How Gamers tick

How the mind of a roleplaying gamer works; why it is aggravating, why it is good, inverse psychology, and how to work with it in a productive manner: Learn from my mistakes!

In one game, I am usually the support cleric. But as we returned, for a third time, to a place where evil cultists had their lair, and where they gathered strength again and again to swarm forth, I desired to end that threat for good. So I took the reins and formulated a plan, and bullied everyone into agreeing with it.

The plan was dead simple, or so I believed: First we go through all of the rooms and kill all the enemies, cleanse the whole place. Focused, determined, without distractions. Then we have the place secured; block all entrances, then search it, and rest.

To wit:
1) Kill.
2) Secure.
3) Loot.

That was too hard.

I am used to carefully forged plans falling apart in an instant, yet this one felt too simple to get messed up.
But messed up it got.

Because it demanded to hold off of instant gratification and wait for a comparatively long time of sustained effort to focus on a single, abstract task.

In every single room, as soon as the opposition was defeated, the other party members would drop out of formation, start snooping around for loot, dispersing in various directions to inspect statues, tables, murals, or pillars.

I had to force them, almost physically, to go on to the next room.

Of course, their looting had advantages: For example, when I was busy herding one half of them out into the next corridor, the other half discovered a secret door. But in general, it was troublesome to force them onward against their nature. Because their nature was to be interested in the next shiny thing that the GM described.

(source: healthcentral)

For a good reason, though, as one player later pointed out: This being a game, not reality, he expected to find clues and even items to use against foes in the next rooms; as one does in games; and as we did. So yes, my plan was not optimal.

When we found a chest in a room, inside a magical-seeming protection circle, I asked for enemies. None were there. The others wanted to mess with the chest. I said, no, we go on, look for enemies. One of the others, usually the most onward-focused of the group, stopped to throw a lasso for the chest to drag it out of its protective circle as we left. He failed, but still triggered a magic reaction.

I reconsidered, okay, magic reaction, we have to check that chest now, so we would not have a threat in our backs. And then suddenly the player who had lassoed the chest now said, no, leave it, let’s go on. Like in a dance, when I stepped left, he stepped right. When I said, leave the door open, he closed it. When I said, we go right, he went left. When I followed him, he turned around to go the opposite way.

Why: like most gamers, he likes to go against the flow. To adventure, instead of tilling the field.


Gamers are a contrarian lot. Tell them to do X, and they will do Y. Tell them to not pull the lever, and they must pull it.

Easily excited

Tell them there is something red, or a glint of gold, or a strange noise, and they will go check it out, and spin theories about it.

In a later situation we were on the way to a place and crossed a bridge. On the bridge were soldiers. We closed to them, wondering if we would have to fight them. They were friendly but mentioned that there was a village of monsters not far from here, and many adventurers went there.
Bad move on the GM’s part: Because we had said we wanted to go to the place at the end of the street, the GM had prepared that place. But now we had heard that there was a village! So obviously, we left the road and went to the village. Which was not prepared at all.

In another game, I as GM mentioned that on a hill not far from the road there was an old mansion. Obviously the players veered off the road and went straight there, because if there is a mansion it must be important.

Short attention spans

When they hear something new, they drop whatever they had going on and check out the new thing. Or, in another game, when a battle with 2.000 troops lasts longer than 5 rounds (equivalent of 30 seconds), they lose interest and complain that nothing is happening.

After killing foes in a series of rooms, without looting, the group showed a great aversion to go back to those rooms to loot the now quiet rooms. These were old rooms, from the past. Returning there felt like doing the same stuff again. Repeating the same motions. Boring — even though it was combat the first time around, and something completely different later … even the activity they had so desperately wanted to do earlier. The area was already experienced. It was done, chapter closed.

A Post-game quote.

GMs are no different

Same goes for the GM, who felt that describing the rooms a second time was a chore, so his second descriptions, as we finally went to search for things, were much shorter. Even though in the first description he was specifically asked to only describe opposition – of course he described interesting chests and trinkets, goading the troops to abandon the mission and tap for loose floorboards instead (Contrarian!).
When he saw an opportunity to derail our (better: my) mission plan, he went for it with glee (Easily excited).
When asked to describe again, because now we would look for details, he skimmed over it (Short attention span!).

  • Contrarian,
  • easily excited,
  • short attention spans

… honestly, I feel that this describes us gamers very well.
And that is why my plan of being methodical, almost military, was doomed from the start.

Speaking of military: Are wargamers different?
Probably not very.
Only in that they will not loot at all: Their game ends right there, with the result of the battle.

What we learn

Gamers learn a certain set of behaviour for a reason. Because it works.
There really ARE clues and special weapons against the enemies in the next room, at least in published modules.

Clearing too many rooms at once will deplete spell slots and hit points, and when the party goes too far and neglect the necessary rests, they will suddenly be outmatched by the big bad.

And, most importantly, gamers are not soldiers. They are flashy individualists playing their personal rôle, not a tight formation of interchangeable functions like a platoon. They are a ragtag band of widely varying characters, not a bunch of numbers. To speak in Warhammer 40000 terms, they are the Inquisition, not the Arbites. To speak in Historic terms, they are French Revolutionaries, not Prussian Elite Guards.

And these are the rules to really make them go where you want them to go, Napoleon-style:

1) Don’t give them a mission.
Give them a motivation!

2) Don’t give them orders.
Give them ideas

3) Don’t have one plot hook.
Have a bunch!

Picture: by Julia Filirovska on Pexels

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