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So… Are you a Cleric in Mages clothing?

By Mark O’Reilly.

A player’s favourite character class is unquestionably an accurate interpretation of their vision of life and the way they would like to run it.

How do I come to this conclusion? Well, being a DM for about 22 years, I have meet some wonderful players, each of them have a distinct way of playing and each one usually migrates back to the same class whenever given the chance to play anything they would like.

Many like the sensation of being typecast, although many of these players do gripe openly about being ‘pigeonholed’, but they seem to clandestinely enjoy this branding.

So what’s wrong with this? If controlled, absolutely nothing, but it can go too far.

Let’s take, for example, a player who is playing a Paladin, who instead of protecting the group from an assault from a hoard of Goblins, actually befriends the monsters – helps slaughter the group, then loots the bodies. (Ok, it’s a worst-case scenario. And incidentally, the player really likes playing thieves, and seems incapable of breaking the mould).

When the game stops, the players are supposed to say things like “that was a great game (insert DM’s name), I really enjoyed the way that (insert players name) stabbed us in the back and left us for dead. He really had me fooled! I was sure that he was playing a Paladin though…well his character sheet had that written on it… The scallywag!”.

As you may guess, that isn’t what happens, people don’t want their character to die through the fault of incompetent role-play of others. They become justifiably fanatical about the death, verbally ripping flesh from the individual who played the character improperly. And when the guilty player can yield no more blood, they turn on the DM.

Why? The answer, quite simply is that they have spent a lot of time and effort on their creations. Personally I don’t blame them getting so passionate; on average each role-player will spend at least 60 hours a year rolling up characters, most players can spend much more time.

And what caused this particular death? A player that either can’t play the class he or she has chosen, or worse – a player that thinks that they can interpret the chosen class successfully, but can only play many classes the same way, usually their personal favourite. It is a DM’s job to try and defend their group from players that are ‘loose cannons’, but how do you do this without upsetting the player in question (who usually don’t know that they are the cause of much anguish and concern)?

If the DM doesn’t do anything but put their head in the sand, hoping that the problem will go away, It won’t – It gets worse. Things become personal and players will leave the group. I ran a successful role-play guild many moons ago and I have witnessed this happening. It upsets everyone, especially the DM, who just didn’t know how to handle the situation.

You can approach the problem from two distinct angles; I will try to give some advice on both.

Method One:

The personal level:

When you are running your group, it soon becomes clear if a player is having trouble with a particular character. They normally become remote, smart-alecky and generally not very supportive of group activities. They may also start to devise their own storylines, which usually involves acquisition of power and moving away from the group. This is the first warning bell. Overlook it at your peril!

You should ask to talk to the player in private and explain the problem you are having. Be bold, you are the DM, you have to keep order. Make it clear to the player about the faults in their interpretation of the class that you have observed. If they start waving books at you, gently remind them that you are the law, not the books, they are just guidelines.

Don’t make the mistake of continuously slapping down the player while at the game table, or ignoring it entirely, this can cause revolt within the group. Soon they will form their own ‘lynch mob’ (complete with burning touches and pitchforks), intent on extracting revenge on the problem player. After this happens, the poor player has no chance of redeeming themselves and worse of all; the control over group order is now bestowed onto a player not the DM. 

One last note about this method: Be consistent with your rulings, don’t be harder on the player causing grief than you would with any member of the group. Set down your standards, indicate that they should abide by your guidelines and keep to them.

So, to recap – Nip the problem in the bud early on with a private chat with the player. Be consistent with your rulings (it is difficult to be nice to a player that is being a prize pain, but try!). If necessary, change the players’ character not your rules.

Method two:

The group level.

This method of solving the problem player only really works if you establish it early on in the gaming groups history.

It effectively works on the theory that if you allow the group to govern it’s own actions, you achieve a much more ordered gaming atmosphere.

Before we reveal a method of creating order, here’s how not to try and get some order in a group:

The first thing that DM’s try and do is to ask everyone what is wrong with the player in question. In most cases this has to be done in private, and many of the problems mentioned to the DM are either exaggerated or inaccurate, as most people only see how that player is annoying them, not the group. So you get a rather one-sided statement.

From others in the group you get nothing negative about the problem player. This is because either 1) the player hasn’t actually been affected or 2) the player doesn’t really want to “tell tales” on others in the group. So you get a rather hotchpotch collection of complaints, comments and exaggerated truths.

Another way is to just come out with the question while at the gaming table with everyone present “What is (insert problem player’s name) actually doing wrong in this game? What does the group think about this?”

Not very sensitive I must say! This type of direct questioning reveals nothing of great value because the DM more often than not only hears the protests from the dominant members of the group. The rest just nod or keep quite. They don’t want to shake the boat. So that method is out then.

So which one works?

The best way of sorting this problem out is by first ascertaining if there is a problem. If a problem is identified, then there should be some type of club rule that dictates the actions. Rules that everyone in the group has knowledge of and agrees to abide by.

I personally have devised a contract for our club, which details role-playing standards in the vein of “Not designing a character to deliberately annoy or hinder other players in the group” (this is designed to bring to an end the Barbarian players bashing the hell out of Mage characters at early levels!). The players read the rules and have to agree to play your game (a signature is also helpful).

How do you set the rules?

You should draft 5 key rules, get everyone together and explain that you are going to draw up a role-playing agreement (you will be surprised how many serious role-players will like the idea). You should then read the rules and ask for any suggestions or changes. Once the entire group is happy with the rules, you can get them drawn up properly and get the players to sign it.

Right, now we have the rules set down, we just need to know if they need enforcing.

As I said earlier, getting the whole group to decide something this important is quite difficult. But there is an answer!

We have started to use a way that we can get a group decision without fear of members being pressurised by the mouthy ones in the group.

Get a large opaque bag (we have one made from a rectangle of spare material), two sets of D6 (or balls, counters etc) which are 2 different colours, making sure that there is enough dice (ball, counters etc) to give each member 2 (one of each colour).

(For this example, we will be using white D6 and red D6.)

You as the DM, announce that you would like the group to decide if (insert players name) has broken rule (insert rule number) stating that the white dice signifies a ‘No’ while the red dice signifies ‘Yes’.

Pass the bag around and each player put the colour dice in the bag that signifies there answer (keeping this secret). Once the bag has gone around the table once, the bag is emptied onto the game table, if there are more red dice than white dice then the group has made a decision. Pass the bag around again to collect up the remaining dice.

You then must follow up the rules.

You may think that this is rather over the top, worthy only of a large hush-hush society, but it does work. It basically informs the problem player that they are being a pain, the group as a whole have registered this and they are saying “Hey! We are not going to put up with this. We have rules and you are breaking them. Stop it!”

Even if the problem player survives this time, they will certainly think twice before doing it again, next time they may lose.

This is only a suggestion to how a DM could create some law and order in a group. Please use whatever method works for you. I personally use a large stick with a nail poking out of the end!



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