• Evaluating Game Groups – Member Roles and Norms

    by  • September 21, 2012 • Essays • 11 Comments

    As part of a brief series I plan to share some evaluations done of the group dynamics, roles, and conflict styles in game groups during courses at Penn State World Campus. The terms are typically from group communication/group speech and conflict resolution texts.  After completion, I will look back at some of the observations and comment on some of the influences that gender roles and expectations may have had. 


    The group I have been a part of for the longest, aside from family, is my gaming group. We have been friends since early 2010. Before that, I was part of a gaming group for 5 years, but the relationships ended badly, so the new group began with a lot of hesitation and was very slow to become solid. However, over the past two years the new group has developed into very close relationships.

    Each member’s role is a combination of parts. Some people double up on roles, and there are some tasks or functions that all group members use. For example, all players support other members at different times, all of us participate in relieving tension by telling jokes, and we all participate in dramatizing. I will explain the six roles in our game group as they are defined in role-playing terms, then detail how they work as task functions combined with our personalities. I have found that most roles in roleplaying groups translate well into group roles.  

    My husband, John, acts most often as our Game Master, or GM. All but one of our players has acted as GM at some point, but John is the primary GM and assists the other GMs when they act in that role. The GM is responsible for creating a story and a setting – a location, time, and level. The “level” is the difficulty of the game and would also determine what kind of abilities the characters can have. John has the most experience gaming and acting as GM in the group so this role naturally fell to him. In task functions, he often is responsible for initiating, orienting and information giving. In maintenance functions, he will often be responsible for gate keeping and establishing norms. Gate keeping is a means of filtering information and distributing it to other players. Establishing norms is similar to setting guidelines – expected habits, actions, or goals.

    Tracey and Rachel act as the support characters. They often play characters that have medical skills, or that can either offer bonuses to players in combat or that create penalties for the enemies in the game. These characters give information, seek information, and give opinions in most cases. They both record information more than any of the other players – taking notes, and then summarizing them. They also prioritize harmonizing the group interaction. This fits well with their personalities, because both of them are nurturing, and prefer to work behind the scenes as they are more passive.

    Michael usually plays the problem solver. He comes up with solutions and plays characters like wizards or magic users. He will analyze the situation and try to resolve big problems like riddles or plot challenges. He will often evaluate, seek information, give opinions, and elaborate. In maintenance, he will dramatize, which is very important for setting the stage in the games. Michael is analytical by nature and likes to solve problems in real life. He is less passive than the support players.

    Marc usually plays the brute. He acts as bodyguard, and solves smaller problems like crowd control, jobs that require brute force or reduced concern for collateral damage. He will primarily initiate, elaborate, and give opinions. He also is often part of coordinating, suggesting procedure, and establishing norms. When someone goes off in another direction and we have a task to complete, he will often grab attention and pull it back to the task at hand. He is good at dramatization and has a background in theater, but also can crunch numbers very well so he can make us hit hard when it is most vital.

    I play the stop-gap. I play more rounded characters that are utility-based, with secondary capabilities. It allows us more options to solve problems. I often clarify, elaborate, coordinate, and initiate. I also evaluate the situations we are in. I will identify the problems, and often am the one to direct the group to where we should be focusing our energy. I also do a lot of gate keeping and dramatizing.

    Most of the conflict in the group is between me and Michael, because we’re both focused on solving problems and it can be somewhat competitive. Michael, Marc, and I are the most aggressive members of the group. Marc prefers to solve problems quickly and with gut instinct, so he doesn’t get into the argument and struggle to find a different solution. Michael and I will bicker and over-analyze until John will interrupt us, Marc will release the tension, or Rachel and Tracey will try to harmonize to eliminate the conflict.

    In all, we are a pretty cohesive group. There is no real authority except for perhaps John, but he will primarily just try to keep us all together and on topic. He is the only one with true authority to say “no” to an idea, but it is something he rarely does, as the roles in our group can be changed and can be fluid.

    The norms in the group are pretty simple. If roles are violated, typically we just have a discussion regarding it and will reassign roles if someone is not up to the task. Below are examples of norms in our game group – I think many groups could identify these.

    General Norms

    • Members should arrive at game when it has been planned.
    • Members should be honest and address conflict when it arises.
    • Members should all try to remain on tasks.
    • Members should try to prioritize having fun.

    Role-Specific Norms

    • GM is responsible for preparing the game plan and defining the rules.
    • Members who took notes are responsible for sharing information with anyone who missed the previous session or providing a refresher.


