The point of playing a game, any game of any style or ruleset, is to be entertained. There’s a saying that goes around: If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. This is usually in reference to adherence to RAW (Rules As Written). It goes deeper than this, however. Being entertained is more than adhering to (or swaying away from) the rules in the books. Since RPGs are generally a group effort, defining “fun” or “entertaining” can be difficult because of the different backgrounds, perspectives, histories, tastes, styles, and goals of each person at the table. There is hopefully some overlap in tastes, styles, and goals between the players that make up the group, but this can’t be guaranteed. The GM’s viewpoints also need to be taken into consideration. The GM is, after all, a player at the table as well. They just happen to occupy a specialized role during the game play.
Player Types and Motivations
This advice is largely for long-running groups, not games at conferences. However, if you can read the table quickly and well enough to get a grip on your players at a conference game one-shot, go for it! I’m certainly not that astute at identifying player types and motivations while trying to fit a game into a four-hour slot. However, if I have extended time with a group of players, I can usually pin down why they’re at the table and what gives them joy in the game.
There are a plethora of player types at the table, and each one of them has their own goals to obtain entertainment. They also have differing approaches to have fun and accomplish their goals. Robin D. Laws, in his book Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, outlines seven different player types and details what might motivate those types of players to have fun. The book isn’t expensive, and I recommend picking it up to have a good read.
Adjusting the Presentation
This is something difficult to provide advice for because people are so wildly different. I can’t directly tell you how to approach each individual at your table because I don’t know them. However, I can give some generalities and approaches.
Once you’ve figured out your player types and why they are at your table, you can subtly adjust your presentation, approach, play style, and storytelling methods to keep the wide and varied people at your table entertained and engaged. From my personal experience, figuring out what someone wants from the game is the hard part. Changing things around a bit to provide what they want is the easy part.
However, it’s not 100% easy. By presenting the game to Player A’s target fun area, you might be rubbing Player B the wrong way. This is where trying to find a happy central ground between all of the players (and yourself) can be difficult. I’ve been fortunate that most of the long-term gaming groups I’ve been part of have a solid common ground between the players for me to present the game in the “sweet spot” with ease.
If you’re in a tight spot on “reading the table,” then maybe some out-of-game conversations are needed. You can simply ask the players what they want and why they want it. Granted, some players may not be introspective enough to give a solid answer. If someone says, “I just want to have fun,” that’s not going to be helpful. Ask them what they enjoy about the game, the group, the genre, the system, their character, and so on. Find out if backstabbing monsters is their key source of joy. Find out if seducing nobles is where they have fun. Find out if solving puzzles, riddles, or mysteries is their go to for enjoyment. The list of what they might want and why they might want it is as large as humanity itself.
If you do need to interview your players, keep an open mind. What you mind find boring (e.g.: adding up large numbers of dice) might really give one of your players a pleasing sense of accomplishment. What you find detestable (e.g.: managing the economy of running a business or mercenary company) might give the “spreadsheet guru” in your group something to get all sorts of excited about.
(Full disclosure: I love numbers and adding up dice. I’m also the “spreadsheet guru” in my group and love tracking business/mercenary evolutions in my spreadsheets.)
Having fun, laughing, smiling, and generally enjoying an experience is an emotional one. This doesn’t mean that every time a character is slapped with an emotion that it has to be a “happy” one. If every experience has to be “happy,” then genres like thrillers, horror, some mysteries, tragedies, and some dramas would not be as popular as they are. However, experiencing something in those veins can be an enjoyable experience. One of the things I struggle with in my writing of a first draft of my novels is “hitting the feels.” That always comes along during the editorial passes that I do on my novels before anyone else sees them.
Don’t be afraid to hit your characters in the feels. Some of these emotional beats will bleed through to the players, and give them feels as well. When doing this, it’s vitally important to make sure you’re involving safety tools, adhering to pre-stated lines and veils, and not going places that your players would not want to go with their emotions. If a player just had a parent die in real life, veer away from parental (or even familial) death for a long while. Just be cognizant and aware of what your players would want and definitely would not want in their emotional beats.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what could and should be done for increasing the entertainment value of your gaming sessions. There’s loads of deep psychology going on here, and I’ve never taken a class or done much layperson study of that topic. However, I’ve been running and playing tabletop role playing games for enough decades (four of them!) that I have a good feel for this. Having fun is the goal. If you’re doing that, you’re doing it right.