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Learning the interface

Started by Ron Edwards, February 01, 2004, 11:35:13 AM

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Ron Edwards


In the excellent comic Finder, specifically the collected story Dream Sequence, one of the characters is utilized by "users" very much in the sense of a video-game construct. Another character realizes this when the first one suddenly flails about wildly.

In her notes to the story, the author/artist Carla Speed McNeil describes her observations of people using specific video games for the first time, and how the characters, for a little while, look possessed by demons: leaping around bat-shit crazy, flailing at nothing, looking left and right in jerky motions. The real person is merely learning the interface for this particular program to control the character's actions, but the effects on the in-game events and interactions would be bizarre and terrifying, if you were to enter that space.

H'm, I thought, how might this apply to role-playing?

I swiftly concluded that the physical motions of the characters were not the primary issue, as they seem to be in the video game situation. To some extent they do show this same physical phenomenon, especially in terms of the order of actions, or the use of particular energy sources timed with whatever they energize. However, when it comes to walking or looking or stuff like that, the learning curve is faster for role-playing, and so I don't see the "bat-shit" phenomenon displayed as, for all intents and purposes, epilepsy, very often or even long enough to notice much.

Yet where, then? From the perspective of my big model, the medium of role-playing is social communication ... and the next issue is a shared or mostly-shared agenda about what's communicated. That's the interface, represented by the continuity down through the levels (or deeper into the box) - and do we see characters acting all bat-shit crazy in these terms as players join a new group?

Then I thought about something I've seen maybe ... oh, without exaggerating, a hundred times. It looks like ...

a) A group goes to great lengths to prepare for the samurai game. They work out family lineages, they reluctantly or enthusiastically agree to refer to all the common objects by their Japanese names, they make banners. By "they," I usually mean one person and maybe one other; everyone else is going along with all this effort but are really just waiting to play. In the very first scene, the GM has the samurai-characters' lord call them to a meeting - and one player-character refuses to kneel. No matter what the GM or any other player says - "He's your lord, you're a samurai," "You've kneeled to him a thousand times before," "C'mon, you're ruining the whole point," "Just do it, so we can play," etc, etc - the player remains adamant. The whole cool-new-Japanese-game begins to fragment apart. [GM dilemma: do I have the NPC retainers just execute him, like it "should" happen?]

b) A group runs a quick Sorcerer game to see how it plays. They come up with demons and descriptors, and the GM starts play a fair piece "further" into the story than is really recommended. Just about when all the characters' personal trajectories are affecting one another, one of them apparently turns into Mr. Brown - he subdues a player-character or important NPC, threatens the character with instant death, and demands that all the others tell him what they're doing here and what they want. Everyone squints at him - they're willing to play the scene, but they can't figure out what the hell is actually going on, and more importantly, no one is too invested in this NPC and hence no one wants them killed trivially. The player is holding them hostage as players just as his character holds the NPC (or whoever) hostage in the game. If he wanted to know stuff like that, why didn't his character just ask? [GM dilemma: "should" his demon suddenly attack him? It doesn't want or need a flipped-out master, and here are all these other sorcerers ...]

Again and again, characters become insanely stubborn, randomly and extremely aggressive, and sometimes physically spastic. Ah! Whereas the video-game characters apparently exhibit severe epilepsy, the role-playing characters become psychotic. Which seems absolutely understandable given the medium of role-playing as I describe above.

But now I consider all the advice I've ever read about this in the game texts and in most community discussions of play. All of them, hands-down, recommend severe consequences to the player and to the character. The idea seems to be a hard-line, integrity-of-Exploration, authoritative smack-down to teach'em a lesson, always justified in terms of "that's what would happen."

Is that what would work best? Execute the samurai, rend apart the sorcerer, arrest and incarcerate the rogue superhero, hunt down and hang the obviously-deranged paladin? Maybe. I can see times in which it might be the best bet.

