by Robin D. Laws
It’s not true that there’s one in every group. But when there’s one in your group, it sure feels like there is.
I’m talking about That Guy. The overbearing, dysfunctional participant who dominates the room and sucks the fun from the game. He hogs the spotlight. He turns every discussion in an argument. He makes himself the gatekeeper, whose permission the other players must seek to proceed with any plan.
Sometimes That Guy is also the smartest, fastest thinker in the room. The one who comes up with the great ideas and spits them out at machine-gun speed the instant a new situation arises. That complicates matters. In more measured doses, he’d be entertaining, even essential. He propels the group to action. His energy infuses the room. It kills lulls before they start. When he misses a week, the group, deprived of its self-appointed leader, lapses into passivity and indecision. If only you could harness his That Guy-ness to serve the powers of good!
Sometimes That Guy is not a guy. I mean, theoretically, anyway. Just because every That Guy I’ve ever come across, or heard complained about, is literally a guy, doesn’t mean that the condition is exclusively male. Right?
Sometimes That Guy is the Game Master. (When he isn’t, he may prove himself a backseat GM, d20-blocking you from one end of the session to the next.) His narrative authority grabs you by the lapels, blasting you through his story. Whether he’s acting from a predetermined plan or winging it, he tightly controls the action, deflecting any input that gets in his way. If you’re happy sitting in your seat for a thrill ride, he can give you a great time. But if you want to collaborate, he’s going to shut you down.
And sometimes That Guy is you.
What if—and here’s where the premise becomes a bit of a stretch—you are a dominating extrovert, but have achieved the moment of epiphany required to see that isn’t always the best way to be in the collaborative context of a roleplaying game? How do you become more open to input, more attuned to the moods of others, more able to shift attention away from yourself?
This is one of those issues that goes beyond rules or game style. Or of anything that springs purely from the intellect. The process of de-That Guying yourself is one of personal transformation. That’s always hard. Intellectually deciding to change is way easier than actually doing it.
Roleplaying offers us a space to be creative and social. A big chunk of the folks our form appeals to think of themselves as neither. Many of us who eventually acquired those skills, or mental approaches, or whatever they are, did so with polyhedrals in our hands and grid maps at our elbows.
So look at it that way, That Guy. This is a challenge to be overcome, just like you figured out (mostly) how to deal with people at the gaming table in the first place. It’s possible that you have always been a dominating force in any conversation, socially fearless and a natural attention sponge. More likely, though, you started out shy and quiet. Then, one day, you found other people who would listen to you and you’ve never shut up since.
The dominating extrovert is often just a introvert in disguise. Both types are more comfortable inside their own heads than in reaching out to others. As That Guy, you learned simply to constantly verbalize your internal monologue. Like the quieter types you’re steamrollering—maybe like the person you used to be—you’re still not keying into the social cues that drive true interaction.
So here’s the exercise. Train yourself to listen, to read body language, just as you taught yourself to speak up. Learn to value other’s ideas as you chose to value your own. Apply your considerable force of will to the task. When the GM invites input, take a deep breath. Wait for someone else to speak. If no one else pipes up—if your verbal barrage has bludgeoned them into submission, they might not—pick someone quieter and ask them what they think.
When someone else takes advantage of the space you’ve left to propose an idea, don’t naysay it. No matter how wrong you think it might be. In fact, it’s better if you disagree with the proposal, because it’s better training. Find a way to support that idea, to build on it, instead.
Let’s say you hate plans where the players have to go in and talk to adversaries who outmatch you. You’d sooner sneak in, or subvert them from afar. Never mind that. When one of the other players suggests doing just that, swallow your instinctive objections. Instead, you agree to the plan, then find a way to make it better. You don’t make it your own. Add a little element to someone else’s thought.
You might invite other players to act as leader. Instead of proposing plot threads that revolve around your character, you might use your story-bending habits to bring about a storyline that draws in one of the less active players.
The object is not to drag others to your level of seeming extroversion. Some players are casual types who prefer to hang back and follow the flow. But a group consisting of a That Guy and a covey of casuals isn’t the norm. Instead, focus on facilitating the contributions of middle ground members. The ones who sometimes participate, until you weary them into passivity.
At the end of each session, go so far as to review your successes in your scheme of undomination. Who did you successfully defer to? How many times did you wait and let the others lead? How many opportunities did you take to build on someone else’s idea?
Ask yourself what the other players wanted and what they did about it. If you can answer that question, it means you’ve started to pay attention to thoughts and feelings originating outside your own skull.
Like mapping or creating the perfect point-build character, awareness and openness are skills you can teach yourself. Yes, some people started out with them, as talents, and can employ them naturally. But you can catch up to these social prodigies, because you’re a barrel of mental energy, ready to be harnessed.
Once you’ve learned the skill, you might even find it pays off when applied to real-world interactions unrelated to vorpal swords and the lairs of rampaging shoggoths.
A crazy thought, but it just might work.
Thanks to Philippe-Antoine Ménard for the topic request.