    In all, I think that our roles are rather well defined for a semi-informal group. We make a large effort to reduce conflict, and everyone supports each other. We are willing to reassign roles when someone is unavailable or not well, and will help each other to learn new roles. Being aware of member roles can increase awareness of who enjoys what part of game, what strengths everyone has, and where there are areas needing improvement. For example, our group doesn’t have a clear in-game leader, which sometimes becomes necessary when we’re trying to finish a quest. When that problem arises, how do we fill the role? I don’t think we’ve learned that yet.

    Do your game groups have specific roles? Do people tend to stick to a type of character they like to play, or do they have consistent social habits like trying to ease tensions, or initiate action?



    I'm a 25 year old admin assistant from around Pittsburgh, PA. I am married, work and attend college concurrently, and have been tabletop gaming for about 8 years. I blog (very, very periodically), and write unpublished short stories. I play tabletop RPGs, board games, and both casual and RPG video games. I live for the social part of gaming, but do enjoy a good explosion, and am learning the ropes of creating worlds in which people can play.


    11 Responses to Evaluating Game Groups – Member Roles and Norms

    1. avatar
      Angela Craft
      September 21, 2012 at 16:30

      My group definitely has roles we tend to fall into over and over. Like your group, we have one person who does most of the GMing, though all but one of us have taken the reins at least once. We have one person that will always play the magic user (which does give him a consistent way to evaluate games that have magic, so that’s a cool aspect). My husband will almost always play the talker – when he ends up with a character who really shouldn’t be coming up with ideas, or presenting them diplomatically, he almost literally has to bite his tongue.

      I tend to play the strong silent type. Walk softly and carry a big stick and all that. I have no confidence in my problem solving or leadership abilities, so that character type gives me an excuse to watch what’s happening and either evaluate the situation in silence to see if there’s something that was missed, or just follow along with the good ideas my cohorts come up with.

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      • avatar
        September 23, 2012 at 23:06

        Angela, thanks for your comment!

        Do you ever try to jump out of your comfort zone to play leaders in game? I find that it’s a good place to push my limits, but I tend to get cowardly when it comes to certain types of characters.

    2. avatar
      September 21, 2012 at 19:46

      We’ve got a small group: three regular players, and one who comes and goes depending on the game.Our group has had added and lost players over the years (I think we were 8 at our biggest), but we’re the core. Tan and I have been playing together more on than off for 22 years, with the third regular, my husband Loren, arrived in the group about 18 years ago. Our roles are less about who we play *in* a game than the sorts of games we choose to run. We all take turns GMing, pretty much by whoever wants to tell a story or has an idea. Sometimes it breaks down by game systems. Tan loves cyberpunk and SF, and so she handles those games. The spouse loves his horror/magical stuff, so he runs the urban fantasy. I have run every sort of game, but as my stories tend toward the epic and high-stakes, I gravitate toward pre-industrial fantasy and (oddly enough) In Nomine. Tan and Loren tend more to plot-driven, or concept-driven, stories, while I am all about characters. My games have a lot of role-playing and minimal dice rolling (which drives Tan nuts, but pleases her wife). No one cares much about rules. If they work, we keep them. If they’re silly, we trash them.

      As for characters… we don’t show much preference among types. Sometimes we play toward our personal strengths, sometimes we play a challenge. We work hard on the front end to make sure we’ve got compatible characters, so the story-generation itself is fairly collaborative, no matter who’s running.

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      • avatar
        September 23, 2012 at 23:13

        Awesome! That sounds like a good variety of games and genres. I think that some of these things can reveal a lot about how people work together – you take turns GMing, give in for other players sometimes (role-playing heavy v. dice-rolling heavy games), and do a lot of collaborating and make compatible characters. That’s a really solid game group. I’d love to hear more about some of the games you play! If you’re on G+, look me up – we have a lot of good game discussion there.

    3. avatar
      September 21, 2012 at 21:13

      My Saturday group has six members. We’ve had three of us as GM so far, with myself building a campaign to start in a month or so.

      RV is our explorer. He is the one that comes home from GenCon with new games for us to try and he’ll usually run those. These tend to be short-term. He ran us through the heroic D&D 4e modules, started a campaign using Obsidian Portal that kind of fizzled, and also brought us Feng Shui to try. He’s currently running the Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor. He leans heavily on combat and die rolling in general during the games. When creating characters, he will write a short, but heavily detailed history to share,

      K just wrapped up a campaign that was more heavy on the roleplay than it was in combat. We’d sometimes go through an eight-hour session without rolling a die. He’s good with story arcs, a little less so with smaller combats, not great with giving clues to puzzles. When playing, he almost always goes for a character with high intelligence, because “he can’t play stupid.” He likes high-damage characters like rangers, and enjoys role-play more than combat. He prefers less structure and more “off the cuff.”