But that seems awfully extreme, especially considering the apparently common and successful solution for the video game: merely to get through the learning curve, not to invest heavily in whatever happens during the learning process, and to move on to "real" play once the interface is mastered. In other words, the way to deal with it in these games is to minimize the long-term consequences of whatever happens during the "bat-shit" process.

What would that, to me, very reasonable solution look like in role-playing? Ah - that's easy, when I back up and think of entire games rather than single actions and scenes.

a) Run a few-sessions game to see how it goes, then start over entirely with the "real" setting, characters, and situation.

b) Keep those first few sessions about something not especially important; I remember a Champions game I played in, in which the first six to eight sessions were about a space-bug invasion, and after the bugs were defeated, we moved on to the rather elaborate scenario concerning a lot of setting history, romantic history, and family history. The space-bugs were never mentioned again.

c) Run a few sessions with disposable characters. This idea was used a few times for The Riddle of Steel and discussed in the forums - make up characters, run a very brutal fight scene in which they would very likely die, and then start the "real" game with new characters, perhaps invested in the original ones. I recall a published Kult scenario which did something similar, in that the player-characters who die in the first situation become the NPC ghosts of the "real" scenario which takes place many years later.

The only trouble with all of these solutions is that they are all large-scale. They don't help much when you and perhaps most of the group are in State of Mind A, and only one person's character suddenly exhibits the bat-shit psychosis. Because you see, it is always a sudden thing, blindsiding most of the people at the table.

Does anyone have any suggestions for what to say and do, when that happens?



After running games for two years straight at a gaming club with a membership of around 100 I've seen this thing...a lot.  In the beginning I did the usual GM knee-jerk and called down the lightning to zap the offending character into dust.  Sometimes I banned the player from the game.  After a while I started to get into elaborate Social Contract deals where I would specifically request this kind of behaviour be left at the door.  The funny thing was, none of these methods worked.  In the end the most successful games I ran were those where the offending behaviour was taken into account, but my reaction to it was muted.  NPCs took an interest in the reaction of the character and I used the "bat-shit" to good effect sometimes, using it as a plot-hook etc.  Often I would call a break just after the breakout of crazies as a kind of cliff-hanger.  This would get the "good" players a chance to simmer down and maybe a chance to ask the offending player what they hoped to achieve with the outburst and perhaps if they'd like a chance in the direction of the game or whatever...

The danger here is that you alienate the "good" players.  In the end I would just ask them to go with me on it and see where it took them.  I have a feeling that the "bat-shit" players get momentarily bored for some reason, zone out and then need to get the cardiac paddles out to kick-start their interest in the game.  Its attention seeking obviously and a lot of players expect to get lambasted for going ape, but sometimes you just have to give them the attention... noone said it had to be the kind they expected.

edited: cos i forgot one point
Katanapunk...The Riddle of Midnight...


I do have some suggestions, actually, although I think it really depends on gaming preferences and so forth.  I mean, all this "what should happen" is a particular aesthetic choice.

My classroom experience tells me that the #1 worst thing you can do is drop everything and focus on the difficult player.  Doesn't really matter whether that's to give in to him or to waste him; either way, you're saying to everyone else, "If you hold the game hostage, you will have power over other people."

So here's some ideas:
Quotea) .... one player-character refuses to kneel. No matter what the GM or any other player says - "He's your lord, you're a samurai," "You've kneeled to him a thousand times before," "C'mon, you're ruining the whole point," "Just do it, so we can play," etc, etc - the player remains adamant. .... do I have the NPC retainers just execute him, like it "should" happen?]
First: violence level. The retainers move to grab the guy and force him to his knees.  Head-chopping isn't really all that common, after all, and we haven't escalated to that level of violence.  The player wants this to be a big deal, but don't treat it that way -- it's just the PC being a pissant idiot and beneath contempt.  He's not worth killing.

