One of the important balances a GM must strike at his table is the difference between a game that follows conventions and expectations, and one that is very spontaneous. As a narrative experience, tabletop roleplaying requires a particular mindset and flexibility, even when it focuses more on numbers than on people. An important element of this is to figure out what players will enjoy, and offer them an appropriate experience; games are not fun by default, they must be made fun through the events within them.
The biggest problem I see early on in tabletop games is when players are forced to confront the fact that their game falls almost entirely on the side of number crunch or on narrative fluff, and wanted another experience. Sometimes a light system like Savage Worlds isn’t enough to satisfy a spreadsheet junkie (and, believe it or not, there are powergamers who actually get thrills from building a mechanically optimal character to the exclusion of narrative depth), and a game like Shadowrun can easily intimidate players.
An important step in this process is to know what exactly the system you are using is designed for. The best-selling tabletop games in the American market (Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, and FFG’s WH40k or Star Wars lines are contemporary examples) are typically mechanics-driven. They attempt to create certain experiences by using rules and methodologies that are going to work for the creation of that narrative in 95% of groups; D&D, in particular, has been pretty well parodied and referenced in nerd culture because it has a lot of iconic scenarios and events that happen in many groups even without any player intervention, such as “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards”, “Magic Missile”, or “+1 Sword”. Some of these games, like Shadowrun or Dark Heresy, tend to fall a little more on the freeform side of things and have more fluid and flexible outcomes and common elements, but even these are pretty mechanically driven. These games usually have a list of skills and attributes shared by every character, and the amount to which a character specializes in each determines their relative aptitude.
Compare, on the other hand, the fluff-driven systems. To be absolutely lazy, I’m going to use the example of the Cortex system; it’s compatible with a broad range of things because its characters use aspects (rated from d4 to d12, if I recall correctly), and has a heavily narrative-driven approach to play; an aspect may be “Computers skill”, but it can just as easily be “Friendship with Jim” or “Hatred for space-whales”. The upside of these games is that they allow for flexibility, and unlike D&D or Shadowrun that tend to have pre-canned narrative (“I swing my axe at the goblin”), players tend to get creative in invoking aspects of their characters (“I athletically bound toward the goblin, running along the wall for a few feet before jumping off and striking from an unexpected direction”) but they also have a little less granularity in their characters. In this game, characters don’t always share the same skills and attributes and just have different aptitudes, they can have radically different potentials.
Something like Savage Worlds has a pretty even mixture of both of these; it shies away from abstractions and centers itself in universal character crunch, but it’s still a system that allows for a great degree of diversity in the actual player outcomes.
As a GM, your job is to know this so that you can understand all the methods used in the games industry not even because you need to change your system to cater to your players, but because it’s important to understand how fun is derived from different games.As a general rule, fun comes in three forms; character, narrative, and mechanical.Character-based enjoyment tends to be more introverted, and involve players viewing their character as the protagonist (or at least one of the major protagonists in the world). This sort of approach really depends on a certain degree of flexibility. So long as the challenges they face don’t ruin the image of their character (picture Superman being taken down by Kryptonite versus being burnt away by the sun; Superman’s not supposed to die to the sun, but is weak to Kryptonite), these players are likely going to be okay in your group, but do be sure to give them a little time to shine. You may need to tell them that their character doesn’t fit the mood or feel of the game, and explain that you’re sticking to a mechanical framework and won’t allow exceptions if there’s too much trouble. I find that this kind of player has greyed my hair the most over the years.Narrative-based enjoyment involves a more extroverted approach and looks at many things. The players don’t necessarily take joy in the rules and creating a powerful character, but do enjoy both following the rules for the sake of the narrative and creating a character who will follow the story logically. These players tend to be pretty easy to handle, and they mainly cause issues when they conflict with the GM in their ideas of what the game should be.Mechanics-based enjoyment is more introverted again, and focuses on “winning”. Players of this sort are always asking when their next level-up, payday, or training will come, and tend to try to compete with other players whenever the dice come out. They usually don’t cause that much harm to the GM, but I’ve found that having them can detract from the game for other players, especially if they disengage whenever the talking starts and don’t know what they’re doing when the time for action comes. Their competitive nature can also lead to them complaining if you don’t show them complete mechanical objectivity, which can exacerbate interpersonal tensions already existing between them and the other players. Sometimes, however, a player with an extreme focus on optimization can actually be a benefit to the game, as they often will get very into character with their archetypes if constructively developed.