While proofreading the final draft of Focal Point I re-read a story I presented about a time when I was a less-than-stellar player. I’d allowed an encounter that went bad for me early on hang over the entire session and I’d resisted any attempt to get back on board no matter how hard the GM and other players tried. Not only did it ruin the session, but it cut the heart out of the campaign and it died a session or two later.

As a GM, I’ve periodically had to deal with a player that, for whatever reason, gets into a funk and starts resisting the adventure. Sometimes they just sit at the table and passively-aggressively resist; other times they act more directly, technically playing in character but taking it to an extreme that they ordinarily wouldn’t go. In any case it can really disrupt the mood of the other players and threaten the campaign.

Over the years I’ve tried various methods to “cool down” the offending player but what I’ve discovered is that, the more I try to engage him or her, the more I only feed the fire. The player really needs to ride out the feeling and re-engage at his or her own pace. One thing that I have definitely learned is that ignoring the player and continuing is usually not a good idea.

Here are some methods that have worked for me in the past.

  • Reassure the player. I’ve had cases where a couple of bad die rolls at a crucial moment just when the character involved is supposed to be showing off her prowess is enough to send a player into a funk, especially if she thinks that her moment in the spotlight for the session is gone. In such cases, I’ve found that taking a break and explaining that a failed roll doesn’t equal incompetence – offering possible in-game explanations for the failure – usually helps the player recover. Sometimes I’ll even offer a carrot with the failure (e.g. “yes, you failed to convince the security guard to let you pass, but you notice that he seems particularly distracted by someone that’s on monitor 3 while fiddling with a pendant around his neck. Maybe there’s trouble in paradise?”).
  • Discuss the issue. Sometimes the problem is outside the game. The player just had a fight with her significant other, a family member was just admitted to the hospital, or she’s stressing about her job. Offering a forum to vent may be just what the player needs.
  • Rewrite the scene. This one is difficult, as it seems to reward bad behavior, but if changing a scene slightly will bring the player back into the game then it may be worth it to salvage the session. In my own case, I was moping because the NPC that was supposed to be hiring our band humiliated my character. Had the GM offered to rewrite that scene it may have diffused the situation.
  • Remove the player. This may seem a bit extreme but sometimes asking the player to take a break from the table and regroup his thoughts before returning works. You really need to know your players for this one though, as some may take it the wrong way.
  • End the session. Sometimes “no gaming” really is better than “bad gaming” and if the tea leaves are telling you that you’re in for several hours of hurt then it may be best to write the evening off before things get messy. I’ve found that 9 times out of 10, merely suggesting the end of the session is enough to pull the player out of her funk.

These are some things that have worked for me; how about you? Has a moody player ever destroyed your session/adventure/campaign? Do you have any particularly good techniques for bringing moody players back into the game? Has a technique surprised you with its effectiveness? Have you ever spectacularly failed with a particular technique?