king-phar asked: How do I deal with a difficult player? The kind of player who will blatantly build something to off set the power level of the game drastically in his favor while blatantly harming the ability of the rest of the party to do anything. In the end the player quit my campaign due to... issues with my style of running a game but even with them met by a mostly unanimous sense of happiness by the party I still feel as if I could have handled it better for everyone involved. Any suggestions?
That’s rough. Sculpting or finding the right group can be a real challenge.
Let me give you two suggestions, my soft style and my hard style (he said, as if he actually knew anything about martial arts principles) of working with players.
Make sure you’re up front with your players about what sort of game you’re trying to run and what you expect around the table. You don’t have to be a jerk about it or call anyone out, but since it’s part of a GM’s job to assure that everyone’s having a good time, it’s a great idea to get some ground rules down—even if the game’s been running for a while. Part of that can easily be a frank group discussion about how this is a cooperative game and everyone should have the opportunity to build and play the characters they want—as long as that doesn’t impede other players’ enjoyment. If a player’s build is disrupting the game, that’s exactly the sort of thing that should get point outed. The player shouldn’t be penalized for this, and the GM might allow a rebuild (or even the creation of an entirely new character) if the player wasn’t aware of the GM’s expectations or of his character’s problematic nature.
Sometimes it also helps to just reexplain the fundamental nature of RPGs as games that can’t be quantifiably won. A major part of the fun of these games is in the story and the experience. While making an optimized character can be exciting, it shouldn’t come at the detriment of other players’ enjoyment.
There can be a lot of diplomacy in being a GM. Give your players opportunities to talk to you about your game, even if it’s through email or chat. Ask them what they like, what they don’t like, where they see their character going, and how they’d like to see the greater story take shape. By the same token, let the players know about your plans (in general terms), how you’d like to see the game go, and what you’d like to see more of or less of at the table. Once you make discussing your game a part of your game, it might be easier to bring up issues like this.
Slightly more directly, you can also ask the offending player to hold up after the game and, in private, let him know the problem. Explain why it’s an issue and how it’s impacting the other players’ enjoyment. Let him know that there are certainly other ways he can have fun which don’t impact other players’ as much. Let him know that you’ll help him revise the character and come up with new effective tactics. You don’t have to threaten the player with expulsion from the game (at first), but make it clear that this is an issue. If the player doesn’t want to change, make sure you understand why. If the answer isn’t appropriate for you and the rest of the group, then you might want to let him know that his gaming style doesn’t mesh with yours for this game. You could consider running a second more tactical game or host board games or something another night, but, in this instance, for this game, you and he aren’t seeing eye to eye and aren’t having fun.
Again, rough, I know. A lot of ego and emotion can get caught up in the gray area between gaming and socialization. You never want to be brash or careless with other peoples’ feelings and kicking a player out of a group can look a lot like social exile. That’s why it’s so, so important to get your expectations on the table up front. If a game goes sour, even because of just one player, you might want to even consider ending the game and taking a few weeks off, then starting a new game with a new combination of players.
I wrote quite a bit on topics like this in the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide. It’s easily one of Paizo’s most overlooked hardcovers since, comparatively, it’s not particularly rules intensive, but there’s a lot on topics just like this from myself and lots of other veteran GMs. If you have, or want to get the PDF (it’s ten bucks, sadly only the rules elements are on the PRD, not the advicey bits) of this book, let me suggest a few helpful sections:
Player Interactions, page 70. This is the section on dealing with problem players. It sounds like your player had qualities of an “Antagonist,” a “Loner,” a “One-Trick Pony,” and a “Power Gamer.” There’s tips on how to work with all of these problem player types and even turn their tendencies to your favor.
After the Game, page 62. Touches in more detail on some things you can do between sessions to keep a game running smoothly.
Creating a Campaign Guide, page 20. A great overview of how to make and what should go into your campaign guide. These documents can be as long or as short as you want, are a ton of fun to make, really help get diverse groups on board, and can save you a lot of stress in the future. This is a great place to get some ground rules and expectations of table etiquette in writing, along with a brief section on character conflicts and what might lead you to end a game. That nothing you want to harp on, but having a document everyone’s expected to be familiar with upfront can circumvent a lot of issues. Having one of these guides also makes you look like a pro.
Overpowered PCs, page 50. Touches on a lot of what I mentioned above, but helps guide you through how you might handle a rules combo that takes the fun out of a game. This seems like exactly what you’re talking about.
