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[Fading Suns d10] Smell the Dysfunction

Started by Brennan Taylor, September 21, 2004, 05:03:38 PM

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Brennan Taylor

The game was a White Wolf rules (d10 dice pools) Fading Suns game. I had been asked to sit in by the running GM, mostly because he knew his group was dysfunctional and he wanted me to see what was going on. I think he has given up on this group and is preparing to start a new one. What I saw indicated some serious problems.

The setup of the game was as follows: a powerful noble house had claimed a supposedly unexplored world as its territory and sent a team to secure control in advance of colonization efforts. The game itself is set in a feudal starfaring age where there is a Luddite state religion and hereditary rulers. The al-Malik family sent two baronets to the world, one of which is a PC (played by the GM's wife, player A). The other characters were a priest and two scientists (three male players, henceforth known as B, C, and D).

Problems emerged at the beginning. The GM gave me three characters to choose from, and I picked one with what I thought was a close tie to another PC. I thought this would be a good move since I was new to the group and wanted in on the action. Unfortunately, this character was very combat/action oriented, and the game turned out not to be. Both the GM and I realized the character was a bad choice about halfway through the session, but then it was a little too late to deal with it. This obviously effected my play, and definitely kept me from enjoying the session as much as I could have.

The GM set the initial scene to introduce me, but I had difficulty getting the attention of the group. Players B (the priest) and C (one of the scientists) had begun role-playing in character with one another at one end of the table and were unwilling to pause to allow my character to enter the scene. Player A made a halfhearted attempt, but in the end everyone just assumed I was tagging along without any formal introduction. Players A and D sat quietly as the other two spoke in character, and then after about ten minutes, the group began to plan the mission. We were to cross an inland sea and explore a new area of the planet in an attempt to find a community of the local inhabitants. Some time was spent determining if the craft we were to take would have enough fuel. Once we made the journey, there was some discussion of whether or not we had fuel enough left to circle our landing area to scout before landing. This discussion lasted some time, presaging the trend in the rest of the game. In the end, we landed without scouting, even though several of the players thought that we had in fact scouted before landing (a consequence of Player C talking over everyone and not listening to my or Player D's comments regarding fuel). The GM seemed to listen to Player C more than any other player in this instance.

After landing, I did some scouting (my character was a scout) while other characters milled about camp. Player A decided to scout on foot, and Player C chose to stay behind at the vehicle. During our scouting mission, the GM periodically returned to Player C to inform him of local wildlife moving around his vicinity, but he stayed resolutely in the vehicle. After some travel up a stream, Player B wrote a note to the GM, and his character disappeared. We tracked and discovered him in the woods, meditating naked to his God. He used a power to receive guidance, and then asked about caves in the vicinity. Player A meanwhile was contacted psychically by some collective intelligence, and Player D and I discovered some ancient ruins.

After the characters spent the night on the beach (lots of discussion of sleeping arrangements, Player C wanted to stay outside, no one else thought this was a good idea), we awoke to an animal scraping a horn on the outside of the vehicle. Player A shot it, and more discussion ensued (should we leave the vehicle there, move it somewhere else, etc.). This all seemed to be due to a lack of leadership in the group. We spent a lot of time discussing things in a contentious way, and at a remove from the characters. The discussion wasn't really in-character, it was a sort of metagame tactical discussion by players.

We begin our trek inland, and after some traveling, find a ridge where someone seems to have been cultivating flowing trees. We decide to fly the vehicle back to this location in order to have it to sleep in again this evening. Here occurs the biggest discussion of the night. The GM says, "The trees are spaced some distance apart, you could probably land your vehicle here." Player C (tasked with piloting the vehicle) demands to know exactly how far apart the trees are. The GM replies with a figure that is close to the length of the vehicle (already established), and Player C decides he cannot land the vehicle between the trees. This goes back and forth for some time, with the GM explicitly stating that there is enough room to land. Player C will not accept this, and I grow annoyed, joining in the argument. Finally, the GM states that the top of the ridge is free of vegetation and we can land there. This is clearly an effort to end the discussion, and Player C accepts this.

