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Tome of Answers

In this weeks “Ask the Guild” I am going to cover a couple of related topics, revolving a little bit around conflict at the table and how to handle things. The first is how to deal with someone distracting the other players and you from the game by being repeatedly disruptive. Then I’m going to talk about how you, as the DM, handle another person not in your game coming and interfering in a similar manner. The first conflict is one that can happen with many groups, but the second is usually a spectator or bystander effect – especially if you’re playing in a public space. In the end, both are ultimately up to you as the DM to resolve and here are my recommendations.

I have had a situation with a player in my Pathfinder game, who has repeatedly derailed sessions with random nonsense – EG what is the precise weather – to go on long tangents. It has become very tiring dealing with this player repeatedly taking the game off course, interrupting other players and distracting me from running the game. What do I do?

Firstly, this is a really difficult situation to handle and the most important first step is to talk to your other players. If someone is being continually disruptive or breaking everyone’s immersion, deliberately derailing the game and similar you should see how the other players feel – privately though. Are the others finding their behavior extremely grating and annoying to the game in general? If the other players aren’t finding it annoying, perhaps you should be considering what it is that is putting you off about things and perhaps talk to them in general to tone it down. After all, it’s ultimately your game and your effort that makes it work: You deserve to have things go your own way!

In this particular case though, it sounds like it’s not only getting to you but all of your other players as well. With this situation, I would take the player aside after the game or privately at another time, explaining to them how I felt their behavior was being disruptive. Often players who are being disruptive or causing an issue, will not really realize that they are affecting everyone else’s fun at the table. I’ve often found simply explaining that they are causing a problem and are dragging the game down solves it pretty quickly. Another good thing that can come out of this conversation is finding out why they are being disruptive. Often it’s because the player is either disengaged with the game, is just there to “hang out” with the other players (not inherently a bad thing) or is bored.

Asking the player what they would like to do or why they are bored, is frequently a good way to get to the root of the issue. Once you know what they are perhaps wanting, you can start designing encounters or story based elements that maybe appeal to them – hopefully reducing the feeling of disengagement or boredom. In the case of the player who just wants to hang out, roll dice occasionally and overall isn’t terribly invested in the actual game, that’s more of a tricky situation. Some DMs are perfectly fine with this – I certainly am – but others only want players who are just as invested in the game itself. In this case, you might want to consider finding a more invested or interested player in future, especially if this isn’t something you want in the game.

Of course once talking to someone has failed and if they continue the bad habit, disrupting the game and similar – it’s time to start getting more firm. Essentially if one person keeps ruining everyone’s fun for the sake of the game, you have to make a tough call and decision. Ultimately that decision involves asking the player who is being disruptive to either stop doing what they are doing, or leave the game once and for all. This is the “nuclear” option and never start off with such a threat to begin with, but if they ignore polite conversations and attempts to understand? Then at this point, your absolute best option is to tell them to leave if they aren’t going to respect everyone else’s time and fun. Especially because running a game is largely reliant on your time put into it first and foremost.

Don’t tolerate people who won’t listen, negotiate or respect others at your table. Otherwise you’ll eventually find that the other players will start getting sick of the continued behavior and leave the game. Then you’ll have no-one to play with, except probably for the player whose only interested in the precise thickness of underdark tree mushrooms and overall humidity values of dungeon moss instead of, well, adventuring.

I was running my game and I’m new to it, as are the majority of my players, but someone came over and started watching as we got going. While I let them, they eventually started to give advice and were assisting with rules. This was fine for a while, but eventually their suggestions felt very forced and my players were listening to them entirely for decision making, rather than making up their own mind. How do I deal with this?

So in the previous case, we had someone who was a part of the game and being the “enemy within” causing the disruption. Here we have someone who has come over and started watching, then chiming in with their suggestions/rules lawyering and eventually seemingly “directing” PCs decisions. So in a similar vein to the first question, your first response as the DM should be to find out if your players feel the same that it could be a problem. Generally speaking, new players tend to be very malleable to people with experience telling them what to do (and indeed, this is a good thing). Additionally, there is often an urge as an experienced DM or even player to “help” new people get into the hobby.

My initial instinct with this question is that the person who came over wasn’t trying to “backseat roleplay” or take over the game, but rather just help new people get into the game. Personally I am a bit mixed on this, because learning is often best just by playing the game and making mistakes together. On the other hand, if I wasn’t 100% confident on a ruleset and someone was around to help, I probably wouldn’t refuse it. Unless they are directly contradicting me in a way that was frequently wrong or just disruptive to the game, I probably wouldn’t mind this person helping out with rules suggestions that much.

What does bother me about the scenario is how they were seemingly “directing” the other players as to what they should do. This I feel is a complete no-no and I would not approve. While suggestions from other players are fine, there is a very fine line between suggesting something and deciding on a communal plan of action, with someone who is an armchair general. There is a point where if someone is going beyond pointing out rules a player should be aware of and straight into basically playing a new players character for them. Pointing out a rule looks like “You could use a shove action to chuck that guy off a cliff” and the backseat gaming is more like “You should absolutely not use that spell, instead you should be using this spell because X is weak to it”.

The problem with the second suggestion is that it’s inherently metagaming and it’s going beyond just pointing out a common element of the rules, like shoving. Here that player is using their own knowledge, experience and similar to override the decision of the actual player in the game. This is, IMO, absolutely not acceptable and you shouldn’t permit it. One of the most exciting and fun things about DnD, especially weirder settings or even systems like Call of Cthulhu, is figuring out the esoteric ways monsters function or work. Someone who tells you not to use lightning on a shambling mound, is overriding this natural sense of discovery and removing your players agency from the game.

Essentially, don’t let spectators who are trying to be helpful start to “run” the game – especially as you’re the DM. If your players are listening to them for rulings more than you, especially if this spectator routinely turns up (which is probably not going to be the case), this might be an issue in future once you’re adept with the rules and want to change things. In the immediate sense though, if they start to backseat game and begin to feel like they are playing your PCs characters more than they are, you should definitely ask them to stop doing so. Give them a reminder that everyone was new and while suggestions for rules are okay, don’t take away the new players sense of discovery or decision making.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a very easy line between “You can use grappling to help keep this thing from escaping” and “You absolutely should move over here, switch to this weapon and use it to hit that monster as it’s uniquely dangerous”. Both can in fact be backseat gaming and be taken as playing another players character, but ultimately it’s up to your judgement to resolve. Essentially if you feel like your are listening to whoever is spectating more often than your actual players, you’ve probably got a significant problem. Likewise, one important thing to remember is to let your players make their decisions – don’t force them to go with whoever is spectating/backseat gaming suggestions (or push them towards it). Always remember to affirm your players questions, suggestions and actions when they make them.

They’re the ones playing after all!

Update: I noticed that in a recent Pelgrane Press Blog, Robin Laws (responsible for Esoterrorists, which is the original GUMSHOE system IIRC) wrote about a very similar kind of problem. His response is rather similar to mine, with first trying to talk to someone causing the problem and then failing that “Kick em out”. While I don’t quite put it like that, the advice ends up being rather similar.

Well that’s all for this week I feel, so if you have a question here’s where you can get in touch with the guild:

  1. The about page has an email contact.
  2. Should you like facebook, there is a facebook page for you to like and leave messages on!
  3. Tweet short questions to me directly on twitter as well.
  4. The guild can also be found on tumblr, which is also where I tend to reblog a lot of great art!

Really complicated questions might get elevated into entire features under longer pieces, like Narrative Thoughts or Training Day as well – so don’t fret if I don’t immediately answer!