The Comic, the Diva and the Stump — RPT#558
From: Johnn Four
How to Handle Difficult and Apathetic Players
Afflicted with a problem player? Have a person at your table disrupting play or foiling a great gaming group?
In a recent Roleplaying Tips, game master J.A. asked for help handling difficult players in his group. Lots of great advice poured in. 4,894 words after editing, to be exact.
So, I’ve picked a few points out of the excellent advice sent in by Roleplaying Tips GMs and compiled them into a top tips list.
(This list is part of an ebook I’m preparing for you, so some references will make more sense when you’ve got the ebook in your hands.)
Handling player and group dynamic issues is always tricky, so please modify all advice to best suit your circumstances.
Shake Things Up For the Characters
You’ve got players who are bored, spotlight hogs or comedians. Try switching things up in-game as your first approach at modifying disruptive behavior.
- Create Your Own Testing Lab
Let’s do a Plus/Delta assessment from a character point of view. [http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/plus_delta.html]
Take a sheet of paper and make three columns with these labels:
- Character name
Fill out character names, one per row.
In the Plus column for each PC, list what’s working well for that character. There must be something that is going ok, such as “interacts with NPCs,” or “Does well in combat” or “Kidnapped nephew sideplot is going ok.”
In the Delta column, list ideas for changes that’ll solve whatever problems the character has in the game. For example, “No spotlight sideplot – add one,” or “Create a background tie-in with PC #2” or “Run a limerick contest.”
(For tips on running a limerick contest, see: Using Limericks To Spice Things Up — RPT#79.
Here is a Google image search to show you examples of Plus/Delta layouts.
You want to keep the Plus items going in the campaign so you build on success.
And during sessions you want to incorporate at least one Delta idea, and then keep adding more ideas each new session.
When a Delta idea works, move it into the Plus column so you keep on doing that. When it doesn’t, scratch it off or try a new angle on it.
Over time, through analysis, trial and error, you should build up a healthy Plus column to keep characters engaged in the game.
Give PCs difficult choices. This helps create engagement fast because the emotionally charged situation with no easy answer draws players in.
For example, Kit describes a tricky situation in the Readers Tips section where one player can only save one of the other two PCs, and must make a decision.
I’d advise avoiding player vs. player situations in dysfunctional groups, but sometimes you have to work with whatever strings you’ve got. And, as Kit suggests, you can turn the situation into a hoax or twist so no PCs are actually harmed.
- Character Development
Take time to build out a PC’s background and connections in the world. Connect PCs to each other.
As Tyler Elkink suggests, threaten connections but don’t kill them. In this way, you create engagement and can also balance out spotlight time with fairness and consistency.
- Use House Rules Such As Burning Wheel Style Beliefs
Oliver Oviedo offers, “I will refer you to Luke Crane’s book, The Burning Wheel…for a solution I included in my own Pathfinder game to bring clarity and focus to player motivation and role play. I introduced the idea of Beliefs into my game.” — The Burning Wheel Store.
Beliefs are a character development method. And you should feel free to mine other games you’ve played that have mechanics to solve or encourage certain player behaviours.
- Solo Quests and Spotlight Time
Readers also suggested managing your PC sideplots to give quiet players more action and domineering players balanced spotlight time.
Shake Things Up Out Of Character
If in-character carrots don’t work, try working the game at the GM-to-Player level.
- Do Another Plus/Delta
Grab another sheet of paper and turn your game into a testing laboratory to quest for the Fabled Recipe For Fun with your particular players.
Column 1: Player’s Name
Column 2: Plus – List player interests and traits that add to the game and group dynamic
Column 3: Delta – Ideas of things you can try changing at the player level
After each session revisit your chart and update. Keep what’s working, change what’s not.
If your players are up for it, show them the chart. Get their feelings on your assessment.
Oh, and be sure to include yourself in a row for analysis!
- Add What Players Want
Hook player skills and interests into your game.
- Confirm Game and Setting
Is your ladder even up against the right wall? Check with your group that the game system and world work to their interests. If the group loves cyberpunk and is meh for epic fantasy, try switching for three sessions and see what happens.
- Are They Playing Appropriate PCs?
Does the character suit the player’s personality? Does the plot?
Maybe the comedian should play a bard so he’s got a venue in which to channel his wisecracks.
- Player Relationships?
How do the players regard each other? JohnR brings up a good point about the possibility of players having entanglements outside of the game space that might be poisoning things at the table.
