How do you fix it when inconsistent roleplay or interpersonal conflicts are killing the campaign? The more restrictions on gameplay you have, and the more expectations on play style you have, the more you need to talk about this with everyone in the group and reach consensus. Assumptions kill groups faster than monsters.

Ask the gamemasters

Campaign Mastery was asked,

Hi GMs!

I’ve had an issue lately with my regular gaming session being regularly canceled. Needless to say, I’m a bit antsy about it. I spoke to my GM about why he hasn’t held a gaming session in the past few months and got an answer that had me feeling angry.

While my trusty GM has had some issues at work (heck, he’s a doctor so it follows that work is hectic), he pointed out that one player in particular has been getting on his bad side with her character’s mutable persona. This player has done a few things that have been very much out of character, and as such, caused a few of us to wonder if she is trying too hard to be viewed as ‘fun’ or ‘cool’ in character and maybe even outside her role-playing character.

The ironic thing I have noticed is that Miss Wishy-Washy Cleric has created more exasperated sighs and grievances with her efforts to ‘fit in’ with a more chaotic good aligned party than sticking to her assigned neutral good ways. The issue now is, until our GM finds a way to resolve his annoyance with this problem player, I doubt we’ll be gaming again soon.

So, I ask, how can we encourage Miss Inconsistent Personality to play a cleric with a more consistent personality and still satisfy a need for fun role-playing?

Thanks!
Angii

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer:

Hi Angii, thanks for the question. I once told a former boss that a project was delayed because a programmer was doing things all wrong. My boss asked me if I had given the person our coding style guide and gone through it with him. Oh. Shoot. Not only did I feel foolish, squirming around in my chair while the company’s co-owner pinned me with that question, but it was at that point in my career I learned people are not mind-readers. I’m a slow learner, heh.

I carried this lesson to the game table. I try to not assume anything about expectations. From what you have explained, I think your gaming group has a communication problem. I encourage you to have a group coffee meeting, make a phone conference, or send a group email (in order of preference) to get a conversation started about everyone’s thoughts on the game.

In my mind, the cleric player is being subjected to, and judged by, expectations that have never been communicated to her. And she’s not a mind-reader either. At least, not out of character.

In the back of my brain, I knew I had not given my team member the style guide and gone through it with them. The guide contained more than just our indenting and commenting rules. It also covered our code libraries, variable naming conventions, and preferred solutions to certain programmatical problems. Guide was a poor choice of words – it was actually our how-to manual for the shop at the time.

However, the programmer and I did not get along. So, while I subconsciously knew I needed to go through the guide with the guy, I was avoiding meeting with him for personal reasons. As they say though, the difficult conversations are the ones most worth having. By working things out with my boss, I had committed to a meeting. Perhaps that was my sneaky brain at work putting me in a position to overcome my fears.

The meeting ended up poorly. The guy worked hard at pushing my buttons. He was angry at me, or the company, or something, but there was no middle-ground to find peace. I believe it takes two to tango, so I felt partially responsible for the hostility, but I could not mend the ill-will. We both left frustrated. But the project continued on with compliance to the guide.

I feel you need a conversation with your GM. And with the player. Preferably with the whole group to start. It might be a difficult situation, but from a gaming perspective, it cannot get worse because the group has stopped gaming.

First, validate all your assumptions. Why has the GM stopped calling games? What is it about the cleric’s play style that frustrates him. What play style is he expecting? Get specific. Generalities are horrible feedback because you cannot act on them. The player – and the group – needs specifics so everything is laid out and crystal clear – especially alignment, play style and personal style expectations as those seem to be hot buttons.

It will be a tricky conversation. But one worth having.

