4 Hours w/RSD: Who Is Sitting At Your Table

Who Is Sitting At Your Table? This might seem like a simple question to answer. Usually, you play with a group of friends whom you’ve come to know quite well. Even if you find yourself in a hastily assembled game at a convention or store, you usually have a lot in common with the other folks you play with.


But if we consider all the people who may be playing a tabletop RPG at any given time, across all the various places they may be playing them, that question starts to get much more complex.

In 1999, Wizards of the Coast was engaged in a sweeping program of market research. Our objective was to apply modern analytical techniques to the hobby gaming community with the objective of better understanding who our customers were and what drove their decisions to start playing, continue playing, not play, or stop playing the games we were selling.

We were lucky to be a part of the company that made Magic: The Gathering. Without that engine to drive the whole enterprise it would have been unlikely that the tabletop RPG group could have self-funded such work. It took nearly a year, involved an outside market research firm as well as a group of full time researchers working for the company. Thousands of people were eventually contacted as a part of the survey process. The end result was a series of voluminous reports that examined every major category of hobby games and the people who bought and played them.

We were surprised by how much “conventional wisdom” we found was unfounded, or was less of a factor than the industry as a whole gave it credit for. Since we were using this research to guide the development of 3rd Edition, I wanted to build a case for the direction the game was going within the industry and to the parts of the player population who cared about such things. To that end, I distilled much of the data regarding tabletop RPGs into a summary report that was circulated widely on the internet. You can read it here:

Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary (RPGs) V1.0 -- Wizards of the Coast

I left the company before updated data was collected. Wizards has not chosen to release such data (if they have it) since my departure, so this remains the most comprehensive look at the market for tabletop RPGs available. Some parts of it have certainly become outdated by now (you can take the collectible card game and miniatures wargame data as being vastly outdated since this project completed before Pokèmon restructured the CCG category and before either WizKids or Privateer Press was on the scene to compete with Games Workshop.)

In addition, we also prepared and released detailed report about the psychographics of the people who played tabletop RPGs. That report is the focus of this essay.

Breakdown of RPG Players

The process of creating this report involved taking a mass of data received as a part of the overall market research study, and processing it to look for “clusters” of responses. This is called a “segmentation study”. You can read more about this process here: Cluster analysis (in marketing) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the intervening decade the term “Story Focused” has taken on a nuanced meaning it did not have in Y2K. The use of the term in this report had nothing to do with Forge style “story games” (which mostly weren’t on our radar when this report was created). When discussing this data, take the descriptive note as definitive: “The world and the interaction of the characters are interesting to me.”

The first thing many people do when exposed to this data is immediately focus on the segmentation itself, and start arguing that they and the people they game with fall into more than one of these segments. My advice is to begin at the highest level of the study first before digging deeper.

The study showed that virtually everyone who enjoys playing tabletop RPGs shares 8 desired qualities:

• Strong Characters and Exciting Story
• Role Playing
• Complexity Increases over Time
• Requires Strategic Thinking
• Competitive
• Add on sets/New versions available
• Uses imagination
• Mentally challenging

In the context of the study, these 8 factors are more important in defining a tabletop roleplayer than the segments themselves.

Since the whole community likes these 8 things, it’s not surprising that people tend to see themselves reflected in more than one of the segments – because the segments themselves have some of these qualities.

The smallest segment, the “basic roleplayer” (about 12% of the community) is almost the platonic ideal. This player likes the various aspects of the hobby almost in equal amounts. Some readers certainly fall into this category, but if you consider the Venn diagram that Sean added to the report, you see how this group overlaps with all the other segments – the difference between a “basic roleplayer” and someone in one of the segments is a subtle thing.

That subtle thing is “bias”. The “basic roleplayer” doesn’t have much bias and is happy as long as the game is delivering the 8 key factors. The people who cluster into one of the segments do have a bias. All other things (the 8 key factors) being equal, the game is more satisfying when the aspect of their segment is well expressed during the game.

So this is a clue towards the goal of packing more fun into the game session. Figuring out who is sitting at your table means figuring out what kind of segments they represent.