Second: alternative response.  The PC retaliated against the retainers somehow.  If he drew a sword, he's dead meat -- that's quite different, and then you just kill him and throw his body to the dogs.  If he just pushes back or resists being grabbed, have the lord wave the retainers off.  Now, in the discussion that presumably follows, the lord flatly ignores the PC.  He in fact refuses to acknowledge the guy's existence.  If the PC speaks, the lord pretends he hasn't heard it.  The player is now radically disempowered, because he has only three choices: (1) raise the stakes and get himself killed, (2) be silent and submit [in which case he's learned something], or (3) rant and rave and make an ass of himself.

Next up:
Quoteone of them apparently turns into Mr. Brown - he subdues a player-character or important NPC, threatens the character with instant death, and demands that all the others tell him what they're doing here and what they want. .... The player is holding them hostage as players just as his character holds the NPC (or whoever) hostage in the game. If he wanted to know stuff like that, why didn't his character just ask?....
First: issue. If the other PC's aren't terribly invested in the hostage's life, why don't they say, "Okay, kill him.  But you're a total freak, you  know," and walk away?  Because they think that violence matters, is an automatic Premise or something.  Is it?  In your game?  Does it have to be?  If so, you've just inserted the Force.  Encourage the other players to recognize that violence may not always be an issue or a question.  They should walk away or talk the guy down, not accede to his demands.  If the demon rends the guy, you've just told everyone that certain themes and issues are the Right Ones.

Second: violence level. Remember Speed?  Shoot the hostage.  Take him out of the equation.  Now what's the PC going to do?  How will the other PC's take it?

Third: shift focus.  Unless you have already decided what happens next, why not pull the rug out from under everyone?  Start by shifting your assumptions.  Are you sure the hostage is what he seems?  Here's what I like as a possibility: the important NPC has a big secret, having something to do with demons of course, and he basically starts resisting Mr. Brown.  In essence, he starts acting like he really wants to be killed, and keeps pushing and pushing (like going for the eyes with clawed thumbs even when he's got a gun to his forehead).  Eventually, the PC shoots him.  The hostage smiles, and attacks some more.  Eventually, the PC is covered with blood and bits of bone and brain, but the "hostage" doesn't seem interested in going down.  Or maybe he loses enough physical substance that he sort of slides down, still smiling and grabbing.  The situation is now very, very different from what it appeared to be.  I suppose that's a very Unknown Armies sort of response, but I like that kind of thing.

Just some ideas.  My main points here are:
1. Don't let the threat of violence necessarily require actual violence.
2. De-protagonize the PC and disempower the player, which is as you know not the same as killing or maiming him; in fact, a spectacular death on chosen ground is strongly the opposite.
3. Consider whether everyone -- including you -- is making some assumptions about the situation that may not necessarily need to be true.

Chris Lehrich
Chris Lehrich


I was thinking that I hadn't really seen that sort of thing, but then I realized that the few times I have, it's taken a different form:

charicature, or parody.

The person understands it's supposed to be a role-playing game, but their idea of playing a role is so extreme that they rapidly would seem psychotic from the within game point of view. This has usually taken the form, as I recall it, of rapid reinforcement of whatever traits the other players noticed at the start of the session.

The person thus rapidly becomes comic relief; unfortunately, this is sometimes seen by them as a -positive- social role, and reinforced. Mostly a problem when you don't -want- that much comic relief in your game.

I agree somewhat with Edwards; strong social sanction, especially as an early response, is escalation, and likely to drive them away. On the other hand, in video games the early jerkiness is taken care of automatically, by the utterly socially neutral computer.  Similar negative reinforcement in RPGs is more likely to look like social sanction, and thus generate social ill will.

The solution I've arrived at (well, just yesterday actually), was to use the strongly constrained games that a lot of folks here have published as teaching tools. Not explicitly - that might be seen as offensive - but just to get folks thinking along the right lines.

In RPGs, as in teaching anything else, it's far easier for students to learn in practice than in theory.