We return to the vehicle and fly it up to the ridge, spotting a small settlement as we arrive. We land nearby and are invited into the community after some negotiation with the leaders, descendants of the former colonists. Here I discover my mistake in character selection, as I have basically nothing to do here for the next hour-and-a-half as the player characters speak with the village leaders. About halfway through the discussion, Player B and Player C begin writing notes to the GM, and constantly interrupt Player A's spoken role-playing with the GM. The GM in fact ignores Player A several times as he reads notes. Player C then disappears with the GM into the other room for a private discussion (presumably attempting to betray the rest of the party in some way). At the end, some important information is imparted to Player A by the mayor of this village. This seems to be the GM's plot purpose for the scenario.

OK, at wrap-up, the GM asks me what I thought, and I tell him I wish I had taken another character, and that I can see some big problems in the group. GM then mentions that Player B likes to immerse himself in-character, and when he feels that he isn't getting enough attention, he does something to shift the spotlight to himself (I observed this twice: he disappeared in the woods, and then with the note-writing at the end). The GM can't figure out Player C, who constantly argues about technical details. In a previous session, a long discussion was devoted to the physics of a creature harmed by sunlight (not possible, according to Player C, since they weren't harmed by artificial light).

As to my impressions, I was rather bored through most of the game because I had taken a subordinate character. I didn't want to step on any toes (I was new to the group, and had been invited to observe). I also thought there was a clear chain of command among the characters, but Player A was pretty much ignored the entire time even though she was purportedly in charge of the group. If I had a more forceful character I probably would have gotten bossy and tried to organize everyone.

It seems we have some seriously competing agendas in the group. I can see the GM's point on Player B. He was fine when he was involved in a role-playing situation with another character, but as soon as things moved away from that sphere, he made forcible efforts to shift it back. Player C I can't really figure out. His behavior was really erratic, but I think he is in a power struggle with the GM, and expressing it by focusing play on minor logistical issues all the time.

What could be done with this group, if anything? Any other theories on the group dynamic?

Ron Edwards


You can't figure out Player C?? Holy crap.

I had this guy spotted from your first paragraph about him. He's the Prima Donna, as defined in my Narrativism essay, taken to the extreme that it no longer matters to him what the play is about, as long as the attention is focused on him. As a GM, he'd probably be a radical railroader. His whole issue is control over what's going on and status as the Creative One among the bunch.

Now for my somewhat-scary question. You didn't give genders or relationships among the players, so my "he" above is conditional. But let's say C is a He. If any of the others were Shes, then I betcha C was carrying on some kind of attention-charisma trip with at least one of them. If C is a She, then I would look for signs of her throwing hot/cold signals at random to all the male participants.

Those are behaviors I very frequently observe when a Prima Donna is in mixed-gender group. (Alter pronouns to accord with suitable gender preferences as you see fit.)



Player C sounds pretty broken to me.  Unless he's got a groovy beach cabin or some other good out-of-game reason to be there, he should go bye-bye, IMO.  He seems to be using a lot of different strategies to suck up attention and seems to work at cross-purposes to the rest of the players -- the whole "private conference so I can screw the rest of you over" is a bad sign.  I could hypothesize about his past relationship to bad D&D GM's, but why bother?  

I was also struck by how badly the GM treated his wife -- is he bending over backwards to avoid favoritism, or what?  

Of course, the scenario you describe sounds pretty dull also: unless I missed something, it consisted of planetfall, finding a village, and talking to the village elders.  Not much meat on those bones, even if you had a better character for this game.  

I hope this is helpful -- I'm curious to see if anything went right for you during the session.  Sometimes it's better to jack up the table and slip a new gaming group under it.


It sounds like Players A and D are the only ones that don't suck.  Present company excluded of course.  But you gotta work with what you got.  Or at least I always have.

Player B wants to go all out on immersive roleplaying and wants the spotlight on him.  Player C wants to argue little details.  

You are in a tough spot though as the new guy.  I will give my advice anyway because I like to hear myself talk.

If I were the DM I would switch over to more gamist type adventures.  Stuff where the whole party has to stick together and depend on the other players or someone dies.  I would do this so the party would always be together and hopefully Player B wouldn't try to get attention to him so often (and if he did it would be ok since the whole rest of the group would be there).  I would base it in a world where Player C wouldn't know any details ("But Berettas only have 12 bullet clips!  He can't shoot 13 times!"  I hate this.).  

