How do you ensure that every player gets a fair share of the attention when one of them has a dominant personality?

Ask the gamemasters

Sometimes it can be hard to determine exactly what the problem is when someone asks for advice. When that happens, we do the best we can to interpret the request, dissecting every word in a bid to analyse the question so that we can give the best answer we can. Most of the time, we’re successful, and a clarifying email clears up any obscure points. Sometimes we have to resort to a more generic discussion of the type of problem in hopes that it covers the question the GM couldn’t articulate. And sometimes,we just have to roll with our best guess. This is one of those times.

I have two players (in my 6-player group) that seem to get along okay but are also vying for some so-called non-existent group leader position. This seems to be a difference between players than anything else, but I don’t know how to handle it.

They joke and otherwise get along okay both in character and out. Styles of play are quite similar. Matter of fact, I go out of my way to make sure no one is ignored. They’re both good players and are among the primary ‘movers and shakers’ in the game. I’m wondering if there is some way of reconciling what I call the ‘alpha male behavior’ so the whole group can game.

Unfortunately, this still left us scratching our heads as to the exact nature of the problem. Perhaps the leadership battle was resulting in the other players having less participation due to various factors related to the leadership battle? But that seems contradicted by the statement that the GM is ‘going out of his way to make sure no one is ignored’. Perhaps the two players are competing to be the person ‘in charge’ of the group – a real-world conflict. Is there an issue of mistrust? Is it a question of ambition, or bragging rights? Possibly the two are competing for the position of ‘caller’ for the PCs party (something recommended for D&D and by various other sources, but which I don’t use). Or perhaps they are competing because their characters both want to be the ‘leader’ of the group of PCs, even though the players get along fine?

But further reflection and dissection of the information provided has left us with an interpretation that seems conclusive (to us), and that’s the one we have tried to address in our replies. Hopefully, we’ve got it right.

The problem actually seems to be that the GM has to go out of his way to ensure everyone a fair amount of DM attention because two players are trying to dominate the group and hog the spotlight…

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

There is no one solution to this problem. Instead, there are a number of different techniques to apply, ranging from targetted subplots and scenarios to real-life behaviour modification techniques.

The problem with personalities

Let’s be honest: there are people with assertive personalities, and people with retiring personalities. It doesn’t matter too much what the character’s personality is supposed to be if the player isn’t capable of expressing it; a shy player can’t play a frothing egomaniac effectively, and an assertive character will have to force themselves to play someone who’s meek and hesitant. If the source of the trouble is an incompatibility between character personality and player personality, there is a limited amount that can be achieved at the gaming table.

That said, it’s amazing how much a player can grow in assertiveness and positivity when given the opportunity through a roleplaying game. The simple act of placing yourself in someone else’s shoes can sidestep any number of impairments and personal experiences that make someone shy and hesitant. I once knew a player who, when she started, had trouble raising her voice above a whisper through sheer insecurity. Three years later, she was running her own game and slapping down unruly players whenever it was necessary; the turning point came when she found she was able to pretend to the confidence that her character felt, even if she didn’t feel that way herself. After a while, she found the pretended confidence had become real, when she corrected a mistake in another player’s interpretation of the rules without even thinking about it, THEN realised what she had done.

Miracles do happen, and roleplaying can be therapeutic, but you can’t rely on that.

Communication is the foundation

The first step to be taken is to inform your players of the perceived problem and that you intend to trial a number of solutions to see what works for the group and what doesn’t (if the players claim that it isn’t a problem, point out that you’re entitled to enjoy yourself, too – since you probably put more work into the campaign than anyone else, it could be argued you are entitled to have more fun! This problem is creating additional work and stress during the game for you and you intend to resolve it). Be firm, but friendly.

This achieves two things: it puts the players on notice there are going to be changes trialled in the way the campaign operates, and it puts the offending players on notice that their behaviour is starting to have a negative impact on the game. Hopefully, they will moderate that behaviour and some of the more draconian measures proposed later in my reply won’t be necessary.

Your players may also have suggestions for resolving the problem – add them to whichever category they seem appropriate, wherever in the sequence of measures to be trialled that seems appropriate. (And tell US about them so that they can help others with similar problems!)

Character-based solutions

These are the best and least-painful solutions to implement, but they won’t be applicable all the time.