Blake Hutchins

Hmm.  I dunno.  I've had this happen before, mostly with people who decided they didn't really like the game, didn't want to play with the rest of us anymore.  The motive seemed to be purely to disrupt what was going on.  In the case of one fellow, he was fine during the initial play, but made what I'll call a "psychotic break" about four to five sessions in.  As a GM, I just went with what I thought would most reasonably happen, without regard for whether it was fatal or a smackdown.  When this one fellow's behavior became disruptive enough, the other players were the ones who told him off and asked him to choose between being constructive in play, or leaving the group.

There might be some learning-curve thrashing that happens with new players or a terrifically different game, but when I see someone who pushes things to what amounts to a player-player or player-GM confrontation as described in Ron's examples, I don't think that's the same thing.  I think the disruptive player is trying to push buttons and take control, but not in a healthy, moving-game-forward sort of way.



Jake Norwood

I am generally of the school that the best way to fix a problem is to figure out "why" and cure the disease, not neccessarily the symptom.

I can think of several situations where I was the "psychotic" character because I was frustrated with the pacing of the game. I wanted something to happen, I wanted some time in the limelight, I was bored out of my mind, or I couldnt figure out what the GM was trying to lead us into. "Can't go over it, can't go around it, guess we'll go through it!"

I've done some crazy, crazy stuff in-game. Setting a flaming war-dog into a theives forest to catch one guy or leaping off of a cliff because I had enough HP to pull it off, and I didn't really want to be in the game. Many of these issues were "frustrated narrativism" in my case, and occasionally frustrated simulationism.

So a few questions:

- Does this happen with functional groups that "practice" GNS or some similar approach to what the group wants?

- Why have YOU done it?

- What changes could have solved the problem for you?

That will get us further, I think.

"Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." -R.E. Howard The Tower of the Elephant

Ron Edwards


Interesting responses from everyone. I talked more about this with some people today, and a couple of nuances appeared. The biggest one was that the behavior I'm thinking of is a little different from a couple of others that look like it, but aren't it.

One is what Blake mentions: the person's being disruptive, and knows it, or would know it if they tried. My friend Tod suggests that this is often the case when a person is uncomfortable playing a new game, because it threatens his mastery or social authority regarding the old game.

The reason I think that the behavior I'm describing is not a 100% dysfunctional "I'm gonna disrupt" is that on several occasions of the bat-shit scenario, the player in question made a point to tell me later that they, personally, didn't know what came over them. Not only did the character behave psychotically, the player literally felt as if the character had "behaved" that way, and didn't enjoy it themselves. Cover-up? I'm not sure; the Disruptor behavior seems to be accompanied by a following arrogant satisfaction, along the lines of, "See, I knew he couldn't GM," or "See, I knew that game would suck."

The other behavior is a lot like what Chris (clehrich) mentions, and it's an important one: what if the person is plain ol' addressing Premise or otherwise adding to the game-experience by playing off-type? Such that it's not psychotic behavior at all, just shocking and full of potential for later play.

The difference between this and the bat-shit psychosis thing is that the player hasn't lost it, during play. The player with the bat-shit character is (and I should have described this in the first post) ... opaque, communicatively speaking. You can't talk to them; they can't hear you. They can't describe why they're doing this and they can't veer from its course.

But the "shocker" behavior is accessible - if you ask, they will tell you, or at least will say, "Stick with me, I'm doing this because I really do want to, and please run with it." When I was GMing a series of runs using Marvel Super Heroes, a player had her character burn out a supervillain's retinas with a laser-power, during combat. We all shuddered and turned toward her, very much in a "what the hell?" fashion. Ashley, the player, didn't budge and gave us the hairy eyeball: "I am doing this on purpose," she said. "Don't mess with me about it."

We said, OK, and did so. And what did she do? Proceed, over the next sessions, into a very moving arc about how the character would change and redefine what sort of hero she was. She went Dark Side for a reason, and knowing her, I suspect she was working from a rather deep sense of commitment to the character and the Premise she'd achieved (brought into? realized? difficult verb) into play.

