When Players Go Feral — How to Clarify Actions of Misunderstood Players

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1200

Brief Word From Johnn

Today’s tips from Jonathan cover a problem I’ve experienced many times, especially at conventions. What do you do when one player goes off the rails? I especially like the example of the ranger who seemingly isn’t on the same page as the party and wants to ask “dumb” questions.

While the solution is simple, and these tips are a good reminder, we often forget in the heat of the moment. So you might create a Post-It or prompt on your GM screen for the next time a player seemingly loses their mind, the plot, or both.

This is the type of stuff we talk about in the Wizard of Adventure Zoom Q&A on the last Saturday of each month. The next call is only a few days away. I’ll also be running a special real-time demonstration of polishing a boring encounter using methods from the Adventure Building Master Game Plan. You’ll discover how to turn an encounter from bleh to awesome.

If you are not a Wizard of  Adventure yet to take your GMing to the next level, it starts at just $2/month. Get more details here.

I hope to see you on the call Saturday!

Now, onto Jonathan’s tips for herding cats.

— Johnn


How to Clarify Actions of Misunderstood Players

By Jonathan Hardin, sojournersawake.com

Everyone plays for one reason — to have fun. But through misinterpretation, a player may inadvertently direct the story away from the party’s plans. This might look like taking lone side quests, diverting from the task, or making actions that confuse everyone.

To resolve this, ask clarifying questions that showcase not only the player’s actions, but their intentions.

Example 1. Combat

The final boss walks into the chamber and greets the characters. Everyone rolls for initiative.

But when combat turns to the cleric, they announce they begin to search for loot while the boss is distracted.

The table holds their breath. The fighter shifts uncomfortably. The wizard laughs mockingly. And then everyone looks to the game master to get the thieving player back in line.

Example 2. Interaction

The store keeper supplies the characters with much needed provisions for their journey ahead. Each player describes their actions and mentions they are ready to move on.

The ranger asks the storekeeper a question. To the table, it seems irrelevant, and the game master has no prepared answer. But the ranger persists.

“How long have you lived here?”

“What sort of shops are in town?”

“Do you have any quests?”

As before, the GM obliges but everyone shifts uncomfortably as the one player goes off the party rails. How can the game master manage this situation?

Example 3. Exploration

While trekking through a monster-ridden planet, the space marines gather the fallen remains of a ship. They must get it rebuilt before the scorching sun rises and burns everything to dust.

The scientist sees a cave within the mountainside and expresses interest. And to the dismay of the rest of the table, the scientist goes on their solo mission, seemingly obtuse to the rest of the party goals.

Solution: Clarify Intentions

Ask questions of a misunderstood player

Anyone can misinterpret another’s actions. By asking clarifying questions, then a player reveals their intentions so all may understand. After intentions surface, players are more likely to understand the actions of another player and what they’re trying to accomplish.

GM: Hey Billie, I had a good time playing last night. What do you hope happens in the story for next week?

Billie: I really want to find an armor upgrade. And I think that shopkeeper’s appearance made me think he was lying to us about something. Also, that tunnel you described on the planet – I wondered if there was anyone hiding in there.

GM: Wow, I had no idea you thought of all that! You seemed pretty quiet in the game. Had I not asked, I would have assumed something else.

Billie: It’s all interesting to me.

GM: I’m glad to hear that! I don’t want you to appear as a loner. I advise you to share all of this with the rest of the party. I know they need to hear you think out loud so they don’t misinterpret your actions in game.

Billie: How do I do that?

When the game master teases out intentions from the player, notice the change in gameplay within the following scenarios:

Example 1. Combat

“… they begin to search for loot while the boss is distracted.”

GM: Cleric, I want to give you an appropriate skill challenge, so clarify your intention.

Billie: I mean, this is a perfect opportunity for me to steal something valuable from the villain. I hope to turn the fight towards a win.

The table applauds. The fighter exclaims “Bring it on!” The wizard laughs, “I’ll cover you.” Everyone looks to the GM, returning to the goal.

Example 2. Interaction

“… it seems irrelevant, and the game master has no prepared answer. But the ranger persists.”

GM: So as I know how to answer, can you clarify your intentions, out of character?

Billie: You said that he wore an eye patch, and that just seems strange to my PC. I’m thinking he might have a link to the underground crime gang that attacked us.

The game master receives clarification and the party factors this seemingly random action into the story. They wait to see if the ranger succeeds or fails because this now means something of value.

Example 3. Exploration

“… sees a cave within the mountainside and expresses interest.”

GM: Splitting off like that seems pretty unsafe. It also means the party has one fewer pair of hands to help fix the ship before sunrise. What is your goal for exploring the cave on your own?

Billie: It’s pretty simple. I really don’t want to be ambushed by whatever is hiding in that cave. I’ll go look while everyone else works on the repairs.

Through clarifying questions, everyone can witness the intentions of the player and fold the actions into the story.

Marine 1: That’s a great point, do you need any weapons?

Marine 2: Agree. Maybe we could scan the cave to learn if anything hides in it. That could save you a trip and you could still help with the repairs?

Medic: I didn’t even think about that, I’ll prep the rover so we can get away quick just in case.

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Final Thought

It’s not enough to have the same goals in TTRPGs.  Players should also communicate their intentions to reach the same goals. The game master can help facilitate a fun game even when a player takes a misunderstood or confusing action. By asking clarifying questions, the GM moves the group’s energy from discomfort to one of camaraderie.

May your story continue!