Roleplaying Tips Supplemental #1
What To Do When Your Players Aren't Taking It Seriously
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Please find below various tips, stories and comments about
Issue #48's topic: "5 Things To Do When Your Players Aren't
Taking It Seriously
From: Rick K.
I have never had too much of a problem handling players when
they start to joke around too much. I always try to make
sure the players are either in character or out of character
when they say or do something. I find that most people can
joke around and then turn serious as long as there is a
noticeable division between when each is appropriate.
Sometimes it does get carried away, and that's not a
problem, either. Sure, it's a little disappointing to see
the adventure you spent hours creating 'getting laughed at',
but at times like these, it's best to just roll with the
punches. This is where winging it comes into play. Chances
are, if they are joking around, you they aren't paying too
much attention to subtleties and they are likely to do off
the wall things anyway, so just DM them through their
rambunctious rampage, then return to your regular flavor
next session. You may still get to run your masterpiece the
way you intended, if you don't try and force them to play it
when they are not in the mood.
A good GM develops a feel for the style of game his group
likes to play, and designs adventures that fit that theme.
Of course, not every group meshes well, and if that's the
case, maybe it's time to find a new group, or a new role for
yourself in the group. I've had to do that recently myself,
with the advent of 3rd Ed. D&D. One group was stuck in their
ways, while the other was eager to try it (well, more eager
than the other, anyway).
From: Max L.
Above all, make sure you're providing the players what they
want. In fact, provide them with what they want and a
little more. That is, if they want hack and slash, give
them h-'n'-s with plot hooks. If they like story
development, give them political intrigue, with h-'n'-s and
a pretty face for good measure. Of course, more than
anything, don't act out of spite.
Remember, also, that you're all there to have a good time.
If you simply aren't in the mood to roleplay, do something
else. There's nothing wrong with putting away a game and
changing plans. This is preferable to forcing an evening
Whilst I think I agree with a lot of what Robin was getting
at in the last article, I personally look at the problem of
non-serious players a little differently. The following
ideas don't work perfectly, but they're what I'm currently
- Why are they being silly?
The first thing I like to do when my players become silly at
the wrong moment is to ask myself why they're doing it.
Getting silly in a serious game is a sign that the players
have disengaged with your game, and are not willing to keep
roleplaying intensely. This could be for a number of
different reasons, but I can think of three major ones that
crop up regularly. The players are probably either bored,
frustrated, or getting stressed by the intensity.
- Bored Players?
What's been happening in the game recently? Has it been more
dry and static than usual? When players get bored they find
other ways of amusing themselves (like telling each other
jokes, or treating the game as a comedy when it isn't). Try
to find out what sorts of things your players find
interesting (it will be different for everyone, and will
change over time) and make sure this type of thing turns up
with reasonable regularity. With reference to Robin's
article, this is where you would throw in the combat (if
your group likes combat that is!), but I would be wary of
giving players a puzzle or maze in this type of
circumstance, it will probably be too dry to interest them
while bored (unless of course your group loves puzzles).
Remember, plot should *move*, it doesn't have to be physical
action, but the story must advance. In writing courses they
tell you that a static plot is boring and won't sell. I
think the same goes for roleplaying.
- Frustrated Players?
Have they been having no success, getting beaten around by
their enemies and can't see how to get what they want? No
matter how easy you might think your plot is to follow, your
players might be having trouble working out what to do. Or
maybe you've been hitting them pretty hard with defeat
recently, usually not a problem, but sometimes it can go too
far. Look at what kinds of comments your players/characters
are making about the story - if they are being really
negative, then perhaps they are getting frustrated. At this
point it might be an idea to let them succeed at something,
it doesn't have to be main plot, in fact it can be trivial,
like catching the street urchin who just picked their
pocket. You want them to work for victory, but remember to
occasionally break up the hard work with something a bit
- Are they Stressed by the Intensity?
This is probably more of an issue with "angst roleplaying"
but it's worth thinking about for any sort of game. Has the
game been really heavy and harsh recently? Some players will
just eat it up and ask for more, but others will want to
occasionally break up the deep emotions with something
positive. Have something nice happen. Or something trivial
might take up their attention for a while. Maybe insert some
action (of course, constant action with no roleplaying can
frustrate players just as much as too much heaviness), or
something a little silly (work with their comic mood).
As far as I can see, silliness is a sign that something is
stopping your players from having fun with the game, so
they're looking for their own way of entertaining themselves
or lightening the mood. At this point it is very important to
know what your players want. If throwing something
immediately engaging at them doesn't work, maybe it's time
to talk about what sort of things they want to experience
with their characters. (Johnn's idea of finding out what
their hobbies and favourite movies/books are works wonders,
try mimicking the feel of those movies and watch your
players wake up).
