January 15, 2021

Balancing Different Tabletop RPG Play-Styles As The GM

Every group of players at the table is unique. They each have their own wants, needs, goals, and play-styles. Balancing these facets can be a challenge, especially if the players’ perspectives are quite different from one another.

Today’s GM/DM advice centers more specifically on how the game master can better balance contrasting play-styles in their tabletop RPG. It can be a tough challenge – but you’ll be even more up to the task with these tips!

The Same Page

Prior to the campaign’s start, there is the ever-important Session Zero. Taking the time to sit down and have each person at the table – GM/DM included – verbalize their expectations, wants, and needs etc. is a crucial component of getting the story off on the right foot.

Does each player prefer role-playing over combat? Vice-versa? Or perhaps are they committed to a certain path for their character – becoming king/queen, vengeance, super powerful etc.? Do they completely understand the rules and flow of the game or are they new to tabletop RPGs? Investing in Session Zero almost always significantly improves the group’s expectation on what their collective play-style will be.

Once those elements are out in the open, the group can find its natural middle ground. They can intrinsically know what one another are looking to accomplish, how they work and interact with each other, and what hand-holding they might need with regards to the rules.

And ultimately, the table’s play-style becomes an amalgam of all the players, rather than the players always individually acting in their own self-interest. Getting on the same page – and how best to stay there! – is an absolute must for any tabletop campaign of any significant length.

Walk The Caterer’s Walk

But regardless of how perfect your Session Zero may have been in cementing expectations among the players, times will arise where play-styles naturally clash. And that’s okay. Some players gravitate toward aspects of stories others don’t. That’s part of the process.

Your challenge as the GM is to find ways to enmesh their wants and needs into the same tapestry as you’re playing. This “juggling” act is tough – and sometimes turns into a carrot-on-a-stick exercise from scene to scene.

Consider the caterer: they deliver numerous types of food to a large, diverse crowd. There are many different options on the menu, each potentially having some degree of customization. And each person making the order is hungry to one degree or the other. So how does the caterer deliver the right food to the right person in the right order?

The answer lies in adherence to priority – and your following through with your communication. The caterer has a plan to get the people their orders quickly and efficiently. And you, the GM/DM, forge a plan with your players to cater to their needs. You establish a priority in real-time – you shine the spotlight – and you move on to the next scene. You facilitate fairness among the players – ensuring they’re all “fed,” to continue the catering analogy. And ultimately you’re always in communication with your players, letting them know to a reasonable extent what’s coming down the pike.

Cementing Trust

As the story progresses, and you’re continually following through on the pre-established player expectations set in Session Zero, and walking the ‘Caterers’ Walk,’ the players will continue to build their trust in you. And in turn, you’ll earn more in-the-moment leeway when these moments of play-styles clash.

Cash in that leeway among the parties when arbitrating the priority. Difference in opinion for the next step in the story? Firmly add your two cents with a fair justification. Stuck in a cycle of perpetual combat or role-playing? Work with the party to help mix things up. An experienced player frustrated with the pace of play of a new player? Work with them to get the new player up to speed faster while letting the new player know it’s 100% a-okay that they’re where they are.

I can’t imagine any player expects perfection in a GM when these play-style clashes arise. But if you’re consistent in your principals and build trust with the players, you should have the leeway you need to massage the story in the right direction for the right reasons. Conscious practice in these situations is key to developing your skill! So in the next several sessions you conduct, try and be aware of these moments and how the table reacts. You’ll get better and better – I promise!