Level One Wonk: Player Motivations

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today, we dive deep into player styles and motivations. Have some space cases in your group? Let’s figure out how to help capture their attention! Are you the group space case? Read on, and let’s figure out what you’re looking for.

People come to gaming tables for a variety of different reasons, and for almost as long as gaming tables have existed game developers have been trying to figure out how to categorize these reasons. As story-driven gaming reached mainstream success with the World of Darkness in the early 1990s, discussions about game styles picked up. The Threefold model was introduced in a Usenet group in the mid 1990s, and Ron Edwards would modify this model into GNS on a website called The Forge. Wizards of the Coast would develop their own model based on player surveys, built on axes of combat/story and strategic/tactical.

One of the problems with these models is that they weren’t built around assumptions of completeness. Wizards said that 88% of their respondents fell into one of four quadrants…but 12% fell somewhere in the middle, and that survey respondents who fell into a quadrant still cared about elements from other quadrants. The GNS model was built around a coherent definition of narrativism, but gamism was more vague and simulationism was a kind of “all of the above” bucket that was only well defined after the fact.

The biggest issue with most of these models is that they assume discrete categories. Ron Edwards even went so far as to say that a game that tried to fit within two or three of the categories defined in GNS was necessarily “incoherent”, which has since been shown to be quite untrue. Players and therefore games can present any of the three playstyles or aspects of all three. RPG theory has largely moved on from categorization-driven frameworks, but newer theories like the “Big Model” are hard to explain and hard to use, even if they are more complete (for the set theory nerds out there, the Big Model is described as “totalist” because it tries to encompass every RPG that has ever and will ever exist).

I am not a professional RPG theorist, merely a nerd who knows that the human brain loves to put things into different boxes. In that spirit, what I am presenting here is the Level One Wonk’s “Space Cases” player motivation framework. When you have a player being a space case, you can use this list of player motivations to help diagnose what your spacey player wants and isn’t getting. If you’re a player who finds that a game isn’t holding your attention, you can use these motivations to have a conversation with your GM about what would help you enjoy the game more.

Simulation

While the word simulation implies realism, simulation in role-playing games is rarely about exacting detail. Instead, what players desiring simulation really want is more accurately termed as verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the property of appearing or feeling real, and in games it manifests as things behaving as one would expect. Players desiring simulation want their game worlds to be internally consistent and for actions to play out in a logical manner. The biggest issues for simulation-driven players are actions and phenomena which aren’t covered in the rules, and rules which produce nonsensical results. This often means that, though “simulation” implies a complex ruleset to many people, lighter rulesets with more leeway can be more satisfying to a simulation-driven player if it enables them to work with the GM to model the world and the characters’ actions in a way that makes sense.

Power

This is the “power” in power-gamer. Power-seeking gamers want to play characters that can do things, and see their characters kicking ass and taking names. Though power-seeking players aren’t always going to go for combat, they’re going to go for character types that give them the ability to take action, and in many systems it’s the combat characters that most easily provide this. Though combat is an easy way to get power-seeking players in the fold, any active challenges where their character gets to triumph and show off will be fun for them. A power-seeking player may not always get into planning phases, and in many cases character optimization is going to be frustrating rather than empowering (ask anyone who played a D&D 3e Fighter or Barbarian how they felt about the Wizard in their party).What power-seeking players are looking for is not only “the win” in terms of combats and adventures, but also chances to show off their character and blow off some steam.

Achievement

While an achievement-seeking player wants to win, they’re also interested in being better. This is the motivation that drives optimization and system mastery, the desire to scavenge every stray +1 and be the best possible. Achievement-seeking players are the ones most driven by the experience point arc, seeing their character improve with every level gain and ability buy. Achievement-seeking players are drawn towards systems with lots of choices, in part because it helps differentiate their choices and make the decisions more important.

Challenge

Challenge-seeking players are looking for puzzles and tactical situations, and ways to attack them. Though challenge-seeking players are drawn to more complex systems because the encounters can be more varied and interesting, it’s much more about solving the puzzle at hand than any particular system to put that puzzle forth. Challenge-seeking players can have mixed reactions towards character optimization, either considering it another puzzle within the game or being annoyed that picking the right character options can obviate the need for in-game problem solving.

Emulation

Emulation-seeking players are looking to step into the shoes of a character they’ve envisioned. If they’re interested in playing a wizard, it’s about playing their wizard who has a crystal ball and sometimes has visions of the future…the attack bonus on their fireball spell is pretty unimportant. This is the type of player who may commission a drawing of a character, and who enjoys playing one character for long periods of time. They’re also going to make character choices based on their own ideas for the character rather than any sort of optimization criteria, which can rub achievement-seeking players the wrong way.