One thing I would be extremely wary of is punishing or
withholding reward from your players for their silliness.
You should definitely reward behaviour that you like, but
removing reward when they get silly can risk sending your
game into a vicious circle. It goes like this - your players
are bored/frustrated/harshed out and so they become silly in
an effort to have fun. You then pull back on the rewards,
your game becomes more harsh/frustrating/boring, and the
players disengage even further from what is becoming an
increasingly annoying game. Punishment only seems to work
when the players are engaged and having fun, if they're
already annoyed, you'll only annoy them further. If you're
getting too pissed off to be nice to them, take a break, let
them be silly for half an hour, while you calm down and get
re-inspired. Then tell them all to shut up and firmly
restart the game with something as interesting and positive
as you can make it, given what you know about the player's
Finally, on a similar note, maybe everyone is just in a
silly mood. Take the time out to enjoy it, and get back to
the game when everyone is calming down. Try to enjoy it
yourself, instead of getting cross. Let the players fart
around until they are asking to start again - it usually
doesn't take as long as you'd think!
I think the point to remember is that different players want
different things from gaming. Find out what this is (good
luck!) and then give it to them in a way that fits with your
campaign. Remember that the point for everyone involved is
to HAVE FUN.
Hopefully this helps.
From: Leonel R.
Hey, Johnn. First, congratulations on the excellent work on
your newsletter: it keeps getting better every time!
I would like to share my views of the problem of players
that just don't take the game seriously, as it has happened
to me some times. As I see it, the causes of this problem are
basically a few:
* The game just isn't the player's cup of tea. If your
players enjoy only fantasy, it's useless to try to GM a
super hero campaign, they'll get bored and find something
else to do. This happened to a friend of mine who was GMing a
"Buffy"-like campaign. Everybody loved it, but one player
just couldn't stand rp-ing a 16-year-old highschool student.
So he made jokes and ruined the mood for everyone. The
solution was to talk to the player and ask if he wouldn't
rather sit this one game out, as he wasn't having any fun
anyway. If NONE of the players like the style of the
campaign, then you should find another group just for this
one campaign, or GM something else. Just remember to keep it
friendly: do not throw the player out, talk with him and ask
if he wouldn't rather leave.
* The players have too much to talk about. I have this
problem every time I DM. My players are all close friends
(among themselves and with me) but they are all very busy so
they meet only in game nights. So they have so much to talk
about or are just so glad to meet each other again that they
want to talk out of character, they want to talk to the
players, not the characters. This can be solved by scheduling
the game right after you all go out and spend the night
conversing. The in-game atmosphere will be much better
anyway, because of the friendly mood that will be present.
* The players see something funny that you didn't. When they
start laughing or cracking jokes, just ask them what's so
funny. Maybe you quoted a movie or book by accident or
committed some sort of misspelling, or maybe something you
found exciting or serious struck them as ridiculous. If they
explain it to you, maybe you'll all end up laughing
together. Of course, this won't help with the mood, but at
least they will be laughing WITH you, not AT you. Also, it
can lead to some constructive criticism that can lead to
improving the game (believe me, it happened).
* They're doing it on purpose. I've seen it happen,
sometimes a player just wants to ruin the game on purpose.
This can be out of jealousy, or something the player holds a
grudge for. The solution is talking.You have to find out
what the player's reasons are.Sadly, in most cases the
solution for this is removing the player.
Also, here are some generic tips for when the players don't
take the game seriously:
* Try immediate punishments. When the player disrupts the
mood, punish him and let he know it! In a Fuzion campaign
(where we got very few XP, so every one of them was
precious) the GM had a small chart with all the players'
names. Every time one of us told a joke, he made a mark
beside the respective name(s) and said "you, one less XP".
This kept everybody serious, as we couldn't afford losing
many XP. When I DM Saga (a RPG that uses cards instead of
dice) I take a card of the player's hand each time he or she
tells a joke. The less serious PCs become thus "cripples"
until they redeem themselves.
* Make everything the players say "in-game". If a player
tells a joke, then the characters told the joke too. If it
was before the King during the PC's knighting, so be it. Let
the NPCs react to the jokes, becoming exasperated or shocked
or even amused! This is guaranteed to keep'em serious
(after all, who wants to lose a 19-level character because
he made a joke about the Queen in front of her entire
And at last, the most important tip concerning game
seriousness in my opinion:
* DON'T OVERREACT.
Humor is part of the roleplaying experience. It's not for
every single moment, but suspense and drama aren't either.
Sometimes the players NEED a break, they NEED to crack a
small joke, they NEED to talk out of character a little bit.
