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The Loner PC, the Problem Player, & My Mistake

I am not offering any GMing advice today. Instead I am sharing a story from my GMing past, because I believe sharing these types of things have a real value that is hard to categorize and quantify. Take from it what you will.

I had a player in my games who was notorious for always playing the loner PC. His characters were not just orphans without any close friends, but they also consistently found reasons not to be with the other PCs no matter what the situation was in the game.

During a zombie apocalypse game his character abandoned the rest of the party and took the party’s firearms with him. In a supers game his PC would leave the rest of the party to fight crime on the streets when the Mayor called for help from the team. In a fantasy game he would always play the ranger type character so that his PC could go scout ahead of the party, but not necessarily report on any dangers that he discovered.

I tried to provide incentive to have his PCs join the party. His character would find clues that if combined with what the other PCs knew would surely move the plot and the adventure forward. The player’s response? His PC would either try to sell the items that he found or he would simply discard them.

I confronted the player directly about the behavior in private. I explained that I did not want to tell him how to play his character, but that the rest of the players and I were annoyed with his behavior and that it seemed to be that he enjoyed the negative attention he was getting from the rest of us. He responded with the dreaded “That’s what my character would do!” justification.

I asked the rest of the players to share how they felt about the situation, and this player responded with concerns that the group was ganging up on him. I tried designing sessions with the problem player’s input so as to create situations that had interesting reasons for his character to stay with the party. That approach resulted in the character often changing his mind as to what was most important to him.

Finally I just gave up. I did not care what his character did anymore when he separated from the rest of the party. There were no clues to be discovered by his PC, and there were no random crimes for his hero to thwart. If his ranger went West the party would be given reasons to head East. The action in the game world was always where the party was. At first this only happened a few times, but since his PC would never re-join with the party on his own it became my standard response to his standard way of playing his characters.

I did not want to boot this player from the group, because I (and the rest of the group) actually enjoyed his company as a friend. He was fun to hang out with, and he was very informed about RPGs in general. I just decided that I would deliberately remove any incentive for his character to split from the party. Looking back that was a stupid way to handle the situation, but hindsight is always 20/20.

The ignoring his PC approach worked, but this solution had about as much satisfaction for me as it did for the player. None. The player was now forced to have his PC stay with the party if the player wanted to be a part of the game. It was selective railroading. Other PCs controlled by other players could split from the party and find interesting things to interact with, but his characters would always discover empty rooms and mundane scenery. Then again, the PCs controlled by other players would also return to the party and not abandon their comrades.

The player caught on. It was inevitable. He was not stupid by any means.

He asked “Why is that my character never discovers anything when he splits from the party anymore?”

My answer destroyed our friendship instantly. I did not think about what how I should answer him. I did not yell nor lose my temper with him. I sighed and the words tumbled out of me effortlessly not because they were easy to say, but because I was too exhausted to keep holding them back.

“Because I hate gaming with you.” was my response.

I instantly regretted saying it, and I tried to back pedal and explain that I did not actually hate gaming with him. I just hated how his characters always abandoned the party. It was just that one particular behavior that I hated, and  not gaming with him as a whole.

My first response was the truth though, and we both knew it. I hated gaming with him. I liked hanging out with him. I liked talking about RPGs with him. I loathed gaming with him. He ruined games with his behavior. It did not matter if I was the GM or if I was another player at the table. I hated gaming with him. This was not originally the case, but after so many “My PC ditches the rest of you.” scenarios I just did not want to run or be in a game where he was a player.

Yet my words were received as “I hate you.” Of that I am sure. Regardless of what I actually meant, he took that response to be my rejection of him as a person.

He left the group. We are no longer friends. The games got better.

I do regret what I said because it hurt my former friend’s feelings. When I look back at what happened though I cannot decipher a way to have resolved the situation without his cooperation. I and others were there to game and not to provide counseling for his bad habits. Eventually the group would have to have asked him to leave. That does not make me feel better about the words that I blurted out so hastily though (and my attempts to apologize since then have been rejected).

