It occurred to me recently that there are probably thousands, if not millions of words of Game Mastering advice on how to “deal with difficult players” across all forms of electronic and printed media. The vast majority (if not all) of the advice I’ve read up to this point has been either reactive/punitive, or exclusionary. Discussions on the topic show up regularly in forums and social media, which tells me that it’s still a very relevant topic, even with the volumes of information and advice that are currently available.
Now, I’ve had as much difficulty with certain player types as any other GM. I’ve had players…
- …bully and murder weak NPCs because they want to have a “let’s murder guards all night” gaming session, then when the army of guards, bouncers, soldiers, and adventurers kills them, complain that you’re picking on them.
- …pick fights with high-level NPCs like high priests and archmages, because they want to prove how awesome their character is. When they die, they then complain that the encounter wasn’t balanced.
- …try to steal from party members during my campaign intro.
- …try to bully, then assassinate members of the party while they’re introducing themselves.
- …defecate in the King’s audience hall in full view of the royal family, guards, guests, and petitioners.
- …try to murder the royal corgie while it’s still being held by the Queen.
- …bite the princess.
- …all of the above.
While preparing a campaign for a sci-fi hack of the Feng Shui system, I stumbled across a strategy that’s brought me almost 100% success. We all met in the eponymous Jim‘s basement, to so I could explain the rules modifications, and educate everyone on the universe they were going to be stepping into. I told them that they’d be starting off as crew members aboard a Peacekeeper class heavy carrier, called the UNE Tommy Prince. It was the flagship of a United Nations of Earth carrier group patrolling over the resource-rich colony on Titan. Each player picked a character archetype that best suited the military role that they wanted to play. We even got an Everyman Hero out of the deal, because one of the players wanted to play “the dude who fixes the shitters”. The thing that struck me most, was that they immediately started creating a group concept, and with it a group identity, all before they even opened a book. By the time they’d started writing up their character sheets, they already knew what their place was aboard the ship, and the importance they had within the group dynamic. I’d never seen it gel so quickly before.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, is that there were TWO players in this group who have reputations as “difficult players”. We are talking well known game-breakers here.
I ran the prologue encounter that night because character creation went quickly, and I didn’t want to lose the wonderful atmosphere that had bloomed so unexpectedly. Character intros turned out to be almost moot, as they were already talking as if they’d known each other for years. I’d only just described the hangar bay, and they started running with it! I was speechless, but enjoying myself immensely. I decided to abruptly sever the entertaining banter by playing the sound of an emergency klaxon on a loop, and emulating the First Officer’s voice over the PA system ordering, “All hands to battle stations! Enemy forces incoming!”
Unity Through Adversity: The Battle of Titan’s Tears
The players (and their characters) were confident, and looking forward to a good dust up. UNE forces were the best equipped and trained forces that humanity had, and they had the express purpose of “preventing human tragedy with extreme prejudice”. The UNE’s ferocity and destructive capability were legendary, but they were vastly outnumbered by the forces of the Megacorporations and Church States that had touched off the First Intrastellar War. Over time the losses became harder and harder to recoup, which meant that there were only three carrier groups left, with two of them in blockade over Titan. Intel had it that either one of the Corporations or Churches was going to try to subjugate the moon’s populace again.
I began the battle by getting everyone situated at their respective battle stations. The Everyman Hero PC was waiting for orders with his career-long partner, the Techie PC. The breaching pod pilot, a Scoundrel PC (modded Maverick Cop) was in his pod, waiting with his Bridge Burner super soldier payload. One of those super soldiers was the Cyborg PC, whom the breaching pod pilot knew since being assigned to the ‘Prince (they’d started calling their home ship by a pet name already… :D). The Velocity Addict interceptor pilot kissed the love of his life, then ran off to be fired out of a tube, while the Medic PC was preparing for the inevitable influx of battle casualties. The Deck Sergeant PC (ex-Spec Ops archetype) was ready to repel boarders and keep everyone steely.
The first one to hit space and get a sense of the scope of the battle was the interceptor pilot. He was stunned by the number of ships that had been arrayed against them. It was staggering. They were everywhere. The corporations and churches had suffered severe losses at the hands of UNE forces over the years, so had agreed to a truce to formulate a mutually beneficial plan. They then leaked information about an attack on Titan to draw as many of the UNE ships into the area as possible, then hit them with everything they had in an attempt to remove the UNE as a tactical inconvenience.
