Behind the Screen – Chapter 5: Handling Players

Chapter 5

I apologise for this article taking a longer time to come out than normal, but it is significantly longer than other articles, and the subject matter is a bit harder to write about.

This could be a touchy subject for some, but it is involved in every single game that we play with others. Obviously, this applies to GMs over players, but players could still benefit from this article, perhaps letting them know if their actions are stressing the GM. Everyone wants the game to be fun, and animosity or other bad feelings between the group will make things difficult.

Sometimes organising a group can be difficult. Your friends are all over the show with their plans and cannot commit to anything regular, so you resort to getting players from anywhere you can, asking anyone who is interested. A lot of the time, there is no hassle in this, as I’ve experienced many times. But on the odd occasion, that random person has some qualities that you just don’t like, but you can’t really kick them out without disrupting the entire game and upsetting the group, especially if everyone else is fine with that person.

So, how do we deal with people in our groups that we may not like? First I thought I would go into a little detail about players. Probably not politically correct to go labelling groups of people, but for the sake of ease with this particular article you’ll just have to forgive me.


6d074db4cae0888fb434e2210ded3c30The Munchkin – This person is out to ‘win’, even if winning isn’t part of the game. Some people might refer to this person as a power gamer. Their main purpose in the game is to get the highest numbers or the most pluses, through whatever means possible. To them, story only gets in the way of making their character more powerful. The Munchkin can come in a few varieties:

  • The Ninja Looter – Sometimes a Rogue, the Ninja Looter will take any and all treasure they can get their hands on, even if it would help other characters more. Because that Wizard needs a +3 Great Axe of Maiming, right?
  • The Min-Maxer – This player will focus solely on the numbers. They will spend hours rerolling stats at character creation to get the absolute best numbers, and will delve through obscure books to gather a collection of the most impressive powers and cobble them together with no regard to a character concept or any form of story, often powers and abilities that were never meant to be seen on the same table as each other, let alone in the same character.
  • The Meta-Gamer – This is the person who already knows what is going on, even if they shouldn’t, and can’t help acting on that information even if their character doesn’t know it. Somehow the level 1 fresh-faced farm hand turned Fighter knows the weakness of a monster they have never even heard of before, or know the route through a thousand  year old maze only just unearthed.


The Action Hero – Sometimes also called a Combat Monster, this players participates in RPGs for the visceral, action-packed content it can contain. Typically they will focus on big weapons and killing things in as many ways as possible. Some Action Heroes may participate in Min-Maxing, but not to the extent of the Munchkin as they are just as likely to choose abilities purely for the “Cool” factor. When it comes to role playing, the Action Hero can often be found silent, letting others deal with all the chit-chat. The Action Hero will often co-operate well with the rest of the team.


The Rules Lawyer – Most everyone will know a person like this. They are the one who took the book and read it cover to cover, and then carried on to the supplementary books too. They are the one who know it all, every rule, stat and table. If you need to know something, they can tell you, and even if you don’t need to know, they will tell you anyway, sometimes over and over again. Some people consider the Rules Lawyer as part of the Munchkin group, because of their need to exploit every rule so they can win, but that is not always the case. Rules Lawyers come in two general flavours. The first is the “Evil” variety, the Rules Lawyer who will push every rule and twist every stat to their benefit. Others will he helpless as they are unlikely to know what the Rules Lawyer is referencing, even going to the extent of telling the GM what to do, and thus often ignoring Rule Zero (which states the GM is always correct). The second type is the “Lawful Good” Rules Lawyer, who helps his team and GM if they need to know anything rather than spending time looking things up, and will often offer rules help even if it is to the detriment of his own character.


The Loonie – This is the group comedian, but not just in being funny while playing a normal game. Their characters tend to have all sorts of quirks and will do completely off the wall actions during the game. This player will use his PC to incite a riot to raze the city for the sole purpose of killing some rats in a basement or use his tower shield as a sled just to get down the mountain faster. There is often no rhyme or reason for actions they take.


The Role Player – Most role playing games don’t often revolve around combat (let us not talk about D&D 4th Edition) and thus have role playing to engage the players on a more intellectual level. This is where the Role Players are most at home. They can BE their character, immerse themselves in the world and story and live through the PC to interact with everything else. While they understand combat is a necessary part of the game, talking with NPCs, solving puzzles and exploring are more important to these players. A line oft quoted by Role Players is “You are ruining my immersive experience!”, most often directed at Munchkins.



