Keeping the Peace: Applying Social Sanctions
There are a lot of things a GM does to run a great game: straight man, creative enabler, spinner of fantastic yarns, tactical challenger, person who makes all the funny voices…
But there’s one job that I see GMs forget to do more than any other, and that’s keeping players in line.
Oooh, shades of railroading! GM tyranny! No, I don’t mean the characters in the game, I mean the players at the table. When someone crosses the line, gets too loud, too uppity, or just hogs too much play time and won’t let other people contribute, it’s the GM’s job to put a stop to it, to re-establish group balance and harmony. By force if necessary.
GMs can become so focused on their “art” that they forget they are also there to keep the peace. It’s not glamorous or even fun, but when it’s necessary it’s really necessary.
One of the worst games you can be in is not the one where the GM doesn’t come up with an interesting situation or provide a good challenge (if you as a player can’t make up for that, you’re just not trying), it’s the one where some players get out of hand and the GM doesn’t do anything about it.
All social groups apply sanctions when someone does something the group doesn’t like. If you act like a jerk at a party, your friends give you dirty looks or tell you to shut up or just don’t call you next time. That’s a social sanction.
So why don’t players just keep each other in line, just like a normal social group? They could, but since playing is a creative activity you want to give players leeway to play the way they want. Players can and should err on the side of caution in stepping on each others’ toes. Have you seen the player who criticizes or second guesses every little thing other players do? You know you hate that guy. Even when you are that guy you hate that guy.
Likewise games can include interactions that can blur the line about what’s okay and what isn’t. In real life, killing your friends is a no go. In some games it might be considered cricket to have players backstab each other, have strong emotional confrontations, or just push other limits. But if everyone is not on the same page one person’s creative play may be another person’s bullying.
It can also be an issue as simple as mechanical rules balance. One player makes a character that is overpowered compared to the rest of the group, or uses cheesy exploits. The other players are annoyed but say nothing.
Players are all peers, theoretically equals at the table. They don’t have authority over each other, so if someone calls someone on their behavior it may escalate into a confrontation to establish who is right and who is wrong — you say I’m talking too much, but who put you in charge?
Happily the GM is in a different position. Everyone at the table has already accepted that the GM is running the game and has a certain degree of authority. Sure there are always players willing to argue with the GM, but even when they do it they know they are arguing against the established authority. It’s less personal, because they know the GM is allowed to run the game the way the GM wants.
Keeping the peace is a social skill, and there are about a million different ways things can go wrong and seven different solutions for each, but here’s a refresher of the basics:
Be overt and clear, and of course calm if you can manage it. Tell the player what you think the problem is. Don’t be subtle or hint. If the player just misperceived the appropriateness of their actions (overly enthusiastic rather than hostile) this might be enough to settle things.
If you have to use sanctions, always punish players in the real world, not the game world. Never inflict damage, or have monsters choose to attack that character, or have NPCs react irrationally to them (“all the hobbits hate you!”).
The most effective punishment is to take away attention and play time. Tell the player they are sitting out a scene because they were being a jerk or simply turn the game spotlight away from them. Attention is always a reward of sorts, even if it’s “bad” attention. Flip it around and pay attention to the players who are not being jerks.
Sounds like advice out of a parenting guide for toddlers doesn’t it? Yes, yes it does…
And now you’re thinking “but I only game with cool, well-behaved adults! This is a certifiable non-issue!”
Hey, lucky you! Where I live everyone gets cranky sometimes, or steps on toes, or unintentionally dominates the group. Sometimes they have no idea they are rubbing everyone else the wrong way, and because players usually give each other a lot of creative leeway (see above) the offending player may not have any idea they need to back off. Players can tolerate and absorb a lot in silence, but it doesn’t make them happy or foster a good game.
Trouble can be directly proportional to interest level. If your players are totally caught up in the moment they may be more emotional and more prone to these kinds of collisions. Good for you, bad for you.
Footnote: if you’ve never read it I highly recommend Five Geek Social Fallacies. It’s pure rocket science.