One lesson I learned early about market research is that if you ask people straight out what their preferences are they often give you answers that are at odds with their observed behavior. The whys and wherefores of that are beyond the scope of this essay but it’s a well known problem nonetheless. So it’s not a good idea to just show the segmentation study to your game group and ask them to self-select what segment they think they occupy.

Instead you have to use a bit of detective work. While it is typical for the Gamemaster to be doing this work there’s no reason at all that one of the other players couldn’t do it as well, or instead of the GM.

What I Do, Not What I Say I Do

Take notes on what gets players interested as you play. We have all had the experience of people’s attention wandering while a game session is underway. It’s easy to notice when someone mentally “checks out”, but there’s a certain skill to noticing when they get interested. Pay attention to their body posture – if they’re sitting up straight, and their eyes are scanning the play area, the other players and the GM, they’re interested. If they seem excited – asking for time to think, or rapidly paging through a book, their character sheet or their notes, they’re interested. If they suddenly start interacting, especially if they’re usually the quiet type who doesn’t say much unless asked to do so, they’re interested.

Take a step back at this point and try to deduce what changed in the game. What happened which triggered this interest? For each player you’re analyzing, try to map out “interest points” with what you think triggered that interest. Was it a tactical combat problem? Was it a puzzle? Was it interacting with an interesting NPC? Was it something related to the game world?

You also want to do a little experimentation (if you can) to see how the players react. If you’re the GM, put a very complex puzzle into the game and see if anyone gets interested in solving it. Put the characters into a situation where their social, not martial skills, will be rewarding. See if anyone wants to suggest a monster or dungeon environment they’d like to encounter. If the players don’t seem to be taking the bait, there’s no reason to push these things – you don’t want to reduce the fun for the group while you gather clues. It may take a bit of work to introduce these kinds of situations into the game but you may be surprised at who responds. (The classic “kick down the door, fight the monster, loot the body, level up” mode of the typical game leaves a lot of room to stretch your GM abilities.)

This is harder, but not impossible to do, if you’re a player and not a GM. As a player you can try various things like interacting in character with other players to see how they react, or by using your character’s abilities to set up complex tactical situations to see if anyone else rises to the challenge. You can make suggestions to your GM in the form of the skills you take, the items you prefer, and the notes you pass as to the kind of direction you’d like to go (many GMs are grateful for such help as it makes their own jobs easier). You want to avoid becoming a nuisance – a little prodding is a good thing, but trying to push people so hard that the situation becomes uncomfortable is counterproductive.

You’re not going to solve this mystery in one game session. People have lots of forces acting on them – jobs, families, the weather, their own health, etc. You need to look for long term trends, not single instance acts. Give this project several game sessions to unfold. Depending on the size of the group and how it acts at the table it might be hard to keep good notes on multiple players at the same time – you may need to devote several sessions per player to gather some insights.

Adding More Fun

OK, now you’ve got a rough idea of the kinds of players at your table. When figuring out how to make use of that data, consider several aspects of the problem:

  • You don’t want to make one player the key to success. If you build something into the game that assumes that player will drive the story forward and the player is absent, or misses the opportunity, you’ll have boxed yourself into a corner.
  • You want to create opportunities for creative problem solving, and reward it when it occurs. You may think that you’ve set up a complex tactical problem but if the character actors come up with a plan to talk their way into a resolution, and it makes sense within the context of the game world, you want to reward them for playing to their strengths, not slap them down and make them feel useless.
  • You may want to consider 1:1 breakout sessions. Rather than asking the whole group to cool their heels while a player engages in some in-depth roleplaying, or comes up with the “perfect plan” to achieve victory, you may want to create space for a small session with just that player to game out the scenario.
  • Sometimes, the game continues when the table is not in session. One technique to facilitate this is called “blue booking” (coined after the blue books used for essay tests; read more here: Bluebooking - RPGnetWiki). Players can write detailed interactions and build their backstories and even (with the GMs permission) introduce and interact with NPCs via their own written stories. These can be exchanged between players and the GM when the game is not in session to move this level of roleplaying forward. Of course, in the modern era email, wikis, and other digital tools will likely substitute for handwritten bluebooks.
  • Don’t go overboard. Remember that the whole group of players is more alike than they are different. If you take a segment to the extreme you may lose the attention of everyone (including your intended segment). It’s better to start with very small incremental changes and work up to more dramatic segmentation opportunities than try a major leap all at once.

