Sunday, March 4, 2012

Handling Difficult Players

Everyone finds dungeon mastering hard, especially at the beginning.  The game itself is terribly complicated; the level of creativity required carries the same doubts and inadequacies any artist has; and inherent are all the difficulties a new manager faces when promoted over his or her friends.

I think it is probably easiest on the young.  At fifteen, an individual isn't nearly as introspective or doubtful as they are at 25.  At fifteen, one is more likely to take on the task out of sheer stubbornness, with little or no concern at the prospect of 'managing' friends, or concerns about 'screwing up.'   At fifteen, screwing up gets to be a lifestyle, what with parents, teachers, coaches and every other authority figure explaining how you have, ad nauseum.  It is harder to screw up at 30, particularly if you've gotten good at your job, you have some authority and no one beyond the occasional driver has called you a fuck-up in years.

If you keep at it - diligently, mind - you will eventually learn all the rules; you will develop tools to enable you to create more elaborately and efficiently; and you will manage even large groups with the confidence of an experienced executive.  After a year or two, you'll find yourself comfortably facing a collection of rowdy players with the knowledge you were born to do this.

In smoothing out your campaign, you'll come to decide what rules you will or won't play.  You'll consider your players, debating with them what you'll propose, but in the end you'll make the decision you want, that better facilitates your personal style as a DM and the particulars of your world.

If most of your gaming consists of running one party year after year, changes in your campaign will become calcified.  Character creation and combat will cease to change.  You'll find it hard to play in - or relate to - other campaigns.  You'll chuckle when you hear someone is playing a rule you abandoned ten years ago.  You won't believe people won't play with a modification that's proved magnificent for you, that you began using before Y2K was an issue.

These rule changes - and your ease in getting and keeping regular players - results from your confidence as a DM.  You're entitled to do what you want.  Those who play in your world have abandoned their other game experiences because it is worth it to them to accept what you say as gospel.  Not only because it's the DM's world, but because you're giving them something they can't get elsewhere.
I don't encourage a DM's world to run as unquestioned dogma.  Players should point out flaws in my reasoning when I run; I want players to comprehend the rules, and to know that there are reasons why a particular element of the game is played this or that way.  I don't like the words, "because I said so".  There has, however, been a calcification of certain rules in my world; not because I said so, but because I have had and seen so many people play by these rules, I know how they affect the game and I know that players are able to adapt to them.  Further, I know the problems in the game that are solved by such rules, and I don't wish to throw out the rule and regain the problem.

I've been playing for thirty-three years, and as such, there are many such rules.

I have noted the problems with my world arise with players due to two inflexible positions:

1)  I am doing this, no matter what anyone says.
2)  I won't do that, no matter what anyone says.

The first applies entirely to actions the player intends to take.  Usually, it is something that will result in almost certain death; where the death is uncertain, the odds are long, often ridiculously long.  More often than not, it is other players who will beg the one player to get down off the ledge.  As a DM I find myself forced to make a decision about whether or not to argue a player down about every fifth session or so.

In part, the phenomenon occurs when tension in the campaign increases to a point where the players feel powerless and desperate.  Usually, some indeterminate solution will take hold of a party - it's a little scary to watch them build themselves up - then like Linguini bursting through the door in Ratatouille, it will go something like, "LOOK ... I know it's stupid and weird, but ... so let's do this thing!"

I try to be understanding and forgiving, and not kill parties when they do this.  I often have lots of time.  While the party is squabbling and wrestling with their tactics on how they're going to take on this enemy that I know as DM is going to seriously kill them (I don't balance encounters), I'm thinking hard for reasons why the enemy won't want to, or how I could spontaneously get some help for the party (maybe the servants in the surrounding houses could flood out into the street with brooms or something).

Human beings, if driven to the breaking point, will do stupid things; if your party is doing stupid things, then you, O Dungeon Master, are driving them to the breaking point.  Congratulations ... you have achieved immersion.

On the other hand, there are particular individuals who consistently play their characters as deliberately obtuse as possible:  I don't care, I'm stealing that pouch; I don't care what the Lord says, I'm doing it; screw you, its my armor, I found it; well, you can go if you want to, but I'm staying here; fine, you stay here, I'm going.  And so on.

I don't have any sympathy for these players.  Most of the time they are so bullheaded, selfish and dumb that they don't last long; or they quickly get upset with not being given their special place in the sun that they pack their books and head home.  I've had a party enter a dungeon with one player who steadfastly refused to go in - so I ran the party that went down the stairs, all night.  The one recalcitrant player sat around for four hours, sulking, reading or otherwise amusing himself, ignored by the rest of the party - good for them! - and ignored by me.  He never came back.

What he expected, of course, was that I would put the other four people on hold and invent some wonderful adventure solely for him.