This thing with the spaceship not having room to land does sound ridiculous.  I suppose though if his character is a ridiculously over cautious one then I could see it.  I think arguing with him about won't make the matter any better though.  Which actually brings up a couple other points:

1) I don't like GMs seperating parties.  I know sometimes you have to but when you do you end up with Player B's or people shuffling off to play nintendo.  I think you should avoid seperating parties if at all possible.  The scenario here seems made for seperating parties which could be one of the big underlying problems.  In the case of this story I would let the player decide to seperate himself but have him killed by natives or something.  He would then take over controlling another of the ship crew.  (I don't know what you are running but in my mind its taken on a horror movie aspect :) )

2) The players all seem to have a very confrontational attitude about things.  It sounds like most of the time was spent arguing about little unnecessary details.  Should we all go out exploring or just the scout?  Should we camp in the car or camp outside?  Etc.  When you get down to it, these things really aren't that important.  I mean they might be in real life but in the game the GM decides what the effects are.  You always have the safety net of the GM who wants to have an interesting story to protect you from bad decisions.  That isn't to say he won't punish you for making really bad decisions but it didn't sound like any of the stuff you were discussing falls into that category.

3) There's no leader.  You covered this pretty well yourself.  Even though Player A was supposed to be, she was ineffective.  I would have made Player B take the leadership character.  He wants center stage?  Let him have it.  As long as the other players aren't pissed about it it should work out fine.  Having an obnoxious dick in the captain chair will also get around problems like Player C refusing to land the spaceship in the obviously fitting place ("I'm in charge here and I say we land here!")

4) Your GM has no spine.  This seems obvious to me.  He doesn't control the flow of the game at all.  The players argue with the GM about dimensions of parking spots.  He hasn't established himself as the "Master" of anything.  I'm not suggesting railroading the players but sometimes the GM has to stop the discussion and say "Alright, what's the decision?  I have heard A and B offered as choices.  Want A? Raise your hand.  Want B? Raise your hand.  OK, A wins."  If you get bellyaching just say "Sitting here listening to the bickering isn't my idea of fun.  Let's move this story along already."  

I would try a completely different game.  Something like that Great Ork Gods that I saw here the other day.  The whole group seems to take things too seriously and switching over to a game that's obviously slapstick could switch them up a bit.  They might come back to your other games a bit more relaxed.

In your position though, you're pretty well screwed.  You're the new so aren't in much of a position to "drive" anything.  Maybe you could suggest GMing a session once in a while to show how things could be done.


I'm reminded of the Googlewhack faq:
Quote>"You GUYS SUCK!!!

Actually, we don't. If everything seems to be moving away from you, perhaps you blow.
Sounds like the GM is doing a pretty crappy job of spotlight management.  That explains player B just fine, I think:  if my choices were "sit around, do nothing, and listen to the GM coax player C for half an hour—or cry out to my god to direct me as he would", I'd probably go do something dramatic to get fun play in, too.  Seems like with that GM, the only way to get a chunk of the play is to make yourself impossible to ignore.

Player C is an obvious result of a wimpy GM.  I've played with guys like C; they just don't realize that no one else is interested in arguing about whether the broom closet would have a mop, too, or whatever.  They're not out to screw things up, they just get absorbed in mustering their points and miss social cues.  The answer is, when the GM notices the rest of the players glazing over, in a strong voice, "C.  You can land, the ship, on the hill.  OK?"  Because someone has to take charge of what finally enters the SIS, and if the GM's not stepping up the challenge, the loudest player will.

Ron Edwards


Greedo and Madeline, those are interesting comments - they reveal a lot about your values about how to play successfully. I think it might help to back up a little and consider a couple of points.

"Control" is one of those words which, when introduced, may cause discussion of role-playing to spin into meaningless hunts for definition. As I used it, for instance, it refers to people hunting for something that they will never, ever achieve among a group of people: absolute safety through absolute authority over others. As you used it, Greedo, it's something the GM ought to have and no one else. Clearly we're talking about very different things.

Madeline, you mentioned "Taking charge over what eventually lands in the SIS ... ", which is definitely an important issue - but I suggest that it can be more effectively turned around. The likely problem in this group is not that the GM won't take charge, but the perception among all of them that someone must have absolute charge. It's the control-thing again, so maybe I ought to talk a bit more about that.

1. I do agree that the SIS must be established rather than endlessly debated or negotiated. For a little while, we've been using the term "the buck" in the sense of "the buck stops here."

2. However, a lot of the narration-rights rules that show up in recent games are not based on "Person X talks, everyone else shuts up," but rather, "Everyone may talk, but the buck stops with Person X."

