Problem Players Foiling Your Game? Two Tips For Handling Them

In a past article I talked about tech at the game table. In response, RPT GM Christopher G asks:

So you don’t find that the laptops (or cell phones – what my group seems glued to) cause lack of focus?

Or worse yet, using them to find meta-gaming info they shouldn’t have (or at least their characters shouldn’t)?

Does this reduce the “real estate” at the table for battlemaps, dice rolling room, etc?

Haven’t decided if this is a good thing or not. Your experience is appreciated.

There are two questions here.

Both are tricky territory and not the most fun RPG stuff to ponder before a weekend.

But the number one complaint I’ve received from GMs over the past 20 years is “I’ve got a problem player.”

Get this tricky stuff right now and your games will be much more fun for years to come.

Lack of Focus

First question Christopher raises is about player engagement.

I say meet players halfway by trying to make your sessions as engaging as possible.

This means reducing your GM Interaction Time, speeding up combats, spreading the spotlight around, doing regular check-ins with each player. Be a great referee.

It also means creating great adventures, developing characters, running entertaining NPCs, and bringing enthusiasm to the table. Be a great storyteller.

Players need to meet you halfway too, though.

For example, I get bored pretty fast as a player.

I remember one time I was ready to flip the table. We just got through a combat grind that went down to the last foe hit point.

As far as I could tell, the purpose of the fight was resource depletion. There was no mission, clock, or cool environment.

Resource depletion fights are ok if you make them fast. But when fights drag on, that’s not fun.

So we got through it. Healed. Moved on.

And guess what happened next?

Yup. Another resource depletion combat! The only thing that changed was the battlemap. Round obstacles that limited movement changed to caverns with side-tunnels that limited movement. So frustrating.

My point is, your players will have changing energy and engagement levels during the game. They need some outlet if they’re like me and can’t sit around bored or if they get socially fatigued fast.

Great players (which I’m not, alas, my butt is best kept behind the screen) will pitch in to help other players, foster teamwork, get the roleplaying going, and help the GM in small ways.

Some folks, like me, need to withdraw a bit into a rulebook or device.

If players seem tuned out, reach out to them through gameplay during the game and check in with them after the game.

It could be everything is ok — they’re charging up or waiting things out.

Respect

I had a conversation about this at work the other day. It’s important. Pretty much in all areas of life.

Communication and respect are both sides of a d2. Bad communication erodes respect. And vice versa.

I raised this exact issue in a previous Musing about GM cheating. Our games are not black and white. We need clarity with our players on what’s cheating and what isn’t.

As GM and defacto leader, it’s your responsibility to have this conversation. If you duck it, respect could degrade and many “problem player” moments roll in that could have been avoided.

For example, I consider blatant meta gaming and looking up “game master eyes only” information to be cheating.

But those are grey areas. Where are the lines? I bet when you ask players from different groups you’ll get different responses.

And when you get different responses can you see how conflict could rear its fire-breathing head? What you think is cheating is acceptable to Sandy but too lenient according to Terry. And Shannon and Jean are way far apart on their notions.

So roll that d2 and communicate about the house rules of what’s cheating and what’s disrespectful at the game table. Get group opinions, put in that emotional labour as facilitator, and record the consensus.

It’s ok if you have lines in the sand, too. It means if you can’t compromise then you and some players might need to game at different tables.

My Group

Here’s where my Murder Hobos group sits on some of these issues.

It’s ok to use tech at the table as long as you’re ready to play on your turn. For example, if you have to have the GM repeat what’s just happened because you weren’t paying attention I might skip your turn.

My players need their phones on for work and family. A couple have the rulebooks on their phones, too. And several pitch in on rules look-ups. Colin keeps an awesome player log on sessions. And Ian runs his whole character from a spreadsheet.

So tech is good with us. I use a laptop too.

We’re blessed with a large table, though. In smaller spaces we’d need to do away with the laptops.

My preference is to sit at a round or square table. They’re more collaborative. I have a large, long table with both leaves inserted. I choose to sit at one end because players can’t see my computer screen and I have more elbow room. I use a side table for books and stuff.

For GM secrets, I ask my players not to read the adventure I’m running when I’m not GMing a homebrew adventure. I ask them before I run an adventure if they’ve read it, played it, or GM’d it.

If anyone has already played my pick it’s not usually a big deal. I change stuff anyway. And I rarely run an actual full published adventure these days. Instead, I borrow parts and merge them with my campaign. But it’s great to communicate and find out this stuff before a session.

It’s ok if players read the Monster Manual. We’ve played D&D so often we have the critters memorized anyway.

Well, I don’t. But my players do. 🙂

Colin and others do a great job in reminding me when I’m forgetting a critical monster rule.

“Hey Johnn, I think nethercaps might be immune to fire. Can my character make an arcana check on that?”

That’s code for, “Johnn, you’re screwing the rules up again.” lol.

Now, some GMs might flip their table if players read the Monster Manual.

That’s why we need to chat about these things with our friends so everyone has 100% clarity.

Finally, campaign tone sets a lot of these expectations up for us. With Murder Hobos it’s a looser, beer and pretzels style of campaign.

Side chatter, jokes, and campy moves are ok.

Actually, last session my players asked me what tone I was going for in Season III. They said if I wanted more serious gameplay to let them know. (Thanks guys.)

So Christopher, to sum up:

  • Yes, tech can be rude and distracting. Talk with your players on what you find respectful and hear out your players on that same.
  • If you have limited real estate, all one needs for a great time is paper, dice, books, and friends. Question everything you put on a small table and whether it’s adding to your fun.
  • Meta gaming is worth another discussion. Everyone needs to agree on what the boundaries of meta gaming are and how to deal with it.

Remember, as GM you need to lead and facilitate. Be the roleplayer you want your players to be.

You can be firm on things you need players to follow. But keep an open mind for alternatives and compromise where possible.

We have many levers we can pull behind our screens. Changing monsters, tweaking adventures, building new things. Some meta gaming can be fixed by putting on your builder hat.

For the rest, be respectful, expect the same, and communicate with your group.