Get to know your players personally so you can empathize better and try to help them out.
- Bring In New Players
Get fresh blood at the table, as JohnR suggests. Even if it’s for a session or two playing NPCs or guest GMing. Change the dynamic and see what happens.
As GM, what makes you happy?
“I suggest [the GM] think critically about what he wants to get out of the game, and how he can work with what [the Players] give him.” – The Bathyscaphist
JohnR has similar thoughts by calling out the fourth player in J.A.’s game: J.A. himself.
GMs generally make sessions happen. They organize, build and referee. Therefore, if they lack inspiration or energy, it’ll show during games.
But more than that, the GM sets the tone and expectations of players, even if he does not realize he’s doing it.
For example, how can I expect players to stay serious and in-character if I’m always talking out of character or making wisecracks? Do I show favoritism? Do I respect the players, even ones with different mentalities and behaviours?
Seek to understand yourself first. From that foundation, work to understand your players and the group as a whole.
Emulate the behavior you want from others but embrace the differences others offer. Be sure your game needs are taken care of so your enthusiasm and joy rub off.
- Rotate the GM Screen
A couple of readers suggested you share GM duties. Ask each player to run a one-off session or adventure. Help the players understand your point of view by placing them in your seat.
A spotlight hog might just be a natural GM. A comedian might see how his jokes kill the mood. The stump might get jarred from lethargy or see the levers he has at his disposal as a player.
- Group Discussion
Nothing beats open and honest communication. In the short term it might be awkward or reveal wounds. That’s why we avoid it. But long-term, it might not only save your group, but you might get that magic gaming experience you crave so much.
Get a group discussion going. Act as facilitator, which means laying down the rules of healthy discussion and enforcing them. Intervene when players call each other names or criticize each other punitively. Encourage creation, not destruction. Be open to their feedback and wants.
Then try things their way. See if behavior changes. Then work in more of what drives you as GM while keeping what’s working for the players.
Those are some high level points derived from the Reader Tips, plus a bit of my own advice added in.
The elephant in the room is always the option to fold the group and find new players. But that might not be possible or desired.
The ultimate responsibility comes from the mirror. You can only change what you control. And you control just yourself, no one else.
Make yourself better at reading people and empathizing with them, improve your emotional intelligence, and learn how to communicate well.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Do You Like Minis & Painting?
I just backed a great Kickstarter Project from Reaper Miniatures. And if you like using minis or painting minis then you oughta check it out. But hurry, the project ends this week, August 25.
You can read all about it at the link below. The summary is, molds for making minis are expensive, so Reaper is raising funds to pay for a bunch of molds and giving project backers a great deal on minis produced with the molds.
I recommend the Vampire level, which is $100 plus shipping. It’s got a ton of minis in it and is best value for your money. I’m a Vampire backer myself.
Here’s the link with all the info: Reaper Miniatures Bones: An Evolution Of Gaming Miniatures.
Riddleport Update: Trapped In A Pocket Dimension
It’s been awhile since I gave you a Riddleport update. Sessions this summer have been sporadic. Conflicting schedules have mostly been the culprit. We should be back on track in September.
Meantime, here’s what’s transpired in the pirate city campaign of late.
Wanted: Mortal For Godhood
The players have learned that a god perished 100 years ago, and now his vacancy is about to be filled. The elder gods come soon to pick a new mortal to ascend into godhood, and all factions in Riddleport have chosen a champion and vie for supremacy or best positioning so their Champion gets picked.
Why bother? Well, if you had a loyal representative amongst the ranks of the gods, life would be much easier, right? So the name of the game is to get your Champion picked for godhood to improve your lot in the prime material plane.
However, it seems the fallen god didn’t just die. He was murdered. And the murderers formed a conspiracy to stay mum about this to limit the number of factions who would compete to fill the open immortal slot.
Further, the place of choosing is an artifact at the entrance of Riddleport city. So, for the past century, powerful demons, devils, drow, dragons, wizards and others have established power bases within the city in preparation for the inevitable war that would break out in the days before the Ascension moment.
The PCs have stumbled across these factions, and actually beat one of them out of the game. And now they are finding clues and threads about all this history.
The players have not only begun to piece things together, but thanks to their interference, valour or foolishness (depending on who you ask) they have won the right to choose the Champion for their faction!
It all started with the deed to an inn in the bad part of town. While running their business, the PCs discovered the inn served a holy purpose for the paladin PC’s god. It protects the still-beating heart of the fallen god Aroden. When the heart stops beating, the elder gods will arrive and pick a new immortal to join their ranks.