What If I’m Missing A Segment?

This is an increasingly common problem. When tabletop RPGs were a larger hobby, it was relatively easy to assume that most groups would have players of most segments. But increasingly the hobby is under pressure from other game types (mostly MMOs) that are likely pulling some of the segments away.

This is as much opportunity as it is threat. If you realize that you’re working with a game group missing one or more segments, you can take a look at the game you’re running and gradually minimize those segments and emphasize the segments that you do have. This “rebalancing” will help you match your game to the players, rather than asking the players to change to match the game (always a better philosophy).

Do people change over time?

I honestly don’t know. My intuition tells me that they don’t, but I don’t have quantitative data to back up that conclusion. It may be that players change their segments as they age and gain experience. If you think that you’re seeing the effects of these changes in your game, remember to be flexible. If a player you thought was a Storyteller starts to become more interested in the Power Gamer materials, try to go with that change. Its better to modify your game to match the preferences of your players than to expect your players to modify their interests to match your game.


In future essays I’ll be talking more about how these segments interact and combine to create a satisfying gaming experience. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Storytellers, Character Actors, Power Gamers and Thinkers!

--RSD / Atlanta, Feb 2011
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Ryan S. Dancey

Ryan S. Dancey

OGL Architect


First Post
Interesting...I just posted in a thread how the 4e DMG looked more like a training manual and I felt 4e was designed to put more bookkeeping and such during session on the players and make it easier to DM.

Puts the following into a new light:
"And if they can be induced to become a DM/GM, expenditures skyrocket.
Will DM/GM: $2,048
Will not DM/GM: $401"

From the Industry Market Research Summary provided in the text.

I just hope if it works, and they can draw in a bunch of fledgling DMs, that they don't forget to show them how to drop the training wheels as it were :lol:


As always, very thought-provoking; it's also interesting how these seem to overlap largely with Robin Laws' player types: Power Gamers, Butt Kickers, Storytellers, Method Actors, Casual Gamers, Tacticians, and Specialists. (There's a bit of overlap between "Mentally Challenging" and "Strategically Challenging", so I guess that would explain the 7 vs 8 categories.)

It's venerable wisdom really: Give the people what they want, and they'll come back for more. Further, what they say they want often isn't what they want.

I would love to see more openness with the info that WotC gathers. For whatever was said negatively about your tenure with WotC, Ryan, one thing I loved about it was the feeling of open lines of communication between you and the gaming public that I always got.

Anyway, I'm loving the monthly column. Keep working with Russ, and keep writing! :)


I crit!
What suggestions do you have for the tools and techniques to use for keeping notes and compiling the info for later use?

Is there a method you use or recommend? I could try to just keep scribbled notes on paper or try and keep it in my head but I think I'd like something a bit more rigorous.


First Post
Add on sets/New versions available???

What is meant by "Add on sets/New versions available"?

If this is refering to regularly providing players with new powers/feats and that kind of stuff, then I question its universality. I've never bought into the pitch that the large majority of rpg or tabletop gamers want constant new books with powers/feats, particularly since they tend to water-down older/original powers/feats and break the game.


First Post
At the risk of derailing the conversation, wouldn't it be best to start with making sure your game hits the basics that everyone enjoys? Or do we assume that most RPGs already cover that terrain through their basic mechanics well enough?


First Post
[MENTION=73750]tgayoso[/MENTION]: In general it means that over time more content is added to the game system. That could be through GMs allowing bits of the game system to become "ok" which were formerly "off limits" (like item creation, for example, or planar travel). Or it can mean the introduction of new game systems (or even entirely new games).

It's well established that games without regular infusions of new content (either GM content or commercial content) stagnate and their player networks atrophy.


First Post
[MENTION=52905]darjr[/MENTION]: At this point, I'm taking notes on my iOS device surreptitously. :) There's probably people out there who use a more sophisticated system, and I could see some value in that, but at the end of the day I want to be enjoying my gaming, not conducting a deep-dive psychographical study of my friends. So I tend to advise keeping it lightweight and simple. After all, we want to increase the fun in our four hours, not just add more work for ourselves.

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