The Inquisition: Trouble Players

This is a jerk. Thanks to flickr user hsld. CC BY 2.0

If you recall, last week we talked about trouble characters. This week I want to shift the focus a bit and talk about the pilots behind those characters. A trouble character doesn’t necessarily mean a trouble player; in fact, I think most trouble characters are the result of misguided or misinformed players. Whereas Trouble Players are a whole different taco altogether.

What exactly is a Trouble Player? 

In short, I’d say a Trouble Player is someone who detracts from the game. Everyone has a little bit of Trouble in them, times when they had a bad day at work or are just flat out exhausted, and we won’t fault ourselves too much for that. However it’s the consistent taking away from the game that becomes a problem. You talk about this player with the other guys and gals after the session; we say things like “the session was great except for the part where X did Y”; we consider changing the style of the game, the rules, or anything else for the benefit of one player above all others.

Furthermore, I think the Trouble Player resists friendly attempts to bring them back in line with the rest of the group. You can’t really become Trouble if you’re honestly trying not to be. I think the common thread that runs through each troubled player is that they are unwilling or unable to change their behavior. Whether someone ever should change for a game, that’s another question altogether. (Though I would say yes, you can need to change. No one is entitled to role playing. It’s hard to enforce a hard-line stance with Trouble, since he or she is often your friend, but there’s nothing forcing anyone to game together. Thus, its reasonable to have a “this is the way the game is, shape up or ship out”. It doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be done with hostility or a bad attitude, but it is a reasonable thing to say, more or less.)

Where good players go bad

Not everyone starts out as a Trouble Player, but some obviously do. If you refer to last week’s post, I specifically talked about a social contract between the players and the GM, which can basically be summed up as: “we’re all going to have a good time here.” Now, that’s obviously a massive simplification, but the point stands: if everyone is on the same page, then you’re much more likely to have a good time.

It’s when folks have different expectations for the game that they can quickly become Trouble Players.

It’s About Me

I find that many, many problems with gamers always seem to come down to this little niggling detail: selfishness.

Roleplaying is very personal, and creating a character is a personal process. Players get attached to their creations, want to have unique and flavorful back-stories, want to feel like powerful agents in the game world, want to be able to see their decisions pay off. It’s for the same reason that we look down upon stringent railroading: it downplays the significance of the character if he or she is unable to affect the game world.

If your outlook is me-centric, you’re obviously going to have a problem in any collaborative game. Role-playing is usually not competitive in nature, though some players obviously needlessly take it to that level, having to be the best in combat or the most effective outside. These are your type of players who fudge rolls to succeed, the types of people who cheat and lie on their character sheets, the guys who use daily abilities over and over and claim to just “forget”.

It’s hard to play with players like this. They don’t always make the game horrible – after all, a successful party is built by successful characters, right – but they do take away from the verisimilitude and our ever-present concept of suspension of disbelief. The guy who outshines every other party member is annoying; we really don’t like it when it’s an NPC, but we also don’t like it when it’s a PC. For my games, I always say that I have no problem with high powered characters or even optimized characters, as long as everyone is high-powered. Real problems arise when the party members are on unequal footing; you wouldn’t have half the party be level 10 and half be level 1, would you? (And don’t get sassy and say it could work, because of course it can, but most of the time it won’t.)

To me, max-minning, which I mentioned in last week’s post, is more of a problem with the player than the character. Yes, individual characters can be optimized, but it’s the mind-set described above, the need to win at all costs, the need to have a powerful character despite all sense of reason thrown out the window (“this character can talk his way out of any fight in under a minute at level 4”) through manipulations and abuses of the rules.

The “Me” player also tends to have back-stories and behaviors that are extremely focused on themselves. These are your loners, these are your “sneak off and go on a side quest” characters, these are the folks who steal from party members and keep secrets. Yes, all these things I mentioned can be fine in a particular game and are downright desirable and hilarious in others, but we must take them in moderation.

I’m just here for the ride

This is a small group, but it does exist – the player who just doesn’t do anything. He or she doesn’t care to learn the rules at all, doesn’t participate much, doesn’t really speak unless spoken to, isn’t creative, and generally doesn’t add.

What, exactly, is this person here for then? My first thought is “to be the healer.” 🙂

But seriously, there is a reasonable expectation of participation, and I’ve seen some players who are just content to sit back and listen to a story (worse, I’ve seen entire groups like this). It’s a role-playing game, not a story-telling game, people! Let’s get out there and actually play a role. Playing a meek or timid character is fine; just load up on the out of character talk and strategizing. Playing a pacifist is fine, but come up with creative ways to behave in combat situations.

I want to group in here the “unprepared player”. This is the guy or gal who loses his/her character sheet, needs to borrow dice and a pencil, shows no interest in actually learning the rules. They might say “I’m just here to role-play”. Well fine, but we have a system, and it’s polite to not have to have me explain attacks of opportunity every session.

Deal with it

I don’t think I’ll actually talk too much about how to fix trouble players – there are a whole host of posts and great writers who can answer this question better than me. In fact, I think that it has probably been tackled on this site at least once, and that’s because it’s a recurring problem that we all have to deal with.

Talk to them. See what their expectations are. Be nice. Try to find out why they do the things they do. Communicate your expectations and the other players’ expectations for the game.

Dealing with a Trouble Player is like dealing with a girlfriend or a husband or a friend; ultimately it’s a relationship, and if you’re both invested in having a good time, communication is the key to working out your differences.

Until next time!

4 thoughts on “The Inquisition: Trouble Players

Add yours

  1. I appreciate your insights. My two boys play GM as their past time and yeah most of the time, both of them seems to be a troubled player. Sometimes they end up hating each other, but then they find ways so they can play again. Thanks for the tips on how to deal when this situation comes again. Keep on posting..


  2. I wonder if anyone has any insight as to whether this is a primarily American problem. I suggest that, as an American myself, because I suspect that a goodly portion of the problem players that I have run into boil down to a near pathological need to “win” when they play a game. The old joke about why what the rest of the world calls “football” will never catch on in the U.S. is because you can have a drawn game has a kernel of truth to it, and I think it impacts our hobby in a negative way.

    If I could get a regular group of folks for whom winning and losing weren’t important, I think I’d have my dream team.


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