See, Ashley wasn't doing the bat-shit thing, and the difference is that she was able to say, "I am really doing this for my own input into play, and I expect you guys to work with me." It wasn't the weird clam-up that you get with the bat-shit behavior.

Anyway, I hope this clarifies a bit about exactly which behavior I'm talking about.


Jack Spencer Jr

TBH what I've seen happen most at the early learning stage, keep in mind I'm talking about one GM, is similar to, in Improv terms, a Cancelling .

Making previous action irrelevant. Once an action has been cancelled, it's as if it hadn't happened at all. Usually a bad idea

One of the first times Brian played, he was in a studio apartment, or the sci-fi equivilent (I wasn't there, but heard about it). A bad guy kick the door in with a gun. WHen asked what he would do, he said something like "I jump out of bed, punch the guy and knock him out and go running down the hall." The GM replies with "OK. You're sitting up in the bed."

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but this is deprotagonism, isn't it?

Ron Edwards

Hi Jack,

"Deprotagonism" is a very big gun to shoot with, as a diagnosis of that brief bit of information. I can imagine many circumstances in which the GM's response would be a fine way to handle it.

To know enough to respond, I'd have to know more. First of all, it's an IIEE issue. If that set of techniques is clear, then hey, the GM was presumably using them and the player was learning them - no problem. If it wasn't clear for that group in general, above and beyond that one scene, then there are way more problems in that group than can be addressed by any single issue or term.

I don't think the anecdote qualifies for this thread topic, anyway. The player-character was not behaving psychotically; he was doing something perfectly reasonable - it's just that the relationship between announcing and doing was off somehow.



This happened to me very frequently when I was in college, with the same player every time.  His character would *invariably* go bat-shit, with no further explanation than "It's what the character would do", accompanied by a blank stare. My usual response was to fry him with heavy-handed Force for stepping "out of bounds".  

His past experience with RPGs had been with very open-ended games where player control of PC behavior was sancrosanct, and not to be questioned.  The GM's role was to simulate the world and permit the characters to exercise interesting parts of the System.  "The Dream" for them was of a giant sandbox.  I would tentatively call it Exploration of System, sometimes with a gamist subcurrent of "Let's see how far I can push these rules."

Meanwhile, "The Dream" for myself and the other players was a genre pastiche with an uberplot.  In practice, this was straightforward illusionist play.

We were both dreaming *a* Dream, but we weren't dreaming the *same* Dream.  After two years of this happening time and time again, my solution was to just stop inviting him to play, and to flatly turn him away from any subsequent games I ran.  Harsh, and poorly handled on my part...  yet without him, things went much more smoothly.

Years later, I introduced a new player into the group, and after eight months of functional and enjoyable illusionist D&D play, he suddenly went bat-shit, and I smacked him down.  For a while, our friendship suffered for it.

What was different that time is that we talked about it afterwards.

I realized that he came from that same "giant sandbox" background as the previous player... but unlike my previous "problem player", it just happened to take eight months before the first time our respective Dreams diverged.  I explained the previously unvoiced assumptions shared by myself and my regulars, that this was a pastiche game about good-guy heroes doing good-guy heroic things, and that I was not prepared - or willing - to accomodate players deviating too far from that.  As soon as I was able to communicate the previously unspoken assumptions, we had a road forward.  He chose to change his expectations to be aligned with the rest of the group, and in turn I agreed to loosen up my railroading to give him some room to veer from side-to-side a bit.  The remaining four months of that game went very well, and ended with a satsfying conclusion.

Now, that was before I first stumbled across any of the GNS material, but the core idea was there - Discuss play styles and verbalize the social contract and creative agenda *before* playing, so that you can understand if this game is something that you will all enjoy.

Hans Christian Andersen V.
Yes, that's my name.  No relation.


