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Troublemaker Player? Just Give Them The Rope & Show Them The Gallows

So I told you about my Dread game at the local game shop [1] that I ran for Halloween this year, but I did not tell you about my trouble maker player.  One of the players decided to do ludicrous and foolish things in character throughout the game.  Now I am not talking about funny things, because a funny moment that is appropriate to the character is often great fun at the table.  With a game like Dread that can be very dark and bleak a funny moment is often needed so that people can deal with the tension.

No, I’m talking about eating an orange.  A whole orange, with the peel still on it.  Eating a whole orange with the peel still on it while you are trying to hang on for dear life, because you are riding in the back of a small flat bed truck that is skidding out of control off of a bridge and that is going to crash.

That is the sort of thing that my trouble maker player was having his PC do while I was running an intense game of horror.  I would describe the scene and ask all of the players what their characters were doing.  Of the six players present five would describe something appropriate to the scene for their character to do, and my trouble maker player described something ludicrous that made everyone at the table go “Huh?”

Fine.  I told the player to make a couple of pulls from the Jenga tower that Dread uses for challenges and he did.  While this truck was crashing his PC was eating an orange with the peel still on it.  No problem.  Let’s move on, shall we?

Later in the evening my trouble maker’s PC was in quite the predicament.  He had failed to complete the pulls for one of the challenges, and now his character was running away for his life from the big bad evil monster.  I described the damage inflicted upon his character and told the player how his PC was bleeding badly.  That is when another player at the table said “Plus you ate that orange!”

Light bulb moment, people.  Light bulb moment.

I thought about it and told the player that his PC was suffering some intestinal difficulties due to devouring a whole orange with the peel still on it.  I asked him to make two pulls from the Jenga tower to keep running.  He did, and his character survived, but his PC still had not escaped the monster.  While trying to open a heavy iron door (the last challenge needed to escape) the player failed one of the pulls and the tower came crashing down.  His PC was out of the game, and his PC might have survived if only the PC had not eaten that whole orange with the peel still on it.

The lesson of the story?  You do not need to target a trouble maker player.  Your group will do it for you.  You do not need to punish a trouble maker player.  Trouble maker players will punish themselves.  You just need to focus on moving the game along.  Sooner or later the trouble maker players will hang their own PCs in the game themselves.

What do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Was the trouble maker player handled fairly, or would you have done something differently?  Let us know by leaving a comment below, and tell us how you deal with trouble maker players.

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Troublemaker Player? Just Give Them The Rope & Show Them The Gallows"

#1 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On November 1, 2010 @ 9:48 am

Truthfully? I think you were being kind of unfair. It’s likely that the player was doing what was normal for him and his characters in his regular campaigns. (You don’t describe how he reacted to your decisions.) But still, it was a one-off session and not part of a campaign — you can’t be expected to make perfect decisions as a referee, especially with people whom you don’t know well.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 10:23 am

[2] – I see your point, but I disagree.

The player enjoyed the game, and he started laughing about how the orange was his downfall. Also, he had made it into the fourth hour of a four hour session.

I have no idea what his characters do in his regular games, but is it fair to expect a GM to cater to an individual’s “norms” for a public game? I think not. This event was advertised as being a dark game of horror meant to terrify you, and the player was trying to derail that with ludicrous PC actions. IMO he was being unfair to the entire group (myself included).

Plus it is Dread. This sort of thing is pretty standard for a game of Dread – your choices are often used to escalate the situation that your character faces and your character will most likely die in the game.

#3 Comment By Airk On November 1, 2010 @ 11:21 am

While I don’t have any issues with the way you handled this, I don’t think it’s fair for you to call this an example of “not punishing a problem player” or “just moving the game along.” Sure, one of the other players might’ve made the orange suggestion, but you, the GM, are the one who decided that having eaten that orange was going to inflict a mechanical penalty. You punished that problem player. One might argue it was deserved or rational, but it was still your decision, and NOT a direct result of you “just moving the game along” nor do I think that problem players necessarily “hang themselves”. You always need to, at the very least, knock the platform out from under them.

