This Game Would Be Perfect If It Weren't For All The Players
A lot of things can ruin a game when it's being written and assembled by developers. Unwieldy or unsound systems, derivative story concepts, an uninteresting setting, bad art, or even an overabundance of typos and spelling errors can all make a gamer set down a book in disgust and consign it to the hindmost reaches of the bookshelf, where it will never again see the surface of a gaming table, or even the light of day.
A lot of things can ruin a game when it's being written and assembled by developers. Unwieldy or unsound systems, derivative story concepts, an uninteresting setting, bad art, or even an overabundance of typos and spelling errors can all make a gamer set down a book in disgust and consign it to the hindmost reaches of the bookshelf, where it will never again see the surface of a gaming table, or even the light of day. If a game manages to avoid all those pitfalls and achieve a modicum of success amidst the notoriously selective gaming public, you'd think every decently-run and decently-played campaign of said game would be a positive experience. But we all know that's not the case. Still, it takes a lot more to thoroughly ruin a good game than a few rules loopholes and gaps in the setting that can't be resolved. It takes something far less predictable and far more devastating. It takes people.
Plenty of sourcebooks, magazines, and other articles like this one have addressed the idea of the "problem player" - the power gamer, the rules lawyer, the spotlight hog, the frustrated actor, the overzealous loonie, the inattentive one, etc. - and how to deal with him or her if you're unfortunate enough to encounter one in the wild. For that very reason, I'm not going to say too much about those kinds of players here. Instead, I want to look at roleplaying group dynamics: the ways in which the interactions of players out-of-game can negatively affect the interactions of characters in-game. No one is exempt, no matter how good a player you are - let's face it, all of us are "problem players" at one time or another, however vehemently we may protest the application of the label to ourselves. All GMs have their own favorite tools for forcing characters to work together and form an adventuring party. But what do you do when your players won't work together? Can you do anything about it? I think so.
Putting together a gaming group is, in some ways, like starting a long-term relationship. There's an initial period of courtship in which all the parties involved test the waters, trying to figure out whether they have enough in common to take things further. If they still like each other after a few get-togethers, a more lasting bond may be formed. But at some point, the initial glow wears off, the honeymoon ends, and all the worst faults of both parties involved are exposed in the harsh light of day. When this happens, some people choose to work past it and focus on the things they share, whereas others split up citing "irreconcilable differences." This peril is even more pressing for the majority of gaming groups, since they are considerably less binding than the average marriage. They do say that nowadays 55% of all marriages end in divorce, and most people take their gaming far less seriously than that.
For now, let's assume you've managed to find gamers in your area and are contemplating sending out the big invitation and putting your group together. How do you select a good group of players whose styles will mesh well with yours, and who will join at the beginning of a campaign and stay through to the end? Just like choosing a partner, you need to choose your fellow gamers carefully and think about whether they will be a person you want to stay with in the long run. The following is an informal and non-scientific checklist of personality traits and behavioral characteristics I tend to look for when assessing someone's potential as a player in one of my groups. (Your mileage, as always, may vary.)
- Time spent with them away from the gaming table. Not only does this demonstrate they have other hobbies and can function in polite society, it means I know them as a person and not just a gamer.
- Reliability. If you're not punctual and consistent in your attendance to the other things we do together, and apologetic when circumstances force you to be otherwise, I know I can't count on you to be at my game every week.
- An even balance between knowing when to take gaming seriously and when to set it aside as unimportant.
- A genuine interest in the game I am running; they're there because they want to be, not just because a friend or significant other is.
- No major rivalries with or animosities toward the other players.
Be as objective with these criteria (and others you may have added) as possible. Just because a person is a good friend of yours does not necessarily mean they will be the kind of player you are looking for. On more than one occasion while assembling groups, I've had to let a friend down gently by telling them I just didn't think they were a good match with my campaign, and it was nothing personal against them. Whenever I had to do it I managed to be polite enough that the potential player was disappointed yet understanding. I hope you'll be as honest, and as lucky.
Once the group has been assembled, you've had a few successful sessions, and you think it'll be able to stick together without any of your players secretly wanting to kill the others, how do you keep it cohesive? And what do you do if things start to go bad? Keeping the channels of communication open between players and the GM is key. At the end of every session (or the beginning, if you prefer), set aside a few minutes to talk about the events of the game, how the players feel about them, and what (if anything) could be changed to make the players happier about it. In particularly long-running games, it sometimes helps to take more time by setting aside "bitch sessions" every few months in which the players can come to the GM and each other with problems about rules interpretations, in-game events, or even OOC behaviors. However, this does not mean you should roll over and defer to your players in everything, no matter how strongly you feel about it. It's your game as much as it is theirs, and because of that you need to continue talking until you reach some sort of consensus.
It's also important to look back at the third item on my "good player" checklist and note that sometimes, we shouldn't take gaming so damn seriously. If your players are getting ferociously angry about something that was done to your fictional character by another fictional character in an imaginary world - especially - it can help to remind them it's just a game. But sometimes it's hard for everyone to remember that maxim. So if things really get ugly, you'll need to call a halt, sit down, and talk out the problem until it has been resolved. Warning is not needed; just wait until all the players get there for the session, put aside the books for awhile, and be honest about what's going on in the game and say you won't be starting the session until you figure out some way to resolve it. I've seen this happen many times before, and without exception it has resulted in happier players, a more content GM, and an all-around better game.
But sometimes, you just need to know when to give up. Occasionally a group's problems can be definitively traced to one person, and a majority of players agree things would run more smoothly without her. Nonetheless, this should be a last resort, to be attempted only after group discussions on how to make the game run better have been tried multiple times and have failed. Booting a player is never easy, but at times it has to be done. When it does, do it one-on-one, and try to do it gently (if you want to keep the player's friendship, that is). Banning a player from a game is a potent tool, and a GM who uses it indiscriminately can soon find himself without any players. Use it when need be, but do so with great caution.
And then there's the question of love. It has been my experience that nothing, absolutely nothing, ruins a good gaming group faster than the romantic entanglements of its players. The ones who get together distract everyone else with blatant PDA and forced and unrealistic in-character relationships, and the ones who break up make everything into a political battle and try to get the other players to take sides. I can't do much about the former (though I have been known to dock XP for too much PDA), but I can about the latter. My policy on gaming with people in long-term relationships, which I state every time two of my players start dating each other (which happens more often than one might think), is this: If you break up, I don't get involved. If you decide you can't stand to be in the game with the other person, you have to work that out on your own, because I will continue to extend invitations to both of you. The two of you have to decide who gets custody of my game, if that's the way it has to be. This policy has yet to be tested, as none of the couples I have in my games have broken up yet, but I'm confident it will work if it has to come down to that.
In short, gamers are an opinionated and idiosyncratic bunch, and as such conflicts and differences of opinion are all but inevitable in gaming groups. If worse comes to worse, it's always possible to simply disband a group, but many GMs seem to view that as more trouble than it's worth. When it comes down to it, ask yourself one question: 'Am I getting more enjoyment out of being a part of this group than I am annoyance and grief?' If the answer is yes, try to overlook the conflicts of personality and focus on the good roleplaying you can have each and every week. If you can't overlook it, though, it might be time to bite the bullet and start the process over again.