Managing Problems and Players


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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Dead and Back Again

If you’ve followed my advice regarding the agency theory of fun, then character death is bound to happen sooner or later. As a gamemaster, I believe that when character death occurs, it’s your responsibility to introduce the player’s new character into the game as quickly and seamlessly as possible. In D&D, the classic way to handle this is to introduce the new character as a prisoner found left for dead in one of the next few rooms (often with a suspiciously similar class and name … ). It’s quick and it works.

But sometimes, when the surviving characters find the new player character, they decide not to let him into the party. What do you do as GM now? It will totally depend on the social dynamic of your campaign.

In a Collective campaign, you need to remind the players that the new character should expect to be admitted readily and probably given some gear and assistance to get into play swiftly. In most Collective campaigns, the players have created heroic, good-intentioned characters, so this is not too much of a stretch. But even if their characters are world-weary cynics with deep suspicions about the world, in a Collective game the players agreed to put the group ahead of the individual, and agreed that each player is entitled to participate, so the need to introduce and integrate their fellow player should trump the particulars of in-character behavior. If the majority of the players have a problem with this, then you probably don’t actually have a Collective campaign!

In a Competitive-Cooperative campaign, you need to remind the players that the new character should expect to be admitted, but probably not warmly; the player can expect his new character to get lots of in-character questioning or wisecracks and a “show me what you can do” attitude. Still, it should be a given that ultimately he’ll be admitted to the party and play will go on.

In a true Individualist campaign, you don’t need to do anything. Here the new character had better hope he’s been created with knowledge, skills, or other utility to his prospective comrades, as the players are not beholden by any social contract to be nice to him. It might turn out that the party refuses to take the new character along. In response, he might follow them to aid them and prove his worth by backstabbing them during their next fight! Of course, if they fear backstabbing, the characters might kill their erstwhile comrade.

That’s What My Character Would Do!

Imagine that a player’s old character has died, and a new character has been introduced into the group, as discussed above. Unbeknownst to his new party members, however, this new character is of a radically different alignment than his new comrades, and during the party’s next engagement, he ruthlessly betrays them, leading to the death of the entire party. “Why did you do that?” you ask. “That’s what my character would do!” says the traitor. What do you do as GM in this circumstance?

If this happens in a Collective campaign, then there’s been a violation of all of the implicit rules of the campaign. First, the player introduced a character who didn’t fit into the collective. Second, by purposefully getting everyone killed, the player didn’t respect the other players’ right to enjoy the game. And third, by purposefully causing the campaign to end, the player breached the agreement to democratically decide major campaign decisions. You should stop the game, pull the offending player aside, explain that his behavior is out of bounds for this campaign, and rewind. A continuously problematic player should be ejected.



If this happens in a Competitive-Collective campaign, there’s still been a violation of the social dynamic, because the player introduced a character who didn’t fit into the collective and because he purposefully caused the campaign to end unilaterally. That said, since this game is partly Competitive, and there’s a strong argument that you ought not intervene with GM fiat. I think the best way to handle this situation is to have a quick player vote – rewind events or let them stand.

If this happens in an Individualist campaign, then it’s possible that nothing wrong has happened. The party wasn’t required to take in the new player character, and characters aren’t required to be nice to each other. As GM, your responsibility is to remind the betrayed players that this is the sort of game they’re playing and they agreed not to get angry out of game. However, it’s also possible that the traitor has just gone out of his way to purposefully wreck the fun, not because of what his character would do, but to get back at the party that let him die. Resolving this can get complex!

My general rule when addressing the solution to the “TWMCWD” problem is that it doesn’t matter whether the problem behavior is “actually” what the character would do! It doesn’t matter whether the player is a consummate role-player playing a black-hearted villain, or just a jerk. All that should matter is whether it’s a problem.

In a Collective campaign, there’s an implicit agreement to create characters that are “one for all, all for one,” so if a player makes a character who is a sociopathic traitor, he has created the problem. If he purposefully chooses to role-play a jerk when everyone else has agreed to role-play nice people that means … he’s choosing to be a jerk. And the better he is at role-playing, the more of a jerk he chooses to be. If you’re running a Collective campaign, you don’t want jerks, whether they are actually jerks or pretending to be jerks.

On the other end of the spectrum, in an Individualist campaign, the players have implicitly agreed that it’s “every man for himself,” and that they won’t let treachery in game make them angry out of game. But if one player behaves in such a way as to make it impossible for the other players to not be angry, then he has created the problem. For instance, imagine that in the last six campaigns, a hypothetical player named Bob has always played a sociopathic thug who always tries to kill the party when they are weak. In the seventh campaign, the party members can hardly be blamed for murdering all of Bob’s characters on sight. Bob might be “in character” in his treachery, and the party members acting totally out of character in dispatching them, yet it’s Bob who is the problem.

Next Column – In Two Weeks!

Next column we’ll continue our exploration of social problems and pitfalls in role-playing games. Note that we’ve switched to a bi-weekly schedule for Check for Traps, so see you in a fortnight.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.


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