The gates of perdition yawned, and bedlam spewed out of the black. Torpedoes and cannon fire filled the void. There were too many… there were too damn many… and pilots became blooms of orange as their life-giving oxygen ignited in that last, brief moment. The Pod Pilot and his cargo hit space, and halfway there, their escort wing was nearly gone. He radioed for help, and was answered by the Interceptor Pilot PC. Under a blizzard of fire, they miraculously managed to make it to the outer hull of an opposing Corporate capital ship, but the interceptor pilot was badly hit, and was forced to eject before his fighter crashed into the behemoth’s skin. The pod breached the hull, and injected its terror into the Corporate ship. Amid spraying viscera and the terrified screams of the dying, the augmented, vat-grown, clone warriors known as “Cauldron Born” plied their bloody trade. Aptly named after horrors described in an ancient children’s story, their job was to kill every living thing on the inside of a capital ship, then either destroy it, or set it on a collision course with a second capital ship. Before the Cyborg PC could set the collision course, the bridge took a hit and he was sucked out into space. The capital ship slagged with all of his brothers still inside.
The ‘Prince had taken hits on all decks, and had repulsed a number of breaching attacks. Through attrition, the Techie was now head engineer, and was separated from his best friend, the Everyman Hero. When the call came to abandon ship, he set the self destruct and did everything he possibly could to get everyone out. He succeeded with some, and managed to get to a life pod without knowing what had become of his friend.
The Medic was tasked with emergency response. She lost every patient she treated in that battle, including the captain. While she was on her way to the escape pods with her partner and a wounded crewmate, they ran into an enemy breaching team, who killed her partner and their patient while they were surrendering. Breaking her solemn oath… the Medic killed them all.
The Deck Sergeant was the only surviving member of his unit after a direct torpedo hit on the fighter bay. He’d lost consciousness, but he was stuffed into an escape pod after being found by Commander James Hardy, the 1st Officer.
The breaching pod pilot managed to break away and get to a mostly safe distance before the ship he was attached to blew. Before it did, he saw one of the Bridge Burners looking at him through the breach. He’d made it back just a few seconds after the pilot detached the pod.
The Everyman Hero was doing everything he could to repair holes and leaks, and eventually ended up helping people to med bay. When the order came to abandon ship, he stopped to help a pretty, mousy-haired deck officer whose leg was burned and broken. He carried her to the nearest pods, but while he was opening the pod door, the hull was breached nearby and she was sucked out into space. After that, it was everything he could do just to get himself into the pod and hit the breakaway lever.
I ended the scene describing the interceptor pilot floating through space crying, holding the vacuum-mangled corpse of the mousy-haired deck officer… the woman he loved.
The engagement was called The Battle of Titan’s Tears, after the inhabitants of the moon witnessed the sky crying from all of the starship debris burning up in the atmosphere. The battle was a victory for the UNE, and was so costly for the Corp and Church forces that it effectively ended the Intrastellar War. Of the 2 UNE carrier groups, only 3 ships survived.
The actual campaign began at the end of this pre-gaming night. The traumatized, and variously broken PCs were contacted by their former 1st Officer 5 years after the Battle of Titan’s Tears. My campaign hook was just this:
“There are more of us out there… more survivors from The ‘Prince. Most of them are pretty messed up… lost… in trouble. They need our help. Are you with me?”
My players, deep in their characters’ minds-eyes, said one after the other…
“For the ‘Prince.”
I was fully expecting the game-breakers to break my campaign, but they never did. Over time I realized that the reason they didn’t was because:
- They were invested in the group
- They were invested in the campaign’s theme through what their characters’ former uniform stood for (which still sort of stuns me to this day)
- The game started with a major combat so early that they didn’t have time to think/get bored, and negate all the gains made during the communal character creation session.
One of them blew a gasket about 4 or 5 sessions in, and had his character greasing down naked in front of a bunch of families and sliding across a hangar floor, and trying to become warp-corrupted. It was resolved pretty much immediately with a brief discussion between the player and I about the style of campaign I intended to run, and it resolved in a pretty cool way. The player gave up his character, and we explained it away as his character having finally snapped for good. The character was then locked in stasis until they could smuggle the mad, warp-corrupted monster he became onto an enemy ship. He ended up becoming a regular antagonist in horror themed sessions. The player’s new character was a UNE Tommy Prince fighter pilot with PTSD flashbacks, who turned out to be one of my favourite characters in the party.
Another thing I can’t stress enough, is making sure that everyone at your table understands, and buys into the style of campaign you are going to run BEFORE THE CAMPAIGN BEGINS, whether it’s grind->loot->level, immersionist, or whatever. At best, they may not know what style of campaign you’re trying to run and go off the rails, as above. At worst, if somone isn’t interested in the style of campaign you want to run, they won’t have any fun, and may even try to hijack the game to turn it into the style that THEY want. That’s not good for anyone at the table… least of all them.
Conversely, if any of you players out there who want to improve as players, this is a great article.