To further their faction’s goals, the group hopped through the planes to The Abyss. They quest for The Black Book, which contains the key to understanding the runes on the Cypher Gate in Riddleport’s harbour. The Cypher Gate is the artifact the gods will use in their Ascension ceremony.
Knowing what the runes say on the Cypher Gate could improve the chances for Ascension, because no one knows the criteria the elder gods will use for selection.
Unfortunately, the PCs were tricked en route to the Abyss. Plane travel takes place via a long hallway with many portals. The PCs entered the hall and were tricked into taking the wrong portal. They ended up in a pocket dimension, trapped with their bitter rival, Scab and his crew of henchmen.
In the pocket dimension is a ruined keep. Therein lies the escape route.
An Old Foe Vanquished
Last session, the PCs finally defeated Scab and his cronies. The battle was tremendous. Mighty magic manifested magnificently, flying foes fought fiercely, and wily warriors whacked well.
With Scab dealt with, our heroes tackled the towers of the keep, looking for four keys that will become one key and their way out.
With two keys in their possession now, the group has two towers left. They hope to escape this plane fast so they can get on to the Abyss, for time runs out in Riddleport and the Ascension ceremony is about to happen – whether the PCs are there or not!
We play again this week. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Reader Tip Request
Mage – Umbral Encounters
One thing the Roleplaying Tips 2012 Reader Survey taught me was you play a lot of different games.
Before, I was concerned about chatting up different game systems. But 59% of you actually play games in addition to – or other than – D&D and Pathfinder.
That’s great news to me, because I think it’s important every GM get exposed to ideas and design patterns from other games.
Ok, enough with the navel gazing. On with today’s Reader Tip Request from Monstrim for his Mage: Ascension campaign. If you are a Mage GM, hopefully you’ve got some ideas for him.
I’ve finally managed to give my players an objective: find a McGuffin (a “Shard of Existence”) in the nearby Umbra. Problem is, Mage books don’t help at all on Umbral encounters.
They are filled with awesome descriptions of places, and then some enigmatic High Umbrood, but lack common low-level creatures, journey hazards, short-term goals, or whatever it is that makes adventures flow.
My PCs are low-level. I can’t just have them negotiating with Muses and Court dwellers. I want them to explore around, interact with inhabitants and overcome obstacles, only I have no idea what those inhabitants or obstacles should be about.
Werewolf books have plenty of low spirits, but Werewolf is a combat-oriented RPG, and even these low spirits would shred my players apart if it came to combat. I’ve tried.
So, my question is: how do I run an adventure about exploring the Umbra at low levels? What do the Mages interact with, what holds them back, what must they overcome?
Hit reply with your tips and links. I’ll share them with Monstrim and your fellow RPT readers in an upcoming email.
Having Trouble With Problem Players? 10 Tips to Resolve Group Conflicts
From: Shelly Birger Phillips
Roleplaying games are amongst the most fun, rewarding and interesting experiences you can have. But, as in any group, the personal relationships and group dynamics affect whether you have a great time or a boring or upsetting experience.
Sometimes the other players at the table can be a real bummer. If you’re struggling to deal with a challenging member of your group who seems to be dragging the rest of you down, don’t worry, I’ve got your back.
By day as a relationship coach I don my cape and help people sort through the same issues we sometimes face at the game table. I’ve got a lot of experience with this. And when Johnn asked on Facebook for professional tips on group dynamics and handling problem players, I wanted to help.
So, here are my ten tips to step up your emotional game and turn your dilemma into a peak experience.
First things first, if you’re not having any fun, then nobody else will be either.
Consider the possibility your own unexpressed emotions might be showing up through other player’s behaviors.
For instance, if someone at the table seems irritated and annoyed, perhaps some part of you is also irritated and that emotion is being reflected back to you. On the flip side, if you’re having the time of your life, likely others will feel much the same way.
So the lesson here is, the more fun you can have, regardless of the circumstances, the more fun everyone at the table will have.
Wait a minute, did I just say “regardless of the circumstances”? Yes I did. Your ability to enjoy your life (and gaming) actually has nothing to do with the details of what you’re experiencing.
If you’re using the circumstances of your life as an excuse to be miserable, then just cut it out right now (I know, easier said than done). But admit it already, you’re awesome, your life is awesome, and there’s really nothing to complain about, now is there?
