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!
Problem: Secrecy and Favoritism
I play in a group who play every Sunday religiously, and there is one player who always has to sit next to the DM. The two of them pass notes and whisper back and forth throughout the game. The player knows the game better and it seems the DM asks him for help all the time, which is harmless in itself. But this player is a rules lawyer and a power gamer all in one. To make things worse, the story and play revolve around this player and the odds always fall in his favor (this is consecutive with every character he plays in the group).
How should the rest of the group handle this player/character and how can we approach the DM without our characters getting killed (he wouldn't actually do that)?
-- Matt, AskWizards.com
Well, Sunday is a good day on which to do something religiously, but it seems that you have an unholy alliance brewing at your table of gaming communion. The biggest difficulty you face is that, as you point out, individual pieces of the puzzle are not problems by themselves. You're in a game where
- one player is a power-gaming rules lawyer;
- one player is an expert on the rules who shares his knowledge with the DM when needed;
- the campaign seems to revolve around one character;
- one character seems unusually lucky;
- players pass notes back and forth with the DM;
Individually, none of these is a big problem. But when all of these situations apply to the same player, and it's the same player who reaps all the benefit, then the pattern has corrupted the game.
When a knowledgeable player offers rules advice, it's only natural for a struggling DM to be grateful. When a player proposes an interesting, fresh, or stimulating idea for the campaign, it's only natural for other players to get energized by it -- "Hey, Scovel has a great idea! Let's do it!" A campaign should have a clear, exciting goal.
The problem occurs when all the game and story bonuses fall on a single character, and everyone else quietly acquiesces to just 'go along for the ride'. It's a problem because some of that quiet might not really be acquiescence -- it might just be silent resignation to a situation that people don't really like, but they're not sure how to voice their displeasure without sounding rude or selfish.
Some people play their characters with the goal of becoming powerful and influential. The combination of the player's own outgoing personality and drive to pursue their own interests rolls over more easygoing (or less confident) players, who find it easier to go along than to move along (by either objecting to the status quo or finding another game). The result is a campaign that bogs down or becomes lifeless because only one or two players feel invested in it.
Adventures become focused around the character who took the reins. Successful completion benefits that character more than others, perhaps in simple material terms (wealth and xp) but more clearly in the intangible benefits of adventuring -- fame, success, and a sense of accomplishment. If one player is usually the driving force for the party of characters, that player may become used to others deferring to him. The frustrating part for everyone is that the other players may have no real vision for what they want to do. All they know is that they're tired of doing "whatever Scovel wants to do." Scovel's player is frustrated because no one else is stepping forward, so why are they complaining when he at least is doing something. The problem may be that this player doesn't offer enough 'wait time' before declaring his latest, brilliant plan for anyone else to offer anything, but each player is also responsible for being assertive and taking the initiative, If they are just along for the ride, they have no basis for complaining about where they wind up.
Really, though, that's not the main issue. The conflict here is purely metagame. Any DM who punishes characters because their players call him on his BS should be forced to do the Dance of a Thousand Four-Siders! For shame! Your concern is a real one, rather like trying to call out a teacher who holds your grades hostage or an incompetent boss who evaluates your performance. The whistleblower always fears reprisal, and often with good reason. But if the game has become sick, someone has to stand up and say so or it will continue limping along as a shadow of what it should be.
One solution is to eliminate the player/DM co-dependency. If they are going to act like co-DMs, then they should be co-DMs. If your rules expert wants to run the show, he should drop the charade and get behind the screen. Part of me would say something similar to the DM. If he's so uncertain of the rules that he needs to constantly refer (and defer) to someone else, then perhaps he needs a little more experience with the game before taking up the DMing job. Admittedly, DMing is a tough job, and on many levels there is no way to do it but to do it. From that angle, there is no great sin in taking advantage of a helpful resource as you learn the ropes. The problem is the pattern. Your DM apparently never seems to learn the ropes enough to run the game without someone holding his hand. On top of that, he seemingly always defers to one player as the resident expert rather than opening the floor generally to player advice.
You should not just toss out accusations. Document what you perceive to be favoritism, how often it comes up, and how often it seems to favor just one person. That's how you demonstrate the pattern, and that's what this problem is. It's similar to backing up a harassment claim. Anyone can say almost anything to almost anyone once (with obvious exceptions), but to prove that a hostile environment exists, you need to demonstrate that it was not just an isolated incident. It sounds as if you have all the evidence you need, but don't rely on memory alone. Write it down. Write out your issues. Suggest that others with a similar complaint do the same. That way, it's not just a "he said/she said" situation but a demonstration that most of the group is seeing it differently from the DM and favored player. It is possible (however unlikely) that the DM and/or the problem player honestly don't see what they're doing, but if all the other players do see it, then perception equals reality.
I have focused on denial because that is the first and hardest stage to get past. Like the Alcoholics Anonymous people say, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. It is only after that point that you can get help. Help here involves you as players requiring the DM to stand on his own two feet and run the game -- let the chips fall where they may. The training wheels need to come off. The DM needs to make his own calls and go with it. Don't try to overcorrect, especially on minute points. If there are issues about rules, deal with them between sessions, not during. Freeing the DM from a feeling of being micromanaged by a bunch of backseat drivers -- and showing that you trust him and are willing to accept his rulings -- will give him the confidence to run the game and develop his own style and skills instead of just trailing along in someone else's shadow.
The note-passing is another behavior that, while it can be completely innocent or even a useful tool, has become another problem so that any note between the DM and the problem player is automatically suspect. The player says, "Unfair, this note is legit!" That may be true, but it doesn't matter. The game has developed an unhealthy climate because of the relationship between one player and the DM. To repair that, an extra layer of separation needs to be in place. If you want to be fair about it, outlaw note-passing at the table entirely rather than legislating against only one player. You are cultivating an atmosphere of openness in your gaming group. If that means changing your play style a bit, that's the price you pay.
Next time, we will continue the discussion of how players can deal with a power gamer in their midst and what it can do to your game.
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.