A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
“Okay, so now that the monks are locked inside the tower, I set fire to it. That’ll teach them to look down their noses at me! Burn, monks, burn!”
“As soon as it’s my turn to guard the prisoner, when I’m sure the others are all asleep, I stride over to him and slit his throat.”
“I’m tired of taking guff from the gnome king. I have my heat shield cloak on, so the confined space of this throne room? One word: fireball!”
Ah, that classic moment of roleplaying dysfunction, when one person in the group decides it’s time to cross the line from lovable rogue to psychopathic scumbag. This classic move of the uncollaborative player either wrenches the storyline onto a grim sidetrack of consequences that fall on the entire group, or shreds the plausibility of your ongoing story.
As a GM you ideally want to allow for big player-driven shifts in the storyline. However, the majority of a group shouldn’t have to put up with a plot shift they find fruitless or destructive just because it’s hatched, not by the GM, but by a player gone rogue. If everyone bought in ahead of time to a scenario in which the team is ruthlessly hunted by the authorities and forced to flee the amenities of the civilized world, that’s one thing. But if everyone else would prefer to stick with the original premise and solve murders, stop Cthulhu from rising, or rise in the power structure while filling their plush lairs with magical relics, it’s quite another.
If simply ignored, one player’s overindulgence in the fantasy of action without social constraint punches a hole in suspension of disbelief. The world doesn’t seem real if a character commits an atrocity and none of the forces that would push back against him bother to act. Even if the GM does portray the logical consequences of blatant murderhoboism, the other player characters suffer a credibility loss. By continuing to hang around with a maniac, they expose themselves as mere playing pieces, not people anchored to previously established characterization.
Unhappy players tend to let themselves get trumped by a couple of concerns here. They justly want to preserve the principle of player control over character actions. Many groups steeped in the trad gaming style are reluctant to see authorial concerns openly discussed, as if this particular breaking of the fourth wall is somehow worse than saying “Roll your initiative” or “what skill are you using to do that?” These hesitations give selfish players all the leeway they need to seize control and steer your game off a cliff.
As GM, especially if you’ve seen this player pull this before, I say bash down that fourth wall and sort matters out before his call to action leads to hours of un-fun play or damages narrative credibility.
The sneaky version of the chaos-wreaking player engineers events so that other PCs can’t stop whatever nonsense he plans to wreak. He may have succeeded in cutting out the characters, but that needn’t stop the players from exercising a measure of control. Break the fourth wall, zoom out into authorial mode, and poll the rest of the group:
“Are you still going to want him in your party if he does this?”
“This will totally change the premise of the series, into a fugitives-on-the-run thing. Is everyone okay with that?”
When the GM doesn’t intervene, alert players can speak up to voice the same concerns.
The player taking his character into psycho mode is doing more than just dictating the actions of his PC. He’s unilaterally imposing a major change in direction on everybody. As a GM you’d expect to ask for buy-in before a radical, and likely unwanted, shift in plot and tone. Here you’re requiring the player who is doing exactly that to get the same collective permission before going forward.
Often the player isn’t consciously trying to sabotage the game for everyone else, but is acting on a momentary impulse without seeing the big picture price. When you point this out, he’ll either adjust his action to keep it within AHP (Acceptable Hoboism Parameters) or back off entirely.
Should the player dig in his heels, you can turn it around into a question, asking him to show how the proposed monk-burning, prisoner-killing or gnome-exploding can occur without changing the direction of the game, undermining the reality of the world, or altering the way the other players portray their characters.
Be wary of answers that have him doing the reprehensible thing in a sneakier way, so that the rest of the party supposedly doesn’t find out about it. This still elevates his character above the others, painting them as chumps and the murder hobo as the clever one. This remains selfish play even when coated in a patina of plausibility.
There’s a word for a player who consistently takes his fun at others’ expense, even after you’ve pointed out that his is what he’s doing: goodbye. It’s crazy that this has to be repeatedly said, but you wouldn’t play basketball with an unrepentant ball-hog, or go fishing with somebody who blasts music that scares the trout away. If he doesn’t care whether the rest of you are having fun, he’s asking you not to care about his enjoyment either. Okay, let’s say he’s a beloved friend who happens to be a jerk in this one sphere, or someone you empathetically put up with because no one else will. Find some other less exasperating context to hang out with him. Otherwise you risk killing your love of roleplaying—or, before you see it happening, that of your other players.
In some cases a player who does care about the rest of the group may feel that this unforgivable or premise-altering action must take place to preserve her sense of the character. But she should be prepared to stake that character’s fictional existence on it, releasing the other players from the implicit obligation to keep the PC on the team. After a suitably dramatic parting of the ways, with or without the use of a hanging tree, the player then creates a replacement character the group has good reason to welcome into the fold. And, one hopes, keep there.