Glen Blacow’s typology of players is the foundational work of mature RPG theory. In his “Aspects of Adventure Gaming”, Blacow delineates four player profiles, and subsequent theorists have reiterated, reorganized, and reanalyzed the styles and motivations gamers bring to the table.
Player typologies provide valuable schemas for examining how and why people play RPGs. However, focusing on play itself neglects RPGs’ market context, and player desires don’t account for all the reasons people buy RPG books and zines.
Player behavior is fairly well-examined in theory literature, but consumer behavior seemingly remains unbroached. In more than a year of research into RPG history and theory, I’ve not found a framework of consumer types. That’s not to say one doesn’t exist—I simply haven’t encountered it. So in lieu of finding one, I’ve decided to at least attempt to sketch a typology of RPG consumers.
There’s a reason this post is titled “A Typology” instead of “The Typology.” I doubt my framework is comprehensive, and it shouldn’t be the final word. But I hope it can at least help conceptualize consumer motivations, which I think holds obvious benefits for designers, writers, and publishers.
Representing Consumer Types
A typology of consumers necessarily carries the same caveat as any typology of players: the types inevitably overlap and blend. That’s why I’ve arranged the types on a hexagonal, multi-axis scale.
Individual consumers’ behaviors can be represented as inclinations without defining the consumer as a single primary type, which would necessitate the same sort of ad hoc caveats that have plagued player typologies from their inception.
I’ve left one vertex undefined to indicate other types probably exist, and if they don’t now, they may emerge in the future.
The player is the original consumer. They’re someone who’s going to play the game either as a GM, as a character, or in whatever other capacity the game allows.
Because games are manifestly meant to be played, the industry as a whole tends to assume the player is their primary consumer. The very act of making a game material is founded on this assumption; otherwise, the producer would be writing a novel, making an artbook, or doing something else not defined by playability.
Many consumers are going to read the RPG book they just bought, but they probably intend to do something else with the book afterward—play the game, for example. But from the beginning of the RPG industry up to the present (and especially under pandemic conditions), people have and continue to consume RPG rulebooks as recreational reading.
In their purest form, this type only reads (and/or looks at the art). They treat the RPG book the same way other people treat novels, nonfiction, coffee table books, etc. They read for pleasure, then the book goes on the shelf, and if it was good enough, they’ll read it again someday.
The researcher is a close cousin of the leisure reader, but they intend to do something after reading that isn’t play. The researcher reads RPG books the way a literature professor reads novels and poetry; they have a different strategies, intentions, and outcomes than someone who reads purely for entertainment.
The researcher intends to analyze, critique, review, write about, or perform some other secondary operation on the material they consume. Historians like Jon Peterson or critics like Linda H. Codega exemplify the researcher type’s goals and output.
The designer is adjacent to the researcher, but they’re oriented on practice rather than theory (broadly speaking). This type buys an RPG book or zine to examine how it and/or the game works, draw inspiration from it, and then apply what they’ve learned.
The designer wants to learn from their peers’ work, draw out good ideas, rework and reframe them, and incorporate them into their own creative projects. This is true of people making original works as well as third-party content for established systems. They may be interested in game design, graphic design, or any other component of the product itself.
All consumers are supporters (in theory, at least), but the pure supporter is distinct from the other consumer types.
The supporter is primarily interested in the transaction. They often want to give moral and financial support to a creator and/or their project. Many do it out of personal affection or admiration for a cool idea. But the bottom line is that the supporter is less interested in reading, playing, interpreting, adapting, or anything other than simply buying it.
The Continuum of Motivation
Each consumer type is, at its core, defined by behavior stemming from desire. But those are informed by another motivation that situates the consumer types on a continuum. I call that continuum’s two valences personal and professional.
All personal pursuits are non-productive in a market sense. At the spectrum’s professional end, the consumers want to use the commodity to produce another commodity for others to consume. The motivations are primarily intrinsic and extrinsic, respectively.
Most players, for example, pursue fun and recreation. They sit at the personal end of the spectrum. But a professional player earns a living through play, whether they’re a paid GM, a performer on a monetized podcast, or have built some other career on play itself.
Readers are in a similar situation. Most people who read RPG books for fun do it exactly for that reason: because they enjoy it. But a salesperson working in a game shop, for example, will need to read (at least cursorily) RPG books so they can provide the best possible product recommendations to their various customers, each of whom have their own needs and desires that different RPGs will satisfy. Similarly, an acquisitions editor at a publishing house reads to determine market appeal and profitability, not for the pleasure of reading.
