As Game Moderators / Dungeon Masters we’ve all been there. One of the players is acting a damn fool in the middle of a carefully crafted, intricately designed game. They’re text-messaging during their turn, or lampooning, or speaking out of character, or starting fights with the other players, bringing the storyline to a screeching halt and distracting everyone at the table, like a kindergartener who’s just learned the magic and joy of screaming 4-letter expletives. You’ve slaved away over a hot drafting table for hours, scratching tiny boxes within tiny boxes on headache-inducingly fine gridpaper, all so a jabbering douche-goblin can yank everyone out of The Moment.
He deserves to be punished. He must be punished. But how…?
Well, before you shove a lighting bolt up his character’s ass, or turn his testicles into ticking orbs of C-4, or any number of interesting punishments his/her distracting attitude has suddenly inspired in you, please consider the following reasons why players act out, and the alternatives to swift and vicious punishment.
1) The Player Is Distracted
Some outside stimulus, be it the Phone, the television, a girlfriend, the player’s mother, etc. has suddenly become more pressing for the player than whatever unique scenario you’ve laid out. Usually I react passive-aggressively toward this sort of trespass, at first, making snide remarks about the player being whipped, until it becomes a repeat behavior.
After several infractions my next instinct is to give the player an ultimatum. He can either turn off his phone and beeper (if you live in the 90’s) and pay full attention to the pixie village being slaughtered, or he can leave the game and go visit that hussy of a grandmother who doesn’t have the decency to expire at a later date. But an ultimatum may not be the most efficient punishment.
The Easy Solution: Let them be distracted. When their turn comes up, if they’re texting or spacing off, skip it. Don’t even call attention to the fact that they’re losing XP points by not contributing to the fight. Let them miss out on a few skill checks. Let them wonder what clue they didn’t pick up on, when they’re scratching their head wondering what questline everyone else seems to be following. But more important than this, your players will eventually grow tired of reminding them to roll the damn dice. Over time social pressure will do the work for you. In a group of 6 players, 5 will eventually become resentful doing all the perceived work, and will slowly begin to ostracize the party member. And in a group gathered together to enjoy a game supposedly devoid of social ostracism, this is the most potent form of punishment on earth, and it requires almost no effort from the GM/DM.
2) The Player Is Starting Conflicts Or Screwing Around
I see this happen when players become bored, and the action doesn’t manifest quickly enough. Especially when everyone has rolled up new characters, and some of the munchkins (read: min-max players) are anxious to test their rule-bending, dice-defying builds. In all likelihood they have sacrificed dearly in other categories to be a crackshot gunslinger or a sword-saint at level 1. This effectively makes them an idiot savant, barely able to dress themselves– but boy can they sword stuff. So they start picking fights with other characters.
A close cousin to this is the player who wants attention, and seeks to gain it by having the most bizarre character on the table. In all seriousness I played a game with a player who rolled up a pixie barbarian with high Intimidate skills. Because our DM didn’t know how to handle this pixie-player’s antics, he killed off the winged warrior and forced the player to re-roll something more familiar.
The Easy Solution: Give the player something to do. Start the game with the uber-strong thug with 4 Intelligence participating in a national Spelling-Bee, and make him roleplay his inherent faults. This sort of roleplaying will magnify the flaws of the character to the other players, subtly discouraging this sort of build, while simultaneously entertaining everyone when the inevitable happens; the dumb barbarian flips the table attacks the judges after misspelling H-O-U-S-E .
Likewise, give players with unique builds what they want: put them on display, but show the character’s weakness at the same time. Pit the pixie barbarian against house cats and feral turkeys for fun, but don’t pull your punches when it’s time for the pixie to really step up for the party.
3) The Player Has Trouble Paying Attention
I’ve had players who attend games drunk or high, mistaking my game sessions for turn-based mall conversations. I’ve also had players who come from other game systems, who find the pacing of Rifts to be too fast. Or Pathfinder to be too slow. Or the combat in Savage Worlds to be way too slow. Or D&D 4.0 to be why the hell am I playing with cards? Why can’t I use this power more than once per day? It’s a goddamn sword attack! Does my warrior dislocate his shoulder after each motherfucking fight? And why does every class in middle-earth get spells?
For whatever reason, the player just doesn’t fit the game. They may be too inexperienced with the system you’re running, or with roleplaying in general. It happens to every GM/DM some time in their life. The best you can do is apologize for inviting them to a game that requires critical thinking, and offer them an alternative. A coloring book, perhaps. Or a wooden cup attached to a ball on a string. But if you feel merciful and still want to involve them…
The Easy Solution: Find another way to include them. Give them a trimmed-down rules-light character cheat-sheet. Guide them through the game process, and make their role in the party exceedingly clear. I find most people, even drunk, stoned, or suffering from Adult Juvenile Idiocy, can participate in a game given proper context. Make them the tavern regular who’s had too much mead. Introduce them as the town sheriff (no need to say ‘inept sheriff’ your players will mentally add that part). And who knows, they may go back and read the core rulebook if they enjoyed the game. When they’re sober.
4) The Player Is Roleplaying Too Much
In rare cases I’ve seen players experienced with early Dungeons and Dragons try their hand at Cyberpunk games, and are surprised when the other players aren’t working together like a medieval adventuring party. Funnier still is when the transplant tries to play the equivalent of a cyber-paladin, and the other players turn on him. Or if the oddball in question is used to narrative-heavy systems that require players to describe how the sword-slash took their arch-nemesis Baron Manderson in the belly, which is an objectively shitty place to be wounded fatally, but will allow for at least ten minutes of stilted dialogue while the Baron bleeds out.
If the player’s personality or experience doesn’t mesh with my storytelling pace, I instinctively try to limit the time for his or her turn. After minute ten of negotiating with a shop owner or potential employer, I’m ready to hand them an egg-timer or hourglass the next time they approach an NPC. As a DM/GM, if they’re going to hold up my story so they can argue with fictional characters or try to extend their turn, they deserve to be cut short, Right? Right…?
The Easy Solution: Get the rest of the group involved. If one player is so engaged in your game that he’s trying to squeeze an extra 5% out of a bounty reward, or is collecting ears from his victims, or insists on complicating every conquest he makes with long-winded diatribes as he plants his boot on the enemy in a Captain Morgan pose, let him. In fact, reward him.
If this sort of behavior doesn’t match your group’s usual style, it will feel like the game is dragging out unnecessarily. But this player’s attention to detail will encourage further immersion from the other players, whether they want it or not. And immersion is what game moderators trade in. Immersion is the only thing, ultimately, that you have to offer the players for the time they spend around your table. As humans we assign importance to a task in part by how others react. If I hand the players The One Ring, tell them to throw it in a volcano, and my players respond with: “Cool, no biggie.” Then I’ve got nothing to motivate them with– aside from the threat of not feeding them after the game is over, and I shackle them to their basement bunks for the night.