The Casual – Ever have a player that is more interested in hanging out with the group, regardless of what they are doing, including playing role playing games? That is the Casual. They care more for the social interaction than they do for the game itself, but are willing to play just to spend the time with others. Some GMs may not think so, but these people can be a valuable resource. They can fill out a party if you are a couple of people short. You never know, they could get really into it and become more involved players.


So, now we know a little (and I mean a little, this is only a rough overview, and by no means a deep look into player psyche) about the players, and I’m sure everyone reading this can relate, at least a little, to one or more of these archetypes. For me, I am generally part Rules Lawyer (but the good kind, I like to think) and part Loonie all wrapped up in a tasty Role Player shell. Knowing these archetypes can help a GM identify his players and build the game to suit.

Here is where we get to the meat of the article, how to handle players.

We all want to keep a generally happy game all around and building the game to suit the players is often a (slightly) more simple way to achieve this. A group of largely Role Players will be happy with a largely role playing game, or a group of Action Heroes will prefer a combat heavy game. Munchkins will be pleased with something where they can win, be it either role playing, combat or something else. Loonies seem to work anywhere, same as Rules Lawyers, and Casuals are just happy that they are there.


But what of a mixed group? One must try to get a good ratio of role playing to combat to keep those archetypes happy in a given game, and encounters can be built in such a way that players can be pleased on how they progress. One could make a role playing encounter sound very combat-esque, such as involving intimidation tactics or various skill challenges that involve strength or violence, but still require role playing to flow, thus pleasing both Action Heroes and Role Players, and if the end result is some sort of reward at the end of it, either physical or something like favours or respect, then it could please Munchkins as well. Leaving a more free-form session can allow Loonies to express themselves in amusing ways. Rules Lawyers will always find something to go on about (if they are the bad variety).

This sort of specific session building will only come with experience with the group. Learn to understand what the players like and serve them up with that. It can take time, but the players generally will appreciate the extra effort.

But that isn’t all, sometimes the fun and excitement run out and the session digresses into other, more negative states. Arguments can erupt and animosity can spread. This can come from many different places, but in my experience, most disputes are either about rules or PC actions. I’ve had a lot of sessions stop because of a rules dispute, either between the players or between a player and the GM (I’ve been on both sides of the argument). And many more times one player will disagree with what another player wishes to do, is doing or has already done. As a GM, one must try and diffuse these situations as quickly as possible. The reason to break these arguments early is because of session flow. Breaking flow is detrimental to the enjoyment of the game. Players can forget what is going on or the GM can lose place and leave out vital information. It is like watching a movie, but stopping at several points throughout to watch something else. Concentration is lost.

A rules disagreement can often be solved at a later time. For the interim, the GM should make a ruling. It is irrelevant on whether the ruling need be correct at the time, it just needs to be done, and for that ruling to apply for the rest of the session. The GM must make a decision and stick to it. After the session is done, then the rules dispute can be resolved and everyone learns, and the resolution can be implemented next session. Typically, I, as a Rules Lawyer, will be not be able to rest until I have resolved the problem and will take any spare time I can during the game to look up the problem.

A disagreement between players can be harder to deal with. If the argument is about something in game, such as what a player wants their character to do, the GM might need to step in and help resolve the matter, perhaps mentioning the negative connotations of the PCs actions and how that can be detrimental to the game. Sometimes the Loonies can come up with such wild ideas that it can bring the game to a crashing halt. I’m also guilty of this. The majority of the group can often overrule a single person, but that can make that single person frustrated at the rest of the group. The best option I’ve found is to come to some sort of compromise. It can be tricky, depending on the action, but hopefully something can be worked out. Diplomacy and compromise is generally the best option for most disputes like this, but if that doesn’t work, sometimes a hard hand from the GM is another option. Sometimes a GM must be harsh to settle these matters, just so the game can proceed, and everything else can be sorted out after the game is finished. If the dispute is not to do with the game, then tell the players to squelch it and get on with the game. They can sort their problems out later, at a time that doesn’t impede the game.

There are times when conflict cannot be resolved, times when players will not mesh well with a group, or have a clash of personalities. This is not that common with groups of friends who start playing together, because they are used to each others quirks, but can happen with groups of people who don’t know each other very well, or at all. A conflict of personalities or play styles is a lot harder to smooth over, as people are generally unwilling to change themselves over a game, but some might. The GM may need to talk to these people individually to reconcile the problems. Some of it depends on what people are willing to put up with, finding a group could be scarce and so some will play with anyone willing, regardless of how annoying they might be. But sometimes those conflicts just cannot be resolved, regardless of whatever means people take. In those circumstances, where the game is so adversely effected that it cannot continue in any enjoyable form, the cause of the conflict must be excised. A caustic player can ruin a game for everyone, and sometimes nothing can remedy that, except through removing that player from the group.

bookheadIf all else fails, there is a reason most role playing rules books are large, heavy and hard covered, and dice make great ballistic missiles!

