I spend a wee bit of time on the RPG sub/Reddit these days, and I love a lot of what gets posted on there. Something that turns up every couple of days though – usually after the last one drops from the front page and into the ether- is someone talking about a problem player in their group. What I’m offering may not work for everyone, but sums up a good 95% of the problems that seem to affect people around a table. Simply put, player ‘A’ is not playing the same as players B through F, and this is causing problems in the group. Are they playing the game wrong though?
That’s a big problem when talking about any game; is there ever a ‘right’ way to play it? I’ve seen a couple of posts discuss this is in the past, and most come to the simple conclusion that there is no wrong fun. I actually agree with this, and if you’re interested I wrote a little piece about why I wouldn’t want to be the Gm for the Three Musketeers. Did I think that they were playing the ‘game’ incorrectly? Absolutely not. For the time period, setting and genre of the piece, they were behaving exactly as they should do. And in all honesty, I’ve played games with similar set-ups, and had a bloody good laugh swashing my buckles with the best of them. But as a GM, it wouldn’t be my cup of tea to run that kind of game. This is a personal choice, and not a judgement on people or the way they play. I know as absolute fact that not everyone likes the style of games I run, and have seen someone lose interest so quickly it was scary.
The thing is, if you’re running a game for the group, or playing as part of one, the group as whole should be what decides how the game works. Lets go back to our original problem of player ‘A’. Imagine him (yes, I’m using the male pronoun. This is simply for personal ease, as I’m a bloke, and as such find it easier to think like one) as a player who loves the thrill of an investigative game. He will spend hours poring over facts and clues, and won’t enter into a risky situation unless he has a few contingency plans, and knows almost exactly what to expect. The rest of the group however, bare a much closer resemblance to Athos and co. They’re always flying the face of danger, taking huge risks, and putting plans into action after a few minutes discussion over beers, with the most pertinent point being ‘who gets to look the coolest during this plan’.
There is nothing wrong with either of these play styles, and I’ve enjoyed both, as a player, and even – on occasion – as a GM. But after a couple of session, player ‘A’ is getting fed up. He never wants to throw his character into the same situations as the others, so often volunteers to be the look-out. Since a lot of the game drops regularly into combat rounds, he spends most of his time sat twiddling his thumbs, playing on his mobile, or doodling. The rest of the players try to include him, but soon get frustrated and take his desire to remain safe and sound as an unwillingness to engage with the group, and start to think of him as being useless, if not an actual inconvenience. After all, get a different player in who likes the same kind of fun, and there’s another character to help in a fight instead of sitting it out.
As a GM, you should be able to spot this happening, and the sensible thing to do is approach the lone player first and find out what the problem is. There could be any number of other factors that the above example hasn’t even touched on. Things that happen away from the table can often impact what happens around it. If there is something that can be done, then as a GM, you should make some effort to do it. The more likely problem will be that they just don’t like the way the game is being played though.
This is a bigger problem to deal with. You don’t want to change everything so that one player has fun while the others sit bored; that will only exacerbate the problem. You could try to include some elements of game play that better suit the expectations of player ‘A’, but be wary of going too far down this route. The other players may have no interest in such activities, and you could end up with a near permanent group split, as player ‘A’ deals with the investigation side, and the rest get into fights. I don’t know about you, but I try my best to keep party splits to a minimum, as they can end up with one or more players spending a good chunk of game night with nothing to do. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave too many other options, and the most effective can be the hardest to convince yourself to take.
Sometimes you have to realise that players can end up in the wrong groups. If you’ve tried talking to them, seeing if there’s any solution that won’t involve changing the nature of the game – or how the majority of players enjoy it – then it might be time to bite the bullet, and sit down with player ‘A’. This won’t be an easy conservation, and you have to be mature in the way you handle it, even if player ‘A’ isn’t. Don’t disparage their way of playing the game, tell them that during other games, you’d love to get more under the skin of the adventure and see what’s what. But for this game, you have to concede that the majority of players want to not think too much, and throw themselves into the action. That being said, as a GM, you can’t change the whole game to suit one player, and if they’re not having fun, it could be time for them to drop out of the group. You don’t even have to make it a permanent thing, but they need to understand that other groups exist who want to play the same way they do, and will find their methods far more fun than kicking in the door and seeing what happens.
As I say, not a fun conversation, and please, if you follow my advice, remember to include all the steps leading up that conversation first. But if a group isn’t working, then sometimes the only option is to fix the group. As always share your thoughts below, even if you massively disagree with anything I’ve said. I invite all manner of feedback, and look forward to a debate. Of course, if you do agree, and have had to resort to this course of action yourself, I would love to hear from you too, and how it all went down.