Perhaps there is a bit of GMing advice in this story after all, because I now realize that his departure from the group was unavoidable. If a person does not want to cooperate with others at the table then you as a GM are powerless to make them behave differently. But the blame for telling a friend that I hated gaming with him lies solely with me.

So keep in mind that the only thing which you truly have control over at the table is yourself. Feel free to comment on what I have shared with you, and if you have a similar story to tell please do so in the comments section below.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "The Loner PC, the Problem Player, & My Mistake"

#1 Comment By Macona On February 24, 2012 @ 2:29 am

I can relate. I once ran a game where the party split into 3 groups through the course of the campaign (two solo, one pair), and the players got annoyed with me whenever I made any attempt to join them up. I was a fairly new GM at the time so I didn’t really know how to deal with this properly.

The game ended up in a dungeon, flicking between the 3 parties whom were all in different parts of it. I arranged to have a big bad at the end which they would have to team up to defeat.
I paid a lot more attention to the characters that were furthest away so they all reached it at the same time.

I got some pretty scathing criticism by the end of it and the whole thing really hurt my GMing confidence. I didn’t run a game for about 5 years after that.

Now days I don’t try to directly railroad solo players like that. I just let them run into monster designed for a full party, and see how long they want to play ‘lone wolf’ after that 😉

#2 Comment By Orikes On February 24, 2012 @ 3:05 am

This is absolutely one of my biggest pet peeves as a player. I haven’t run into it much as a GM because I’m still relatively wet behind the ears. As a player, though, I get very irritated when I run into a player running a character that is obviously working counter to the goals of the rest of the party and thereby slowing things down and hindering everyone else’s fun.

One old friend I have was horrible about this back in the day. I don’t think he was ever intending to be counterproductive, but he was so obsessed with making a unique character and playing that character, he would invariably move himself right out of the plot and any action happening in the game. The GM and the players would try and pull his character into the storyline, but he’d dig in his heels and keep off to himself. In more recent years, he’s been better about it and usually sticks with the group, but there are still times when he needs a nudge to get out of that mentality.

I’m honestly not sure how I would handle it as a GM. In the games I’ve run, I go out of my way to try and establish group cohesion at the beginning. I always want to give the players a logical reason to work together other than the ‘Met in the bar and decided to kill some things and take their crap’ motivation. I suppose it’s a little bit of railroading in the beginning, but it does save some headaches down the road. At the same time, I don’t think this would have helped in the case mentioned above.

Beyond the issue of ‘counterproductive player’, another big issue in this article is dealing with a friendship where gaming styles conflict. As gamers, we’re all big on being inclusive and the idea that you could like someone, but not like gaming with them is usually anathema to most of us.

I do hope that the player one day is willing to accept your apology.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 24, 2012 @ 6:00 am

That sounds like a very difficult and frustrating situation. I think in some cases, friends who are great to hang out with just aren’t the right ones to game with. I had a friend once who always had to make the special snowflake character and then make the game difficult for the other players. He was a fine friend, but a pain in the ass to play with, so we just stopped inviting him to new games. In retrospect, maybe we should have tried talking to him first. Maybe he would have changed the way he played.

I think certain types of player dysfunction stem from bigger underlying social issues and game time is game time not support group time for a friend whose parents never gave him enough attention (or whatever the issue is). If we want to help our friends with those issues we can, but it’s reasonable to expect them to behave in normal group-sensitive ways during group activities and if they can’t handle that then we’re not in the wrong to exclude them.

Your specific case seems like you may have waited too long to confront the player. You let the issue fester until everyone involved was raw and oversensitive about it. Of course the normal human nature is to avoid these types of confrontations, but in some cases it’s better to just rip the band-aid off instead of prolonging the misery.

Anyway, I hope that you and your friend eventually patch things up and that you can find other non-gaming activities to enjoy together and I hope that the rest of us can learn from your hard-earned experience.

