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Works in Progress

I could tell Player X didn’t like the plan. He’d been silent for awhile, and now he was asking a number of pointed questions. He had begun to ask who came up with the plan for the game in question, and knowing this player for the gruff sort of fellow he is, I could see it coming. His character would of course dismiss the whole idea, but would he also do insult the character who had come up with it? I’d seen this happen before, and I cringed.


It’s just a game, right?

That would be a common take on this sort of thing. It’s a role playing game. Whatever the player said, he would be saying in character, and he wouldn’t be saying it to a player. He’d be saying it character to character. So just let the whole thing roll!


The problem as I see it is this is just the sort of thing that’s hard to contain within the game setting. Whatever player character had come up with the plan in question within our storyline, a real person had actually come up with that plan and chosen to express it through that character. In-character, or not, any contempt shown to the plan could well have reflected back on the player. I’ve seen it happen before. One player says; “who came up with this idiotic plan?” and another player sitting there realizes he’s just been called an idiot, all in character of course, but the insult reaches right through the characters and into the room with the players sitting around the game table.

A lot depends on wording of course. If the player characters have well-established personalities, and/or if the terms of criticism clearly touch on those personalities (“hey elf, your pointy ears look stupid!” or “you dwarves are too fond of ale!”), then the insult is likely to stay in the game. It can even be quite fun to role play such conflict, but when the in-game features are thin (when the plan is a real attempt to solve a problem in game and the criticism is coming from a player who clearly doesn’t like that plan), the conflict won’t likely be contained in the game itself. The result can be an argument, or it can be an uncomfortable player. These things can blow up, or they can fester.

They can also be the reason one or more players find something else to do next week.

Luckily, the insult didn’t happen.


This kind of problem interests me for two reasons:

  1. As the host of an RPG campaign, I am often faced with these little moments of social brinksmanship, and I feel a certain sense of responsibility for containing the carnage, so to speak.
  2.  It strikes me as an interesting example of a larger social phenomenon, namely, the tendency for some stories to skip out of their own narrative frame and into the social context in which they are told.

It’s the second of these themes that has me writing about the matter now. There are of course much more serious examples of the sort of problem I mention her, but this kind of thing happens a lot in Pen&Paper games. So, it’s not a terrible idea, I think, to meditate on this relatively light-stakes example of that problem a bit.

The activities in a pen&paper role playing game involve at least two very different contexts, one is an imagined context in which characters interact with each other in an imaginary world. The other is the game table around which actual people sit, devour snacks and narrate the actions of their own characters in response to challenges posed by the game master. Significantly, these actual players must cooperate to some degree in the construction of the imaginary world within which their character must operate. Even players choosing to role-play conflict must cooperate to understand the terms of the conflict and the potential means of playing it out. They don’t have to share exact interpretations of the imaginary world, but it does help if they share some understanding of the social rules by which their characters operate (and at the very least the mechanics by which the game will determine what happens when character A tries to punch character B in the nose). It is of course all supposed to be in good fun (at least at my games); everyone is supposed to enjoy themselves, even if their characters don’t.

In the example presented above, the imaginary interactions of a group of characters threatened to produce implications that stretched beyond the table and into the real world interactions. It’s not a hanging matter, no, but I did see real potential for one or more players to come away with a bad experience. Significantly, this problem was at least partly a question of contextualization. The metalinguistic framework which made it possible to understand the actions of one player in terms of the game world grew a bit too thin for my comfort. I’ve seen that framework break down entirely. If you’ve played pen&paper RPGs for long, you have too. It happens all the time.


Other examples?

Focus: scene -setting. I once had a pair of players who insisted on focusing on something other than my own narrative just about every time. If I asked them to set the characters up in a marching order, they began asking questions about the politics of the city we were headed to, how to build their characters, etc. If I introduced them to an non-player character interested in talking to them, they interrupted me to set up a marching order. If I told them no marching order was necessary, they focused on it anyway. Eventually, I realized that no matter what I was telling them, these two insisted upon talking about something else. The other players at the table were beyond frustrated, and so was I. We could not attain any kind of immersion into the story-line, because the narrative was constantly subject to pointless interruption. It was like trying to talk to someone on a static line.

It’s not that their questions were bad; it’s just that each question asked was consistently asked at the least appropriate time for doing so. In time, I came to see this as a control issue. Neither of these players were willing to let someone else take the lead. (Significantly, neither would let anyone else get the last word on anything, least of all each other), and preventing me from gaining any momentum when setting the stage served the same purpose. Simply put, neither of these players was willing to cooperate sufficiently to achieve a common narrative framework. I didn’t have a solution for this then, and I don’t now, except to game with someone else.

Which is what I do.

Killing Your Fellow PCs: Whenever a player character kills another player character, the chances that this will be taken personally grow rather high. That should be obvious, but I am amazed at the number of players who will swear that isn’t the case, or at least that it shouldn’t be. It is extraordinarily common to find players defending such actions by saying; “that’s what my character would do” or “my character is evil/selfish/greedy/etc.” …which of course begs the question; why did you role up a bastard in the first place? Simply put, this kind of thing isn’t an in-game problem; it’s an out-of-game problem. When you kill another player’s character, you are (at the very least) bringing to an end, a story-line into which that player has invested time and energy. There may be contexts in which that works out just fine, but most of the time, it just means that you as a player have placed your own fun above that of another.