There is one problem I’ve encountered, as a GM, with players which I’ve never been able to solve satisfactorily. As I write this, I think it would be amusing to call it ‘Player Wrangling’. It is the process of both organising a group and trying to get them to attend regularly. This is the biggest bane of my role playing life so far, as I’ve never had a constant group. Some people are lucky enough to have that core group, those people who want to play, and want to do so regularly. Every group I’ve played with always has people who lack dedication. If I commit to a game, that game becomes priority, and will take precedence over a lot of things, but few others show that level of dedication as I do. But nooo, people have to have things like ‘social lives’, ‘friends’ and so on, even though role playing is a social interaction, generally with friends. I think most people just don’t consider role playing as important as I do.

As a GM, a certain amount of control is needed when playing, depending on the group I’m playing with. I’ve had groups where all I’ve had to do is present the setting, inform them of a few vital pieces of information and then set them loose. Those players drove the story and surged forward, allowing me to sit back and let them do everything, functioning in a purely reactionary way, never really needing to push them. But I’ve had other groups where the players resisted me the entire way. I’ve had to change so many parts of the session and employ rail-roading just to get the players to react. It can be very hard for a GM when the players essentially don’t want to play, or have created characters that have no motivation to adventure. Keeping players on track  can be a difficult task sometimes. Out-of-character discussion can sometimes take over the game, and as the GM, one needs to be able to bring the game back to focus. And even sometimes as a player, one might need to do the same thing, especially if the GM is involved in the discussion.

Speaking of that, one thing that players do that really annoys me is create characters that don’t want to be involved. It makes it so hard on the GM when one player keeps saying “But why would my character want to do that?”. Some people will go on about story hooks and such, but at the end of the day, if their character doesn’t want to be there, they won’t, and that player should throw the character away and re-roll. It shouldn’t all be up to the GM, the players need to make an effort as well. Characters should want to go on that adventure, for whatever reason they choose, but they should still want to be there.

As I stated earlier, handling players effectively can only come from experience. One part is knowing your existing players, another part is knowing how to react in a given situation and another part is understanding players as a whole and anticipating their actions, even if you don’t know them personally. A new GM is best suited to play with friends, as the atmosphere will be a lot more casual and you can generally chastise friends if they annoy you. Handling a group of completely new players, who have never played before and who you don’t know at all can be a challenging for the GM.


Story time now, I’ve not really told any tales in these articles so far, and I want to tell one.

Back in 2008, Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Our loveable Editor-in-Chief Toby owned a shop at the time, selling comics and table top gaming products. He had organised a Launch Day event for the release of 4th, and I was asked to run an intro game for new players. I accepted, bribed into it by free dice (can’t pass up a deal like that).


My group was assembled, most hadn’t played any role playing games before at all, but all were fairly young. Basic rules were discussed, pre-made characters were handed out and the scene was set. Despite 4th Edition being not a particularly great system to play (only my opinion of course), things progressed relatively smoothly for the first part of it, only hampered by rules questions and player inexperience. Roles were played, monsters were slain and fun times were had by all. But then the players decided that it would be a good idea for everyone to go for a nice nap, in a town overrun by enemies. No one remained awake, no watch was set, everyone just went to sleep, even though I warned the players that doing so would not be a good idea. So the enemies decided to barricade the building from the outside and set it on fire. Almost all the PCs got out, though none of them remained uninjured. This led them straight into a boss fight, and since the rest was not completed, the group was not rejuvenated, most of their abilities were used and their hit points were low. To put it simply, things did not end well for the party. However, the players thought it was great fun.

fieBecause of the way I handled the encounters, gave the players sufficient warning about their actions, and improvised situations that they did not expect, they still enjoyed a complete party wipe half way through the adventure. They were not angry with me for that, because I understood what they would enjoy and expanded on that. It would have made the game less enjoyable if I had pushed them more into the story and forced them to do things they didn’t want to do just to progress through the adventure.


Got a tale to tell, or some advice to give that I missed? Let me know. Not enough people are commenting, and it would be great if I got some comments here on this. In other words; WRITE SOME THINGS!

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  1. Terry
    January 21, 2016 | Reply
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  2. Jemma
    January 24, 2016 | Reply
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