This gaming problem child can be a subset of the Mope or the Spotlight Hog: the Lone Wolf. The Lone Wolf is a gamer for whom the experience isn’t communal or cooperative; it’s their time to shine. This is the gamer that doesn’t play well with others, splits the party whenever he can, stabs his party-mates in the back, starts fights with other players, or is otherwise disruptive because it draws attention to them.

How do you handle the Lone Wolf? Depends on the nature of the creature. Is he actively disrupting the game with out-of-play comments, or taking actions in (or out) of game to annoy other players? Pull them aside at a break and explain to them that their behavior is unacceptable.

Do they keep splitting the party, then trying to keep the spotlight on them? You could go for the traditional hit them with more opposition than they can handle, but I like to keep the other players involved by having those players roll for the opposition. This can be a lot of fun for those not involved in the plot line to feel they are still involved in the social aspect of the game. (There’s also a lot of schadenfreude that can be enjoyed when that player rolls really well for the bad guys.)

Usually, the Lone Wolf isn’t going to hang in the game for too long, especially if they start noticing they are pissing off the rest of the group, or get called on their actions. But in the event they do, you may have to explain the concept of courtesy to them. In more extreme cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to show them the door.

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Ah, the mope…this is the player that just pulls the life out of the game. He might be the guy that sits in the corner, quietly waiting for the moment when they get to roll some dice, or they might be the guy that is actively involved in the game, but their attitude sucks — “My dice are fucking me!!!” “Man, this sucks! Why can’t we do X?”

I’ve had a couple of these over the years. One of the worst was the guy who min-maxed his character to alway be combat-inventors…they had zero social skills and would either not put in anything to the game or would make useless asides until it was their turn to roll some dice in combat. Every character was some version of this archetype.

Another was the guy with anxiety disorder who would get involved, but his personal discomfort was so palpable it made the other players uncomfortable. Few people enjoy being around someone obviously unhappy about being there. Similarly, another player was having some serious personal issues that provided him a palpable dark cloud of suck that followed him around. You could feel him moping, perfectly quiet, in another room.

The “my dice are fucking me!” guy was so scattered he couldn’t remember the basic mechanics of a game he’d been playing for two years. Worse, the above-mentioned moment was accompanied by him dropping to his knees in exasperation. It’s still one of the most memorable gaming moments for me in 30 years of playing. He was uncomfortable with the group, mostly due to some interpersonal dynamics going on.

The last example was a goth kid that spent the whole session in a light-hearted B-movie RPG playing the — you guessed it, gothy vampire kid with his killer ferret! Every action wasn’t just an attempt to hog attention, but to piss off the rest of the players. (We’ll probably see in him the next installment, as well…)

All these players have one thing in common — they are mopes. They tend to lurk in the room, obviously uninterested, uncomfortable, or otherwise miserable. There’s no real attempt to hide it, and their attitude can be infectious. Even when it is not, the fact people around them are having fun while they are not does not raise them up; they are more miserable than ever. So what do you do about the mope?

1) Find out what is bothering them, if it is something associated with the game, group, or another factor that the group and GM can address.

2) If it’s conflict with another member, perhaps it can be sorted out with a simple airing of differences on the side. The worst ones here, and guaranteed to eventually lead to the player dropping out, is if the conflict is between spouses or lovers. When a romantic relationship collapses between members, usually you lose both players. If there’s another player in the mix as well..? Oof!

3) If it has to do with the game, the setting, their character — these are easiest. Find out what will engage the player and try that. But there’s always the possibility that the player doesn’t want to play Mouse Guard. They joined to play Pathfinder, but everyone else after trying the former thought it would be fun to do that. Compromise. Rotate the games. Maybe split the group and have a second night (if feasible) and play one or the other.

4) Maybe it’s something that can’t really be addressed. The anxiety attack player had real issues that he was on meds for. He couldn’t eat around other people, so he never joined in the food. He wasn’t being rude — that he was there at all showed an interested. The personality just wasn’t especially convivial. Worse, he girlfriend was there…and was a spotlight hog, specifically, the wannabe actress type. They didn’t last too long. In this case, do what you can to accommodate the player. If there are special food needs, address them. If there’s a seating issue, try to cover that, as well. But you can only bend so far before you are inconveniencing the others in the group.