A couple of quick comments, before shuffling off to sleep.

In terms of feeling out a game 'interface', and keeping with the video game analogy, I've seen two ways of handling it.

First is at the meta-game level.  In several (old) AD&D1e gaming groups that were well established and trying to integrate newbies (or newbies to us), when something like this happened there would be a sort of simultaneous intake of breath and we'd stop play.

And we'd launch into a discussion of what was going on, why, and what sorts of responses were reasonable and why.  The player got to 'take back' what he'd said and change what he did, but it wasn't forced.

Well, it wasn't forced overtly, but it was pretty clearly a peer-pressure thing.  I should probably include that the particular group I'm thinking of was heavily Illusionist in play, and interestingly even discussed to an extent how 'good illusionist GMing' worked.  This sort of meta-level discussion and newbie-tutoring happened spontaneously in this group.

This strikes me as almost exactly like what happens in a new video game:  you poke at the interface, and it pokes back -- you get feedback and learn where the levers and switches are.  This Illusionist group provided that feedback at the social contract/meta-game level, teaching the new player how the other players worked together, and how that translated to in-game actions.

It worked well, but this was a fairly functional group, with coincidentally fairly homogenous opinions about 'good gaming'.

The second way I frequently saw this handled was what I like to call the Existentialist model.  Basically, the GM beheaded the guy, or had Big Consequences happen, which inconvenienced the character (he was thrown in the dungeon, or something).  Not gentle, but not always quite as extreme as would be realistically called for.

This worked with some people, and with some games.  It tended to grow into the sort of 'narrative addition' ploy that Jake was talking about.

This generally didn't work well with real newbies who were learning the interface.  It frustrated them, because they didn't understand exactly what was wrong with what they were doing.

In the videogame, having your guy die three or four times isn't the end of the world, as you can pretty easily just start over, or restart from a save point, or whatever.  In an RPG, that's not a very convenient option (unless you run some sort of 'training' scenarioes, as you suggested, or resurrection is cheap and easy -- in which case you get the Ganez Whitewolf scenario (D&D character resurrected six or seven times, eventually swallowed whole by a Dragon.  By that point his CON was about 7, IIRC).

In my own experience, the meta-game/social contract level negotiation/explication worked best, but that was with a functional group assimilating a new player.  I think it would still work best in other settings, but it would probably need to be done more deliberately by the GM.

Oh, another thing that happened in the functional group I'm talking about was a sort of 'buddy system'.  When a newbie joined, usually whoever was sitting next to him would spend time 'table-talking' with him, explaining things that were happening in the game, and about the underlying motivations and whatnot.  This would go on in hushed tones while the rest of us continued moving the scenario along.

I guess what it amounted to was making a conscious effort to cusion the newbie from the full consequences of his actions.  There would still be consequences, but we tried to explain what they would be, give him space, time, and information to make good choices, and to mitigate the negative aspects of failing (particularly in 'trivial' things, like kneeling before his master) without completely removing that possibility entirely.  Training wheels.
Dana Johnson
Note that I'm heavily medicated and something of a flake.  Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.


Chris wrote:

"My classroom experience tells me that the #1 worst thing you can do is drop everything and focus on the difficult player."

Everyone's teaching style is different, but my classroom experience doesn't corroborate this, depending on how strongly you read 'difficult'. I often find that if you let the difficult student make their claim, encouraging them to make it as clearly as possible, and then enumerate the consequences of their claim for them logically, they often do let it go. Once they realize that you'll (a) take them seriously and (b) call them to account for what they say, a lot of times they'll pipe down, or - and this is one of the things I really live for in teaching - start working at it so they can come back with more intellectually respectable forms of class disruption. If they keep doing this, suddenly they become contributors instead of disruptors, and some of them go on to become my best students.

