In this post I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the terms I’m using. Ask for clarification in the comments if you like. I’m also going to address this in part to GMs and in part to players, but I’m coming from the perspective of someone who is almost always the GM.
As GMs, we assume players want to play. They showed up for a game, right? But this is not a safe assumption.
There are many reasons why someone who came for a game might end up recalcitrant and useless. Many roleplaying gamers are children, making them prone to rapid mood swings and erratic behavior. Some people may feel compelled by social circumstances to show up for something they don’t want to do, and play their characters as inert lumps. Sometimes a player is being antagonized by a crappy GM or other players, but doesn’t feel bold enough to quit the situation.
Those are all legitimate enough. It would be nice if people could just admit when they don’t want to be around and have the means and wherewithal to bail, but it’s not always the case. Still, there are some more cryptic reasons why players don’t play. I’d like to discuss those a bit…
Follow the NonLeader: Some people are followers and some are leaders, and that’s a whole separate subject unto itself. When someone is bossy and other people are passive, they may end up following the boss. And if that boss is a non-player, the whole party ends up fucking off and ruining the game.
For example, in a game where the adventure the GM has planned revolves around the characters taking a job. It’s the kind of job they’ve done before, it’s what they came to do, but the bossy player feels like being difficult. He has his character decline the job, makes some ridiculous excuse, and all the passive players fall in line.
Fussy Pants: Sometimes a player will just be in the mood to be difficult. Maybe they’re cranky and need a nap. Maybe on a lark they decided their character is in a bad mood and felt obliged to play that out, to everyone’s detriment.
Wat Do?: Some people like RPGs in theory, but in practice find them to be too much work, too mentally or socially daunting. Maybe they are having a hard time envisioning the scene, the point, the direction of the narrative, the consequences or reasons for actions – any or all of it – and it has them scratching their head, unable to act in more than the most simplistic ways.
You can recognize this when you describe a scene or a player describes their character’s actions, and the Wat Do PC does very little in response – some consequence-free minor action like swallowing a lump in their throat, especially when that is a non-sequitur that doesn’t acknowledge any understanding of what’s going on in-game.
Van Polishing: Sometimes you get to the game table and the “realists” start describing how their character spent the morning in far too much detail. “Luke Lugnutz poured himself a bowl of Honey Smacks before realizing his milk had gone bad. He threw the bowl in the trash – ceramic and all – and started to eat a pop tart without toasting it first. Then he started to do the sudoku in the morning paper. Since there was a three in the third column in the center quadrant…” And then you run out of time and the adventure doesn’t get to start.
Actually my example of Luke Lugnutz there was halfway entertaining to read and in reality the people doing this never are. Throw the ceramic in the trash? They might need that. Spoiled milk? Not in my house! My partner named this one after a player in one game literally taking time to describe polishing their cool van.
To some extent RPGs are wish fulfillment scenarios, so sometimes when constructing characters, players will create them with easy lives full of material comforts. Especially true in the Shadowrun system, where you can explicitly prioritize your character’s wealth and spend it on a “lifestyle” grade. Maybe these players just aren’t feeling the reason to play, maybe they just have no sense of pacing or narrative momentum. Or maybe they just like to get your goat.
Whatever the cause of non-playing, it’s a real nuisance. It can force the GM to coerce the PCs through in-game devices, breed resentment on both sides. It’s certainly annoying to other players that actually want to play. But if you see one of these situations developing, maybe you can break the chain. Come up with characters who have motivation, bow out as a player if you just can’t hang, as a GM encourage non-players to express if they have an issue or just bow out if they don’t have the juice. Good luck.