Ultimately, the goal should be to make people feel comfortable, and you should try to make that happen — but ultimately, this is a “needs of the many” situation, and if you cannot keep the mope from draining the life from the group, it might be necessary to ask them to leave. It’s never fun, and in a hobby that has a rarified population few want to lose a player of any kind, but sometimes it is necessary.

Can you think of ways that these respective examples (or others you could provide) might be addressed? Please share them in the comments.

This post was originally published as How to Manage No Shows, but fits quite nicely into the RPG Problem Child series:

I’ve been gaming for 30+ years and one thing you can be sure of:  people will not show up.  Sometimes it’s because they’re just not that interested, sometimes it’s a group dynamics thing…and sometimes (or often) life just gets in the way.  People graduate from high school or college and get jobs.  Jobs that have weird hours are the worst — if the player’s on a night shift, or works in the filnm industry…  They get or have a boy/girlfriend, or get married and now the significant other/spouse is dictating their time.  They have a kid — the ultimate time sink.

It’s rough for gamemasters to deal with people not showing.  Sometimes it’s just a nuisance, sometimes it feels like rejection.  The more work you put into the game, the more likely you are to be peeved with people dropping out for a week here, two weeks there, a couple of months at a time.  Remember, most of the time, it’s nothing personal.  If it is, dump the player.  It’s better to lose a player than to have personality conflicts at the table.  It’s fine for players to be at each other’s throats…not for the players to be.

There’s a few options you have to deal with no-shows, depending on why they’re happening.  If it’s because a friend or gamer is uninterested or busy with other things they’d rather do, simply back burner their character and press on with the understanding the invitation is always open, but they shouldn’t feel pressure to show up.

This can be difficult in campaigns that are more than a dungeon crawl.  Especially if you’ve worked them into the plot line and have to extricate them from the  main storylines.  It’s annoying when you’ve crafted an action or other scene that plays to their strengths — especially if it’s an important scene and no one else has the skills needed.

Now, say you’ve got that player off the main roster — you can give them the henchman, aide, native guide, character that is often in the background, but not necessary to plotlines to take over when they are present.  Another thing we like to do, if it’s just for a session every once in a while is let another player run the character.  It’s fun for the player, often, to give his/her spin on the character.  Or the GM simply bumps him/her into an NPC position and plays the character (often, I have other players roll for the various checks, but I run the character…)

Never just off a character because the player’s not showing up.  They will not appreciate it.  And you might lose a player permanently.

Some examples:  I had a player that worked in the film industry — he was either working all the time for three to ten weeks, or he’s dead broke.  Either way, about four months out of the year, he can’t afford to make it to the game, since he commutes an hour to get here.  No problem:  his characters were very important, but not in a position that they couldn’t be the force off stage (like ship commander, say), or the guy that goes missing in the jungle, only to reappear at a crucial moment in Hollow Earth Expedition.

Another was having trouble at home and needed to get out of the group for a few months.  No problem: we switched to another game until he came back, then picked up where we left off.  (I tend to rotate campaigns to keep things fresh, anyway.)

One player went to Scotland for a year:  her character was badly injured and has been in rehab therapy, only just getting better in the last played adventure.  She’ll be ready to go in a few weeks, when her player returns.

The best advice I can give:  never burn your bridges.  You never know if someone will hove back into your life a couple of decades later (as has happened with a few people), whether your girlfriend or boyfriend will dump them and they’ll be back, or if they get a schedule change.

Foremost, don’t just chose gamers…chose gamers that are friends.  Do things outside of gaming together when you can.  Friends last…and they usually show up. People there to “just game” are there for as long as the game is meeting their entertainment needs.

This player was a lot more common in the bad ol’ days of role playing, when the games were still mostly wargames with character rules bolted on. (It’s also one of the reasons why combat rules are usually a chapter long in modern games, but other skill rules fit in a page or two.) Knowing the rules gave you an edge over the dungeon master, with whom you had an adversarial relationship, rather than a cooperative one for telling a story — the DM spent his time coming up with ways to screw with you and your party; you tried to outsmart him. Knowing you got a +1 on a such-and-such test because of certain factors might make the difference between success and a TPK (total party kill, for those not playing D&D.)

