Monday, June 10, 2019

5 Common Disruptive Actions in RPGs (And How To Counter Them as a DM)

When we sit down to play, most of us are here to have fun telling a story. Sometimes that story is dark and serious, and sometimes it's light-hearted and a little ridiculous. A lot of the time it's somewhere in between. And while everyone should be allowed to contribute to the story in ways that make them happy as players, there are those times when your players push the Don't button. Sometimes it's an accident, sometimes they don't know any better... and sometimes they do it just to see what you'll do.

Your move, "Dungeon Master."
Ideally, if someone keeps poking at that button, you'll be able to sit down and talk to them as an adult and to explain why it's becoming a problem in game. However, sometimes you need to be able to roll with the punches as they come your way. The most common punches I've seen, and methods of rolling I've found effective, are as follows.

#1: My Character Wouldn't Be Interested in That

I'm just gonna sit here in the bar. Drinking. Alone.
This is one of the most common irritations in gaming for a dungeon master. You spend a lot of effort putting together the story, the enemies, the plans, and then when you drop the hook in front of the party one player decides, nah, I'm not biting that.

It's hard to get the game going if someone isn't willing to get on the plot bus, and it's generally seen as good form for a player to find some reason for their character to go out with the rest of the party even if it's a bit outside their wheel house. Whether it's the money-driven mercenary deciding he wants to show the town that he's not such a bad guy, or the usually timid cleric finding his spine when other people are putting themselves in danger, sometimes you need to stretch a bit to keep the game going.

How To Roll With It...

Ideally, this is something you should take care of beforehand by making sure everyone's character has proper motivations that are driving them toward your game's goals. I even provide this for DMs who pick up my Critical Hits modules False Valor and The Curse of Sapphire Lake by making sure a "Why Are You Here?" section is the first thing in the module, after the introductory text. This ensures that everyone who is at the game table has some motivation to immediately jump in, and avoids this behavior entirely.

If you don't have that luxury (sometimes you just don't get a chance to preempt a problem), then take the player aside and ask what would motivate them. Ask for some knives, like I mentioned back in Build Your PC Backstory Using Knife Theory. If they're a merc, ask them if they owe anyone a favor, or have an outstanding tab anywhere in town; it might be as simple as the barkeep offering to wipe that bill they owe that gets them off their butt and into the game. If they're a noble PC who decides this isn't their job, you can literally pull in someone of higher status who tells them to go do it.

And so on, and so forth. You can even find examples of outfits to use, and NPCs to bring in, with 100 Random Mercenary Companies or 100 Nobles to Encounter.

Sometimes players have only thought of one, specific thing that will jump start their PC's actions. Sit down with them and try to get them to provide two or three, assuming you can't work up a personality profile that will let you know what strings to tug on before the game starts.

#2: It's Not Illegal, I'm a PC!

Haters gonna hate!
There's no two ways about it; the player characters are the central figures of the story you're telling. Whether they're heroes, villains, or somewhere in between, they are the individuals we're focusing on in this collaborative exercise. And sometimes players let that go to their heads, assuming that they can do what they want without repercussions.

One of the most common versions of this is the thief who steals anything that isn't nailed down. They pick every pocket they come across, and spend all of their time scheming on how to rob shopkeepers blind. Alternatively you have the hulking barbarian, the entitled fighter, or the haughty sorcerer who believes that they can crush any NPC who doesn't give them the respect they feel they're due.

This isn't always a problem, depending on the situation. But when it becomes a pattern of behavior, it can very quickly grow into a major headache for you as the DM.

How To Roll With It...

The first thing you should do, as a DM, is to give players who want to do what I call a Grand Theft Auto run a single warning. Even if it's just as simple as, "You want to punch a member of the town guard because he told you to peace bind your weapon? Even though you can clearly see there are a dozen soldiers at this gate?"

Nine times out of ten, a player will get the message letting them know that if something is a crime in the real world, it's likely still a crime in the game world, and it will be acted on accordingly.

Sometimes players will nod, accept your warning, and attempt to go through with their action anyway. When this happens (and it will, sooner or later), you should let it. And then follow the natural consequences of the action the player chose to take.

I talked about this in Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences in RPGs) a while ago, but it's worth repeating. Players need to have agency, and that includes agency to do things that are ill-advised, or which you find annoying. But the actions they take should have appropriate consequences. The thief might get away with stealing a purse or two, if they roll well, but if they get caught stealing, make sure there are consequences for that. If the party bruiser decides to beat up the innkeep because he didn't like the man's tone, ask who saw that, and what other dominoes start to fall. Do the party find there's a bounty on their heads, and that they need to flee the town? Do merchants refuse to sell to them? And so on, and so forth.

Actions have consequences, good and bad. Make sure your players know that before you start, so they aren't surprised when things happen.

#3: I Seduce It!

What's a lich like you doing in a crypt like this?
This is one of those old jokes that, deep down, has some truth in it. Maybe it's because a player is new, and didn't get that this bardic trope is not how you're supposed to play the character. Maybe it's because your player has an inappropriate understanding of your game's boundaries, and figures what's the point in having a huge, ugh, charisma if you can't throw it around a little bit?

Whether you are willing to allow this sort of action to work in a place where it fits the game (the sorceress acting as distracting arm candy so the rogue can work the room and steal the major's dungeon key, for example) is up to you. However, if this is becoming disruptive, you should probably have a talk with the player about it.

How To Roll With It...

Aside from having that talk with your player, the other thing you should make clear is that seduction is a very personalized thing. Just because you have a high Charisma score, or a baller skill check, that doesn't mean you can get an NPC's interest. Especially if they're really not into the sort of thing you're offering (the NPC is attracted to another gender, is asexual, or simply prefers a body or personality type that a certain character doesn't fit). And in the case of some of the more ridiculous scenarios (the ones involving vampires, demons, hydras, etc.), simply make it clear that no matter how high the player rolls, that isn't going to work.

