Storyboard: Three guys walk into a bar

Never underestimate the power of gold trim.
My days of playing Magic: the Gathering are... well, they're not over, exactly, but I'm certainly not in my heyday any longer. Despite this, I've made no secret of the fact that I still avidly read Mark Rosewater's Making Magic column because the stuff he says in the column is applicable to game design in general. There are a lot of ideas that I've drawn out of there over the years, and one of the ones that's stuck with me is the Timmy-Johnny-Spike split that Rosewater's quite fond of explaining at length.

For those of you not interested in reading a decade's worth of columns just to understand what I'm talking about, the three names in questions are the so-called "psychographics" for Magic's audience, three psychological snapshots of why people play and enjoy the game. They're useful tools for understanding the reason certain cards resonate well with some players and not with others. And they're applicable to almost everything -- even roleplaying.

The names of the game

Timmy, Johnny, and Spike each play games for different reasons. Spike plays to win above all else, to test himself and try to improve. Johnny plays to be creative, to do something unique and interesting. And Timmy plays just for the sheer rush, for the enjoyment of the experience. There's far more to the split than that, but that's enough for a loose idea of what I'm going to discuss here.

Here's the thing: I think these splits are as evident among roleplayers as they are among any other group of players.

This might seem a bit ridiculous on the face of it. After all, roleplaying is clearly a more creative venture, right? There's no way you can win, and the whole thing skews pretty closely to a certain sort of player. But I think that's not looking at the whole picture. Trying to understand where you fall among the points on the psychographic wheel can be edifying in understanding why you might enjoy some roleplaying that other people hate and vice versa.

More lens flares!  I need more lens flares!Making the cool with Timmy

When Timmy makes a new character for roleplaying, he wants someone cool. Someone neat. Timmy wants a character that's dripping with interesting traits and cool abilities. He's probably also basted and marinated in cliches as well, but Timmy's smart enough to know that what matters is how the character plays. And when he walks into a room, all swagger and cool, he's going to ensure that something interesting happens. He's going to make sure that the scene is moving, and if that means a quiet discussion turns into a huge brawl followed by a desperate race against time followed by an honorable duel, so much the better.

Timmy's style of roleplaying is active, fast-paced, and more concerned with interesting moments than character subtleties. Broad strokes for characters are easier to get a grasp on, and as long as the end result is neat to experience, Timmy is happy. He's the least likely to worry about conflicting with the lore because it's only there to provide a springboard for storytelling in the first place.

His greatest strength is the sheer forward motion of what he does. When everyone's playing in Timmy's style, everyone gets a chance to be cool, often times several times over. The weakness, however, is that when you reach a certain critical mass of awesome moments, the whole thing starts to feel top-heavy. You can only have so many dramatic reveals before it feels as if the whole scene is just a string of dramatic chords lined with cast members, and it eventually feels just plain overdone.

See, she's a pureblood Sith, but she's light-side due to her relationship with her father, which... look, let me just get you the binder, reading through that is faster.Off the wall with Johnny

Johnny could tell you about his character, but he'd usually prefer to let it come out through roleplaying. That in and of itself is a challenge because Johnny's character is nothing if not unique. He works overtime to come up with a character free of cliches and full of fascinating secrets, someone unique to the point of straining the boundaries of the setting. Some of his characters might be completely out of left field, and some of them will be made specifically because he shouldn't be able to do that, but none of them will be forgettable.

Characters are only the tip of the iceberg, though. Johnny is all about creating unique experiences and coming up with something truly original. Johnny won't just work within the lore; he'll find spots of the lore that are wide enough to fit new concepts and flesh them out in depth. He's the guy who comes up with elaborate explanations for in-game events that expand the world as you view it, someone full of ideas and creative gestures. It's not always edge-of-your-seat exciting, but it's always detailed and creative.

Obviously, Johnny's originality is his greatest strength. Even if you don't care about the politics of elves, Johnny is the sort of person capable of putting together a truly engrossing plot about elven politics and give almost everyone something neat to do. However, it's that need to be original that's also his downfall. He's always trying to push the boundaries of what he can do with characters and plots, meaning that a lot of them start out and then fall apart because there's a good reason not to try it. And because he pours a lot of creative impulses into the game, he's also usually fast to burn out, especially if he hits a wall in terms of game mechanics.

Being grounded in reality is sometimes a relative term.Grounded in method with Spike

At first glance, you might think that Spike has no place in roleplaying. I mean, you can't win at it, after all. And a glance at Spike's character would kind of confirm that. If you're playing a fantasy game with magical elves and drunken dwarves, you can bet that Spike's elf will be appropriately magical and his dwarf will be off the wagon within minutes. It's only when you play with Spike for a while that you realize that he's not trying to just play a magical elf. He's playing the magical elf, grounding himself firmly in the game's lore and creating a character that's inextricably a part of the game's framework.

Spike isn't boring by any stretch of the imagination. To Spike, the idea of roleplaying a character in a given world means creating a character that truly fits in that world, and that means making someone who conforms to expectations. He creates a character with views that would make logical sense, often a subtle and understated personality that nevertheless easily meshes with the setting. Spike "wins" by being the best at understanding the creator's intent when creating the world and creating a character who approaches problems in a consistent yet entertaining fashion.

Of course, Spike's greatest strength is that his characters are so fundamental that he's not prone to flights of whimsy. Rather than slowly drifting away from the focus of the game's setting, Spike remains an anchor and a yardstick. His weakness, however, is that being so grounded in "reality" makes Spike the most reactive in terms of storylines. Johnny and Timmy can come up with all sorts of crazy stuff, but Spike sticks with material that might well be found in in-game quests, removing some of the creative drive.

So what have we learned?

A lot of my columns have explicit advice mixed throughout, but this one doesn't. My goal here isn't to point out or address a problem; it's to help evaluate our roleplaying.

My feeling is that the first step to doing something better is to understand why you're doing it in the first place. If you read through the column and find yourself identifying with one of them -- which I think everyone can -- then you'll hopefully be able to understand more clearly why you enjoy certain parts of roleplaying more than others. And it'll help you shore up the weaknesses you have.

That's the hope, anyway. Or maybe it was just some fun psychological nattering, whichever works.

Your feedback, like always, is welcome via mail to eliot@massively.com or in the comments below. Next week, I'm going to take a look at dealing with a story in progress -- and no, it's not a direct revisit of last week's column.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.
This article was originally published on Massively.