Conflict

Conflict-seeking players are the ones who enjoy the excitement of drama and tension. More than the broad events of a whole narrative, conflict-seeking players are involved in the here and now. They like combat, but are more interested if the stakes are high and the winners unclear. They like thinking about character relationships and how motivations clash. If no one else in the group is questioning or considering these motivations and personalities, a conflict-seeking player may poke and prod at them to get something interesting to happen. If you’ve ever had a player betray the rest of the party to one of their antagonists, it’s likely that that player was looking for more conflict and excitement among characters.

Acting

Acting-seeking players want to, well, act. This is a major draw to LARP and games like Fiasco that essentially require players to play-act as their characters, but it draws players to tabletop games as well. An acting-seeking player will be drawn towards social situations and conflicts, and may also have an interest in trying out many different roles. For this reason, many acting-seeking players end up becoming GMs, who generally have more opportunities to get into many characters and be appreciated for it.

Socialization

Socialization-seeking players are often the forgotten category, with only some frameworks including them. A socialization-seeking player wants to hang out with their friends, and this brings them to the table moreso than a particular element of gaming. This doesn’t necessarily mean a player focused on socialization will just come to the table and then stop paying attention, they’re motivated by the positive reinforcement of contributing to the game and will be aware of what’s fun for their friends at the table. While no GM has to tolerate someone who isn’t paying attention, games work better when the players are friends and as a result some side talk and tangents are to be expected.

Evolution

Evolution-seeking players are the “One to Twenty” guys, the players who are interested in seeing their characters grow and change. Evolution-seeking players are more interested in the in-character developments than achievement-seeking players, and more interested in the journey of the characters than in the specific events in the narrative. Evolution-seeking players are likely to enjoy open-ended mechanics like Beliefs in Burning Wheel or Aspects in Fate that force them to give a lot of thought to how their character is changing, rather than just buying from a menu of abilities. That said, a constant stream of mechanical choices like the level progression of D&D can also be very satisfying to an evolution-seeking player.

Story

Story-seeking players are looking for a grand narrative and their character’s part in it. While the story can be large or small, story-seeking players are looking for a satisfying resolution and knowledge that their character played a part in it. While a power-seeking player may be looking for opportunities to do something awesome, a story-seeking player is looking for opportunities to do something impactful. There is some space for a story-seeking player to be swept up in a plot, have little impact, and still be satisfied, but generally story-seeking players will want to make decisions and at least feel like their character had an important role.


When looking at your players, there are two things they need to be having fun: availability of the elements which they desire, and ability to overlook the elements that they don’t. A challenge-seeking player may not mind or even enjoy playing with a group of achievement-seeking players, but they also may resent needing to spend time optimizing a character in order to have a meaningful contribution to in-game challenges. Though a savvy reader may group Power, Achievement and Challenge under the “gamist” heading when comparing this framework to others, it’s important to realize that conflict between these three elements is just as likely as conflict between any of the other elements…a power-seeking player and a challenge-seeking player are just as likely to butt heads style-wise as a story-seeking player and a challenge-seeking player.

The way to use a model like the “Space Cases” model is to examine what every player at the table Wants, Doesn’t Want, and Doesn’t Care about. Unless your players are all of very similar mindsets, you will not be able to satisfy everyone. However, knowing your players’ priorities allows you to do two things. First, it gives you an idea of how to move around the spotlight…a challenge-seeking player is going to enjoy a session focused around a puzzle or a tense tactical combat, while a conflict-seeking player is going to enjoy being at the middle of a grand betrayal or shouting match in the royal court. No one is going to get everything they want all the time, but everyone should get some of what they want some of the time. Second, it’s going to help you figure out who should GM! GMing style falls out differently than playing style (and I’m sure I’ll write about that in the future), but GMing also can be quite mechanically different than playing in the same campaign. If one player is into acting and drama while the others are looking for challenge and simulation, maybe you know who should try putting on the GM hat this time around.

The key to any sort of model like this is to use it to improve your game experiences. I will not claim this is a grand unifying theory of RPG play, but I do believe trying to define why people game will help others identify why they themselves are gaming, and if there’s something they could do to be having more fun. It can also help when you’re searching for a group or system and don’t know if the game you’re looking at will be something enjoyable. In all cases, the goal is that properly identifying what players are looking for will help them achieve it and make their gaming more fun.

To check out the original discussion of GNS, click over to the archive of The Forge. For another model of playstyle which was arguably one of the primary inspirations for this one, check out “Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering” by Robin D. Laws, for sale on Warehouse23.

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