Social skills aren't mind control, and they don't allow the PCs to tug NPCs strings like puppets. If your player wants to go with a femme fatale sort of PC, or a smooth-talking secret agent, don't rain on their parade... but make sure they understand the limits of their build, the game's rules, and the tone you're going for.

#4: That's Not How That Works!

According to the errata on page 116...
I will fully admit that when it comes to players who read rule books from cover to cover, I am definitely one of those folks. More often than not, I'm the person the rest of the table asks about how certain mechanics work, because it's sort of my job to know those things at this point in my life. However, there's a difference between being asked how a certain thing works, and telling the DM how something works. Especially because you, as a player, don't have the entire picture from your side of the screen.

On the other hand, if you are running a game mechanic differently than it's written in the book (or ignoring an ability that a player has which can interrupt or alter what your monsters are doing), then that isn't something you want to shout-down or ignore. It can quickly erode trust in you as a DM, and it can make the players feel like the rules don't matter. Striking a balance can be difficult on this one.

How To Roll With It...

That doesn't mean it can't be done, though.

The best thing you can do in this instance is to set some ground rules for how the back-and-forth on this goes. It may even be necessary to go back to your classroom days and ask that a player with an objection or a question raise their hand, and wait for you to call on them so you aren't constantly getting interrupted by, "Actually, according to..." from the other end of the table while you're in the middle of resolving something or trying to do math.

The other thing I recommend (which has worked out very well at my tables) is to insist that before a player raises an objection that they look up the associated rule or ability first, and re-read it. This cuts out all arguments resulting from a player mis-remembering something, and often times the refresher is important. It also means they have the chapter and verse right there for you to look at when they raise their objection.

Lastly, make a ruling based on their question. Sometimes it might simply be, "Yes, according to that ability description, you should take half damage from fire. The fire from this particular salamander, though, deals you full damage." This lets them know you didn't forget or overlook a rule, but there is something at play behind the screen that they don't know about.

All rulings will stand until the end of that night's game. If it turns out you made a mistake (say the PC instantly died, but really they should have simply been knocked out), then you can work with the player to rectify it. But in the heat of the moment is not the time for an argument, and after the, "Question, relevant section of the book, ruling," steps have been taken, that's it. No more objections, no buts. That conversation will (and should) happen later, preferably between game sessions if possible.

#5: But That's What My Character Would Do!

Yolo, scrubs!
This is, without a doubt, the most irritating thing you can hear out of someone's mouth as the DM. As I said in The Dangers of The Phrase "I'm Just Playing My Character", most players who fall back on this defense are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They get the fun of doing something mean-spirited, selfish, stupid, or otherwise disruptive, but they want to hold it at arm's length and claim they weren't really responsible.

After all, it's what the character would do.

How To Roll With It...

No. Straight up, flat out, no.

Staying true to your character is all well and good, but you, as a player, are the one who decides their actions. You are also the one who chose to bring that character to this game. And, as with the, "my character wouldn't be interested in that," example up top, you can almost always find a reason for your character not to do whatever mean-spirited, selfish, stupid, etc. action you're about to take if you think about it.

Fiction is filled with these little moments. The Phantom shows mercy, and allows Christine to escape with Raul. Frankenstein's monster sits at the side of the creator he loves and hates, mourning his passage. Jonah Hex decides to clap a bounty in irons and haul him back to town thinking what the hell, let's try bringing someone in alive for once.

Complex characters are capable of being many things. If the character you brought to the table is solely motivated by being a jerk, causing problems, or taking the piss out of other people's fun, that's on you for choosing to play that character. And as a DM you should make it clear that players don't get to sidestep blame when they're the ones behind their character's actions.

In Closing

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed the film, and it provides you all with the same sort of inspiration it did me!

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1 comment:

  1. In regards to personal consequences and the would be playboy... I have always allowed my players to be as much of a Hugh Heffner as they want to be so long as they remember that like a good Sensei, if I find them acting like that in real life, their will be real life consequences (i.e. pushing their attentions on a serving girl who has clearly said no). As far as in game goes, there are consequences as well.
    My current group is a mix of teenage boys (age 13 through 18) AND THEIR FATHERS. Their fathers have been around the bend, know what would happen in real life and support me 100% in regards as also using DND as a teaching tool. So, when the one kid kept insisting on wetting his tool every single possible chance he had, well, let's just say he woke up one morning with the worst hangover possible and every last bit of his possessions gone (inCLUDING his loincloth!). He went barreling our of is room sans dress and was immediately arrested for indecent exposure.
    When that didn't slow him down, he woke up with the worst possible imagination of the clap that you can think of, to the point it actually fell off and he had to find a priestess to "reattach" it. THAT time he learned to be more than just a tool of love ;-)

    Same kid decided a new character would never bathe, no matter what. he walked into a tavern and sat down, five minutes later he was in a bar fight with half the tavern. They were not out to hurt him either. They ALL kept everything subdual til they knocked him loopy, then held him outside until the village washerwomen came forward to lead him (and his guards) to their pool, where they proceeded to scrub him down in front of the entire village. he thought it was hilarious and thus refused to bath again. It happened again, this time, with the washerwomen escalating things to using pure lye, sand stone (as a loufa) and leaving him half raw. He started bathing, lol.

    I have always been a fan of using real life "natural consequences". They tend to give a needed break from whats going on, for everyone to get a good distraction, and at the end of it everyone is usually ready to carry on with the mission.