Tabletop role-playing games, as well as LARPs are exercises in social contracts. Whenever a group of people sit down to play they all have to agree on the system, the arbitration of said system and on hundreds of unspoken rules. Of course, in this hodgepodge system there’s always room for someone to start rocking boats, rattling cages and tipping over cows.

What follows is a list of problematic gaming habits that I have observed across the groups I have been in. These are issues that manifest because of the social back-and-forth in gaming, rather than bigger issues that may impact gaming, like say, racism or other deeper antisocial tendencies. We will not address those big issues today. However, we’ll look at those gaming-specific issues and try to offer up some advice on how to minimize or eliminate them.

Basics: Metagaming

First let’s talk a bit about “metagaming” and “metagame thinking”, Sociologists can kindly stash away their definition over there for a bit, and TCG players can hold on to their “Path to Exile has warped the format” comments until the end of the article. No, what I’m referring to is using out-of-game knowledge for in-game benefits. I used to run a LARP in which, in-game the characters were cunning, secretive and conniving vampire ancients! But out-of-game the players were chatty college students. This is where I discovered that everyone metagames. When someone comes up to you and says, “Dude, ok, out of character, I’m totally killing your character next game.” you’re already stuck. It’s impossible to even know how you would have roleplayed your character had you not had that information. That is why it is up to game masters to catch and discourage metagaming, at least up to the level where it jeopardizes the game. This may be as strict as the ban we used to have in my old LARP (The first rule of Vampire Club: You don’t talk about Vampire Club), or as lax as our between-turn strategy talks on Critical Hit.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about a group of annoying behaviors that keep players from enjoying the fame fully, we’ll refer to these as “Bouncing,” since they largely involve going back and forward between in-game action and out-of-game comments.

Bouncing!

The first one is hard to spot, but I’ve observed that it uniformly makes players uncomfortable, it goes like this:
“A tall mysterious man enters the room, you feel an immediate sense of dread, but are also strangely drawn to him.”
To which the other players answer, Am I? Do you have a magic item or power that says, “whenever you enter the room other people are all like ‘woah’?” No? Then don’t tell me how my character feels about your character. Think about comic books, (like you ever stop). Now think about any distinctive character that is perceived as “a badass” or “a vixen” or “a robot from the future” is there a text box that says “Wolverine is a total lose canon badass ninja cowboy”? No, and if there is, it’s considered bad writing. In gaming, as in any medium (and yes RPGs are a communication medium, like videogames and Chipotle cups) actions speak louder than words. Describe what your character is doing, not how others perceive him, because unless he’s psychic, even a badass such as he has no control over other people’s perceptions. It’ll take a little doing, but eventually you can craft a character that behaves like a badass robot vixen from the future, without having to announce it as some weird footnote. This goes for you GMs as well, don’t tell your players how they feel about your big scary NPC, show them how they should feel by having a bunch of scared peasants run for their lives as she torches a cottage with her balefire gaze. Or something like that.

Now let’s talk about DTMHMCFAYC’s older brother, this is a very common behavior, especially, believe it or not, among more experienced players, it goes like this:
You (playing your now-roleplaytastic robot vixen): Gerard, you almost got us killed back there.
Frank (Playing Gerard?): Well, no, I just didn’t roll that well
You (out of character now): Was that in character?
Frank (???): Yes, no, anyway, you can’t blame me because Rodrigo didn’t tell us there would be fire bats involved.

The scene starts, then stops, then devolves into out-of-character arguing, as is often the case any time you use out-of-game rationale during in-game arguments. If you play with a group who wants to roleplay you have to learn to roll with it, keep roleplaying even if the situation seems unfair. Ever watch that movie where the main character gets in trouble for something that wasn’t his fault? You know, every movie? Does that character then say, “wait hang on, the writer’s making it seem like I’m bad at this”? Be aware of your character’s likes and dislikes, her choices, her style, and it’ll be easy to respond in character when someone throws you a curve ball.