#4 Comment By Rafe On November 1, 2010 @ 11:33 am

I don’t know the exact rules of Dread, but I thought it was one pull per conflict. Wouldn’t “escape the Big Bad Beastie” be one conflict? If so, three pulls was very punishing, and very much on purpose. If them’s the rules and an extra pull was added due to the orange silliness, fair enough.

Regardless… the truth is that you sensed him to be a problem player due to early indicators… and you let him continue with his behaviour. I’d have taken him aside and set him straight early on. Failing that, I’d have sent him packing. You had five other players. Five > one. Thankfully, it sounds like they had a good time despite this one player being a dick.

Setting him straight at the end of a demo (regardless of whether it’s the GM or other players doing it) accomplishes nothing; it just tells that player he can be a douche and people will put up with him for an entire game.

So if three pulls wasn’t unfair according to the rules, then it’s too little too late. If it was unfair according to the rules and the way you’d all been playing up until that point, then it was too much too late.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 11:48 am

[3] – Fair enough. I can see your point, and although I disagree you are right that in the end I decided the challenge for the player.

As for kicking out the platform out from under – not really in this case, because in Dread the player can always refuse the challenge. Bad things happen to the character, but you as the GM never say “Your character dies!” The PCs are only out of the game when the tower falls.

[4] – It is in the rules that multiple pulls can be required for a challenge in Dread at the GM’s discretion. I actually use a formula where at the beginning of the game challenges are one or two pulls, and then number keeps creeping up as the action and the threats escalate.

Yes, I did allow the player to continue playing his character how he wanted. I’m not there to tell him how to play, but I am going to use his actions to help tell the story. His PC ate an orange with the peel still on it, and that was put into the game by him. It is fair game to use the material he provided me with to tell the story.

I did not single out the player or the PC either. When I run Dread I run it as a rotation of scenes focusing on a PC or cluster of PCs if they are all in the same scene. His PC was constantly going off by himself, and his challenges were just as difficult as anyone else’s. He had an additional challenge because of his PC’s actions. So isn’t it fair that if your PC does something that would hinder them later that the GM acknowledge your input into the game and use that material?

Just to be clear, I understand where those of you who feel this was unfair are coming from. This is an issue that I think is smack on the border, and that is why I chose to write about it. I’m firmly convinced that the game was fair, and that a trouble maker player can be handled in game by just letting their actions have consequences in the game. I still want to hear what others think though.

#6 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On November 1, 2010 @ 11:52 am

Patrick Benson: Okay, I don’t know Dread, so I don’t know how inappropriate it is. I’m also not clear that the player was trying to derail anything at all. I just know that the setting is one thing and the character is another.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 11:56 am

[5] – Understood, and as I mentioned this is an issue that I expect debate over.

I strongly endorse trying a game of Dread though. Forget this article. It is just a really fun and simple game to play. Well worth giving it a shot!

#8 Comment By Razjah On November 1, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

For a one shot game I would have done something very similar to what you did. However, in a longer game, or a one shot game with my normal group I would have pulled the player aside to see what the orange was all about. I would not want to pick up the reputation of the GM who makes the players actions come back to bite them on the ass. The players may have seen that as something where you were right, or they may have seen you as a hard ass and I would work around picking up the hard ass title with my group.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

[6] – Excellent point! The group is going to remember the decision that you made as a GM.

In this case I have several players and audience members asking when I will be running Dread again, so I probably made the right call this time. Next time though, it might be the “hard ass” decision that drives people away.

#10 Comment By Rafe On November 1, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

[7] – Thanks for the rules clarification! Very helpful. I’ve never played Dread, but I will be soon.