Increasingly, I find myself saying to the players; “You can role-up any character you like, but please find a reason to cooperate with the others.” If you can find a way for your otherwise-evil character to bond or at least work with with their companions, then fantastic. If you can’t, then please come up with another concept.

Separating from the Group: Some players take great joy in sending their characters off on their own. A few minutes of side story is no big deal. It can even be fun, providing the player (and the GM) remembers that the sideline is a sideline and the character will eventually have to rejoin the others. When a player just keeps doing this, I will eventually stop coming up with reasons to get them back with the rest of the group.

The story-line goes this direction. Either bring your character back, roll-up a new character, or find another campaign.

Generic Disruptions: Along the same lines as the characters who wander off, some characters just keep generating pointless conflict. They pick fights with NPCs while the group is trying to keep a low-profile, steal things from others, knowing it will lead to retaliation, burn bridges with helpful allies, etc. There is a school of thought that says ‘let the players do what they like’ and some campaigns facilitate this nicely, but it doesn’t work well with a pointed plot. If the point of the campaign is to defeat the evil bad guy, save the princess, or find the Magic MacGuffin, then each such sub-plot grows increasingly more irritating. These sorts of disruptions really pose much the same problem as the decision to separate from the group, except the problem isn’t an imagined physical space; it’s a sub-plot that will suck up time and energy at the expense of the larger narrative.

Why not just let the player characters do as they like? Because each such diversion is in effect a competing story-line. Imagine what this would seem like in a movie or a novel! One or two side-stories adds a little extra flavor to the story and fleshes out characters. Too many such subplots breaks up the main story-line and increases the odds that you’ll replace the movie with an old episode of The Tic or leave the bookmark right there on page 32 of your book until your grand-kids find it in the attic and end up throwing it away because it bores the Hell out of them too. More to the point, players who consistently generate such side-conflicts are effectively competing with the GM (and the rest of the group) over the story-line for the campaign. Why that is happening is another question. What to do about it is another still. The important thing is to realize that it’s not really an in-game problem. It is a form of inter-player conflict, not a quirk of any given character.

Bully-Characters: I once told a player his character had spent an entire hour (measured in real time) giving another crap about a failed action. He was shocked. He was even more shocked to find out I had timed him on the matter. The player said he could have sworn he had only spent a few minutes on it. I assured him that he had invested over an hour into the process of badgering the other player’s character.

My point was actually that the player had taken to causing his own character to bully that of the other player endlessly all the way through just about every game session. This could perhaps have been contained within the game setting, but the player doing the bullying often made some comments out of character as well, and he never let up, nor did he allow the second player ever to come out on top of the conflict.  Once again, the rationale was “that’s the way my character would behave,” and once again I rejected that explanation. When a player character consistently pushes another player character around, there is a point at which it will be frustrating for the second player. In my experience, a player who does this, does so for a reason, and that reason is NOT contained within the framework of the game world.

Fuzzy Rules and In-Character Conflict: If players turn their actual characters on each other, it really helps if the rules are clear at that point. Unfortunately, most of the time players do this they begin by grappling each other, and grappling rules in RPGs are usually a little wonky. The result can often be counter-intuitive. So, when player A says “I grab player B by the balls and squeeze”, the specific mechanics for resolving this are often less helpful than if the player had just said; “I shoot him in the head.” When player B decides to fight back, it gets uglier still. A GM can finesse ambiguities much more easily when players are fighting non-player characters. When two players go against each other, any benefit of the doubt given to one becomes a slight against the other player character player.

…and the resulting hard feelings are rarely contained on the table.

It’s tempting to look for a solution by improving game mechanics or at least revising the mechanics you have at hand to be as clear as possible while adjudicating the fight. In most cases, though, I find myself asking the players to simply stop.

GNR? I think you could treat the old distinction between gamism, simulation, and narrative playing styles as an example of this sort of problem. Where one player wants to tell a good story, another really wants to see if he can build the best tank possible under the rules, and another may really want to see what a particular setting would look like in this or that particular game system. I somehow doubt that account would pass muster at The Forge, but I’m not interested in debating the ins and outs of this old theory. Suffice to say, that I think the kind of differences Rod Edwards and company talked about could be looked at as factors contributing to the breakdown of an in-game framework. Whether or not they constitute an exhaustive, or even a robust, theory of the many ways a game breaks down is another question.


Okay, so that’s the end of a long-winded rant about role playing games. Writing these points out as I have, I am struck by how obvious the points might seem, almost as if they are not worth saying. And yet, I am also struck by how often players seem to overlook these kinds of problems, or more to the point, how often they insist on trying to understand these problems within the context the game world. Players who consistently disrupt a campaign will often insist on in-character explanations for their own behavior, and GMs often try to come up with in-game solutions. Yet, that behavior will persist from one character to next and even from one campaign to the next. In my experience, the same player whose character consistently disrupted the last campaign will do the same in the next. It is a game of course, but there are real people playing it, and sometimes what’s done in the game really is about the people around the game table.