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Problem Players in Public (and Private) Games

Whenever you add a player you risk incompatibility. In a home game, you’ve usually screened the players, and usually only deal with one new variable–one new player–at a time. In con games, you’re not just adding one person to a table–you’re building a whole table from scratch, often meeting your players for the first time.

In both cases, it can be difficult to figure out how to deal with difficult or obnoxious players. In someone’s home, particularly when the GM is the host, social expectations align to give the group the right to remove someone who doesn’t fit. It can be difficult to fight expectations–particularly since so many gamers are friends first. The infamous geek social fallacies [1] remind us that there are widespread assumptions about gaming, friends, and expectations of tolerance.

In public, there’s a lower barrier to entering games–and too often, an expectation that a GM will put up with any player. For a one shot, it’s often more trouble to root out a player than it’s worth–unless their problems go well beyond roleplaying. (A jerk who makes everyone miserable has to be tossed, even if it takes precious minutes out of the group’s limited time.)

Over a Longer Timeframe

For an ongoing game, public or private, there’s an expectation that the game will be more intense, that the interplay between the GM and players matters more. (A good plot won’t save you if there’s a guy who is like fingernails on a chalkboard session after session.)

Martin’s Problem Players [2] article has a great approach for figuring out when there are problems and guidelines for addressing them. It is written from a home game perspective, and works best for groups with a strong gaming charter/social contract.

For public games, it’s a little trickier. Often the GM and players don’t see each other outside of the session–the GM may not even have contact info for her players. The situation may be more difficult to assess, especially since the some players might never have a chance to give personal feedback without the problem player being present.

Another complication to public games is that many are designed as open–with explicit rules on who can join, how their characters are designed, and expectations for play. Advance signups and steady groups are rare in D&D Encounters [3], and are missing from some Pathfinder Society [4] and living game (like Living Forgotten Realms [5] or Living Arcanis [6]) tables. GMs may not have the power to preemptively boot a player who registered properly–it might be up to the event organizer or society bylaws.

Problematic Behavior

Spoiling adventures by acting on the written module is reprehensible and earns players a bad reputation as quickly as almost any other table behavior. Even if only the GM is tipped off by your actions, it will skew the whole table’s play experience when she reacts, whether overtly or subtly. Worse for the player, GM networks tend to be tight and stories travel quickly. You don’t want to go into an adventure with the GM wondering which actions you took because you read ahead, any more than you want them wondering which 20s are real.

Cheating by players is universally frowned on. Sometimes you’ll garner sympathy from other players–being removed from play is disappointing, especially if it’s due to one failed saving throw–but cheating warps a game, and the reputation you garner will last longer than your character. It sucks, but hopefully the GM has a plan for your petrified character. After all, they don’t want you unable to participate for 3 hours of the 4 hour time slot.

Many GMs are frustrated by min-maxed [7] characters, particularly when the amped up character is backed by a player who expects more than their share [8] of spotlight time. In home campaigns, a group that enjoys breaking the system together can have a great time, with challenges that scale appropriately. In thrown together groups, too often the “well designed” characters just make everyone else feel that their characters are extras in the superhero’s story. Players can mitigate this–by being good players, stepping back and supporting others when the spotlight turns to them. Often it’s not that Bob’s character is better that frustrates them–it’s feeling that their character is useless, particularly if Bob’s character dominates their character’s role [9].

What’s to be Done?

If you have a negative history with a player, let the organizer know. Often they’ll be sympathetic and will follow your lead, dropping or reassigning the player as you recommend. It’s hard enough to get people to volunteer to GM–if organizers don’t back GMs, fewer GMs volunteer the next time.

If a player socially dominates the group and frustrates the other players, call out the behavior at the table. Remind them that each player is responsible for their character’s actions, enforce anti-table talk rules as necessary, or ensure that everyone has a chance to have a say. Going around the table and asking for orderly input can help establish expectations and set boundaries. If taking turns and intrusive input remains an issue, a talking stick [10] can be a tactile and visual reminder. (Improvise something from among your possessions if you didn’t anticipate needing a talking stick.)

Talk as much as possible. Get phone numbers or email addresses and discuss issues between games. Often repetition makes something minor feel much bigger–leading to a blow up that could have been headed off with one direct conversation. Even if you can’t communicate between games, take advantage of a game that wraps up early to get feedback [11].

How do you Deal with It?

My list is horribly incomplete on all sides. What behavior frustrates you when you play in public games? When you run them? How have you dealt with players who cheat, hog the spotlight, or just can’t get along with their fellows? Do you concentrate on rehabilitating problem players, or are there always more players clamoring for a chair, so there’s no reason to put up with dodgy or pushy behavior? Please share your tips in comments!

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Problem Players in Public (and Private) Games"

#1 Comment By Kamakiri On June 7, 2011 @ 3:23 am

Hey man. Long time reader, first time poster. I never realized how much of a problem reading ahead on the modules was. I ran Keep on the Shadowfell a few months after it came out and changed up a few things along the way, but kept the final battle the same.

I didn’t notice that one of the players was reading up ahead of time, until the very end. I had purchased the module the day it came out, and the current one, available online for free from Wizards has a different final battle!

2-3 rounds in, my usual min/maxer just flat out asked about skill challenges to close the gate. When I said no, he asked if I was sure about that. That jogged something in my brain (having glanced at them once), and I checked it out later and just chuckled over the idea of us using two different versions.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 7, 2011 @ 8:59 am

The whole “We geeks must stick together.” crap doesn’t fly with me. If you are ruining the game you are out. I’ll let you know why, and I’ll let you know that it is coming so that you can choose to change if you want to, but I’m not going to tolerate someone who is unpleasant to be around simply because we are both gamers.