My main issue I had was that the other players, based on what you wrote, were constantly being pulled out of the game and having WTF moments due to that one player. However, the way you ran the game (and the way he had his PC out of other people’s scenes) made that a relative non-issue, for the most part. I’m sure you’d have handled things more in line with what I said above had his follies spoiled other people’s play and interfered with their own scene outcomes.

Thanks for clearing up a few things! Makes it less cut-and-dry for sure. 🙂

#11 Comment By lomythica On November 1, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

I think I agree with Razjah. I can certainly understand that in a con or public game, it can be a mixed bag, and sometimes players aren’t really all onboard with what you are planning. Give more room and let the player be reigned in by the group a bit. Being heavy handed to a stranger can kill the mood in a game where nome of the players have a great connection to the gm.

One thing that I am not fond of, is passive aggressive methods of using game mechanics to handle a social situation. I have never found it to make a great gaming situation. On the contrary, if a player is continually trying to derail things, no amount of mechanical consequence will make it fun.

It seems in this case, there was one screwy situation, and when it caused a mechanical repercussion, the player went with it and accepted responsibility. I guess using the mechanics for a “warning” would be fine, as long as it isn’t a repeated offense.

#12 Comment By Razjah On November 1, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

Then it looks like you are doing everything right. Even better since the trouble maker apparently enjoyed himself. Even if he was disappointed, but you are getting requests for a game there is some seriously good GMing occurring.

#13 Comment By Razjah On November 1, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

[8] – Is there anything that you would have done differently had this been a game with your normal playgroup? Would the approach have been as heavy haded? Would you have taken the player aside and asked why he was doing that?

#14 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

[9] – Actually, that was just one example of a screwy situation. There were others that I did not share. Such as when the PC wanted a rock, any type of rock. I said sure, and that the player could right that down on his character sheet. When I asked if there was a particular action that the PC wanted to use the rock for, or a particular size or shape of rock that was being requested the player made it pretty clear that he did not care about the rock. He was just wasting my time.


Oh well. His PC had a rock. That and the orange were just a couple of examples of what his PC was doing.

The only reason that the orange even came up again is because another player mentioned it. It was appropriate to the spirit of the game and the genre (jerks in horror movies get killed because they do jerky things, this is a comment on that character archetype and not the player). Worked out great IMO.

[10] – I think it is the game system itself that provokes the requests. Dread tends to be a big hit for public events. Everyone walking by can see the tower, so regardless of what people know about RPGs they immediately understand the tension of that tower falling.

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

[11] – Missed this comment:

“Is there anything that you would have done differently had this been a game with your normal playgroup? Would the approach have been as heavy haded? Would you have taken the player aside and asked why he was doing that?”

Dread is not usually played as a campaign type game. It is often one shots, and please keep in mind that it is a horror game where PCs are expected to be killed. This is not D&D where PC death is handled differently and it occurs less frequently, so what happened was definitely not heavy handed.

Would I have done something differently with my regular group given the same situation? No, probably not. After the game I might have asked the player why he did what he did, but taking breaks during a Dread game does not occur often. It breaks the tension, and the players often don’t want to take a break until the tower falls.

I’m curious. How many people who feel that the action was heavy handed or unfair have played or run Dread? Not that you need to in order to validate your opinion, but I wonder if those who have played the system feel the same as those who have not played the system.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On November 1, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

Well, I’ve only got one side of a seven-sided story, but assuming events went much as you say they did (and I’ve no reason to suppose they didn’t), two things struck me.

First, how daft the Dread system appears to be. Jenga tower? Really? So when one guy in the party dies, the survival chances of the others goes *up*? (The tower presumably gets rebuilt).

Second, that despite your using the phrase (and I paraphrase here) “hung with his own rope” it was actually GM manipulation of the system to maximize the chance of the PC dying.

Now I’ve seen this done, had it done to me in fact (nasty resonant loop: D*ckwad GM brought out my worst side, making him act like an even bigger d*ck etc etc etc) but I (as a Call of Cthulhu GM) usually break off at the first incidence of this sort of behavior and address the whole group with a “this game requires heavy buy-in from the players to provide the best experience & you get out only if you put in” speech.