Lastly in this category, we’ll talk about a small related problem that some of us have come to call the N00b Joke. It goes like this:
You (RV): Alright, let’s go over the plan one more time.
Frank (Now totally in character as Gerard) Ok, we need to worm our way into this sewer grate…
Your phone: Beep! Boo-Beep!
You: Ah, sorry guys, I just got a text from my sister, I gotta go pick her up in a half hour,
Clark (Unfortunately in character as Felix): Woah, there RV, it’s pretty unprofessional of you to have your phone on during a mission, and who is this sister you speak of?
You: Seriously Clark, just shut up

Don’t do it. Saying, “What is this television that you speak of” when someone makes an out-of-character comment in D&D is not funny. Mostly it bumps everyone out of character and disrupts the focus of the scene. Few things are as awkward as someone looking around a table for acknowledgment while four other nerds avert their gaze by flipping through their handbooks, looking down at the floor or picking stuff out of their fingernails with their mechanical pencils. Which leads me to another group of problematic behaviors.


Focus Issues!

Let’s call this group Focus Issues. The main problem with these is that they make the game drag on forever, or, most often, keep the game from moving at a pace where things are accomplished within the allotted time for a session.

Ranger: I wonder if the In & Out Burger on 5th's going to be open by the time we're done here...

The main one, I find, is when the players are doing something else while the game is going on, now-a-days that usually means surfing the web, but I’ve seen people playing WOW, doing homework or doing any number of other things. Now, it’s important to do homework, and to strike a decisive blow for the hoard, but not while four other people have agreed to clear their schedules to have a game. So as a player, just abstain from checking your tweetyfaceplace during the game; as a game master just make sure to explain to your players that you want them to pay attention. If texts are a problem institute a no-textback policy, and if computers are a problem just have players print out their character sheets, like our grandparents did during the war.
Often players aren’t doing something else the whole game, but they will frequently stop paying attention when they are not the focus of the game. This can be a big issue, there are players out there who can’t be bothered to pay attention during other peoples’ turns, much less during scenes where they’re not present (Which, depending on your metagaming policies may be a good or bad). So each time they return to the action they have to be filled in as to what is happening. This issue is a little harder to deal with, because it may stem from different sources depending on the player, some just have a short attention span, some don’t care about other people’s characters or plot lines until it becomes an issue for their characters. As a fellow player there’s not always anything you can do, except maybe bring it up to your game master. As a game master you have to figure out why the player stops paying attention and address it, otherwise your games will drag on forever.

And speaking of dragging on, let’s talk about what is probably the most common focus killer in the gaming groups I’m in, I call it The Joke Spiral. It’s generally not a problem when one player makes an out-of-character crack about something, it’s even not a big deal if another player makes a followup joke. The problem is when every one needs to get a crack in every time something funny is said. As a game master you have to set the tolerance level for the group, I’ve “played” in games where we could barely get through one encounter in six hours because of all the witty banter going on, that is not an exaggeration either. As a player it is your duty to stop the Joke Spiral before it gets out of control by refraining from adding to it, whenever you could jump in with an amusing anecdote, witty joke, or crafty zinger… don’t. It means that no one will get to hear about your hilarious guacamole joke, but hey, at least your dwarf fighter will get to smash some heads.

Hopefully this’ll help you at your gaming table, if you identify these behaviors in others, and you feel comfortable addressing it, pull them aside and talk to them about it. If you spot these habits in your own behavior your next gaming session is the next best time to change them.

The Author

Rodrigo

Rodrigo

Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.

Previous post

Major Spoilers Poll of the Week: DC Animated Television Series

Next post

Major Spoilers Podcast #204: LEGION!

