Problematic Players

Shut Up and Sit Down posted a lovely video detailing unpleasant archetypes in the board game community. They discussed ways to improve the situation and, in classic SUSD positivity, they opened the comments to good experiences people have had with friends at the table. Cherry Picked Games also wants to help nurture the tabletop community. We figured we would springboard off of this idea, talking about some role-playing specific troublemakers and how to handle them better for more enjoyable play. To keep up the positive note SUSD left, we'll give some alternative examples from Catalyst sessions that made us smile.

The Lone Wolf

We’ve all played in a campaign with this character. They are the natural loner with distrust of authority, teams, and other people in general. At best, they are contrary to the game master’s characters and slow down story progression. At worst, they split off from the party to have their own exciting adventures, leaving the rest of the crew out of focus and bored. Unfortunately, this loner persona is an easy one to develop for players of all skill levels. The genre often promotes ideas of tragic backstories or segregation from normal society. These characters are interesting, but playing them is more challenging than it appears.

The problem is a lack of cooperation. Help this player build bonds with others. There’s a natural story arc of the loner character learning to care about and love their party. They become the family that never accepted them or they never had. It may seem clichéd, but it’s a sturdy plot development to continue character growth. This acceptance plays out differently each time. Whether the loner is saved by a fellow adventurer or the whole party is pitted against the world and not cooperating is suicide, the group can come to a nice harmony.

One of our regular Catalyst players, Jared, averts the Lone Wolf behavior well. The character of his that comes to mind is Dan, a gruff ex-soldier brimming with hate and frustration. Dan was stuck with two high school misfits (we made our characters independently…) and forced into the role of a competent leader. Rather than dismissing the obnoxious children around him, Jared decided to endow his character with parental instinct. No one else could whip Aiden and Bryawn into shape, so Dan reluctantly took them under his wing. Despite the repeated insults and death threats, he cared about them.

The Diva

We always promote characters with strengths and weaknesses. Someone who perpetually succeeds is the dullest character imaginable. Occasionally, a player designs a character attempting to excel in everything. Most RPG rule systems prevent this, leaving a character mediocre at several skills and likely to constantly fail (something equally as boring as always winning). Since this aspect is part of character creation, the game master needs to explicitly prevent this. They must instill in the player that their character have flaws, and not in the “my greatest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist” sort of way. Try to get the player’s ego out of the game and remind them they're telling a story, not trying to win.

More obnoxious than a person trying to be the Superman of RPG characters is the balanced character whose player refuses to let fail. This player argues over dice rolls and enemy actions; whining about a failed stealth check because “there’s still no way I could be seen in this light.” Questioning the game master over missed details is one thing, but persistent contention is a cardinal sin at the table. It slows down the game, draws attention away from other players, and breaks the session’s flow. Again, help them remove their ego. RPGs are not typical games: there is no win explicit win condition, so the drive should come from a desire to experience a story.

If you’re GMing a session with such a player, you need to settle this quickly. Your other players will not enjoy a night of listening to a spoiled brat trying to justify why rolling a one should still count as success. If that behavior spreads to everyone else, the campaign might as well end; it will either become a boring slog through unchallenging situations or a campaign ruled by a bitter, iron-fisted GM. Just like any relationship, the GM needs to set boundaries. When you rule on a check or react to dialog, be consistent and steadfast. You don’t need to justify everything; playing coy gives the illusion of depth and reason, even if you arbitrarily decided the player needed to roll a 10. Clear failures or things blatantly out of a character’s skill level should be written off as such. If a roll is close, give something to the player: if they barely miss a hacking check say they have limited access instead of only failing. That avoids the argument because the player still feels like they contributed. Essentially, if the GM is playing fair, the players should follow suit after a while.

Cherry Picked Friend Kesan is wonderful at avoiding diva behavior. His characters are realistic, so they naturally shy away from the good-at-everything attempts. What particularly please me as a GM are his embellishments of failure. He gives an in-universe explanation of what happened, instead of demanding the GM justify things. A failed stealth check becomes a creaky floor. A missed sword swing might have been the sun in his eyes. Stuff like that is simply more fun that arguing.

The Staller

Role playing games capture amazing, stream-of-consciousness stories. Once you get into a rhythm, everyone loses themselves and the game really happens. Unless you have a staller in the party. Maybe it’s my personal disposition, but I don’t like waiting in traffic or standing around while a friend tries on clothes. I certainly don’t want my play impeded by humming and hawing over how to enter a cult’s church or shopping for made up clothes. Of course, decisions and outfitting a party are important, but there’s a clear point when someone has passed the party’s tolerance.

Speeding up play is something we’ve discussed before, but it’s different when it’s a chronic symptom of a single player. It is likely they are oblivious to the frustrations of the other players. As the game master, you don’t want to shut down this behavior. You want players asking questions and exploring the world, but not over-analyzing details or trying to flesh out the world in meaningless ways (like asking about different merchants in a town after getting a price quote on a new sword). The most effective solution is to focus on impulse players. If during a barrage of questions about guard patrol patterns, another player says they hop the fence and run in, let them. The staller will likely protest, but let the action stand. If things go poorly, there’s interesting conflict in the group. If things go great, the staller learns a lesson about the setting and may try to be faster next scenario.

My singular favorite moment of decisiveness came from Catalyst’s Rehabilitation campaign. The campaign starts with a plague victim banging on the door of the players’ stronghold. Dinah, a player new to the game and genre, immediately shot her. Everyone was taken aback. Whatever plans had been formulating had to be changed as the gunshot echoed through the quiet town. I loved this scene for its raw honesty. Too often, characters act unnaturally with their players’ meta-knowledge. This was pure role playing. That character shot a woman before Dinah could separate herself out and worry about consequences.

Those are the big three problem players we’ve seen crop up in games of Catalyst. Honestly, they are not that big of a deal. The hobby is fun as long as everyone wants to be there. All this advice is to optimize something we already love. If you want to get into role playing or get others into it, just be friendly and open. Everything else flows from there.