Everyone knows who the speech is aimed at which may provoke a response which at best will clarify what the player’s issues are and at worst will show the player that everyone just sighed with relief to find out that *they* aren’t the d*ck at the table.

Was the player handled “fairly”? Not sure the question is meaningful. The player was misbehaving, you killed his character (by stacking the odds), eventually. Fair to whom? The other five, who had to suffer hours of nonsense? The GM? The troublemaker, who clearly wasn’t on the same page as everyone else?

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On November 1, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

OH, sorry, I forgot the disclaimer:

I’d never even heard of Dread until your articles on it.

#18 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

[12] – In Dread the tower is rebuilt with one piece pulled by the remaining players for every half hour of game time played and one piece for every PC killed. A PC may die if the tower collapses while the tower is being rebuilt and these pulls are made.

GM manipulation? Dread relies on the GM putting the PCs into difficult situations, so yes I manipulated all of the players during every game of Dread that I have ever run. That is how the game is played. As a player I understand this, and as a GM I have to use that tactic. Otherwise Dread is boring.

But the players can always refuse to pull pieces and to fail the challenge. So is it unfair? No. That is just how the game is played.

#19 Comment By drummy On November 1, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

[12] – It sounds like it was clear to the GM in this case that the player in question was looking for any opportunity to draw attention to himself by breaking the mood at the table. Sounds like others were annoyed by the tactic as well, but mostly a bother for the GM in this particular case.

The only issue I see with how it went down is that the player got semi-rewarded for his silliness; he got the attention he needed, even more so when the orange became his downfall, so although his character bit it (ha?), he might have no reason to change his behavior the next time you play — barring a conversation before the next session.

From my perspective, the character got hung with the player’s rope, so to speak, but not the troublesome player himself, who seemed to enjoy the endgame. As the GM, I’d want to ensure that I wouldn’t have to endure these shenanigans again at the table — do you think he got that message? Or will next time be more of the same from the player even if it hurts his character?

Dunno. Just a thought!


#20 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 1, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

[13] – It is quite possible that the player will not change his ways. So what? I’m the GM, not the behavior cop. If I run another game for the game shop of Dread and the same player acts the same way fine. If it is a public game then I agree to take in any player who signs up for the event. My goal is not to change the player’s behavior over a one time open to the public game.

Bit of a tangent here because I just had a thought. Now if it were a private game then I would simply tell this player that he could not be a part of the game. My private game is invitation only, so I can and do choose who I want at the table based upon their play styles. If I am running a game at my home I am going to be selective, and I have enough players to call upon that I’m lucky to have that luxury.

How did I get that pool of players? By sticking my neck out there and running games in public settings for any and all interested in playing. Good GMs get reputations for running great games, and that gives you opportunities to cherry pick the best players for your style.

But you have to pay your dues and run games for strangers to get to that point.

#21 Comment By Katana_Geldar On November 1, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

I agree, if players want to do something stupid, give them one option to back out and then if they want to do this then let them. They made the choice, it’s their bed and they can lie in it.

I’ve had those really “What?” moments in my games, where a huge battle is about to start that I spend 60% of the campaign to get my players to…and one of them wants to go skiing. That threw me, and that was his last session and thanks to him leaving we lost our venue.
Because he wanted to go skiing.

#22 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 2, 2010 @ 8:48 am

[14] – That is the sort of thing that as a player will lead me to ask the other player why they even bother to play a group game. As a GM though I don’t let it bother me, I just say fine and move on. That is what I did with the orange, and the rock, and the other ludicrous things being done in game by the trouble maker’s PC. If they want negative attention they can somewhere else to get it, because I’m not spending anymore time on the trouble maker’s PC then I would for any of the other PCs.