#4 Comment By mercutior On February 24, 2012 @ 6:10 am

Thankfully, the situation you describe tends to come up infrequently in most gaming. The vast majority of players understand the concept of group dynamics and the fact that their characters work within an “adventuring” party to overcome challenges. Most of us game to work cooperatively with one another (GM included) and our gaming (and friendships) thrives because of it. I certainly do not envy your position at the time. When everyone at the table breathes a sigh of relief because so and so isn’t going to make it tonight, that’s a problem. If there was no room for compromise with your player, the “break-up” was inevitable as you so clearly stated and understood.

Some possible ideas (in retrospect of course): 1. Remind the player that in almost every genre the lone wolf eventually becomes a team player. The examples are numerous, Batman eventually joins The Justice League, Wolverine succumbs to Professor X’s invitations, James Bond has Felix Leiter and a bevy of babes, even The Outlaw Josey Wales (in a rendition of The Man with No Name) joins a group a beleaguered misfits. If the player still couldn’t see that the lone wolf archetype is never truly a lone wolf, at least you gave him a possible way to change and still be able to say, “That’s what my character would do.” 2. My least favorite option. If the group truly enjoyed this person’s company, deal with it. As long as the character was not counterproductive, and the player was fun to have around, indulge his style. I would just be sure that his “side adventurers” came on his turn, and only his turn. This way, the entire group isn’t waiting around for his character. Also, be sure that any clues that character found (which he did not share) were duplicated, so as not to hinder the rest of the party’s success. If this option still creates tension at the table, then again you find yourself at the impasse you so poignantly described.

Playing amateur psychologist I would say, that your friend’s unwillingness to accept an apology, choosing instead to remain hurt by an expression that came in the heat of the moment, in a situation that he had much help in creating, demonstrates that his character was most likely an extension of his own personality—selfish and immature.

#5 Comment By Stuart On February 24, 2012 @ 6:39 am

I do my best to avoid this situation by helping my players design characters who will integrate themselves into the party well. I ask leading questions like, “Why are you at this PTA meeting when the zombies attack?” or “Why would you agree to go with an insane linguist who tells you point blank that she’s mounting an expedition to the lands of the dead?” I use these questions to guide my players to the answers that I’m looking for, answers that involve working together with people until it would make the game better if they don’t.

Once they’ve created their characters in front of me, with my guidance, I KNOW what their characters would do, and write my stories to make it work.

#6 Comment By XonImmortal On February 24, 2012 @ 6:48 am

Well, let’s turn this around. Say, you’re a player, and you are excited to be able to play. You work hard to build a good character, with flavor and nuance and some interesting quirks.

You sit down to play, and the GM starts to set the scene. He goes over every detail, on and on and on. Every time you think it’s ready to declare an action, he comes up with something else to describe.

For weeks, you don’t touch the dice once, and your character sheet might as well have been left in the closet.

When you are not at the table, you try to talk to him about it, because he’s a really good guy. He’s fun to be around. But he insists that this is the way the setting is, and he has to stay true to the setting.

And it keeps going on and on.

What’s the difference? None. First, both are grandstanding and hogging the spotlight. Second, neither are being a friend. You might be their friend, but they are not being yours. Third… this example is what the other players had to deal with while your “friend” was playing lone wolf, forcing you to cater to him.

You don’t owe the guy an apology. You said the truth: “I hate gaming with you.” *He* took it as a rejection of himself. And quite frankly, a friend would have tried to work it out, not continue to grandstand.

#7 Pingback By No one cares that you are beautiful and unique snow flake except your mom « Wrathofzombie's Blog On February 24, 2012 @ 6:58 am

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#8 Comment By Razjah On February 24, 2012 @ 7:52 am

I have never had a situation get quite that bad. I have very passive aggressively shoved people out of my playgroup. I played with a guy who deliberately avoided the party; caused us problems: attacking people we are negotiating with, didn’t tell us about traps he found, hid from fights we were involved in, and was a jerk overall. We stopped interacting with him. he liked to show how cool his character was, we ignored him. We never complimented his play, or build. We never talked to his character, asked for his advice, or even allowed his input. He stopped showing up.

