Review of The GM’s Field Guide to Players
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this PDF in compensation for this review.
As much as we might not like to admit it, some GMs are better than others. There are a lot of factors that go into this, such as personal charisma and the ability to think on the fly, but there’s also a level of understanding of good principles of GMing. My favorite has been Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, which I consider to be the definitive guide to what makes a good gamemaster. One recent book (well, PDF book) I’ve discovered has a more specific focus: The GM’s Field Guide to Players.
The GM’s Field Guide to Players ($7, PDF) consists of 3 chapters spanning 54 pages. The table of contents and any references to other parts of the book are hyperlinked within the PDF, allowing for easy access. Everything is black and white, which is fine for an informative book. It’s designed to be systemless, but I think that many of the examples and problems are written with D&D in mind.
One of the first things I noticed as I was skimming through the book was that the art was rather disjointed and had little to do with the text. Some look like fantasy images out of a medieval manuscript, some are modernist art of people using various technology, and some are of animals. One that confused me especially was of white owls standing on books, circling a bunch of toadstools with a black owl on a book in the center of the ring. This was followed by a man and woman sitting on a rock. I’m afraid that ultimately this gave me a bad first impression of the PDF, as it made it seem like it didn’t have a clear focus.
Player Types and How to Use Them
The first chapter revolves around player types. It describes the differences between the Character Actor, the Combat Monger, the Mechanic, the Power Gamer, the Socialite, the Solver, and the Storyteller. I’ve seen most of these classifications before (sometimes by different names) and I wouldn’t say that any of these classifications are radically different compared to the other classification systems I’ve seen.
Each entry provides a description of the “class,” which I find really best describes the exemplar of a class. This is followed by a paragraph each on their “virtues” and “vices” at the gaming table (i.e. the ways they help and hinder a game) along with a list of ways they can be useful and “things to do and not do.” Several also include a list of “sub-classes” describing more niche types that fall into the category.
I found the descriptions themselves to be pretty helpful and informative, if somewhat meandering and over-general. The virtues and vices, which provide a fairly concise description of how you might expect one to play out at the table. I think that these sections would be pretty helpful for a new GM who has never seen these sorts of classifications before.
However, The “ways a ______ can be useful” offers advice that is probably a bit too idealistic and impractical for most games. For instance, it suggests the Mechanic be assigned to looking up die results and creating cheat sheets while the Storyteller should be used as a backup GM. Many of the class entries also suggest that they be used as mentors for other players. In practice though, I think that delegating duties to players is unlikely to work out as well as the author hopes because players tend not to have as much invested in the game as the GM.
The section on what to do and not to do with each type has a lot of great advice, but I think that in an effort to provide advice tailored to each class that some good gaming advice that would be useful to all players is instead presented specifically to a certain type of player, which means that a GM reading certain sections may miss some very useful advice. For instance, “describe combat vividly” rather than as mere die rolls is great advice that benefits all players. However, it’s buried in the suggestions for Combat Mongers. I would argue that players in general would benefit from this advice, but if you don’t have a Combat Monger in your group, then you’re not going to read the section that contains that advice.
I found the subtypes of the classes to be over-general. For instance, one of the Character Actor’s subtypes is “the Goth” who is described as always wanting to play “the dark, brooding loner.” They also apparently prefer playing World of Darkness, which implies that a great many players of that game would be of this type. I’ve never come across a player described like this and even if I did, I find it hard to believe that they would absolutely be a Character Actor (perhaps they might be a Storyteller or Socialite).
Field Guide to Players does briefly note that actual players may contain traits from multiple character types, but ultimately I feel that because it focuses so much on the exemplar of each character type that it’s difficult to separate out the individual traits that a given player might take from that category. For instance, I would consider myself something of a hybrid of a Storyteller, Solver, and Power Gamer, but the very absolute descriptions and specific suggestions given to each of those three makes it difficult for a new GM to find out how to best incorporate me as a player (not to mention that you’ll have to read 9 pages to figure me out, then repeat the process for any other players).
The first chapter takes 23 pages to cover all of the types. There’s a lot of great advice in it, but it could have been a lot more concise and less focused on describing the exemplar player types.
Dealing with Problem Players
The book’s second chapter begins with five steps for dealing with problem players, which mirrors a lot of general problem-solving steps used in team-building seminars and counseling (including a section about using “I feel” statements, although not described as such). For most game problems, I think such steps are overkill, but Field Guide for Players seems to want to tackle the big problems. After all, a list of “common” problems a GM might have to deal with include “antagonizing other players,” “cheating on die rolls,” “deliberately sabotaging the game”, and “telling other players what their characters do or feel.”
And that’s perhaps the biggest problem I have with this chapter. Like the proceeding one, it’s about extremes. If you have players like that at your table, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed (and as a GM, you probably ought to think about finding a different group of gamers, which surprisingly is never suggested). In fact, I think that the entire list of “the most common behavior problems” (of which the four I listed above are from), could be consolidated into the following, less-extreme categories:
- The player is bored (e.g. not paying attention, doing other activities)
- The player is not cooperating with other players (e.g. hogging the spotlight, stealing from the party)
- The player is breaking the game rules or not playing in an acceptable way (e.g. cheating, metagaming)
- Issues unrelated to the game itself are having consequences on the game (e.g. bringing personal issues, arriving late or not at all)
It seems to me like describing these types of problems, rather than addressing how to deal with the big problems, would have been more useful to many GMs who are unlikely to have the big problems arise. After all in my four years of GMing, the worst problem I’ve had is chronically late players, which is usually resolved when the player decides they are too busy to continue. In such cases, the five step model is probably overkill.
After listing situations where you would want to go straight to Step 5 and remove the player (you can probably guess figure that out easily enough), there’s a section on “Ideas for Avoiding Player Problems.” It starts off with advice about laying out the expectations for the game (which is great advice) and states that you may need to change the game to be more engaging to each of the players’ playstyles (also great advice). It then suggests that many problems come up because the player types aren’t jiving with the characters they are playing, which I think misses the mark (and why are they playing the character if they aren’t going to like it?).
The chapter follows up with several paragraphs describing an incentive system to discourage problems. For instance, it suggests giving your chronically late player a reward for being on time, which I think can be a bit overkill and doesn’t do much to address the root causes of the problem. It also recommends voting for an MVP, which in my experience works great for convention games in which prizes are awarded, but would just cause contention in a campaign (looks like Mark’s the MVP again).
Types of Problem Players
The final chapter talks about common types of problem players: the Aggressive PC, the Drama Queen, the Flaky Gamer, the Inattentive, the Munchkin, the Persistent Noob, the Rules Lawyer, and the Spotlight Hog. Like the first chapter, it spends 1-2 pages describing each type while giving suggestions about how to deal with them. Again, some of the suggestions are good: like listening to a Rules Lawyer briefly, then making a rules call and sticking with it for the remainder of the game. Others seem a bit childish, notably “pass around a talking stick” (which I’ve seen preschools do). It even recommends solving the Spotlight Hog problem by having a caller (having all players give their suggestions to one player, who then makes a final decision, who relays it to the GM), which I think is a terrible idea because it is unnecessarily complex and will probably kill any fun. All in all, these fourteen pages are a fairly mixed bag.
Don’t get me wrong, for all this book’s faults, it has some good advice, such as the descriptions of the general player types and the suggestions on how to avoid problem players. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it seems excessively wordy and consequently some great gems get buried. Overall, I found The GM’s Field Guide to Players to be a mixed bag that is best for those with very difficult players at their gaming table. If your gaming group is average, there are better books for GM advice out there for about the same price (such as Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, a $7.99 PDF).