      JV is RV’s younger brother. He’s a quiet sort (and seems to prefer crunch over fluff. He doesn’t usually get involved with rules discussions. He can be so silent that you stop paying attention to him, then he’ll come up with a zinger that puts us all on the floor. It’s great for relieving tension. When he puts characters together, he doesn’t do a very detailed background. Not for lack of creativity, I think he just doesn’t like to write very much. He tends to be good at relieving tension and keeping us focused when we go off on tangents, which is frequently

      R is our rules lawyer. He’s a creative guy and will put a lot of background into his characters, but he doesn’t get into the roles very well. I remember one campaign where he played a changeling and never actually used the changeling abilities. He remembers all the rules down to the last detail and where to find them in the books if he doesn’t. He tends to get a little loud, especially when excited. When he gets too loud or starts to get insulting, RV usually reigns him in.

      A is the heart of our group. He went to college with K (who is my boyfriend) and met RV, JV and R several jobs ago. As a DM, he strikes the best balance between character development/story development and combat. When structuring encounters, he tried to do something personally motivating for each character. Our bugbear fighter ended up adopting three dire bears. JV had a secret mission with a Big Reveal in the last session, I had a little romance, my boyfriend got to pay the stock market. RV got to be possessed by a magic item and to fight all of us. As a player, he puts together extensive backgrounds and is by far the best of us to stay in character. He tends to not worry about getting killed because he always has a backup character or two. He will happily house-rule when necessary, where the other guys are usually looking things up. Since he is our host, he determines what time we start, and has the final say about conduct.

      Lastly, there’s me. I’m the dilettante. I try to play a somewhat different character each time–I’ve played a ranger, a fighter, a sorcerer, and I’m working on a druid. I like a good balance between character development and combat. Ideally, the combat moves the story along and isn’t just something off the random encounter table. I have three good examples to draw from and I’ve developed a world we’ll probably start playing in November (advice welcome). I also tend to play peacemaker and keep the volume down. I think I have the longest attention span in the group, but that isn’t saying much.

      When we get excited, we tend to get pretty loud. There’s also a tendency to “help” others a little too much. It’s meant in the best of intentions, we want to win the battle, but occasionally A or myself has had to tell folks to back off, players have their reasons for doing things a certain way. It’s one thing to warn someone when they’re being stupid, it’s another to play the game for them.

      Overall, we’re pretty considerate and respectful of each other, even as we give each other a lot of crap.

      I left another group because the main DM (and the host) and I stopped getting along as well as we used to. He’s a brilliant guy, but we’ve both changed a bit over the last three years and not in a compatible fashion.

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      • avatar
        September 23, 2012 at 23:41

        smallblackrabbit – This is a fantastic evaluation of your group! I think it’s great to see that you know the other players and their styles so well. Do you think knowing all of this makes play go more smoothly?

        As far as advice for your game, you can check out some of our tags (game design, at the table, inspiration, or actual play reports might be good places to start.), and I’ll tag in some of our more experienced GM’s at Gaming as Women to pass along any vital advice! I would personally say the highest priority is to have fun, and don’t plan too much. Someone always throws a wrench in it, so it’s good to be able to have space to roll with it.

    4. avatar
      September 22, 2012 at 19:34

      Interestingly, my group seems to have a pretty wide variation of roles, depending on the game. There are some patterns, of course: I tend toward the support, stealth, and Face roles; another player gravitates toward hardass leadership roles quite often. Overall, though, what role someone plays seems to change from game to game.

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      • avatar
        September 23, 2012 at 23:43

        Sooz – Does your group play a large variety of games, without settling on a typical genre much? I’ve found that in groups with larger genre variation, people keep from “settling” into roles, since the scenarios are often so different.

    5. avatar
      September 27, 2012 at 18:14

      Currently, I have two regular and one irregular ganming group. All are online, out of expediency – in 2005, my long-time group was scattered by deployments to Afghanistan and several people taking jobs in other cities and states, and since we used IRC for organisational purposes for some time already, we decided to try and keep the group alive online. It mostly worked, though people dropped and new, online people were added; today, not much of my original group remains, but those that do remain are rather stable. Members from some groups are in more than one of them; I’ll list them twice, since their roles vary considerably.

