Check for Traps
Managing Problems and Players

Alexander Macris | 31 Aug 2010 17:00
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Last column we finished up our exploration of world-building and it's time to step away from the world of your imagination and turn to a messier world: The world of problem players, personality conflicts, and social pitfalls.

If you start running role-playing games, you will, sooner rather than later, see a shouting match develop. It could be between you and one of your players; more likely it will be between two players. If you're lucky, it'll be at least thinly-veiled as in character; if you're not lucky, it will involve a messy break-up when he cheated on her with the elf paladin, or worse. Role-playing games can be emotionally charged, and unlike videogames, there isn't the filter of a monitor and gamepad between us and the other player. What happens is in your face. As the judge of the game, you'll be the person who assembled the group, and one of the signs of a great gamemaster is the ability to manage and control social problems within the group you've assembled. Even better is to prevent them from ever occurring.

Social Dynamics

Many, if not all, problems in role-playing game campaigns arise when one or more of the players is out of step with the overall social dynamic of the rest of the players. I have seen three basic social dynamics in which players interact in a tabletop campaign: Collective, Competitive-Collective, and Individualist. Each of these social styles has its own implicit rules that govern how the players behave towards each other.

The Collective play style is characterized by a "one for all, all for one" mentality. Each of the players subsumes his individual play into the greater good of the campaign. In a Collective campaign, the implicit rules are: (1) Each player will create a character that fits into and gets along well with the collective; (2) each player is entitled to a chance to enjoy the campaign simply by virtue of being a fellow player; and (3) the collective as a whole will democratically make major campaign decisions, and all the players will abide by them.

The Competitive-Collective play style might be summarized as "we're in this together, but I don't have to like it." In the Competitive-Collective campaign, the group has implicitly agreed to the following: (1) No player will create a character that cannot fit into the collective, though they needn't be friendly to each other; (2) no player is entitled to enjoy the campaign except by virtue of his character; and (3) the collective as a whole will democratically make major campaign decisions, and all the players will abide by them.

The Individualist play style might be summarized as "all against all" or "every man for himself." Here the implicit rules are: (1) Each player makes his own character and decisions and accepts the consequences; (2) no player will get angry out of game at another player for actions of their respective characters; and (3) major campaign decisions will be made based solely on what the characters decide in the game.

Sometimes the social dynamic simply evolves out of a particular rules set or campaign theme, or out of years of playing with the same group. Other times the group agrees in advance. Opinions will vary widely as to which of these social dynamics is the best. I have played with all of them at various times and it can put an interesting spin to try the same game different ways. Cyberpunk 2020 with an Individualist style is a game of treachery and betrayal; the same rules set with a Collective style is a game of a band of brothers in a dark world.

Regardless of what your group's social dynamic ends up being, social problems occur when part of the group is out of synch with the whole. What follows are some common examples of problems.

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