Have the players discuss the situation, in-game, in character
Having two people who are competing to be in charge is uncomfortable. The characters should feel the same way, and should talk about the situation.

Make the expert the voice of authority
When a situation involving magic comes up, the mage is the expert. When the situation involves religion or theology, the cleric should be the expert, and so on. This should be regardless of relative skill levels, because the specialist class hasn’t just studied the theory, he’s seen the practice and has an awareness of all the peripheral issues and how other skills relate to the primary subject.

To reflect this broader expertise, I set the DCs for any task five higher for a non-expert unless the expert is in charge. If the party is being led by a fighter, and a theological question arises, either he puts the cleric in charge, or the tasks before the party become more difficult.

Whenever the expert makes a skill check related to his class expertise, I permit him a +2 synergy bonus from a skill that is representative of the class – it might be knowledge (religion) or spellcraft or pick pockets, or whatever.

If it becomes necessary to compare a non-expert but learned character’s skill with that of an expert who is less learned, I permit them to add their relevant character class levels to their skill – So a 6th-level cleric with knowledge (religion) 12 is at the same level of expertise as a non-cleric of any level with knowledge (religion) 18. To keep the difficulty of tasks at the same effective level as they were intended if running a canned module, I will also add this number to the DC required on the skill check.

These measures, either singly or in combination, inflict penalties on the party for inexpert leadership and grant bonuses for expert leadership.

In extreme cases, I will add the cleric’s level to any encounter as virtual CR – that is to say, I’ll make the encounters tougher for no additional xp reward – if the wrong character is in charge. This represents the inexpert leader failing to target vulnerabilities, making tactical mistakes due to lack of expertise, etc. You want to convey the feeling to the PCs that “we didn’t have this much trouble when Percy was in charge”.

NPCs listen to the expert
The self-declared leader(s) of the party can attempt to take charge of any discussion the party has with an NPC, but if the NPCs ignore them and speak directly to the character with the appropriate class expertise, the would-be ‘leaders’ are just back seat drivers. If they still try to decide matters for the group, when they are dealing with a figure of authority, the NPC can instruct them to “Be silent or I’ll have you gagged. I want to hear what Percy the cleric has to say.”

The same holds true for low-level NPCs like hirelings and peasants. If these are instructed by the self-appointed leader – a mage say – to attack a demonic being NOW, at the very least they will turn to the cleric and say “Should we do what he says?” or “Protect us, Holy Father”, or similar. They will look to the cleric for leadership under such a circumstance.

Use reputations against the back-seat drivers
Furthermore, the self-appointed leader who tells the NPCs to attack in such a situation when the cleric wants them to wait to be blessed first is likely to start getting a reputation for panicking in such circumstances. There are analagous situations for every circumstance – characters may be tagged with “overeager” or “greedy” or “headstrong” or whatever. The self-appointed leaders can find these reputations impacting on their performance even when they are the appropriate expert to lead the group.

Ultimately, NPCs ‘hiring’ the PCs for a mission will put an inappropriate character in charge “because I want this expedition to be led by someone who’s level-headed.” (In which case, the penalties for inappropriate leadership come off the table, without telling the players!)

Use an egg-timer to create peer pressure
Whenever the characters are faced with a major decision, whip out a 3-minute egg-timer. The players have until the sands run out to decide what they are going to do, including any debate about who’s right or who’s in charge. Failure to decide in time reduces the treasure to be found in the session by 10% and starts the egg-timer going again. If you run out of treasure, start cutting xp. If you run out of XP, start adding hit dice to encounters and CR to traps. Each 3 minutes represents 15 minutes to an hour (GM’s choice) in game time; don’t forget to roll for random encounters attracted by the noisy debate, and don’t award any xp for such an encounter.

Think of the Council Of Elrond scenes in “The Fellowship Of The Ring” as being analagous to what the PCs are doing!

Distracted Characters
You can also rule that if two characters are giving contradictory instructions at the start of a battle, they are distracted by their argument over who’s in charge and lose their first-round actions.

Metagame Solutions I: Design Appropriate Scenarios

If your party consists of a rogue, a fighter, a cleric, and a mage, then 1-in-4 scenarios should be about stealing something or finding and extracting lost treasures; 1-in-4 should be about religion and theology; 1-in-4 should be about magic; and only 1-in-4 should be straightforward dungeon-bash or militaristic encounters.