Researchers would seem to tend toward the professional end, such as academics or journalists publishing on TTRPGs for direct earnings or to advance their careers. However, researcher activities aren’t exclusive to vocations, just as a moviegoer can enjoy analyzing and critiquing films without seeking to make film critic their vocation.
The same goes for designers. Many people of this type want to produce and sell their own games. However, the designer could also be developing a hack or a homebrew for personal use in their own gaming group with no intent to market and profit from their work.
A supporter at the spectrum’s personal end is largely defined by altruism. An example of the professional supporter is the investor. They have no interest in playing, reading, contemplating, or designing games; they simply see a particular game as an asset likely to accrue value in the future.
A Note on Collectors
Plenty of TTRPG consumers identify as collectors. I’m one of them. I enjoy having a library of game books—but my enjoyment extends beyond the library itself to its use value as a resource of games to play, materials to reference, and so on.
Based partly on anecdotes and personal speculation, I think any of the consumer types can be collectors. The collector isn’t its own discrete type because the collection isn’t the consumer’s primary goal. The books they purchase have other, primary values for them.
Imagine the “pure” collector, for whom the collection is paramount. If the consumer has no interest in RPG materials as RPG materials, then they could be substituted by any other collectible item. If the collection is the primary motivation, then the nature of the things collected becomes inconsequential. An extreme case would be the collector who buys RPG books out of compulsion or drive for completion, which is probably neurotic at best and pathological at worst.
Rethinking the Primary Consumer
While brainstorming for this post, I ran a quick Twitter poll asking community members about their consumer habits. Here are the results:
The information here is admittedly very limited. The poll ran for a little over two days, it had a relatively small response, the default responses are quite circumscribed, and respondents hail from only a segment of one single social media platform’s population.
Nonetheless, I think it’s interesting that player garnered the lowest proportion of responses among the types explicitly listed.
Conclusions based on this poll can be only tentative at best. But designers and publishers could benefit from considering that their audience may not behave the way they may suspect. Pursuant to gaining a better picture of the market, additional and more wide-reaching research is necessary and could potentially provide greater insight and benefit.
Do you have thoughts on TTRPG consumer behavior? Know of other research in this area? Interested in conducting that research? You should say hi.
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3 thoughts on “A Typology of TTRPG Consumers”
One problem I’ve had consistently with a lot of the RPG Theory / Framework / Typology / etc. type stuff, is in almost every case, it lacks any kind of empirical support. I don’t think any theory of RPGs could be called “mature” until there is at least some kind of empirical support for it. I could get into a whole thing about this but I will try to restrain myself >.<.
If it sounds like I'm being critical, I want to remind that I really appreciated your previous post citing empirical research on trigger warnings and the counterintuitive results of that research. That was an awesome post, and it is exactly that kind of anecdote which is why I'm being critical here. The theory itself sounds really good, I have nothing against it. On-face it makes intuitive sense and seems like a reasonable way to understand or predict consumer behavior or understand consumer preferences in RPGs. But does it actually hold up?
I realize that executing on this is non-trivial, as someone who used to do empirical research, so again, this isn't about criticizing you or anything, it's just a general frustration I have. I'm a bit rusty on the experimental design and data analysis side of things, but if you would be interested in turning this into a simple study, I could try to help out.
We'd want to think about some ways to reduce this theory into some simple hypotheses; we don't have to test everything at once, but let's get to the core elements first. Then we could design some google form surveys that would facilitate those hypothesis tests. It's ok if it's not perfect, but it will give us some basic understanding, a lay of the land, and we can proceed from there. In fact, the data may lead to unexpected results that inform the theory; unexpected interactions or counterintuitive main effects.
I actually tried to do this forever ago, specifically with GNS, but then people who knew nothing about experimental design or data analysis spent 10x time arguing about the methods or just refusing to participate on principle, than it would have taken to just take the 1min survey and see what happens- at no cost to themselves. My primary hypothesis actually was statistically significant and the distribution of the data was consistent with my expectations, but since it was technically under-powered I didn't want to report it.
Anyway, my personal frustrations at the lack of empiricism in the RPG space and my opinion of the futility in theory without data aside, this is very cool and I do genuinely appreciate what you're doing, despite how I may sound at the moment.
You make a good point about “mature” theory. In this case, I meant that it was the first attempt to account for the conflicts and disparities amongst early RPG players with an overarching framework. And I definitely think that observing player behavior to gather evidence for a theory of player types definitely presents some challenges. I think consumer behavior, though, would be a much more manageable project and an important one. Definitely interested in pursuing this at some point in the not-to-distant future.
Cool, ya I can’t make any promises, but if you do intend to pursue that please let me know if I can help :).