This last is an example where number 2 above, people who WON'T do something, applies to the character's action in the campaign.  Rarely, however, this applies to the rules themselves - those same calcified rules I've gotten used to playing.

These are people who haven't quite gotten comfortable with the DM having control over their own game.  They want to play by certain rules that they are comfortable with, and when they find those rules aren't established in the campaign, these players "exercise their option" to walk out of your campaign - always, of course, with the mandatory apology for "having wasted your time."

Now, as a DM, you're going to run into this issue, and there are things you should keep in mind.

First, anyone who approaches, enters and runs in your campaign, with the idea firmly in their mind that leaving at any time is an option, is going to be trouble.  As Mark Twain said, "Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option."  It would never occur to most DMs to have it in mind that booting a player from a campaign on the turn of a rule was an acceptable practice.  As a DM, you take it upon yourself to be responsible for your players; you organize the campaign for them; you create circumstances in which they can succeed or fail; and you attempt to do this without taking advantage of the player's vulnerability, nor lording your supposed power as DM over them.  If a player makes a mistake, do you scream at them, demand to know what the fuck is wrong with them, then boot them from your campaign?

No.  But you will have players do this to YOU.  They will declare that you've broken player trust or that you've deliberately ruined their chances or some other ridiculous accusation - any of which, if true, would have probably been due to the DM making a mistake somewhere along the way, a mistake that could certainly be fixed within the structure of the game.  DMs make mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes.  But if the mistake made by a player carries with it the understanding of the dungeon master, it follows that a mistake made by the dungeon master ought to be understood by the player.

The other thing you must understand is that your rules will undergo criticism from time to time.  Remember that players will, it is sad to say, come and go.  Those who are not happy with your rules will find someone's rules they are happy with, or will settle down and make a world of their own.  But your world will be in your possession for a long, long time; and you should play by the rules that make you comfortable and happy.  The game cannot be played without you; but you can play your game without a given player.  So do not become too upset if a given player doesn't see things your way.  You've been working on this world since the beginning.  They've only been here for a few weeks.

While they will be sorry for having "wasted your time," you need not be sorry for having wasted theirs.  After all, their time is only wasted because they made the choice to pitch the time they spent on a frivolous bit of stubborn selfishness.  Save your apologies for when you - irrationally - turn to a player and decide you don't like the cut of their jib:  "Hit the road, buddy.  Sorry I wasted your time."


That's a good place to end the post, but this one isn't quite done yet.  I've had some trouble with players on the net lately, the kind of trouble I haven't had since I used to run strangers at conventions ... and wow, do I hate conventions.  I've had three particularly troublesome players in the last two years, and being that I'm a scientist at heart, I've got enough of a sampling now to make a hypothesis.

(Mind you, that's a hypothesis: a deductive prediction of the outcome to be determined from collecting data.  I don't say this is fact.  Please take note of the English words I use)

I am noticing certain elements which I feel might be used to determine who is a bad player.  I don't suppose I've ever deduced these elements before, because I've almost always had good players - i.e., I've stayed away from conventions.  Here are some warning signs I'd like to advance:

1)  Consistent dissatisfaction with the entire character generating process, particularly with incorporated advice on how it might be done differently, how other games manage the process, and comments upon things your particular process has or doesn't have.

2)  An unusual number of questions about your campaign which can't possibly be relevant to a first-time, first-level player.  If the player is entering your world, knows they are running with a low-level party, and is filling the character creation process with questions about what sorts of men-at-arms they'll get when their ninth level, or whether or not there are oliphants in your world and if they can be ridden, the player is almost certainly going to prove extraordinarily demanding and expectant where it comes to treasure/reward.

3)  A preoccupation with the amount of armor/number of weapons available to the player.  This is particularly so in reference to how concerned the character is with the possibility of being hit.  If you point out that the character's chance of being hit in battle is only 15% - and they express dissatisfaction with that - expect trouble.

4)  A clear disinterest in many peripheral details about the character that you've included but which don't seem to make much of an impression; this could be anything, really, as it depends on your world.  But if you as DM think that something is important, and the player fails to notice despite several statements on your part, a serious disconnect will occur.

5)  Strong dissatisfaction is expressed regarding scarcity - too few hit points, too little wealth, too few magic items, not enough combat, too much difficulty in obtaining supplies, or the player has generally too much trouble with the ordinary business of surviving ... anything beyond an infrequent complaint about any of these or other scarcities suggests a problem.  Everyone has a right to complain.  Most people know when to stop.

6)  Any pervading preoccupation or obsession with things that happened previously in the campaign; players who don't live in the NOW, but continue to concern themselves with mistakes they made once upon a time, and the need to atone for those mistakes.  Atonement is a terrible, cloying thing that is never really possible, but will nevertheless effectively kill a player's ability to enjoy the campaign.

I think in the future, if and when I ask for online players, instead of asking what they'll do with their characters, I will instead ask their opinions on the above six points.