Most of the measures suggested previously won’t work if the self-appointed leaders are the characters who should logically be in charge. Design your scenarios to play to a single character’s strengths and the overbearing players’ characters’ weaknesses.

Player-oriented Solutions

Rotate the leadership
Another method is for the players to rotate the party leadership amongst themselves. This isn’t entirely realistic, and can negatively impact the campaign’s plausibility, so it is not a solution to be trialled lightly.

Rearrange the seating
Make sure that whoever is expected to be in charge is sitting right next to you. Put characters who don’t tend to speak up closer to you on the other side. There is a natural tendancy for those who think themselves in charge of the party to position themselves close to the GM, especially in a noisy environment. This might involve merely adjusting the seating of the players, or it may involve you moving as well.

Set the ‘leaders’ aside
Run the occasional subplot for the ‘non-leaders’ – and physically take them aside to deal with the events. Nothing frustrates someone who thinks they are in charge more than events over which they have no control, and which will eventually become their problem – or for which they will eventually be blamed, because they were ‘in charge’.

Metagame solutions II: Draconian Measures

If the suggestions made earlier don’t solve the problem – and they will need some time to take effect, habits are hard to break – then it’s time to get more serious.

XP Penalties for bad behaviour
I use small glass beads of the type sold for the bottom of fishtanks (and frequently used by card-players like Magic) for rewards and punishments. I have two different sizes, and a bunch of colours – white, blue, red, and black. I dole these out during play as rewards and punishments. The interpretation varies from game system to game system, but in D&D, they mean:

  • White: Great suggestion, brilliant idea, or a side-comment that had everyone laughing. Worth +5xp each, doubled for every 2nd one. So if a player gets 4 of them in a session (rare), that’s (4x5x2x2)=+80 xp. Not much, but it adds up.
  • Blue: Great roleplay. Worth +10xp each, doubled for every 3rd one. So if a player gets 4 of the in a session (rare), that’s (4x10x2)=+80 xp. Most players will get one in a session.
  • Red: Minor behavioural infraction: interrupting the GM unneccessarily, loud side conversations, talking over the top of another player, telling another player how to run their character, and so on. Also awarded for bad roleplay – using out-of-character knowledge, doing something that their character wouldn’t do, etc. Worth -10xp, doubled for every 2nd one. I’ve only ever had to hand out three of these in total in the ten years that I’ve been using this system.
  • Black: Major behavioural infraction, something that seriously impacts the game: leaving their character at home, reading another player’s character sheet without permission, deliberate cheating, usurping the GMs prerogative, refusing to accept the GM’s ruling, talking back to the GM, arguing with another player, etc. Worth -50% xp for the session or -200xp (whichever is higher), doubled for each 2nd one. Earning one of these also costs the player a -1 on all rolls for one future session per black bead issued. At the end of any session where a player gets a black bead, each player (and the GM) is handed a black and a blue bead for a secret ballot over whether or not the player in question should be kicked out of the game; any black beads earned as penalties are also counted as votes, and the majority rules. That means that if a player earns two strikes in a single session, there are already two votes to exclude him. Black beads are taken seriously! I’ve only once handed one of these out.

Elect A Leader
At the start of each scenario, after the introduction (so that the players have some idea of what’s in front of them), hold a secret ballot. The GM also votes, but can abstain. Whoever gets the most votes is considered the party leader for the session. If everyone votes for themselves, the GM’s vote is the deciding one. If there is a tie, the GM removes the lowest-placed candidate from the running and players vote again; this process continues until one person is declared the winner.

Auction The Role Of Leader
Each player writes on a piece of paper what percentage of the xp they are going to earn in a session they are willing to forego for the job of party leader. A good leader will be confident in his ability to earn more xp for the party than they would get under someone else’s command, and will vote accordingly. Other players can name a preferred leader on their ballots, indicating that they will give up X per cent of their xp to have Bob in charge (or whoever). Biggest total xp sacrifice wins.

Beware Of Excess

It’s tempting to come on strong to force an immediate change, perhaps with the intention of easing up after a session or two, but some of these measures can provoke ill-feeling amongst the players, especially if they feel they are “only roleplaying their character”. It’s no accident that most of the solutions offered force the players to confront the problem at a character level.