17 Comments

  1. Thomas
    May 25, 2010 at 3:51 pm — Reply

    I would just like to point out that having players not paying attention can turn out to be a good thing. A couple of years ago my group was playing in a Star Wars Sage Edition game. We were dealing with a Hutt Crime Lord who dealt in slaves. We were sent to free the slaves. The Jedi of our group was not paying attention, so we managed to cut a deal with the Hutt where we would buy the slaves off of him and then he could go out and get more slaves. After all, we weren’t being paid to stop his slave ring, we were being payed to free these specific slaves.

    I turned to the Jedi and asked him if this was okay. He looked up from his laptop (the cause of the distraction) and said sure, everything was fine by him. It wasn’t until after he agreed that he asked us what he was agreeing to. We told him and then refused to let him take it back. It was awesome.

  2. Slappy
    May 25, 2010 at 5:53 pm — Reply

    Nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd.

    Love Critical Hit and how you run it by the way.
    Very nice job.

    Ps. I do not think that Mr. Matthew Peterson Sir makes too many references.

    • May 25, 2010 at 7:51 pm — Reply

      I make the proper amount of references given any particular situation.

      • Instant Coolguy
        January 7, 2014 at 8:38 pm — Reply

        I want a t-shirt that says “…..and THAT is my one”

  3. Crash
    May 25, 2010 at 7:22 pm — Reply

    Wait…. Didn’t you already publish this article awhile back? And didn’t a bunch of us commentators all agree you were just being too uptight lol?

  4. Bryan
    May 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm — Reply

    Yup, definitely remember reading this one… and while I don’t remember the general consensus being that Rodrigo was just being too uptight, we did notice that Annoying Gamer Habits failed to not mention any annoying GM habits, and focused only on players.

  5. May 25, 2010 at 8:30 pm — Reply

    This Article was one of the ones lost to the big crash.

    • May 27, 2010 at 4:02 pm — Reply

      This was the big server crash of ’29?

      That was horrible. All those poor okie hard drives wandering through okay I’m done.

  6. Andy L
    May 27, 2010 at 7:01 pm — Reply

    I have to agree with Rodrigo on these points, especially the ‘focus’ issue. If I am running a game (GM/DM/etc) players know that it is unacceptable to surf the web, play another game, use their Iphone to book a table at Romero’s and to most players credit no-one tries to.

    I guess I am lucky in that most players I deal with remain IC for great lengths of time; mind you we are all in our 30’s and 40’s and get to play infrequently so we make the best of the time we have.

    I’m only up to Number 30 Critical Hit so far, but despite what people comment, and whatever some people think, the main issue in any gaming group is that each group will have its own playing dynamic.

    All I hear is a group of people enjoying the game and the social interaction that goes with it. Main objective attained!

    Carry on the good work and if you ever want to branch out and do another version with an English DM with 26 years experience, count me in!

    Andy L

  7. Braeden
    June 26, 2010 at 2:06 pm — Reply

    Hey Rodrigo do you have any tips on dealing with players that take it too seriously. I have a player right now that has burst out into tears and stopped the session for the whole day just because he is on a bad dice streak and other players are rolling high. He also tends to try and attack other team mates if they try to open a treasure chest that he wants to open (later he always says he was joking) but at the time he knocked a player unconscious and took the treasure. Thanks for the help.

    • Rodrigo
      June 27, 2010 at 8:50 am — Reply

      hmmm, that’s difficult. Sounds like your player has some emotional/social issues. On the one hand, it’s not really your responsibility to help him with those, but on the other, if he’s your friend you probably want to keep him in your game and help him out.
      My advise would be to maintain constant communication. “What’s wrong?” “What are you trying to accomplish here?” “Why are you attacking Jeff’s character?”

      And then make sure he knows that bad rolls are not his fault. Which is what we tell D&D Brian every day.

      Also the roleplaying aspect can really help you hear, if he goes to attack someone because they got to the treasure before he did you could well ask him “Is that something that Durgan Ironshield, dwarven paladin would do?