I was not friends with him, but I know what it is like to lose a friend you gamed with. I can sympathize, but in your situation I do think blame resides with everyone. he should have been more accommodating in a collaborative game, you should have confronted him, other players could have talked to him. I think overall- the situation you described was bound to end poorly.

#9 Comment By shaninator On February 24, 2012 @ 8:29 am

I can totally relate. I had a player that played a Drizzt clone all the time in D&D and I did almost the same thing in response. I gave up making interesting material for him, because it wasted our time and slowed games down. He started stealing the limelight by joking incessantly and starting conversations when it was not his turn. I called him out on it, and started skipping his turn when he wouldn’t pay attention. He eventually gave up and quit playing. I used to feel bad about it, but the show must go on.

#10 Comment By Noumenon On February 24, 2012 @ 8:41 am

I have a player just like this and each of the three DMs has spent time working with him without much change, I hope it doesn’t turn out as badly!

#11 Comment By mcmanlypants On February 24, 2012 @ 9:08 am

[1] – This is such an important observation. Everyone should take a second to make sure they read this:

1. Remind the player that in almost every genre the lone wolf eventually becomes a team player.

They almost all have some fictional character they’ve used as their model, consciously or otherwise. Pointing out that the loner isn’t a loner if there isn’t a team around for him to be griping about joining does everyone a service.

I used to game with someone who was very similar, going to extremes such as making a land-based, flightless character for a setting in which we knew explicitly that adventures would be airborne and everyone else was prepared for that. I don’t think this person did it out of malice at all, though; I think he was simply unaware of his own motivations. People come to the table for different reasons, of course, and one of those reasons is often to engage in the pleasure of problem-solving. Some of those people like to show up with a problem they’ve created for themselves so that they can engage in finding a solution to it. What they may not realize, and what may cause them to cross the line into being obnoxiously self-centered (as the player in the original post most certainly was), is when fixing that problem becomes the whole game for them and the game being played by everyone else is eclipsed by that.

#12 Comment By kaustin On February 24, 2012 @ 9:18 am

I was this player as a teen. I always went left if the party went right. It was a very strong compulsion. I did it frequently. At some point, I figured out that it wasn’t as much fun for everyone when I did this, and I stopped. We rotated GM’ing in high school, so I may have been annoyed by someone doing the same thing and clued in.

As an adult, I have often wondered why the compulsion to do that was so strong and always present. I am tempted to say that it was because I was selfish, but I’m not sure that was true. I think I was looking for something that I needed but wasn’t getting anywhere else. Something that most people get from their friends or family. But I can’t put my finger on what that might have been. It certainly wasn’t love or attention. I got plenty of that.

Maybe it was because I wanted to feel smart, successful, and able. Because I didn’t have that. The thought of my character being successful in front of my friends without their help was a very strong lure.

I don’t know why I did it. But I’m glad I figured it out and stopped before the same thing happened in our group.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On February 24, 2012 @ 9:25 am

The only thing I would’ve recommended was to propose a 1-on-1 game. I think you’d find out pretty quick if he was serious about roleplaying — or if there was another issue. There are some folks who prefer the 1 on 1 experience — that’s why checkers, chess, battleship and Stratego exist. Sometimes, a 1-on-1 game reveals those solo rpgers. (Generally, 1-on-1 players today opt for console or online games — but before they existed, there were more 1-on-1 play experiences).

This reads, though, like someone who wanted to throw a monkey wrench into the game at others’ expense. In which case, the road led where the road was going to lead eventually. Cooperative storytelling requires cooperation.

#14 Comment By BishopOfBattle On February 24, 2012 @ 11:44 am

I’m sure there’s a gentler way of approaching the conversation that wouldn’t have gone as poorly. Perhaps telling him that the group no longer wishes to adventure with him, pretty much the same thing that happened, but you could have approached it on your own terms and timetable and maybe phrased it better in that case. But, ultimately, I don’t think there was a way to *not* have to have that conversation, which always carries the risk that it will be taken personally.