My advice is to take it slow; introduce one measure (or, at worst, one suite of measures) per game session at most, and give the players time to mull it over and change their way of thinking. It won’t happen overnight, but it will eventually.

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

What to do when two players – or even one player – tries to hog or steal the limelight?

You have excellent answers, Mike. I concur. In addition, I’d propose the following few game mastering techniques for consideration:

Wield eye contact

In my games, eye contact means you’re on stage. Whether it’s fielding an out of character question or listening to in-character narrative, if I’m looking at you, it’s your turn to speak.

Get into the practice of not multi-tasking when listening. Give the player you’re looking at your full attention. This means the other players do not have your attention. It’s a subtle signal for others to not jump in or interrupt.

We play a friendly game, so we interrupt all the time, but almost always for constructive purposes, which is the difference.

Note I didn’t say glare or stare. I save these looks for when roleplaying NPCs. :) Just keep your gaze steady, and don’t look at other players when they try to butt in.

Nod and use body language to show you are engaged with what the player is saying. This also tells the others you’re listening intently, and sends a signal to let the player have his say.

If you provide attentive listening to everyone, you lead by example, and most gamers will get the hint and follow suit.

Note that if you aren’t actually listening, your cover will soon be blown. People can tell you’re distracted, even if you’re making eye contact and nodding. If you attempt this deceit, assertive players will leap upon this opportunity, and are more likely to have their way because you’re already distracted.

Inflict the index finger

I point to indicate that a player is on the stage. This not only lets a player know it’s his turn, but it lets everyone else know as well.

My pointing will often reflect the atmosphere or mood of an encounter. It’s a small thing, and not a GMing requirement, but it’s something I enjoy doing.

It turns out there are many ways you can point. Why not experiment, have fun with it, and be creative in coming up with new gestures?

For example, during combats where I want a fast pace, I jab at players sharply, and aim for the eyes. This gets attention quick and tells them I mean business.

Another style is the flourish. During roleplaying encounters I’ll do a twisty, turny, airplane-in-the-air gesture and end with a point.

And then there’s the finger itself. It can be rigid, wiggle at bit, wag, bend, and so on.

Inflict the index finger to activate a player’s turn to the exclusion of the others, and to add a bit of style from behind the screen.

Acknowledge interrupting players

You can also point or nod to another player when it’s not their turn to indicate you know they’ve got something to say and you’ll get back to them. This is very effective.

Sometimes half the battle from the players’ point of view is getting the attention of the busy GM. During loud, chaotic, or freeplay periods, you want to enforce a measure of protocol so the game doesn’t get louder and louder because more volume is the only way to capture attention. Save that for the bar.

When acknowledging an interruption before refocusing on the active player, you need to actually get back to the player who’s on hold. If you don’t, your system fails and the attention-getting gimmicks of players will resume.

Don’t interrupt, lest ye be interrupted

If you interrupt, you’re sending a signal that it’s ok for players to do so. You might have special powers of the referee, but in real life you’re all peers, and interpersonal interactions are about respect, so by committing the error you are chastising others for, you erode your position.

Work on your words and tone

You might just need to get verbal with over-assertive players. “Bob, hang on, it’s Pete’s turn.” Two things you need to watch out for: what you say and how you say it.

You could say the perfect thing, but make a player angry or sulky because of unintended tone. And vice versa with using great tone and poor choice of words.

Your best tactic is to practice. As referee you are a neutral body in the game. Make your tone neutral as well. Remove judgement, irritation, and command from your tone – all these are interpersonal hot buttons.

Also, determine ahead of time what you’ll say in common situations that are having a negative effect on your game or group. Knowing what words to use ahead of time makes a verbal callout a lot easier. And, with less stress, you’re more likely to execute well on tone.

“Hang on for a sec Bob, I want to hear what Pete has to say.”

“Dude, it’s not your turn.”

“Ok people. I can only listen to one of you at a time. And, out of respect for each other, we have to take turns and then stay quiet when it’s someone else’s turn. Feel free to step away from the table to talk in private.

“Shhhhhhh! If grandma wakes she’ll pound on the floor with a broomstick. After two warnings she unchains Spike. For the love of all that’s holy, keep it down.”

Ask the GMs with specifics

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