This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Why not do an article about player styles and how to incorporate them into one’s game? Making the game fun for everyone is one of the greatest challenges facing many DMs. Just don't do anything foolish and classify disruptive behaviors as a player style. Being a jackass on purpose and intentional playing a depressed loner that has no interest in adventuring with a group just causes problems and shows disrespect for everyone else at the table. Including the DM. You could write a few articles on how to deal with disruptive players. Such as: cheaters, jackasses, and sleepers. -- On_the_wings_of_TPK, from Wizards message boards
Player styles is a question that every DM has to face, and one that has been dealt with in various forms in Dragon Magazine articles or (somewhat more humorously) on the web or in Knights of the Dinner Table. There are as many gaming styles (or gamer stereotypes) as there are gamers, but we all know the basics. Rules Lawyer. Powergamer. Real Roleplayer. Frustrated Artiste. Whiny Munchkin. Mr. Just Happy To Be Here.
That’s a worthy topic, but your second issue is a more urgent one, dealing with problematic or disruptive players. Dealing with player behavior is infinitely trickier than dealing with character behavior. As the DM, you are ultimately in control of what happens with the characters and what they can do, but you don’t have that kind of final say over what the people sitting around the table are going to do. That’s why DMing is about far more than knowing the rules and having (or making) the free time to bring to life a fantasy world. It also requires people skills, because you are as much a manager and a coach as you are a storyteller and a referee. And part of being a manager is knowing how and when to interfere when someone has (or is) a problem.
1. The sleeper
I’m assuming we’re not talking about someone who nods off when the game runs until 2:00 AM because of that mega-battle and an hour has passed since his last turn. For someone who regularly is checked out, the first rule -- as always -- is to just talk to the person. Find out what’s going on in their non-gaming life that makes them so sleepy. Maybe they need a break from the game until their work or school schedule calms down so they can get some shuteye at home. Then again, maybe your game is boring them to sleep, whether from being too complicated or too simple or too repetitive or whatever. They might need a new game. They might be having a good time just getting together with friends for as long as they can keep their eyes open, and are happy with that. The question is whether everyone else is happy too.
A sleeper (and yes, I’ve had one) is hard to deal with as a ‘problem’ because they usually don’t cause much disruption, unless the other players start playing pranks on him while he’s out cold or unless he snores like a buzzsaw. Usually just calling their name or a poke in the ribs is enough to rouse a sleeper and get them back in the game, but it can get annoying for you as a DM to keep waking them up and recapping what’s going on so they can take their turn. Maybe you could keep some coffee, Mountain Dew, or No-Doz on hand, or suggest the sleepyhead do the same just out of general respect for the group. Still, a sleeper is usually a situational thing rather than a chronic problem, and one that’s not such a big deal.
Producer’s Note: Of all the roles, I admittedly fall into this category. The catch -- as I justify it -- is that different players have different gaming stamina; while some players prefer all-night sessions -- and the later the better! -- others hit a wall after a certain time. Part of the solution as a DM may simply be to recognize these differences and plan accordingly: When you see some of your players hitting the wall in terms of their attention, you may want to call a break or even call it a night… at least for them. If other players are interested in continuing, you might plan a side trek or two for them to extend the session. Or, try having them switch to a secondary set of characters, working on a different set of goals relative to the same campaign.
2. The cheater
Okay, everyone has fudged a die roll now and then, and DMs do it twice as much as any player. No big deal. What creates a problem attitude is when we’re talking about a habitual cheater. This goes beyond rules-lawyering, although a good rules lawyer may be able to bamboozle you into letting something slide that shouldn’t be technically allowable, unless you can beat them at an opposed Knowledge (rules) or Profession (rules lawyer) skill check. The first step in dealing with a cheater of any stripe, but especially this kind, is to make sure that you have a firm grasp of the rules of the game. If things sound like they don’t add up, you can call for an audit at any time, so a player can justify how it is their attack rolls or saves are always so high.