Let'em. You'll find out that if they're comfortable with
this, they'll naturally revert to seriousness. Also, some
players need this more than others. I had a group where one
of the best players (someone with whom I had roleplayed many
many times) was completely apathetic. When pressed as to
why, he said that the group is "too serious". Now, this guy
didn't use to tell jokes or disrupt the mood, but he needed
a more carefree atmosphere. The rest of the players, on the
other hand (myself included) enjoyed dark, tense, heavy
roleplaying with no jokes (or almost no jokes). Each player
has his own style and we should respect them all.
That's it, hope to have helped with this overly common
From: Erik the Odd
Wanna wake someone up, maybe slap them around a bit?
I run Mechwarrior/Battletech. If you have an appropriately
Machiavellian atmosphere, where no one's sure who the bad
guy is, even open combat becomes more interesting.
Bad guys can finger complete innocents, then use the time
that the good guys are trampling about to prepare for their
And, if all else fails, call in a sniper. *g* Nothing
snaps them back into character like a rifle shot in the
From: Bill C.
When I have run into situations like this, I essentially
shelve the current game and break out Tales From the
Floating Vagabond (or you could use something like Toon
also). If the players want to be in a silly mood, I give
them a game tailored for it. Everyone is there to have a
good time and as a DM, if I'm the only one wanting to play a
particular game, it's not fair to ram it down on the other
players. I have found that taking a break from an ongoing
campaign with something lighter, like TFFV, is a great way
to refresh interest in the main campaign. It gets the
silliness out for future sessions.
From: Henrique C.
You know, this very situation happened to me on our gaming
session last Saturday. The players just wouldn't settle
Well, I just told them (with a very serious demeanour):
"Guys, I will now proceed with the session. Let me tell you
that today, it is quite probable that at least one of your
characters will die. I therefore advise you to concentrate
on the game."
A deep silence descended on the table. Everyone was suddenly
very quiet, a troubled look on their faces. They know me,
they know I wouldn't tell them that if it wasn't true.
We started playing and, a few minutes later, most of the
party was stunned by a couple of mind flayers. The adventure
almost ended there and then.
Of course, you cannot tell them that every session. But once
in a while it can be very effective (especially if it is
backed up by the events... ;-)
Thanks for the very entertaining and useful tips!
From: Django D.
One point that I didn't see raised was when the mood of the
game changes during play. This is perhaps even worse for
the GM who had a serious game planned - it starts out
all right and then makes a change as opposed to seeing the
'lighter' mood at the beginning and making alternate gaming
plans right then. For example...
I remember a game you were running where the party was
trapped in a room with a short fellow (a gnome perhaps) who
was quite content to sit with the party for the rest of
eternity in that room.
We tried everything we could think of to get out of that
room. We looked for secret handles and hidden doors. We
fired magic at the way we came into the room. We began to
chisel with an iron spike (that someone always has). We
asked our host, we asked the heavens. The results were all
the same - we weren't getting out of this room.
After a while the players began to get restless and the
characters started to push around the host hoping to
intimidate the fellow into releasing us. Then we tried
trashing the room - ripping pillows, breaking chairs, etc.
Still nothing. At this point the players were frustrated
with the fact that we weren't getting anywhere - so the
characters attacked the host.
The host turned into an Ogre Magi (the short host was an
illusion) and the fight was on. Our party won - we simply
overpowered and overwhelmed the Ogre. If I recall, the Ogre
had a key on his body which let us out of the room.
Thinking back on this encounter, perhaps some guidance from
our illustrious GM would have been in order. He may have
been waiting for some key phrase or action by the characters
that may have been obvious to an outsider but we were
missing. Perhaps a dream, a vision, or some other form of
indirect intervention could have kept things in the original
From: Michael A.
I had a HUGE problem (partly my fault) with a particular NPC
not being taken seriously. He was the only son (18 years
old) of an elderly Count, and wanted some adventure, but
the Count wasn't about to risk his only heir - a great rp
opportunity as the father is outraged when the son runs off
with the hired mercenaries (ie PC's). Not to be. During an
impassioned speech, the Count was trying to "convince" the
son (in front of the PC's) that he would be better off
staying and learning how to run the domain. "One day, lad,
all this will be yours!" exclaims the count, pointing out
the window. Quick as a flash, a player quips "What, the
curtains??" said in a quavering 'nancy' voice. Yep - I had
unconsciously quoted the line from Monty Python and the Holy
Grail, and the response (although very funny) ruined the
atmosphere I was trying to build for the session. Ever since
then, whenever the Count's son was encountered, MP quotes
would fly thick and fast, so I ended up killing the poor guy
off ( I was hoping he would become an important NPC and
contact for the PCs) Must admit, it WAS funny.