The rules lawyer is still alive and well in gaming. Most of the ones I’ve run into are involved in the vampire LARPing scene, where the antagonistic relationship between characters and between the characters and the storyteller remain a central aspect of play. In modern tabletop games, the relationship between the game master/storyteller/dude who’s not a storyteller, but a facilitator for your gaming enjoyment (barf!) is more cooperative, and the rules usually reflect this by being much more minimalist or fluid. This isn’t the environment for a rules lawyering gamer to thrive…but there they are.

Often the rules lawyer now uses the rules to maximize his benefits at character creation, much like the min-maxer, but the rules lawyer focuses on mechanics that allow them to tweak the flow of play to their advantage. So they might take assets (or whatever they’re called in your favored system) like luck, where they can reroll a test, or something like Intuition in Cortex, where they can ask a question of the GM (usually a yes or no question) to skirt the plot.

In modern games where combat is more prevalent, the rules lawyer is much more effective. They know that a certain maneuver allows this benefit, they hang on the wording of a rule regarding social interaction, or how hacking “works”, and use that knowledge to browbeat the GM (or the group, if it’s a GM-less system) into ruling in their favor.

The rules lawyer was, in the past, much more of a nuisance than they tend to be now — but I admit I also don’t play stuff like D&D or Pathfinder where the benefit of lawyering might be more fruitful. In the early days of RPGs, the dungeon master was “god” in his world — and it was almost always a “he” — creating the setting, the adventure, managing the opposition to challenge the players. Rulebooks showed their wargaming past and were packed with minutiae on various tasks. It was hard to know it all well. Rules lawyers could leverage their knowledge of the rules to question the campaign’s architect. Now, it’s expected that the players will have some say in how the plot unfolds outside of succeeding or failing at a test. Plot/hero/story point mechanics allow them to “bribe” the GM to give them a certain result (and vice-versa), rules are less structured and important to the outcome of a scene (FATE can go so far as to go single test for combat with the player stating the preferred outcome), and gamemasters are more likely to working to help the players succeed than to kill their characters off. That makes rules lawyering much less necessary, or effective, than in early generation RPG mechanics.

So how to handle the rules lawyer? You can go with the time-honored “DM as campaign god” with your decisions as inviolate. Or you can set yourself up as a judge or referee, interpreting the rules to the situation — “I know it says the monster gets a -2 for the slippery surface it’s on, but the sheer size means that it doesn’t have to move around as much, so I’m not applying it…” Or you can give the rules lawyer a statute of limitations to argue their point and change the ruling and edit the story. You want to argue a rule that gives you that +1 you need to succeed in stopping the trap from springing? You’ve got a minute to find me the rule, or we move on with events. This gives the rules lawyer — who gets their enjoyment from that argumentation — time to have their fun, maybe have more of an effect on the play, but limits their ability to halt play over some point of procedure.

 

This is a variant of the “rules lawyer” we’ll get to in another post — the min-maxer is a particular problem in that the player really isn’t doing anything wrong, per se. They’re trying to tailor their character to their role, and this is admirable…but it can lead to narrative issues down the line.

One of the standard min-max techniques in Dungeons & Dragons is to pump a character up on their physical stats, but slight charisma, so that they are a survival monster, but something of a duffer in social environments. This is understandable when one considers that the stereotype of the gamer is a maladjusted type that can’t get a girlfriend. But that’s a stereotype…most of the gamers I’ve met are fully functioning human beings (but when the stereotype is in effect, whoo boy!) By slighting charisma, the players are doing a cost-benefit analysis, and erring on the side of being able to kick the crap out of the monsters and live…shmoozing at the tavern is not a priority.

This sort of cost-benefit design shows up in other settings, as well, and has the main side effect of making the character annoyingly good at some particular set of skills, often to the detriment of creating surprise, suspense, or a sense that failure is possible. A few examples:

One of my former group commonly would design their characters in our Victorian science game to be social and charisma masters. This made sense because 1) this was her fantasy, to be attractive, engaging, and sexy, and 2) it was the equivalent of maxing for social “combat” — the primary venue for a female character of the upper class in the setting. However, it meant that she would often run roughshod over NPCs of power and created connections that quickly put the character and her companions in a very rarified strata where they were essentially untouchable from a legal and political sense. To balance her out left other characters so outgunned that they were simply props in these social scenes. However, they would often flub rolls due to the higher difficulty this primary character created, and hence her friends would cause her trouble she would have to smooth over.