As a side note, if a player whips out some obscure supplement you’ve never read, draw the line at rule zero; I don’t care if Wizards of the Coast published it. If you haven’t read it and said it’s in play for your campaign, then they can forget it. If your player wants you to look at it in between gaming sessions and ask if you’ll use or allow a new rule, you can talk about it, but no fair trying to blindside the DM.
As for players rerolling their dice rolls, make sure everything is rolled on the table, where everyone can see it. As a DM, I usually roll my stuff out on the table, even though I don’t have to; it sets a good example. Players who say they prerolled a whole list of rolls and they’re just going to use them in order as you call for them should be laughed out of the room. I won’t even go into loaded dice, because hopefully even the most cheaterous gamer would have enough self-respect not to stoop to that.
Just like in the real world, the most insidious cheats are buried in accounting: e.g., players who ‘forget’ to mark off hit points when they’re injured, or neglect to keep track of charges used from magic items, or gp or XP spent on item creation or purchases. It’s basically impossible for you to keep track of everything that every character has and its current status, so you really have to trust your players to be honest about it. At lower levels or in a low magic campaign it may be easier for you to keep track of things like that, or if you have a laptop with a spreadsheet for all your characters, you could do the accounting for them, but that seems like a whole lot of extra work you shouldn’t have to do. If you think someone is taking advantage, you may check their character sheet and do a short-term personal accounting for that character to keep track of what they use or hit points or whatever, then re-audit it later to see whether the numbers add up.
3. The jerk
Nothing is more annoying than a player who writes CN on his character sheet and takes that as his birthright to be a complete pain in the butt for everyone else at the table. Every annoying, childish, idiotic, selfish, and obnoxious thing they do is supposedly covered by saying, “Hey, I’m just playing my character!” One of the amusing moments in the live-action Scooby-Doo movie is when the Scooby gang gets sick and tired of the idiotic Scrappy-Doo, and dump him off on the side of the road. That’s what happens to people who are traveling together and one person alienates everyone around him. They get left behind.
Adventuring with a group is a privilege, not a right. Sure, there are lots of examples of heroes in fantasy and sci-fi that are abrasive, obnoxious, and antisocial. But curiously enough, most of them are lone wolves, out on their own. They work by themselves because no one can stand to work with them, unless thrown together on a temporary basis for some emergency or other. Once the emergency is over, they go back to being by themselves or they change their attitudes and learn how to get along with the group.
In an RPG, characters out for themselves endanger the group and lessen the group’s chances of success. Even if they betray the enemy and eventually achieve some goal the party had, if they do that by first betraying the party (like Raistlin, for example), their companions have to deal with that betrayal and its effects. Similarly, a player who puts his own petty amusement and juvenile antics above the opportunity for other people at the table to have a good time is being disrespectful to the rest of the group at best and a couple of unprintable expletives at worst. They may still achieve the goals they have as a group, but they have to deal with all manner of aggravation from the Jerk to get there. D&D is a game. Having to deal with a Jerk in the party/group makes it more like work, like you have to stretch and strain to squeeze the fun out instead of it just being there.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s perfectly okay to be sarcastic and say obnoxious things once in a while, and even to have that as a part of your character’s personality, or even for a character to dramatically betray the party. Like any other player problem, these things become a problem when they happen all the time! Moderation is the key, and knowing when to dial it back is what separates an amusing quirk from a game-wrecking jerkitude.
Of course, none of this really addresses the problem of what you do with a problem player. Sometimes the problem is just a passing thing, a player tired or in a sour mood or stressed out from work, and it will work itself out, so the first course is to try waiting it out and seeing if it will go away. If tolerance doesn’t work, the next step is pointing out the problem, in private, DM to player. By that time, you’ve probably had complaints from other players, but you can summarize and suggest the player work on toning down their bad habit. Other players may talk with the problem player on their own, but you are the filter for concerns brought to the group. If the problem persists even after it’s been pointed out, then your gaming group is going to have to sit down and decide, as a group, what to do about it. Has the problem become severe enough that people are thinking of quitting the group over it? If so, who stays and who goes? Will you split your gaming group because some just can’t play nice with others? Hopefully it won’t come to that, be prepared that there may be no way to resolve things without hard feelings.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.