In other words, "control" as often used in RPG disputes is often focusing so heavily on #1 that they miss the point of #2. Nothing enters the SIS unless everyone agrees - so get "agreement" in screwed-up ways, including bullying, wearing out the other people through endless piddling, interruption, establishing yourself as the buck-stopper, and so forth.

Since none of these are necessary, i.e., since getting the SIS going without any problem is easy and fun, people only practice these fucked-up versions of doing it for specific reasons: fear, mistrust, and abuse-experience.

Fear and mistrust seem to me to be very much in evidence among this group. In my experience, they may even protest vehemently that they love playing together and how great the games are, especially given a few weeks to re-write the actual events of play in their memories. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of their play included laughter - of the off-topic, hysterical, distracting kind which serves as a cover for not having fun.

A final issue concerns pure Social Contract and covert sexuality, which I hope everyone can see is often a major feature of any social leisure activity. As for the third, I do suggest considering whether C is jockeying not only for the control (in the bad, messed-up sense of the word) of play, but also for attention of the other guy's wife. This may not be the case, but it is a common thing in role-playing groups.


Brennan Taylor


Player C (male) didn't engage in those sexual-relations games you mentioned. In fact, he barely acknowledged that anyone else was at the table at all for most of the game, except when he was arguing with them. All of the players, except for A, were male.

I definitely see your point about what was going on there. It may be obvious to you, but I found his behavior so illogical and pointless that I couldn't figure out the motivation. I guess I am so removed from this mode of play I couldn't even recognize it.

I am doubly certain after posting here that the only hope for this group is the removal of Player C from the equation. Player B is workable, possibly--he has an agenda, and if that is taken into account he isn't too disruptive.

I am currently running another game (Mortal Coil) with the group minus Players B & C, and they (GM and Players A & D) are all thoughtful and enjoyable role-players in this game.

Madeline: I don't think even a strong GM could do anything with Player C. I imagine if he was in my game and I constantly shut him down when he tried to argue, he would just leave the group.

DannyK: Yeah, the session was pretty dull, but that was in large part due to the fact that we spent 3/4 of our time debating whether or not to circle before landing, sleep on the ship, whether the ship could land somewhere, etc. If everyone had been focused on character or plot rather than technical detail, we would definitely have gotten farther. The GM certainly could have sped things along a bit, but he seems to prefer to sit back and let the players move the action.


I actually think that everyone's analysis here is reflective of themselves and their issues (including the one I'm about to make). This is partly true because although your write-up is, IMO, very good, it really can't help but be a microscopic amount of information so people will tend to naturally fill in the rest.

So I'm going to address an issue that has recently come up for me and how they relate to you.

In a StarCluster game (online) our crew is heading out to make our fortunes. A lot of time was spent figuring out what our burn-rate of fuel and money was and how the local-system economy worked so we could make a reasonable plan.

Firstly I (as a player) was not sure what aspects of the game the GM would be playing up. And this wasn't a mysterious point of dysfunction--it was just basic "what level of abstraction are we going to give to our housekeeping/survival."

It could be he (and the other players) just didn't care about burn-rate and we'd go and have a cool adventure no matter how we got there. But on the other hand, it's a rough galaxy out there and if we screwed up we could lose our ships, the our characters, and the game.

Since I enjoyed the planing exercise and the idea that our very-very young characters were as new to the scene as we, our players, were, I went with the planning session and figured the worst we could do was burn half a sesssion making a plan that wouldn't be all that important. But if I'd been bored by it, I might've been tempted not to say anything since it was a "smart" and "relevant" and "prudent" thing for the characters to do.

I don't believe that attention to circling, choice of landing, and so on is something is relevant directly to CA's (i.e. I don't think it's 'Sim')--I do think, however that it relates to social contract and technique in an important way.

A discussion about how the characters are experts at what they do and how things move along well and the GM will make sure the real-life people are informed could loosen things up a bit.

NOTE: I see this as sort a "trust" issue. That's a bad word for it, because a GM who'll let you screw yourself up isn't 'untrustworthy.' It's sort of an ambient-level-of-danger thing. If the GM says "ambient level is low" and will make sure that dangerous things are pretty clearly marked and that if the player makes what the GM thinks is a bad decision, the GM will inform them, then players may relax more or gloss over things like getting to the surface or how to pitch camp. So it's not really trust--but a specirfic kind of agreement.

BUT ...
But the GM did say there was enough space to land the ship and Player C was still stuck about it. So I have to think that Ron is close, if not right on the money there.