I encountered a similar situation, though not as extreme, about a year and a half ago. The player wasn’t a “lone wolf” in the sense that he was always splitting with the party, but he did routinely make “unpopular” choices. He would refuse to assist or use his character’s needed abilities to support the party’s choice of action when it didn’t benefit his character. Since he was the medic/doctor of the group, this occasionally involved refusal to endanger himself to help a group member or NPC the team wanted to save or he would obtain information that the group wanted him to share and he would refuse when he wanted to instead sell the info.

It wasn’t specifically a problem for me as a GM, but it did build up a considerable amount of resentment with the other players, which was not aimed specifically at his character but at the player as well. I finally pulled him aside just before I started getting players asking me about getting gear / putting plans in place to incapacitate the problem character when necessary.

I explained to him that, while some disagreement and challenging the other players should be allowed and encouraged for fun roleplaying, his behavior was excessive and disruptive to the other *player’s* enjoyment of the game. Further, I preempted what I expected his argument to be, by telling him that the “But that’s what my character would do” argument was bullshit, that the player made the character, chose their motivations and decides what that character would do, so it was still the player’s choice. That intentionally choosing to ruin the others fun because your character is a jackass makes the player a jackass, but that I didn’t think he was a jackass, just that he didn’t realize he was causing a problem.

He replied that “it was what his character would do” anyway, so I told him that, in that case, he was being a jackass.

Not my finest and most charismatic moment.

He did eventually agree that the character was being disruptive and decided to retire the character at the end of the current campaign (which was ending in about a month or so) and start a new character for the followup campaign. I was also gave his character some additional outside motivations (he was encouraged to actually betray the rest of the group, but not until the end of the campaign and as part of the story leading into the follow up campaign, that required him to keep them alive and in their good graces in the meantime).

That was about as close as I got to an acceptance that he needed to change his ways, and he’s been much better and more enjoyable for the group to play with since then.

#15 Comment By Redcrow On February 24, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

I’ve never really had a problem with a ‘lone wolf’ player as described, however…

I have had a problem with a particular player who’s gaming style and mine simply do not mesh well with each other. This person is a long-time friend and avid gamer, but whether I GM and he plays or he GMs and I play it always ends up badly. After years of trying to game together I finally reached the conclusion that we simply are not compatible gamers.

Its unfortunate that we aren’t as close friends as we used to be, but not surprising considering it was gaming that brought us together to begin with.

This isn’t the only problem player I’ve had over the years, but it was the only one who was also a close friend.

#16 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 24, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

Lots of great feedback as always. To put things into perspective this series of events took place approximately 15 years ago when I was in my early twenties. I have no desire to try and contact the player anymore. I have no idea how to reach him if I did other than through blind luck and Facebook connections. 🙂

[2] – The approach of the having the loner bite off more than he can chew is a good tactic for this particular problem. I wish I had thought of that back when all of this was happening.

[3] – If someone does not want group cohesion, or even worse enjoys denying the efforts for group cohesion, you will not have a cohesive group. That is one of the lessons I learned from this.

[4] – I think that I confronted the player early on, and that actually increased his satisfaction from his behavior. What I failed to do was to boot him from the group when it became obvious that he was not going to change after several changes were made by the rest of the group in an attempt to meet him halfway. Saying “You are not invited to the next game, because we cannot resolve our differences with this behavior. Sorry!” might have resulted in the same hurt feelings, but I would have felt better in how I had handled the situation I am sure. In fact, this incident taught me another lesson – it is better to boot a problem player than to suffer with a problem player.

[1] – Your lone wolf analysis is spot on. Very good stuff there!

[5] – That is a good tactic, but I do not feel that it would work with the situation that I shared because the player would suddenly change the character’s motivations to suit his behavior as a player. The story was an asset when he needed it to be, and a mere hindrance to be discarded when used against him. That added to my frustration significantly.

[6] – Great reversal of the roles and a wonderful analysis as well.

