This is the first of a two-part article about trouble at your gaming table. I’ve divided my thoughts into two sections: dealing with trouble characters, and dealing with trouble players. I’ll start with trouble characters, since they seem to be so much easier to deal with.
The idea here is that all the players involved (including the GM) are interested in having a good time and can work out their differences amicably. It’s hard to isolate when a character is creating a problem and when a player is creating a problem; usually, the character stems directly from the player, and thus its easy to associate lots of these kinds of issues to stubborn, annoying, or otherwise jerky players.
However, even the best players can inadvertently go wrong and make a character that ends up being too much trouble for a smooth game. I think there are definitely a few archetypes that are troubling, so I’ll talk about how to effectively deal with them. With good, conscientious players, it’s easy to just pull them aside and talk it over and fix any problems that might exist. But we know that not every situation is black and white, not every good player is open to criticism, not every GM is the best communicator in the world, and so on. So let’s dive right in.
What makes a problem character?
This is a difficult question to answer. I want to say something like “doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group” but that’s not really fair to all of the characters out there who are clearly alien and make it work. It’s not about culture, it’s about mindset.
I view the art of roleplaying to be something of a contract between the GM and the players (and to a lesser but still important extent between the players themselves). Whatever the goal of the game is, we must all agree on it. I’d venture that most RPGs are there for fun, however that is defined. Others might just want to get some intense role-playing done, or some tactical combat, or some resource management, or some world-building (which could all be considered subsets of “fun”, and indeed, they are just that). It’s important to note that, while our definitions of what constitutes fun may be differ, we are all here to have fun. If we’re not having it, something has gone wrong.
An essential part of this contract is an understanding between the game creator (usually the GM) and the game player on what generally constitutes a fun game. Usually this is made of some collaborative storytelling; meaningful decisions; and cool, evocative people, places, and things. We agree that the GM is not going to savagely kill the characters, dance them on puppet strings, or railroad them through plots of his or her choosing. We also (should) agree–and I think this is far less common–that the players should not seek to completely sabotage the carefully constructed game world.
Everyone has a different style when creating their games and their worlds. Some folks definitely just show up with a skeleton of an idea and wing everything. Others let the players have a very active role in designing the world. Others still spend hours and hours meticulously conceiving and planning every corner of the game world. I don’t ascribe any favoritism to any of these styles, but I will say that all are legitimate and all can fall prey to the actions of a Trouble Character.
Thus, I would describe the Trouble Character as one who, either purposely or inadvertently, breaks this social gaming contract. If she is causing the game to be less fun for whatever reason, she might be Trouble.
The difficulty with picking Trouble Characters is that the same type of character might not always be Trouble. It’s a matter of how they are played that makes characters with identical backstories and abilities more or less disruptive to the game or the contract. I’ll give a few examples of characters I always find to be troubling.
The One Trick Pony
I call this guy the One Trick Pony because he is exactly that – usually max-minned to be brutally effective at one thing; so effective, in fact, that it completely destroys the semblance of there actually being a game. This is your stereotypical broken character; either inside or outside of the rules, this character has totally obviated one aspect of the game. Maybe he has a Diplomacy check of + 60 at level 5; maybe he does 75 damage per hit; maybe he just can’t be killed.
These characters are officially Trouble, and obviously almost everyone has either played one or been around when one has existed.
I certainly believe that the players running these guys probably are having more fun, because, heck, who doesn’t like turning a room full of Orcs into orcburger in seconds flat? It’s a good feeling to completely dominate your opponents. But to do so at the expense of your other players’ fun and your GM’s fun sends you directly into the land of Trouble.
Not all Max-Mins are the fault of the player, though there certainly are players who seem to always bring these guys to the table. Sometimes you just happen upon a combination that cuts through the current campaign like a hot knife through butter. There are extremely obvious situations as I presented above, but even seemingly innocuous ones can be Trouble. The character who can naturally breathe underwater and act freely in the aquatic campaign might not seem like a trouble character until you realize how much of a struggle it is for the other guys to just be normal. The character who doesn’t have to worry about resource management might not seem like trouble until you’re stranded in the desert and water and food management and conservation become a real big deal.
There’s a very fine line here. You don’t want to penalize a character for being good in certain situations; that’s what makes our characters unique: the ability to excel in certain situations. But we’ve gone too far when one character can simply avoid or make moot multiple challenges through manipulation of the rules. That’s too much and that’s Trouble.