To apply this to RPGs a little: OK, so the player goes batshit. What do you do? Delivering the Facial is the standard recommendation, but it's painful, both for those who continue to play and for those who receive said treatment. On the other hand, Letting it Take Front and Center really does often destroy the game: either you put up with absurdity, or you turn everything around to focus on this character who's screwing everything up for everyone else. So what can you do? (Recognizing of course that some players are just always going to be dickweeds, just like some students will keep disrupting no matter how charitably you work with their disruptions. I'm not saying the Smackdown doesn't have its place.)

I think the best way would be to invoke in-game consequences that

(a) don't break the game, but

(b) don't kill the character or otherwise ruin it, and

(c) make it very clear why the behavior in question doesn't fit, while

(d) giving the player something to do which makes amends for the mistake

Here's the example I came up with on a few minutes' thought. The character won't kneel before the Daimyo, and so the Daimyo goes into motion:

"Jokir," he says, "your grandfather's uncle was Shogun in his time, but you are not he. Yet you are proud, as if you were an invincible general and a cunning warrior. For many years now you have taunted me by putting on airs, acting as if you were somehow favored or notable among my vassals. But you are not your grandfather, and you have no right to stand before your lord..." (1. You invent some new background into the game to explain the behavior.) Then the daimyo's guards move in, subdue the offending PC, and force him to his knees. (2. Don't let the player roll this stuff out, or stop for that 'what do you do? are you going to go along with this now?' sort of pause - just describe the events.) The daimyo rises from his chair, moves to the subdued PC, and sneers down at him. "If you imagine yourself a warrior of such surpassing honor, then go retrieve your grandfather's uncle's blade from the Six Silk Temple, where the Wind Demons howl their anger between the icy crags." Finally, the daimyo himself draws a blade and cuts off the character's warrior's knot. "Until you have proven yourself his equal, you are not fit to stand before me, or even before your fellow samurai, as a true equal." (3. Give the character a challenge: this one I like especially because if the character does recover the Shogun's old sword, his daimyo is in a bit of a pickle: he's implicitly granted high status to his previously obstreperous vassal.)

Or alternatively: invent a reason in the game why the character isn't kneeling just then - maybe the daimyo executed his cousin just yesterday - and then play out the situation similarly to the above.

So anyway, some players won't put up with this sort of thing, and just go crazy because they can't let go of their previous crazy behavior, or because they're jerks. But some may, especially if you offer a carrot to go with it, as a reward for in-game achievement and good behavior. And it seems like especially with new players you owe it to them to try. In the case of this example, you get a situation where the character gets penalties (now he has to ride at the back of the troop, it's sort of up to the other PCs whether they want to treat him with respect now or not, etc., a lot of the daimyo's court mocks him) but also has the promise of great rewards (the ancestral sword, the potential for a quick route to great in-game status) and the behavior has been integrated into the setting in a way which shouldn't ruin that part of it for everyone else.

Any recommendations here are going to be super context-sensitive, both gamewise and real-world-psychology-wise. But in general re-integrating the character into the imaginative space, where possible, doing a kind of aikido with  their strange behaviors to make them fit while still communicating that they aren't playing right relative to the game's social contract, which presumably they agreed to, would seem a better way to go here. If they still can't hack it, but they don't seem like they're just being jerks, ask them if they'd prefer a different character instead. And if neither of those work, well, there's always showing them the door after the game. Or, for that matter, the traditional Smackdown.


All of the above presupposes that there's some single person playing the GMs role. I wonder if in GM-less games this is easier to deal with (because everyone saying 'don't do that' leaves everyone directly responsible for the odd man out's bad behavior) or harder (because no-one's sure enough whether x is being a dick or not to just tell him or her  to switch it around). Probably both happen, depending on the group in question.


Sean - I quite like your solution.

- James


I think I may be missing something from the discussion, so hopefully this isn't too far off track.  I understand that, as Ron said, the player in this circumstance may be stubborn or entrenched about their behavior.