      • Braeden
        June 28, 2010 at 1:19 am — Reply

        Thanks for the help I think what i will do is sit him down somtime away from the other players and talk to him and see if i can get through to him. i also think that i will be more direct ,when i give new treasure, on who gets what so that there is less bickering and it wont make a difference who finds the treasure and collects it first. He is definatly the Brian in our group and what make it worse is we also have the torq in our group that crits every other roll

  8. September 20, 2010 at 6:26 pm — Reply

    Another problem that I have encontered that was NPC hate. I had recently introduced an NPC into our party for the specific purpose that the characters had leveled up too fast in the previous quest and to stop them from breezing through every encounter I added her to the party as a weak character. The players in my group though put her down both in and out of character the enire quest, and it cut into the gaming expierence. This is not the first time this party has expeirenced NPC hate. How do I stop them from abusing the NPCs?

    • September 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm — Reply

      Not sure what to tell ya, it depends on what the tone of the game is. Also if your group is just openly hostile to this technique you might just want to avoid it.

      Lastly I think your question is “how do I get players to react the way I want them to to an NPC” because presumably you don’t want them to ‘respect’ all NPCs. The answer is, make sure the NPC SHOWS why (s)he’s respectable. Don’t tell them, “this is an old and respectable adventurer” show them that the old timer knows his stuff.

  9. EmeraldStorm
    September 26, 2010 at 5:27 pm — Reply

    I’ve been trying to find this article for a while (had trouble figuring out the site–silly me) since it was mentioned in the Critical Hit podcasts.

    Some of this is covered in some of the books I have (DMG2 in 3.5, I think it’s mentioned in the 4e DMG, and touched on in the core WoD book) but there are some good additions.

    The JOKE SPIRAL is something I know too well, and it is insidiously infectious in my group. The problem ends up being: everyone is playing the game to have fun, ultimately, and so it’s hard to be against people laughing and having a good time with joking. But the real problem is when it halts game play for an entire night because people keep wanting to make more jokes like the one or two that got everyone laughing with tears at the start of the session and any semblance of story telling or role playing, or focus during battles, goes out the window because people keep getting distracted.

    Also, I’ve been doing my best to encourage role playing in my group, either as the DM or the player (which can be a pointless effort when the DM seems indifferent on the idea of RP). Those sessions where we all DO get into it, though, have been pretty awesome. The key problems I’ve noticed, though, are “bouncing” being accepted as the norm, and distractions like someone looking up funny you-tube videos (which is hard to complain about when it’s the DM doing it while the party is planning–but then he wants to share it with us before we get back to what we were doing).

    Yeah, a follow up article about bad DM habits would be great. As long as it stays diplomatic.

    Thanks Rodrigo.

  10. Bill
    November 5, 2010 at 12:18 am — Reply

    I encourage a certain amount of humor in my game, in and out of character. Partially because I run a fairly relaxed game and partically because I am probably one of the worst at tossing out a quip and getting ‘the joke spiral’ started. I probably sound a bit like Matthew does (*dragonstorm*) in your MS podcasts tossing in those one liners and old quotes. But even in my games there is definitely a point it gets out of hand.

    One solution I have had for this is creating an oddball character that allows me to do a lot of that in character. For example I had one Victorian Vampire character who was a little crackers. She had eidetic memory and precognition but was also mentally challenged in that she couldn’t keep track of *when* she was. she was, mostly, a productive member of the group but would say the darndest things. You never knew if she was going to declare the gaslights “the devils work” or ask why none of the light fixtures had bulbs in them.
    Good article, Rodrigo.

  11. September 27, 2011 at 3:52 pm — Reply

    Great article, just got to Critical Hit’s first GM Workshop and looked this up.

    I just recently had a blow up at a game due to two players who never came on time, or came prepared. The whole time they texted while playing, and constantly asked “ok what’s going on” when it was their turn.

    Thankfully the GM agreed and ousted them, with three awesome players taking their place.

    I’ll pass this article to my Nashville groups via Facebook, lots of great information. Thanks!

You know you have something to say, say it in the comment section