Another would be the detective who is uncannily good at sussing out the truth. The character was built with incredible analytical skills, intuition benefits that allowed them to make deductive leaps that made it very difficult — if they asked the right question — to disguise intent or guilt of NPCs they were investigating. This in itself isn’t too bad; you can find ways to adapt a good mystery by creating more layers of intrigue or guilt. However, he was also built with sixth sense skills, enhanced reflexes, all the sorts of things that make him the combat monster of the traditional sense. To challenge this character, I’ve had to either throw serious number of bad guys or very tough ones at him, or I have to come at the problem sideways such as giving him a problem he couldn’t dodge his way out of…and that’s the trick with a min-max character:

When you need to challenge them, one thing you can do is give them something outside their specialty to do. If you can split the party, give the bad ass with the low intelligence the riddle to solve. Give the thief a situation where they have to talk their way into a place to steal the object in question. (Shoulda put more than a 2 in charisma…shouldn’t ya, sport?)

Another is to play to their weaknesses. Most newer RPGs have some kind of weakness or trait system that either compels a response (usually for a reward) or or has a mechanic to adversely affect the character. So that tough guy is afraid of snakes, huh..? Shame to get to the McGuffin they need, he has to go through that room of dangerous asps. That thief is great in a building, working on locks and such, but never really got used to heights…and the way out, it’s through that 6th story window. Maybe that alcoholic pilot shouldn’t be drinking so much before an important dogfight.

The main thing I think a GM can do is to work with the players during character creation to decide exactly how far they want to push a certain trope. Sometimes, even in a campaign like a pulp game — where the characters are supposed to be over the top — you can go too far and have a character that “breaks” the game because they are just too much. (I actually designed a character like this for a player that seemed great on paper, but once in play just trashed the reality of the setting.)

This was an earlier piece that I’m including in this new group of essays on “problem kids” at the role playing game table:

We’ve all had some version this guy/gal in our groups. They get their moment in the spotlight during the session and just don’t seem to be able to let it go. Maybe they’re someone that every day is a “me day.” Maybe they don’t get to play often and just get overly-enthusiastic. Maybe they GM much of the time and are used to being the center of the group. (cough me cough) Maybe they’re the wannabe actor/tress for whom attention is the thing, more than the play. Maybe they just talk…a lot. (You can tell what spurred this post, can’t you?)

So how do you shut down the spotlight hog without hurting their feelings, being to obvious about it, or being a jerk? If you tend to be a hands-off GM, it’s going to be harder to move the action along than if you are a bit more active. For me, as a narative-type who likes to be involved more with the play than a simple “What do you do?” sort of GM, it’s a matter of engaging the player first, then shifting the focus of of them in a way that feels natural.

Example: The GIQ is doing a bit of expounding on the legal complexities of the adventure or mission the characters are on. It should be a simple bit of exposition, but the player (as well as the character) is a lawyer. And a bit long winded. Okay, knock off the “a bit”. He’s been on a roll for about five minutes, already, and has missed the queues from one of the other players — the equivalent of “Read you. Press on.” In the interest of advancing the plot and letting other characters get a bit of “scene time”, it’s time to step in as a GM.

At this point, I engage the player sort of like a director talking to an actor. Get into his mind space, or his emotional state with a few pointed questions. I’ve got his attention now. I shift the attention to the character he was talking about — how do you feel about this? What’s your perception of the information? Now the attention is on the other player and I can get the other players back in.

Now, I’ve found that 9 times out of 10, you’ve just fixed the problem. But sometimes GIQ is not going to want to relinquish the spotlight so easily. If you have successfully moved the attention — even for a moment — a simple upraised finger  (a “wait” finger) should do to keep that player sidelined long enough for the other players to get their say in for the scene, then return the spotlight to the player, or move on.

This is the gentle way to use social judo to take control of your game when necessary without coming off as a jerk.

Any other techniques out there?