Pitfalls of RP: NonAdventurers

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.


  1. CJO says

    There’s also the problem of focus. Even in my group, where we’ve got more than 100 years collective RP experience, where everyone is willing and able to play and play well, we’re all old friends, and sometimes the bonhomie completely swamps the game. Everything turns into a side joke, meta-gaming gets to the point where the GM (usually, me) can’t tell what a player is intending to actually do or say as opposed to what they are throwing out just to make everyone laugh, and the scenario becomes an afterthought. Which is frustrating when I’ve sunk hours of prep into said scenario.

  2. says

    I used to have unfun when I would be dealing with new generation gamers who were wondering where the quest-givers were. In my experience, easy “role playing games” like World of Warcraft actually structure things so much that some players don’t really understand how to role-play at all: they think you wander around looking for people with big yellow exclamation marks over their heads.

  3. cartomancer says

    I’ve sometimes come across the problem of a player who really wants to get involved but is too tired and distracted to do so properly. This is a considerable problem when that player’s character is supposed to be the brains of the outfit, yet his own brain is swimming in a gentle fug of serotonin deprivation.

    Max Kincaid is a hard-bitten film-noir-esque investigator of the supernatural and uncanny. He thrives on difficult cases and obscure clues that lead to nefarious goings on amid the dark streets of London. Max Kincaid is the best. When the criminal underworld needs a no-questions-asked exorcism or the police are baffled by a grisly occult murder they call on Max Kincaid.

    Max Kincaid’s player, on the other hand, tends to have the perceptive powers of a wet sock when he’s been out clubbing ’till 4am the night before the game. Sometimes a whole pantheon of dei ex machinis won’t suffice to prompt his turgid, drink-wobbly thought processes when confronted by the simplest of clues.

  4. Great American Satan says

    CJO @1- Big time. Gonna have a separate post about jokers in this series…

    MR @2- It’s true. RP youths can come from MMOs or other places with different conventions, and then there’s the issue of finding balance between player initiative and GM handholding too. I wonder that something of use could come out of video game conventions tho.

    carto @3- Luke Lugnutz would offer Max Kincaid a shotglass with a raw egg and tobasco sauce.

  5. Glor says

    Your group is not my group.

    What you describe as “van polishing” is extremely popular in mine, although usually less verbose – one character washes first and then tends to his moustache, the other is taking extra time with her hair and ponders dress selection, meanwhile the elf slept on the roof (which causes headaches for another character…), then there’s a meal in the common room… we’ve also engaged in impromptu pub crawls on the occasion of a PC birthday which took a better part of an evening, random discussion about different weapon types and woodworking not to mention the time we went fishing. And that’s just from the top of my head. All of which didn’t advance the adventures at all. And you know what? That’s fine, cause we had fun and we roll that way.

    On the other hand, what is a real nuisance are GMs with a serious case Adventura Progressitis who regularly stops fun scenes going “stop roleplaying, we need to finish the adventure!!” ;-p

    It helps that we’ve talked over what kind of campaign we want in the beginning, and that we all prefer that type of more-laidback type of roleplaying (and that some of us, including the GM, had long experience with the above-described (well, caricaturized) type of GMing and were very clear that they didn’t want that). Making progress in the adventure is important, but not that important – for us.

    So yeah, your group is not my group, and that’s fine too 😉

  6. says

    Always good to have a different perspective. The important thing is for everyone to be enjoying themselves. I do have games where most of the RP is social. But I’ve run adventures that were meant to be one shots and dragged out over days, seen other people with adventures that would have been far more effective in a week turn into months. Then again, if I knew that was my group and knew what to expect, I’d whip up seven years worth of adventure in a weekend and watch it roooooooooolllllll alllooooooooonggggg, no biggy. Helps to be on the same page.

  7. Glor says

    Yeah, adventures regularly taking longer than they’re meant to is a common occurrence – somewhat annoying, but acceptable to us.

    Being on the same page is IMHO the necessary foundation for a fun campaign. Which in my experience means ensuring that everyone is on the same page by discussing it beforehand, then keeping to give one another feedback*. Which also means occasionally finding enjoyable-enough compromises or sadly going “Ok, this doesn’t and won’t work” (If half the group wants monsters and loot and is bored out of their minds interacting with NPCs and the other half breaks out in cold sweat every time they have to roll initiative and would much rather engage in political intrigue… it could work out, but I’d be less than optimistic. And if the GM hates every single moment of GMing, things went horribly wrong and need to change or stop).

    *Or well, one can just assume that everyone shares one’s preferences and waltz ahead. I’m not a fan. Granted, I’m probably biased because I’ve been on the wrong side of it too often.

  8. says

    This is why I have always contended that the film *The Usual Suspects* is simply a transcript of somebody’s gaming session. The GM has set up a very straightforward mission (“Go to boat; overcome opposition; retrieve goodies”) along with a perfectly serviceable scaffolding of reasons for the PCs to work together and carry out the mission. And the players are like “Hell, no! We’re not going to infiltrate any damned boat, and you can’t make us!” They they try to *kill the mission-giver*, ’cause that’s lots more fun than doing whatever the GM has spent forty hours preparing to run. Watching the film, you can imagine the poor GM inventing increasingly desperate and improbable plot twists to force the PCs back on track. (“Go sack the bloody boat or I’ll..um…I’ll castrate your cousin! That’s it! Your character has a cousin! Who I threaten! So there!”)

    It’s a fun film, but part of me is always saying “Oh gawd, I’ve run games like this….”

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