Some tips to help facilitate the healing process via communication within your group:

  • Do not state what others’ feelings should be. State things from your point of view about your feelings and expectations. Ask others to do the same.
  • Do not tolerate personal attacks, personal assessments of others, pejorative words about others. As soon as the conversation gets personal you dig yourself into a hole you might not get out of. People will get emotional, defensive, upset. As soon as someone goes on the attack, interrupt and remind them not to make things personal about others. It’s no different than being in-game and not taking control of another’s PC or attacking another’s PC.
  • Instead of focusing on what one player might be doing wrong, work instead on reaching group consensus about what the game is expected to be, alignment and behaviour expectations, play style expectations and GM style expectations. Work towards common agreement on how everyone can enjoy the game instead of finding fault in others.
  • Remind everyone it’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. Use this to break up fights. It’s non-judgmental, allowing aggressors to back-off gracefully, and helps everyone focus on the true purpose of gaming, which gets lost sometimes when emotions bubble up.

During the conversation, take notes. Afterward, draw up a document listing the things the group agreed on and the items that were left unresolved. This document will become your group’s social contract. It should lay out clearly what the expectations are.

For unresolved items, keep at it. Hold another meeting or do one-on-ones until you get to the heart of the issues. Your group can only mend itself once these issues have been resolved. Else, you will play again, people will leave more frustrated, and the desire to resume play dwindles further, and possibly even the desire and ability to talk things out dwindles as well.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer:

I have to admit that I’ve struggled to find the right answer this question. This will be the eighth or ninth time that I’ve wiped the slate clean and started over. So, if I’m having so much trouble despite all my years of experience, perhaps it’s not so surprising that the GM in question is also frustrated to the point of avoiding sessions.

Part of the difficulty has been that the question hasn’t been raised by one of the parties who are having the problem – perhaps if we had heard from the others, things might have been more straightforward. Another complicating factor is that we have to make so many assumptions to get to an answer. And a third hurdle has been that Johnn’s answer is right on the money, absolutely perfect – IF his interpretations and assumptions as to the cause of the problem are correct.

Nine-tenths of Wisdom is asking the right question

I have seen it suggested, many times and in many places, that if you have a problem that seems too big and complicated, you should do any part of the problem that you DO understand and then reexamine the remainder of the problem. I don’t necessarily ascribe to that philosophy; if you don’t fully understand the problem, then you can miss contextual elements and make assumptions that may mean that much of the work done in answering the part of the question that you thought you understood actually leads down a blind alley. This particular question is a great example of that problem, which is further complicated by the writer’s belief as to the cause of the problems, and the ‘magic bullet’ that will solve them.

I prefer to dismember the analysis of the situation and identify all the assumptions – break a big problem into smaller problems, then each can be addressed.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a fresh look at the narrative and problem at hand, tearing it apart into assumptions and smaller questions.

  • Game Sessions are being canceled by the GM.
  • The GM has had some issues at work.
  • He also states that he’s been having a problem with one particular character being inconsistently roleplayed, which has been damaging his enjoyment of the game.
  • Angii suggests that the other players have also noticed this inconsistency of roleplaying, and have speculated as to the reasons.
  • Angii then gives her own assessment of the problem, which is subtly different to that described in the previous paragraph.
  • Angii states that until the problem is resolved, the GM will continue to cancel sessions.
  • She concludes by asking our advice on how to encourage a more consistent personality for the character whose player is being blamed for the situation.

Working through this summary, let’s analyze the situation, looking at the assumptions and questions that arise.

  1. Suggestion: The inconsistency is arising because the player wants to be viewed as “fun” or “cool”.
  2. Question: Is inexperience the problem?
  3. Question: Is the player stepping out of character to have fun?
  4. Assumption: The right way to play is to stick to an arbitrary alignment standard.
  5. Question: Is this assumption correct?
  6. Observation: The character in question has a different alignment to that of the rest of the party.
  7. Suggestion: The inconsistency is arising because the player is trying to “fit in”.
  8. Suggestion: The inconsistency, when it occurs, is excessive in the direction of the overall party alignment.
  9. Suggestion: This excess is creating grievances amongst the other players.
  10. Question: Is the GM’s problem with the player’s roleplay, or with the reactions of the other players?
  11. Question: Will answering the question of how to roleplay more consistently actually solve the problem?