      The Groups are as follows (I’ll use online handles):

      Deathwatch (regular)
      Warhammer 40.000. The game is about Space Marines blowing things up and being intensely frustrated by everyone they’re supposedly allied with.

      Liliedhe: Avid reader of 40K books, long-time fanfic author, tends to play experimental characters. In this case it’s an Apothecary (combat medic) and caring guy for a Space Marine. Tends to handle social situations and medical stuff, as per his role. Easts brains a lot to get information (it’s become a running joke). Uses her own, self-designed chapter (Space mariens come from orders, each giving you boni and mali) instead of default chapters.
      Mary: A bit on the morbid side, and youngest in the group, also polish, whose German sometimes is a bit bumpy. Plays a Librarian (sorcerer) who is also pretty interested in eating brains, and otherwise likes to light things on fire.
      Ra: Problem-solver and group leader (which is important in that game as he’ll be spreading boni to everyone). Plays another custom guy who is basically nice, polite and sounds like Darth Vader.
      me: GM. I run a long-term campaign. When I’m done, Liliedhe will take over, and I’ll use one of my rarely-played Space Marines, filling whatever roles need filling. Probably, I’ll be the big shooty guy.

      Shadowrun 4
      Bannockburn: co-GM, with me. When not gaming he either plays a leader/talker, or an athlete.
      Blackstar: Plays either a mage, a physical mage (basically, a ninja monk), or a hacker. Likes character drama, and all things magic.
      Babe: Plays a talker/thief who is among the worst abused backstory characters I have ever seen, does so fairly convincingly though. Is surprised the character is still alive. So am I, and it was not for a lack of danger.
      me: part-time GM, or I play either a high-end hacker or a low-end street punk. The hacker’s also talky and knows a wide variety of poeple. The punk can hit and shoot people and tends to get himself into trouble a lot.

      Dark Heresy/Shadowrun 3
      Karanor: GM in Dark Heresy (he loathes to play it), plays weird mages in Shadowrun. Top source of personal drama. His real life is terrifying.
      Madison: Tends to play problem solvers and down to earth mundane cyber guys in Shadowrun, an Assassin/spy in Dark Heresy. IRL, he is quite shy, and among the most overworked people I know. Poor guy.
      Ra: Also tends to play problem solvers and shooty guys and gals. Is the Inquisitor in Dark Heresy, which is group leader and very powerful.
      me: I play my hacker/vehicle ops character in Shadowrun – my oldest gaming character and quite advanced, though in Shadowrun that’s less important than in leveling systems; in Dark Heresy, I’m running a Battle Sister who is well on her way to become a living saint and the major damage dealer.

      Games are online, so different circumstances apply than on a table. Games can be organised much more ad hoc, bit since it’s text based, flow is asignificantly slower (however, the game itself usually is much more focused).

      General Norms
      – there are different channels for in-character/in-game and out-of-character/out-ganme discussion. Keep it separated. Rules discussions are out of character
      – try and post in-game at least every few minutes
      – don’t do soemthing time consuming besides (no playing DDO, no writing your thesis, no watching TV or dubious internet videos)
      – if we agree on a time, be online then.
      – there’s no place for personal backstabbing or drama in the game. Either leave it outside and behave, or be out.
      – If you have to leave the computer for whatever reason, give a short notice that you do.
      – The goal is to play with one another, not players versus GM or GM versus players.
      – Stay focused on the game while it runs. If you’re tired, mashed up, or your home is on fire, say something and we break.

      Role-Specific Norms:
      – Everyone can have rules questions, and they should be met with polite answers. That includes the GM (mostly me, since I’ve nebver been the most rules heavy person)
      – Every player should try to be at least semi fluent in rules applying to his character. Especially with trickier concepts like the Dark Heresy Battle Sister, it is a good idea to know what the character can and cannot do. Do not depend on the GM to know all rules for you. Lenience is given for people new to the game, of course.

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      • avatar
        September 29, 2012 at 02:10

        Thanks for the detailed response, Richter_DL! You have a lot of material – looks like you could fill up a blog on your own!

        • avatar
          September 29, 2012 at 17:06


          I forgot one important general rule: Whoever introduces a new member is responsible for this member’s behavior. People who bring badly behaved newbies to the virtual table are expected to apologise for messes caused and feathers ruffled. I had that in my old RL group too.

          Anasthasia: Fairly confused guy who plays confused mages from the woods. Recently dropped out with no further explaination.

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