A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Having appeared on GM advice panels for lots of years, I’m always on the alert for changes in the types of questions audience members put forward.
These can vary quite a bit depending on the convention. An expensive destination show like Gen Con, or one directed to an ultra-dedicated community like The Kraken will feature challenging, graduate-level questions. At shows where local folks can walk on in to plunk down their admission fee the questions, questions tend to reflect the concerns of newer players—and thus the direction we might be headed in as tastes and experiences change.
This might be anecdotal or a blip in the radarsphere, but lately I’ve noticed a shift from the previous classic question to a new one.
The old question is “How do I deal with the overbearing player in my group?”
Now I’m hearing a lot more, “How do I draw out the shy player in my group?”
I’ve heard the second one over the years too, but the balance has shifted.
Whether this presages a new wonderful generation with heightened sensitivity or not is a sociological question that could spawn a hot take full of groundless generalizations. Instead let’s instead look at that evergreen RPG question.
My basic answer, going all the way back to Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, has been to recognize that many players who seem to under-participate actually like it that way. They prefer to sit back and quasi-spectate and aren’t waiting for you to coax them into the open. Maybe they don’t contribute as many ideas, strategies or brilliant character moments as the more outgoing group members, but they contribute all the same. Maybe they drive other players to game, supply the snacks, or just add to the social atmosphere in an indefinable but necessary way. They provide the social glue that makes quorum possible week in and week out.
In a D&D game, you can give the casual player a straightforward PC to play and tell him when to roll when he needs to. Cough, cough, human fighter, cough.
Investigative play, which dominates all GUMSHOE games, requires more participation. Even so, there are ways to decrease the burden on players who take a backseat by choice.
For a shy player, the most pressuring element of a GUMSHOE game is not the demons of The Esoterrorists, cultists of Trail of Cthulhu, or vampires of Night’s Black Agents. It’s the need to converse at length with possibly hostile people and wrest information from them.
When ensuring that all players get to take point in an interview scene of their own, you might wait for the shy player to step forward and volunteer for a particular encounter. If they don’t, don’t force it on them. Allow them to lob supplementary questions into interviews conducted by other players, even when their PCs aren’t literally present. And if they remain content to sit back and watch interviews without doing that either, this is also fine.
A semi-retiring player may be happy to interview less intimidating witnesses. You might make sure your scenario includes someone the player can talk to without fearing that they’re going to make a mistake or get the group in trouble. When introducing low-stress witnesses into the story, make a point of describing them in a way that puts the player at ease. If the player does choose to pick a tough or tricky suspect to talk to, dial back your portrayal, injecting less stress into the exchange than you would for a player who gives as good as she gets.
A GUMSHOE scenario usually assumes that the PCs are, taken together, experts in any field they need to understand to piece together the mystery. Still, building in a friendly expert for the less aggressive player to interact with may help the flow of your session.
A cooperative witness needn’t oversimplify the mystery. The group still has to interpret the information witnesses supply, even when given without resistance. (A shy player could be just as flustered by an overly forthcoming GMC as a withholding one, so take care not to bowl them over with a gusher of info and details.)
Casual players may prefer spotlight moments allowing them to interact with impersonal obstacles.
Technical investigative abilities suit shy players well. They can go off to the lab to run tests while the extroverted players interview suspects.
Academic investigative abilities, the things that their characters already know, remember, or can research, allow you to portray shy players’ characters as gaining clues for the group without fraught interaction.
If interaction in particular and not the spotlight in general hangs them up, you might build in moments for shy players to shine while using general abilities. These players often enjoy playing stealthy types, so this may be as simple as creating a place for them to sneak into and out of.
Players who don’t like tension can be guided toward supportive general abilities:
- First Aid lets them patch up other group members after they go out and take the risks.
- With Preparedness, they can open up their packs to pull out the piece of equipment that saves the day.
- With Piloting they can swoop in to rescue the rest of the party as the shoggoths charge down the ice field.
- Systems Repair has them turbocharging the spaceship’s engine for a surprise escape from the magnetic field while the rest of the group antagonizes enemies on the planet below.
Ultimately every shy player is cautious in a distinct, individual way. If your shy person does perk up and show a special interest in a facet of play, build more of that into future games.
But if they want to remain in their shells, respect that. For some, it’s the place where clams are happiest.