I have seen players argue that wildly improbable or even 'impossible' things "should" be true in Sci-Fi universes (and elsewhere, of course)--and I think that this has to do with something more than simple wish for immersion or a "low tolerance" for poor versimilitude.

If the GM says it's a tight fit but one the ship can make--and the player wishes to argue, I think the key element is that "the player wishes to argue."

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Here's my take on the situation:

Player C is using the Actor Stance ("The person playing a character determines the character's decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have") and not switching out of it.  For lack of a better term, I'll call this technique Pawn Stance Refused.

In Pawn Stance Refused, the player refuses to acknowledge or participate in the Metagame.

In this particular example of play, we have some situations which support this conclusion.

> The GM set the initial scene to introduce me, but I had difficulty getting the attention of the group.
> Players B (the priest) and C (one of the scientists) had begun role-playing in character with one another
> at one end of the table and were unwilling to pause to allow my character to enter the scene.

Introducing a new player is largely a Metagame function.  There doesn't appear to be a good in-game reason for the characters to halt their conversation in order to greet a stranger, so they don't.

> Player C chose to stay behind at the vehicle

This sort of "realistic-but-boring" decision is typical of Pawn Stance Refused.  It's perfectly sensibly for a character to stick with the vehicle that their lives depend on.  It's also typically boring.

>  Player C (tasked with piloting the vehicle) demands to know exactly how far apart the trees are. The GM replies
> with a figure that is close to the length of the vehicle (already established), and Player C decides he cannot
> land the vehicle between the trees. This goes back and forth for some time, with the GM explicitly stating that
> there is enough room to land. Player C will not accept this.

The GM's assertion that there is enough room to land is essentially a Metagame communication.  Player C doesn't accept this because he has no reason to believe his character is confident that there is indeed enough room to land.

> Finally, the GM states that the top of the ridge is free of vegetation and we can land there.
> This is clearly an effort to end the discussion, and Player C accepts this.

This GM statement, however, is in-game and not Metagame, and thus Player C has no problem with it.

> The GM can't figure out Player C, who constantly argues about technical details. In a previous session, a long
> discussion was devoted to the physics of a creature harmed by sunlight (not possible, according to Player C,
> since they weren't harmed by artificial light).

I think this fetish with in-game accuracy is due to disregarding the Metagame.  If Player C refuses to operate on Metagame information, then all he has left is the in-game information.

Why would someone adopt Pawn Stance Refused?  In this case, I think part of the answer might be

> I can see the GM's point on Player B. He was fine when he was involved in a role-playing situation with
> another character, but as soon as things moved away from that sphere, he made forcible efforts to shift it back.

I suspect that Player C suffers from "Real RolePlaying Envy".  He's trying very hard to emulate Player B and play the game "correctly" by adhering so strongly to the Actor Stance that he ignores the Metagame entirely.

Another motive for Pawn Stance Refused is distrust of the GM.  If a player doesn't trust the Metagame information, he'll learn to ignore it.  For example, if Player C had decided to land the ship between the trees, and the GM told him, surprise, there's actually not enough room and the ship crashes, then this would serve to undermine the Metagame foundation and could push someone to refuse the Pawn Stance.

Such are my thoughts on this situation as described, in any case.  There's probably also situations in which a player will adopt something that might be called Actor Stance Refused, but that's a different topic.



Hey Roger that rocks.  Pawn stance refused makes a lot of sense from where I sit.

I think it kinda coincides with my thoughts on "innapropriate scene length" discussed in my situation and tension thread.  I kinda agree with the "real roleplaying envy" diagnosis but suggest this might be resolved by a more explicit metagame structure to explicate the purpose of scenes.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Brennan Taylor


That seems to offer a lot of insight to me. Currently, there is some e-mail discussion of this game going on, and Player C seems to be objecting a great deal to the fairly standard, linear plotline of the GM's adventures lately. He wants a more political/social game, and feels stranded by the trip to the planet. Of course, plenty of social/political stuff could take place on the planet itself, among the expedition staff, but I think the GM's agenda and Player C's agenda are seriously at odds here. I really don't think they want to play the same game, and I'm not sure there is any way they can work this out between them. Player C is really antagonistic, and the GM is feeling really defensive.

Ron Edwards


I'd be interested to see what you think of my descriptions of the Typhoid Mary and the Prima Donna in my essay, Narrativism: Story Now, and whether there are bits and pieces of these behaviors showing up in this group.