Still, it seems like the question that's underlying the issue is "why has the character suddenly gone spastic?"  If asked directly, Ron comments that the player will tend to be opaque.  My experience has been that this tends to be true depending on how the question is asked.  In particular, I find that "Wait.  What are you expecting to happen now (next)?" is a much more productive question than "Why are you doing that?"

I won't claim I have always successfully asked this question.  In such cases, if possible, I tend to try to mitigate the behavior by a distraction of some sort while I have time to decide what to do if the situation repeats.  Fortunately, in many cases I've found that without inertia and defensiveness locking in the course, the behavior freqently does not repeat.  (This goes along with my general style of trying to always prepare one "distraction" or scene which comes to the PCs per session, for use if things begin to stall.)

For some of the other approaches suggested, such as using realistic consequences, or failing to grant attention, my experience has been that these reinforcement behaviors work better when they address "problems" which have been identified and agreed to, and not so well when imposed from the outside.  For example, I have not seen the "consequences" approach change behavior much... usually when I have imposed it from outside, it causes too much resentment to be effective.

On the other hand, I've found that such techniques work well if the player is aware and accepting of them.  For example, if the player in this scenario is aware that they may make some faux pas but would rather play it out, and is (honestly) willing to accept the consequences, I have found it to be fun and a good experience.  

This is similar to reinforcement I've seen in other situations.  For example, paying a "fine" for OOC comments or having OOC comments be what is said "in game" work best when those comments are more a matter of habit than a conscious desire to make OOC comments around the table.  I guess my point here is that I find reinforcement techniques a good way to break habits that have already been identified, and which are understood to need to change.

. . . . . . . -- Eric

PS -- Apologies for the segue.  Perhaps discussion of reinforcement as a general technique would have been more appropriate in its own thread.
(Real Name: Eric H)


The samurai solution above is great, but I cannot help but think that it is tangential to the question.  Sure, sucha  solution, for the given scenario would work - but that requires that the GM is quick enough on their feet to a) extemporise all of this and b) modify expected play to accomodate this little surprise.

I suggest that the PC games spastic effect is correctly identified as one of being unfamiliar with the interface, and using this interface "inelegantly".  The above response is all aimed at dealing with the problem when it arises, rather than identifying the problem in general and exploring methods that might prevent it from arising.

I suggest that the analog of "inelegant interface use" is "innapropriate social cues", but with the strong caveat that I am ONLY talkin about the game space.  Only about the games structures.

So my theory in terms of the interface model is that the social context of the setting is not sufficiently systematically enforced.  The correcting element in a computerised interface model is the failures in the game itself; that is, your first attempts at taking the obstacle course in Tomb Raider are clumsy, but as you get more practised, more experienced, your motions (mediated through the controller) become more fluid as your skill improves, purely because of the negative reinforcement that comes from falling into pits of lava.

I suggest that the negative reinforcement as discussed above is an in-game failure like falling in a pit of lava; sure, if done well enough for long enough the problem will likely be resolved, but there are real questions as to whether a player will stick around long enough.  Falling into a pit of lava is a pretty severe penalty, falling off the zip line in the obstacle course is not.  Theres a whole "insignificant" arena for practicing in, so that you can be up to speed when faced with "real" challanges.

I think that what is missing from these scenarios is an appreciation of the social contract in the setting.  That is, its all very well agreeing to something like genre expectations within the social contract of the players, but quite a different thing to ensure that they all agree on the genre conventions they are agreeing to.  I think in large part this has to be rendered in the system, so that when the player considers this course of behaviour, the system can and does predictably produce penalties that do not arise from the arbitrary judgement of other players.

But rendering the social contract of the setting in the system usually triggers objections based on personality attributes, GM's controlling characters, etc. ad nauseum.

So, I agree with the model given above for dealing with the problem as it arises; the short version would be "teach don't punish".  /but I feel the problem itself arises because social contract between PC's and between PC's and NPC's is not explicitly addressed and systematically expressed.
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