#3 Comment By BryanB On June 7, 2011 @ 9:59 am

Yes. The perils of public play.

I think the expectations for public one-shots are much different than the expectations for public campaigns (or private play). This is why I get very frustrated with players who show up to a public one-shot and have the expectations of campaign style play. A one-shot is going to be more focused and more linear with less flexibility. It has to be this way in order for it to be completed in the four to five hours allotted. Players need to be mindful of this and not expect the epic campaign in five hours. This is a problem of mindsets not being on the same page and can likely be solved by explaining the nature of a one-shot briefly before play.

Even worse are the people that show up to a one-shot to be a deliberate saboteur of the table’s fun. This happened to me several times during the late eighties as a young GM trying to run games at a monthly valley gaming club. The key to one-shot play is to be willing to accept the GM’s carrot or lead in to whatever the one-shot adventure is going to be about. One doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the premise for a one-shot. But the saboteur knows this and does everything in their power to NOT play the adventure as written. Players need to reach the North Bridge on the King’s Road? The saboteur wants the group to head South. The princess needs to be freed from the Ogre Magi? The saboteur wants to free her and then sell her to slavers. An enemy spy needs to be captured alive to gain his secrets? The saboteur tries to kill the spy instead. This is a definite problem for a table.

Another bad scenario I’ve run into during public play are the players who attempt to run other people’s characters for them. It is fine to guide a player that is new to RPGs into making decisions, but those decisions should be the new player’s to make. It is even worse when the new player gets no help and then gets criticized for every decision that they make. Who would keep participating in a hobby after that? It is important to help new players without controlling them. It is important to realize that just about everyone was a new player at some point.

I’m usually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt when I first play with or run games for them in public. I think it is important to realize that we have a wide variety of play styles. So I try to identify the differences in my own play style and those of my table comrades and then I try to work with them.

But a problem player is the one that sucks the life out of a table repeatedly. As Scott says, in a private venue, the remedy is a simple boot out of the group if the offender won’t reform. In a public venue, you will have to work with the organizers or store owners to discuss the problems you have experienced and allow them to decide what is best for their own place. Problem players need to realize that they have a problem to begin with (some actually don’t) and then they need to realize that such behavior will not be tolerated. Reform or get out.

I do feel that it is important to allow a problem player the chance to reform, unless their behavior is just so obnoxious as to be considered irredeemable. I think we all know irredeemable when we see it. 😀

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 7, 2011 @ 10:36 am

[12] – We’ve had some issues with some Pathfinder Modules and characters who just seemed to know what to do a little too often. What’s worse is when the GM noticed and changed the next module… and the player looked completely lost. The whole session.
[13] – I’ve always been more soft hearted–often to the game’s detriment. I used to listen to players gripe about each other’s behavior for weeks, give cheaters second and third chances, and hope for the best before I’d step in. These days, I realize that most “problem people” won’t fix on their own–often because they don’t realize that they’re out of line.
[14] – I don’t have patience for saboteurs, especially when they use [15] justifications. Or expect that they’ll get half the time the rest of the group gets despite sabotaging the experience for everyone.

Running other people’s characters is a big part of the talking stick discussion in the article. It’s frustrating to everyone–walking over someone [16] makes the game worse for them. I prefer reform too, but it takes work!

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 7, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

[17] – I also took the “Peace Maker” approach when I first started GMing. I don’t know if I realized that it was hurting more than helping my game, or if age and experience just revealed to me that “everyone can get along” is a fallacy.

Anyone who has ever had to fire an employee because of failure to do his or her job knows that sometimes nice people have to be removed from their roles. It isn’t fun. I always had a hard time sleeping the night before having to let someone go. Luckily my role has changed and the team I have around me now is solid. I can’t imagine what it must be like to layoff a person, because in that case the employee is being let go despite doing their job. I hope that I am never put into that position.

Why mention this? Because if you have ever had to fire someone from the job that provides them their income, then booting someone from a game where he or she is disrupting everyone else’s fun is not stressful at all. You may not enjoy it (I know that I don’t), but you pull the trigger without a second thought once the moment comes.

And that is one of the things about gaming that I find wonderful and a bit perplexing. We start out as children playing these games, and we grow older with them. We all retain a direct link to our childhood through RPGs, and in some cases our habits from an earlier age are retained as well. Both the good and the bad.

#6 Comment By BryanB On June 7, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

[17] – That “Freeze” article is awesome sauce. Thanks for the link.

@Patrick Benson – You are correct about firing people being much tougher than booting someone from a game, but I think I’m generally more patient with those needing reform in a gaming group simply because it is a game and not a job. I don’t take it as seriously as work. I am, however, finding myself to be less patient in gaming/social activities on the other side of forty. I guess my free time is more precious these days. So I can understand your viewpoint even if I am less prone to use the boot. 🙂

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 7, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

[18] – Understood. For me it is definitely about my game time being sacred as I grow older. I’m not yet 40, but when I am jumping through a lot of hoops to carve out free time to game.

I mean, my job isn’t 9 to 5 on weekdays anymore. It is “Do it when it needs to be done.” Luckily my company understands that being always available also means “Don’t expect that 9 to 5 every weekday shit AND for me to be always avaialble.” and that is a perk I am very grateful for.

But gaming requires a great deal more effort to organize the entire group around a schedule. I don’t want to deal with a bad player, or a lousy GM. If I agreed to make an effort to “reform” a player it would be with an understanding of “You must either improve by this date or your are booted.” That works a lot better IMO than “I will help you and give you time to improve.” because there are limits to such kindness.

But what works for me is not something that I suggest for everyone to do. You have to use the approach that best fits your personality and goals.

#8 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2011-06-10 On June 11, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

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