[7] – Thanks for the kind words. My regrets are not with the results, but with what I said specifically. I was much younger, but this is one of those odd memories that pesters a person for years because you know that one mistake you made was such a critical one. I decided to write about in part to see it laid rest in my own mind. 🙂

[8] – Yeah, it was very similar to what you have described. You never want to upset a friend or hurt their feelings, but we gather to game and not to be the audience to one person’s issues. You have to move forward at some point.

[9] – My only advice is to be ready to ask the player to leave the group politely when you feel that all reasonable measures have been made on your part. That is better than what I did in this particular situation.

[10] – I do not knwow if fixing the problem became the whole game for him, but I suspect that keeping the problem alive and well was what gave him the most fun. Whether he was aware of this or not I do not know. I like to think that he was not.

[11] – Your insight into why you behaved the way that you did lit a small light bulb over my head. I always felt that this player was afraid of success. Maybe he was afraid of showing the rest of the group how well he could play the game and contribute to the story as part of the team? Hmmm…

[12] – I really like that idea of a 1-on-1 game as a litmus test. Very nice!

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 24, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

[13] – I really like your defense against the “But that is what my character would do.” line. Nice!

[14] – That is a difficult conclusion to reach, but sometimes it is true. We really like the friend and cannot stand the player. It is better not to game together than to stop being friends because of gaming.

#18 Comment By Razjah On February 24, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

[15] – I love this, that you replied to the posts for this. I know doing so takes time, more than people would think, and I appreciate that you took the time to respond to everyone who commented.

#19 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 25, 2012 @ 12:52 am

[16] – Thanks. I don’t always have the time to respond to everyone, but I do try to let people know that I appreciate every comment.

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#21 Comment By Dante Inferno On March 13, 2012 @ 11:51 am

Player: “That’s what my character would do!”

GM: “Then you need to make a new character, one that works with the concept belonging to a team”

That is all.

#22 Comment By Miri Daisuke ManyNamed On June 13, 2012 @ 9:30 am

I do seem to be commenting on a lot of old articles lately, but this reallydoes inspire me.

I had this friend. Oh, it wasn’t an RPG thing. I wasn’t running at taht point and the games I was playing in had folded in the face of disparate schedules and Real Life. But I had this friend.

This friend was cool, fun to hang out with, into the same stuff as the rest of the group, etc. We were all part of an anime club at my high school and on weekends we’d pick a house, everyone would pack their consoles in backpacks, and bring their favorite two-or-more-player games. Someone would be picked to go off to Cumby’s to buy drinks and snacks, and we’d hang out pretending to be productive while we played.

Unfortunately, this friend immediately turned into a jackass whenever we were playing one of his games. He enjoyed fighting-style video games, thought he was the best at fighting games, etc. At that point in time, I didn’t play those kinds of games because I had very limited funds, and I had a simple choice: Ultimate-Ninja-Fighter-Number-Sixty-Five, or the latest console RPG. RPG was priority number one. So, when playing witht he rest of the group, I was quite outmatched.

This friend had to be THE BEST at EVERY GAME. To the point where he would deliberately and mercilessly and cruelly taunt me and the other not-experienced player about how much of a badass he was, how great he was with character X, I’ll-play-you-with-my-worst-character-and-still-knock-you-into-next-week.

It got to the point where I couldnt’ stand to be around him even when he wasn’t being an asshole, and everyone was starting to get sick of ti too, because he acted that way towards even the -experienced- players.

Luckily, though, the problem solved itself. He brought over the latest and greatest game in the series he collected. I decided to give him a taste of his own medicine. After playing as one character every match to the point where I got good, I beat him three times in a row.

He refused to play with me after that and started finding excuses not to bring his games. Problem solved!

I’m sorry you had to deal with that kind of friend, and that your friendship ended badly. But sometimes, selfish jerks are selfish jerks – and as bad as thsi sounds, you probably would have ended up not being friends at the end anyway. It’s what happened to me and this friend, ultimately.