Johnn’s answer has focused on the theory that the real problem is the expectation of adherence to the arbitrary alignment standard – items 4 and 5. on the above list. If he’s correct, then his answer is the right answer. But the accuracy of this focus is very much an assumption on Johnn’s part, no doubt backed by his personal experience.

So I’m going to start by assuming that his assumption is wrong, and that one of the other interpretations suggested by the analysis is the problem that needs to be solved.

Inexperience

Whenever I read that a player steps out of character to do something that they perceive as being “fun” or “cool”, I am reminded of a number of young teen players that I’ve encountered. And of one or two profoundly juvenile older players that I’ve gamed with. They eventually grew out of the habit – even (with peer pressure) the older players.

I was able to encourage such maturing by taking the player aside each time he stepped out of character and asking him to justify the character’s actions. We usually found that putting a slightly different spin on the actions or justification enabled the character to do most of what the player wanted to do, without breaking character. As their experience grew, they became more adept at this and the game was interrupted less and less frequently.

If you think that inexperience or immaturity might be a factor, Angii,, I suggest that everyone at the table read a copy of one of my previous blog posts, “Player Peers”. Johnn’s answer is partially applicable to this interpretation, as well.

A Fish Out Of Water

This section arises from the question, “Is the player stepping out of character to have fun?”

Players can be left feeling left out of the fun when everyone else has a different code of conduct to that of their character. Even if the GM is fair, and gives each player equal attention when it comes to roleplaying encounters, the rest of the table will usually be able to share in the fun due to the similarity of their character’s world-view, while the ‘exception’ is viewed as a wet blanket. This is a problem that can arise – and is usually worse – with experienced roleplayers. This engenders frustration on the part of the ‘exception’ which can build up until it explodes in something quite uncharacteristic.

The solution to this particular problem is two-fold; first, the personality of the ‘exception’ character has to be tweaked slightly to give them leanings in the direction of the majority; and the second is for the GM to recognise that because of the ‘shared participation’ of the other characters in encounters fitting the majority perspective, he needs to overcompensate slightly and give the exception a slightly bigger share of the roleplaying action. Giving all the characters equal playing time can actually be unfair.

An Arbitrary Standard

Forcing characters to stick to a given “alignment”, or expecting them to do so, is always a mistake, in any event. Characters should be created as individuals, with individual motivations and quirks and beliefs and behaviours, and not as cookie-cutter products wearing different classes like you might wear a different suit of clothes.

Since I’ve had rather a lot to say on the subject, rather than trying to synopsise it here, I suggest you point your GM and fellow players at the series of “Focusing On Alignment” articles. If you need assistance in taking the generic guidelines for alignment and creating an individual and unique personality within them, one which both permits and allows for the occasional excursion into the moderately crazy, check out my series “The Characterisation Puzzle”.

Between these two series – both 5 parts long I’m afraid, which is why I haven’t tried to synopsise them – you should find the answers you need, if this is where the problem lies.

A more consistent characterisation

These articles are also the solution to the question you actually asked. The problem is that the personality of the character has been confined to a narrow “alignment box”, and the player is struggling to break out of those restraints. By giving the character a better-defined personality, the player achieves a greater level of ownership of the character, is better able to roleplay it, and will build in ways of having fun or being cool or fitting in with the party – regardless of which of these is the problem.

The only problem to which this is not the solution is the question of expectations on the part of the GM and other players. And that brings us back to Johnn’s excellent answer, which crystallised my own thinking on this question; regardless of which of my solutions (if any) that you employ, they should be utilised in harmony with Johnn’s advice.

The attitude to take is not one of “this is the problem and this is the solution and it’s all your fault”, it is “this might be the problem and this is something that we can try that might solve it – but we’ll all have to take part.”

Ultimately, as the very fact that Angii asked for our advice proves, the problem (“No Game”) affects everyone at the table, and hence everyone has a stake in the solution and should participate in the solution. You’ve all shared in the pain of the problem, you’ve all shared in the pain of the consequences, you should all share in the solution, just as you would all expect to share in the rewards that will follow.

Best wishes to all involved – and may all your crits be successes.

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