#23 Comment By Roxysteve On November 2, 2010 @ 9:55 am

[15] – [Tower rebuilding] So you don’t use a “shoe” to reconstruct the tower?

Sorry if you took my comments too close to he heart. You asked for the opinion and I gave it. I should have made more clear that I didn’t see any GM blame.

A bored player is a bored player. They begin gleefully pulling apart the game any way they can as soon as they can. How you deal with it is your affair.

#24 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 2, 2010 @ 10:50 am

[16] – Yes, you do not use a shoe to rebuild the tower with.

No need to apologize. I wasn’t offended or bothered by your comments. I was just making it clear that GM manipulation is a part of the game for Dread. If you don’t present threat or implied threats into the setting the players will be bored.

And to be clear the players were highly engaged. The trouble make was probably just doing something that has gotten him negative attention with other GMs. With me, well that fell flat. He got one or two minutes of my attention when he made a request, and when I just let him have one of his requests there was no where else to go with it. And when his request became part of his downfall that was fine too.

That is really the point of the article: don’t indulge the trouble maker with a fight, just let them play their character and let their actions have the appropriate consequences.

I mean, if you eat an orange with the peel and all and then try to do strenuous physical activity you are most likely going to have some undesirable digestive issues.

Just as important: reward the players generously who do appropriate things in the game with positive consequences later on.

#25 Comment By drummy On November 2, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

[17] – Patrick, thanks for the clarification and reminder that this was a public game. That makes all the difference to me, as I agree you have to roll with the punches in those circumstances. If this were a player who tried to join a private game, the need to hone his “style” to fit the game would become far more important, as in crucial to the success of the game itself. — Dan

#26 Comment By Bercilac On November 17, 2010 @ 1:03 am

Hang the suckers!

But please don’t confuse trouble-making with contributions. My old GM liked to railroad us. We had been working for the same mercenary captain for several missions. I was bored. I wanted to off the captain and take over the business. Obviously, it would have been easy to keep the story going once we had all of the responsibilities that come with mercenary company-ownership. But instead I was punished by getting attacked by a dozen of the captain’s ogre bodyguards and beaten into pulp. Since the captain was relatively unimportant for the overall story (just a middle-man between main events and the party) I found this a bit unsatisfying. After three sessions, I figured we were due for a bloody promotion. So I offer this:

1. If it’ll make things more fun for everyone, it isn’t trouble-making.
2. If it’s making trouble for everyone and spoiling the fun, let ’em hang by their own rope.

#27 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 17, 2010 @ 10:11 am

[18] – The problem there is that you were bored. Why were you bored? That is the problem that should be addressed first. Now if you weren’t bored would your actions have made you a troublemaker? I do not know. You were not doing something ridiculous that was obviously counter to the story and the game. I would want to hear what your GM thought of the situation though.

#28 Comment By Bercilac On November 20, 2010 @ 1:46 am

I should clarify. I wasn’t bored with the campaign, simply with our role as henchmen for a character who, though an NPC, seemed to have a more interesting job than we did. I assume the GM had a rather strict story line in mind. “Then the captain will have you do XYZ.” I feel it could have easily gone, “After your coup, your first contract is for XYZ.” But we would have gotten to do it with much shinier boots. I’ll forward this to the GM, though, and see what he thinks of the situation before I try and guess what was on his mind.

#29 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 21, 2010 @ 8:12 am

[19] – Thank you for the clarification. I do not consider what you are describing as being a trouble maker either, but your GM might feel differently. That is why second part of the equation is so important – let trouble makers suffer the consequences of their actions.

Ogre bodyguards attacking the PC after the person that they were guarding is already dead? Maybe the GM saw that as an appropriate response. I would have just given your PC the role that the captain had, but the consequences would have been that the clients who trusted him with their unique tasks would not trust your PC initially.

Again I want to be clear here that what you described though is fitting with the setting it seems, so I do not consider that trouble making.