The other handy thing about having a book or campaign document that touches on all this is that, in the worst cases, you have something like backup. It’s one thing to be like “We have an issue, this is what I say we’re going to do about it” and another to say “We have an issue, he’s some suggestions the book has.” Whatever makes you more comfortable.
If you take this route and attempt to work with your players to improve everyone’s enjoyment you are taking the path of the peacemaker, the mediator, and the diplomat. It can be challenging, but it is an honorable path that can be rewarding and speaks well of you as a person. Good luck in your virtuous pursuit. I hope it works well for you.
Don’t roleplay with assholes.
I’ve run lots of games with lots of people. I started playing RPGs in middle school with some other guys who had equally no idea what they were doing. We figured it out and played through high school, where we expanded our gaming circle and things got more dramatic. In college I had a wide potential pool of players and romance and social politics became frequent intruders. I always GMed, and at some point that translated from Game Master to group social mediator and therapist—largely just so I could make my games happen. Eventually, though, I realized there were only three or four people around my table that I even wanted to game with. The rest were tagalongs, political invitees, friends of friends, and people who had no real interest in roleplaying. One night I ran a one-shot and only invited my best roleplayers. And it was amazing—still one of the best nights of gaming of my life.
That’s when I realized that player chemistry is everything and even one sour note can ruin the game for everyone.
After that, I got way—WAY—pickier about who I roleplay with.
I like story-driven games with lots of roleplaying, immersion, intrigue, thematics, and horror. Combat and character optimization is always secondary to me. This might not sound terribly insightful, but I stopped running games I didn’t want to run and stopped inviting players who wanted things I wasn’t offering and/or who weren’t roleplayers.
The downside to this: I don’t roleplay with two of my best friends, one who just doesn’t have the attention span for RPGs and another who is a hardcore combat optimizer but doesn’t dig roleplaying.
The upside: I roleplay with people who like the games I like.
The even better upside: I run my games for me as much as for other people and enjoy myself far, far more than I did in my college days.
Sure, you can be a mediator and work with your group in the hopes of achieving some promised gamer Nirvana. That is the path to GM heaven and I wish you well.
For my piece, though, I say lose the losers and stop stressing out over a game you’re supposed to be enjoying. Hell! You probably bought the bloody game to begin with, you’re probably running it in your home, and there’s a good chance you’re going to have to clean up after folks go home, ostensibly YOU should be enjoying the game MOST.
Herding cats is part of a GM’s job, sure, but so is heading off potential problems. If you know or even suspect that some combination of players is going to cause trouble, don’t even invite it to your table. At some point we have to accept that RPG games aren’t for everyone and that YOUR GAME specifically isn’t for everyone. You’re doing a ton already, you’re the script writer, the producer, the director, and the majority of the actors, you don’t need to add therapist and life coach to your list of stresses. Identify potential problems to your game and cut them out. Strongly consider your enjoyment of the game—in fact, make it a priority.
You have a relationship with your players and in many ways it follows some of the same rules as dating: don’t game with people you don’t like, don’t try to change the people you game with, don’t game with people that will bring drama/chaos/evil/unwantedness/whatever into your life. And if gaming with a person doesn’t make you happy, either get out of there or get them out of there.
Trying to be a hardliner flops if you only know three other players in the world. But don’t feel trapped by your social circle. Get out there! Find more gamers in your community, join Pathfinder Society, read the giant post I just did that touches on this topic, whatever! Don’t let your social group’s politics, history, and drama ruin gaming for you. Find a new game with new people. It can be done!
Also, this doesn’t need to mean always exclude your friends from all of your games. RPGs are often elaborate games with vast options and equally vast opportunities for social misalignment. Zombicide, King of Tokyo, Settlers of Catan, less so. If one RPG didn’t work for you and your friends, get them together around another game. That might even mean a different RPG—rules lighter games often have far less opportunity for rules-driven conflict (have I mentioned the Dread RPG in the last half hour?).
Ultimately, this direction can be a tricky one too. It is perhaps the path of the cynic or the realist. It won’t help you and your childhood friends on your march toward gamer equilibrium. However it might help you put together exactly the group of like-minded gamers you’ve always wanted and lead to some of the best gaming experiences you’ve ever had.
Accept the causalities and onward to awesome.
So I hope that’s something like helpful, or at least raises some possibilities you might not have considered. There’s no right way and there’s no assured easy route. There’s also no reason you can’t switch between paths, taking one tack than the other. Ultimately, RPGs are complicated in-part because people are complicated, but that’s part of what makes investing time in both potentially so rewarding.
Best of luck and I hope that, one way or the other, you end up find the gaming group you always wanted.