Have you ever noticed when you’re in a really good mood it can be almost impossible for someone else to ruin it for you? They might try that annoying pen clicking thing, or they start talking about how crappy the weather is, but you don’t care, you feel great.
Conversely, when we’re in a bad mood it doesn’t take much to send us off the deep end. The other day I just about ripped my husband’s head off when he told me the same old joke he tells every other day. It seemed like if I heard that joke one more time I would explode!
I know for certain that circumstances don’t really determine my emotional state, because the exact same thing can happen when I’m in a good mood and it doesn’t bother me. But if I’m in a bad mood I get upset.
The trick here is to learn how to feel good and enjoy life no matter what’s going on.
I used to hate doing dishes. Every single time there were dishes to do I used them as an excuse to get frustrated.
Then I read “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh, and there was a passage in there about how we can use dishes or red lights as a reason to be upset or as a reminder to enjoy the simple things in life.
Thich Nhat Hanh described the joy of the warm soapy water and the satisfaction of seeing a stack of newly cleaned dishes. After reading his account, I’ve never seen doing dishes in quite the same way. Now I love giving my hands a bubble bath and methodically and intentionally cleaning my dishes.
Living in a state of composure is much more art than science and it requires a strong sense of self. But, if you find yourself shouting, name-calling, or doing other things that remind you of junior high school, you’re not exactly setting a good example for the other players at the table.
If you want games to go smoothly, you have to set the tone and bring the other players back to center when they go astray.
Initially, that means learning to find your own “center” and remaining dispassionate about any arguments or conflicts that might arise.
Think of yourself as the wise guru, observing it all from your peaceful mountaintop retreat. But don’t let yourself disengage entirely. Your job as game master is to lead the group, and nobody can lead when they’re checked out.
No More “You” Statements
“You” statements are the quickest way to escalate an argument. If you want to amp things up, start flinging “you” statements around and watch everyone get uncomfortable fast.
If your objective is to create harmony within the group so you can have more fun at every game, then stick to “I” statements when tempers flare.
By sharing your own experience, you show you’re willing to be vulnerable and ask for what you want without blaming or shaming the other members of your group.
Sticking to “I” statements alone might not be enough to resolve the conflict, but it will help calm things down and you won’t be adding fuel to the fire. Check out the difference between these two statements:
“You’re such an attention hog! Can’t you let someone else talk for a change?”
“I’m feeling frustrated and I really want to hear what the other players have to say about this.”
Which one will escalate the argument? If you answered number one, you are correct! I think you will find the second statement will have a neutral or positive effect.
Remembering that everyone at the table is a unique and fascinating human being can completely shift previous feelings of frustration and irritation.
Sure, he’s hogging all the attention, but what if you began to wonder why he seems to need to steal the show. Is he uncomfortable with silence? Does he need an ego boost? Is this his only social outlet?
Or maybe she’s quiet and hardly ever contributes ideas. Instead of getting irritated, try getting curious. What is going on in there? How can we create more space for her to share her ideas? What might she need to be willing to speak up?
When we approach others with a genuine sense of curiosity, they naturally open up and share themselves more. No, you’re not doing group therapy, but discovering more about one another can solidify your group and help everyone have a deeper, more meaningful connection.
Set Clear Intentions
Have you ever been a part of a group that seems to have no leader and no clear intentions? In my experience, most groups like that fall apart pretty easily because there’s no cohesive objective the group agrees upon.
Get clear about your intentions at the beginning of each session to boost morale, ensure success and identify anyone who isn’t on board.
As game master, it’s your job to set these intentions yourself or elicit them from your group.
Why are you all gathered? What is your mission? What are your objectives? How will you know when you’ve had a successful game?
Get clear about this for yourself first, and then either hand down your decree or ask the other players for their input.
Shelly Birger Phillips loves her amazing life. She is a life, relationship and dating coach who is passionate about supporting you to have the most inspiring, joyful, and fulfilling life possible.
When she’s not coaching, she’s enjoying her daughter, loving up her husband, wrangling her two dogs, two cats and four chickens, blogging about parenting, or watching a sci fi movie.
You can email her any time at shelly(at)awakeparent.com
Comment from Johnn: Those are the first five of Shelly’s 10 tips. I’m compiling an ebook with everyone’s advice on handling problem players from the Reader Tip Request I made in RPT#554.
The ebook will include the rest of Shelly’s tips as well. I’ll email you when the ebook is ready for download!