careful war-game émigré who considers every move made with the exacting attention to detail of a heart surgeon–only he wants his patient to die– as well as the “wake-me-up-when-it’s-initiative” guy. Also, hi again, Anthony. Look, tactics are a spectrum. Not every Club is an armchair general, but at the end of the day, they’re waiting for those fateful words that mean that we have dispensed with the feelings and buttkickings are about to be apportioned. Roll initiative.
For Tacticians, Dungeons and Dragons and indeed all other Roleplaying Games are elaborate set-dressing for a rigidly codified set of rules that translate to new and interesting ways to beat people with dice. Combat is a sport, and they are eager to make it to the majors. The bigger the battle, the longer the odds, the more terrain and trickery they get to involve, the happier they are.
Engaging the Tactician
This is going to get a little technical here, so bear with me. Tacticians want to fight. I think that’s pretty clear to all and sundry, so I won’t belabor the point. But if you want to really get your Tactician’s attention, you need to give them something that is more than a bare stone room with 3-5 goblins in it waiting for someone to come and squish them.
See, Tacticians are some of the best people to invite to your table because their love of tactics and combat are going to push your game away from the humdrum of disposable combats and toward interesting, dynamic fights that properly engage the tactical side of your Club’s bloodlust. If you want to get the Tactician excited, give them an interactable battlefield that they can bend to their advantage. Give them foes who are canny and dangerous. Don’t pull your punches. They want to earn their victory.
The Winning Hand
Remember how I said that no one except Anthony fits into just one of these buckets? You were probably struck by a feeling of, “Wow, I’m a couple of these things mashed together,” somewhere in the middle of that article. That’s normal. You’re actually a blending of all of those in certain quantities and under certain situations. Personally I’m a Heart/Diamond/Club/Spade, but your own particular long and short suits might be entirely different. That doesn’t mean that we can’t still game together.
The thing about these categories is that all of them work together and bounce off of each other. Sometimes the rambling Actor gets on the Achiever’s nerves and the Tactician’s single-minded charge into the Big Bad’s throne-room seals the Mechanic off from that interesting side-hallway that might have held some secret that they desperately wanted to investigate, but that’s not the death of a game. That’s drama, sure, and not always the in-game kind. But a DM who has taken the time to figure out what it is that is bringing his players to the table is better able to tailor content for those players. If you dangle the right bait, your players will be more eager to bite and that means fewer dangling, un-nibbled hooks.
Next week we might be looking at the DM side of these love-languages, so stay tuned for that. The article that Dr. Bartle wrote can be found right here if you want to give that a look. He makes some points about the inter-schema relationships that I didn’t think were exactly right for tabletop games, but if it helps, feel free to tell me I’m goofy below.