This is a difficult one, because when done right, the Loner is a very effective and iconic archetype. The ronin, the lone gunslinger, the wandering mage, the rogue; these are all loner archetypes. Most of our inspirational source material can be very personal and is (if you think of the Hero of a Thousand Faces) solitary; by that I mean that our hero stories (Gilgamesh, Hercules, Beowulf) are framed in the first person. Yes, they often had helpers, but there is ultimately only One Hero.
We sometimes lose track of that when creating our characters. We’re not the only hero of this story, especially in games like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s already incredibly hard for people to empathize with other players; now try to empathize with a character being played by another person. My point is that it’s inherently quite difficult not to view yourself as the hero of this game in which you’re playing.
And if that’s the case, if you view yourself as the hero, the Loner archetype makes a whole lot of sense. You like to be alone, you don’t need anyone else’s help, and you can take care of your own business. You’re gruff and don’t get along with the party. All of these are facets of the archetypal loner, but in my opinion, they simply just do not work in a collaborative roleplaying game.
Every time I’ve ever encountered a character that didn’t work within the framework of the group, it was a huge pain in the ass. It sucks for everyone who isn’t that character, because they just simply do not get to participate in parts of the story. It takes the GM’s time away from storytelling with the group and focuses on the solitary character off doing their own thing. I mean, how much do you like sitting around the table while the GM does a 30 minute solo encounter with another character? Not at all.
And it’s unfortunate, because there is so much potential in the Loner. And he can definitely fit within the framework of the game. But you have to make an effort for him to fit. Even solitary wanderers knew when they had to team up, when they had to trust others, when there were challenges that were simply too much to handle alone.
I love having traitors. I really do. I like having secret knowledge. I love having my players suspicious of everything. You really can’t trust anyone, even the people you bed down with at the end of each day. It enhances the danger.
Except: this is only appropriate in a small subset of games. I have seen many people try to play cultists in disguise, evildoers masquerading as trusted allies, and so on.
It’s another approach that seems really fun if you were the traitor, but fairly horrible for your companions. They don’t have all the information to make good decisions, and you will almost always have the opportunity to murder them in their sleep. I once offered to a couple characters the opportunity to betray the rest of the party for some money and gear; they took me up on it but I ended up feeling too horrible. The rest of the party was just blindsided and had no chance to react. It’s the helplessness that makes games unfun, the feeling that no matter what you did, you could not have avoided this situation besides doing something (not trusting a close associate) that would not have really been justifiable.
Again, I’d never say that such things can’t work, but they usually just disrupt the game too much to be worth it.
Anachronists and Aliens
Everyone wants to play a truly unique character, but sometimes the setting of the game will just not allow it. I always want to give my players the option to come up with any character concept they want. But I do draw the line when it just won’t work.
An Ewok on Coruscant might work. An aboriginal shaman in New York City might work. A chaotic evil warlock in the City of the Morninglord might work. A Time-Traveling Mad Scientist in the Old West might work. But they are all so far afield that I would have trouble justifying their existence. We’re creative people by nature, so you can always come up with a way to explain it away.
The problem with these kinds of characters is that you’ll end up spending so much time dealing with their existence that it detracts from the suspension of disbelief. Everyone in New York would respond to seeing an aborigine in full Outback gear with shock, awe, and possibly confusion to an extent that it could really disrupt a game about investigation.
These kinds of situations are diverse and difficult to judge, so be cautious.
The Bottom Line
All the players and the GM should be working together to tell a story. Trouble Characters take away from that experience. I don’t have any problem disallowing characters that would be too overpowered, too difficult to integrate into the story, too distracting, or simply too weird to make sense. While this might make me sound like a limiting stickler, I think you’d find that there is a massive range of interesting characters that can be created within the framework of the game that supplement the fun rather than detract from it.
I fully believe that one of the challenges of roleplaying is not sticking blindly to your character’s motives if they make the game less fun. Your character should be fun for everyone. If he hates Orcs, his hatred of his blood-enemy should serve as a motivating factor, not as something that threatens to derail the game every time an Orc merchant shows up.
I hear too often players lamenting that “I was just playing my character.” This is a weak line from someone who just detracted from the fun. If that’s what your character would do, shame on you for bringing that character in the game. If your character isn’t fun for everyone, choose a different character. You don’t have the right to play whoever you want. You have only as much right as everyone does: we all must be making the game fun for everyone or what we do is forfeit.
Almost all of these situations can be resolved by having a nice sit-down with the player. If they’re willing to change up their character to make him or her less disruptive, then you’ve got yourself a game. If not, you might be dealing with a Trouble Player, which we’ll talk about next week.
As always, thanks for reading!