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The Cool Kids’ Table

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about the differences between public and private games, particularly with a view to some problems that are more common in public games. Before I go any further, you should go read Steel Wing’s great post about his own public play experiences over on ENWorld. The post is Why Organized Play has been an Awesome Experience [1]. Organized play really is pretty good–my first two takes on this post had a rambling section about my public play history, just because I wanted to tell you about some of my good experiences to balance the advice below with some positive. Fortunately for you, brevity prevailed.

In my previous article [2], I mentioned some common problem player symptoms. Reading and acting on the module, cheating on die rolls, and hogging the spotlight are all behaviors that may get you kicked out of the event or shunned once the behavior comes to light. Other practices you should avoid if you want to sit at the cool kids’ table: getting your characters killed frequently, regularly shouting (or cursing at any volume), talking over other players on their turn, and wandering away from the game (physically or mentally). If you’re late, you’ll get the leftover space–which is probably at the table everyone’s eager to avoid.

Organizers spend a lot of time talking with their GMs and getting a more complete picture of their players. Beyond balancing character roles and other game specific constraints, organizers have a number of additional restrictions when they’re setting everything up. Here are some of the factors that many organizers consider when they’re deciding where to slot you (and everyone else):

Before you ever get to selecting character groups that will work together and be a good match for the adventure, many ideal parties (measured by their character sheets) have been sunk by player conflicts.

Once the event organizer has triaged the lists, the organizer now needs to match a GM to each of the tables. Almost invariably, the organizer takes a “problem table”– either the table requiring more GMing expertise (because the players use more exotic character options, min-max their characters to overcome the written scenarios without challenge, or assertively present wrong rules interpretations that will trip up GMs who haven’t encountered them before). Many organizers don’t have the luxury of a large GM pool, encouraging them to assign the least problematic players to GMs with less experience, especially since good player groups double as a role model for new GMs. Sometimes you’ll schedule your best groups to reward and recharge hard working GMs, to remind them that organized play is fun for GMs too. There’s always a balance–hopefully you have enough good tables to keep your GMs happy and eager to return and help out next time.

Seating Frustration

As a player, it can be annoying to get seated at a problem player’s table. Getting seated with the player that everyone wants to avoid often falls on new players–who don’t know to ask for other tables! Even as the GM it can be frustrating–it can feel like your hard work and experience earned you a tougher set of players.

Organizers have to watch out too. Keeping a stable “cool table” can develop cliques, leading to stagnation and a declining player base. It’s good to mix up groups–even groups that play great together–if only so more people can experience awesome play! If “newbs” only ever get seated with the problem players, you’ll have difficulty retaining them. It can be rough–particularly since you’ll listen hardest to the players you want to retain–but they too can stretch every once in a while.

Handling Problem Players

How do you handle problem players as a fellow player, GM, or organizer? I know that my responses vary.

As a player, I tend to silently put up with a problem player–figuring it’s one slot, that they didn’t get that way overnight, and that as a player I don’t have authority to force better behavior anyway. That’s definitely not optimal–it slows the community’s improvement and puts more burden on GMs and organizers. I don’t know if problems (other than black and white issues like cheating on die rolls) is easily addressed as a player.

As a GM, I tend to silently put up with a problem player–unless it’s a young or new player, someone who might be unaware that their behavior is off-putting…and leading toward permanent problem table exile. It usually takes repetition–GMing the player in a second game, or seeing them engage in problematic behavior repeatedly, before I’ll decided to catch them after the game and explain my perceptions. It’s never a fun conversation to start–but it can salvage a player.

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5 Comments To "The Cool Kids’ Table"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On September 8, 2011 @ 9:49 am

Interesting. The public arena in which I run games and play them is perhaps a little different to the one you are envisioning, other than on “Encounters” night when all the tables are playing the same game system.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on how to behave (as a GM) when the “problem” player’s behavior is that he or she has bought into the milieu enthusiastically and has thrown themselves into the part, roleplaying to the hilt, but has started chewing the scenery to an alarming extent and is threatening to overwhelm the others by filling the RP voids as it were.

My own reaction has been to use “let’s go round the table and see what everyone is doing” but that then throws those naturally quiet players into a harsh spotlight they may not welcome.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On September 8, 2011 @ 10:35 am

[3] – Excess enthusiasm can be tricky; especially since enthusiasm is something that you want! When it’s simply a matter of volume (their excited outburst is heard across the room), I usually respond with praise for their characterization or enthusiasm… then mention that given the number of tables in the room, it’s best not to shout. When it’s speaking frequency, there are two good approaches. The first is to approach them, almost as a co-GM, and get them to help you draw the other characters out. Something like, “Braaugh is quite a vivid character–I don’t think anyone at the table has a question about where he stands. Rudolfo, though… what’s his motivation? Fred plays him quietly–how can we bring some of that inner life out at the table?” Your instinct, to go around the table and give everyone a chance for input, is what I tend to do the first time I encounter a quiet player–just to make sure that they’re being quiet by choice, not being drowned out. In a similar vein, I tend to treat a quiet player speaking up as an “interrupt” for the guy who speaks all the time–because it’s rare, it gets more attention.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On September 9, 2011 @ 7:59 am

[4] – I’ll try that co-gm advice out at the end of the month. I hadn’t considered that approach. Thank you.

#4 Comment By BryanB On September 9, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

I think it is also important to remember that we were a)all kids once upon a time and b) probably the one doing the excited outburst at least once. I have found that kids are usually more prone to the outburst than adults but even adults can get boisterous when they are engaged in a tense battle and someone rolls the big critical at the most opportune time.

As far as attention hogs go… that is more difficult to deal with, especially when there are shy players among the group. I just try to make sure everyone at the table gets a turn to speak and certainly to make their own choices. One nice thing about game systems with initiative mechanics is the ability to say, “it is his turn right now – let him have it, your turn is coming up.” But it is important to make sure the shy players have an opportunity to have a voice. Doing that will likely help pull them more into the game and give them confidence that they can contribute.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 9, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

Where you sit can often determine how you play. [5]