Random Thursday: Dealing with problem players through good game play

Having run games now for thirty plus years, I often get asked about how to deal with problem players. Now I need to offer a definition here for what exactly I mean by problem players. These are not people causing a true disruption at the game table, impeding everyone else’s ability to have fun. No, those players are simply asked to either cease and desist with said activity to allow the group to continue or to leave. And no GM (or game host) should ever be afraid to do just that should the need arise (but that is an entire article of its own).

No, what I am defining here as problem player is the one that insist on running the game passive aggressively from the players side of the screen. This may be intentional or not, and there are a number of ways that it occurs. Chief among these is the rules lawyer that insist on quoting part and parcel this or that section of a rule book for any given situation the group finds themselves in, or any verdict or action the GM attempts to deliver. This type of problem player is rarely alone. Often he or she is accompanied by the meta-magician. This is the player that genuinely play their character but for fear of being misunderstood (for any number of reason that go far beyond the scope and will of this article) insists on explaining the reason for every eyebrow lift or smirk their character ever makes. Lastly (though not least and really not last, but this article does have to have a limit somewhere and this list could go on and on and on) we have the close cousin to the rules lawyer, the walking encyclopedia-gamerica. This is the person that knows the stats, activity cycle and bowel movement schedule for every creature the GM would ever find even in the dustiest of out of print tomes, thus yanking aside the veil and revealing the great and powerful mystery to be nothing more than a tin cup side show.

Are these the only problem players a GM may encounter? By no means. However they are those that occur regularly and can be a challenge for a GM (particularly a new one) to handle. Over the years I have found that direction confrontation with these types of players hardly yields significant results. As their disruptions are not truly game hampering, nor are they often performed with malicious intent. Rather they are simply formed from falling into the ruts of habit. So the most productive way I have found to deal with them is to retrain or redirect those habits through good game play. The trick to this is finding a system that allows for the offending player to fully embrace their crutch and then turns it on them in a way that is as equally un-malign as the players intent yet produces the positive results that enhance game play rather than distract from it.

So to this end I offer a couple systems to look at. First (and one of my favorites) Paranoia. This is a system tailor made to handle the problem player. As the GM you are given license to lay waste to the characters in the most creative manner possible without any malicious intent. Who doesn’t love the look on the meta-magicians face when they are given the mission to patch the hole in the reactor coolant tertiary storage and fizzy soda primary mixing vat that was damaged by some commie mutant traitor and after standing in line for six hours to turn in their repair supply requisition form in triplicate, are handed a toaster. The explanations and justifications for the disbelieving look begin to flow almost as quickly as friend computers summary execution laser canons.

Which quickly train on the rules lawyer as he exclaims that friend computer can’t do that and recites the page, paragraph and line of classified information. The barrels barely loose their warm glow when the encyclopedia gamerica almost instinctively divulges the statistical analysis of cannons output and how it should stack up to the standard issue trouble shooter vest, resulting in the trailing echoes of his voice whispering above the piles of ash as the cleanliness bots comes humming down the corridor to whisk away the ash to the reclaim vats.

After a six pack or two of righteous summary executions, generally accompanied by laughter and shared amusement, the message begins to sink in and before long, even the most stalwart of problematic meta gamers is yakking it up with the rest of the group. And all done through what these types of players understand the best…the hard edicts of the system. And this is where the gem lies of using systems like this to encourage / teach good game play. The system is doing the teaching, not the GM. The acts are not seen as those of a willful GM set to personalize an attack, rather it is the reaction of the system mechanics itself and thus a shared common root of understanding between these types of problem players.

If summary executions are not your taste, you can always try a game like Toon. Another oldie but a goodie to break the mold of old habits. You don’t have time to explain why your toon picked the acme rabbits foot up and tucked it behind his right ear when a freight train just materialized from the tunnel painted by your neighbor and is about to run you down. Though, depending on the depth of rules lawyer and degree of encyclopedia gamerica you have sitting at the table, their may be some weeping before the first session is done. In the end though, again the player will catch on and in short order a good time will be had by all.

Now is this likely to work whole scale for every problem player, no. But in my experience it has cracked a number of tough nuts over the years and has been far more productive than any attempt to lecture or brow beat the undesirable habits into submission.

Copyright 2014 John P. Hazen.

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One Response

  1. Michael Craig November 13, 2014