Recently on an episode  of Pandas Talking Games, my co-host, Senda, and I were talking about the topic of managing changes in campaigns and talked about changes in group dynamics and their effects on group formation and performance. As it turns out, more times than not, this topic overlaps with my day job as an IT Project Manager, where I also have to manage group formation and performance. In the Project Management world, there is a good model for this called Tuckman’s Stages of Group Performance. I then on the show made a comment about how it would be good to have an RPG example of this, and well…here I am.
For the sake of word count and my desire for you to read this whole article, I am going to sum up Tuckman’s stages in a somewhat oversimplified way, but also refer you to this link  to Wikipedia for a better description.
In essence, when you bring a team of people together to work on a project they go through several stages as they learn to work together. Those stages are:
- Forming – The team figures out their goals and tasks but mostly work independently, they are often on their best behavior but are still focused on themselves. They are starting to figure each other out.
- Storming – the team begins to sort itself out and gain each other’s trust. They voice opinions, they have disagreements, and power structure forms. Conflicts can arise as people assert themselves, test boundaries, etc.
- Norming – things settle out for the team. They start to align to a common goal, they recognize they are all contributing to that common goal. They start to accept the quirks of their team members.
- Performing – the team is working as a team now and succeeding. They know how to work together, they share a focus, and they are getting things done.
- Adjourning – the team completes its task and disbands.
The concept is that when you bring a group of people together for a project, in the beginning it’s going to be rocky as the team has to move through these phases and get to the Performing phase before things really take off. Managers need to facilitate the movement of the team through these phases.
What does this have to do with gaming?
Fair question. The answer is quite a bit. See, in RPGs we bring a group of people together (the players) to play a game, often facilitated by a GM. Those people create personas of the people they are going to play (the characters) who are brought together to undertake various missions and adventures in order to achieve some goal (i.e. save the world, get rich, be free, etc).
Thus on two different levels of the game, Tuckman’s stages can take place. On one level we have a group of players who are figuring out the rules of the game and depending on how well they know each other, trying to figure out how to work together in order to play the game.
At the character level, we have a group of characters who all have their own abilities and niches trying to figure out how they operate as a team so that they can achieve the goals of the campaign.
So understanding this process, as a GM we can help facilitate the group through those stages so that they quickly reach the Performing stage where the game is going to hit the flow state, the group is clicking, and they are progressing through the story in a way that is enjoyable to everyone.
The RPG Version of the Stages
Ok. So let’s take Tuckman’s model and define what the stages look like in terms of an RPG so that we can recognize where a group is when you are playing.
In this stage, your group has just come together to play the game. If your players do not know each other (some or all) then they are introducing themselves and starting to socialize with one another. They are likely sharing favorite games, media, etc. They may be talking about their experience in RPGs and in this system.
Game-wise, you are making your characters, you are coming up with your backstories, and you are having that initial adventure, that may actually be the catalyst that brings the characters together.
In this stage, you are into the start of the campaign; past that introductory adventure, and starting the first story arc. The Players are getting to know each other better, and if they were not friends before they are figuring that part out now. People are making connections to one another, pairs or groups of people may become closer. They are also discovering each other’s quirks and are either ok with them or not (on their phones, talking a lot, rules lawyering, etc).
The power dynamic of the group is forming, and if there are any issues with it – as in who leads the group, someone dominating the table, someone withdrawing from more aggressive personalities – it is happening here. There may be meta-discussions/disagreements about the roles/niches of the characters, how to decide where to go, etc.
In character, the party may be figuring out who the leader is (likely to also be the person who wants to lead the table). There may be conflicting ideas of how to tackle problems based on the personalities and types of characters. If a prisoner or goblin baby has shown up there is likely going to be a discussion about how to handle those.
At this point, you are farther along in the campaign. The group is settling out. They have some established mechanical combos they can use to be more efficient. They have had talks about their quirks and found ways to handle them. They have had some taste of success and realize that as a group they can accomplish a lot. The disagreements and more heated discussions have given way to a less abrasive way to resolve issues. The power dynamic is established and everyone has found a comfortable spot.
As characters, they have aligned on what they need to do for the story arc. They understand who the common enemy is but they also understand the needs/desires of the individuals and are starting to find a way to balance those things. As a party, they are pretty harmonious and starting to leverage the advantages of combining their talents and powers.
You are well into the campaign at this point, and the sessions are just good. Not to say there is not an off night here and there (that always happens) but most of the sessions flow. The players are having a good time. They are not only cooperating but finding ways to make things more fun for each other. Your sessions are productive and you are moving through the story arcs and the campaign is unfolding faster than before. Everyone is looking forward to getting together for the next session.
As the campaign winds down the players are excited about another game. They have already started talking about what to play next. They will miss their characters but have enjoyed the time they have had with them.
The characters all have an epilogue and the players get to say goodbye to their characters.
Facilitating The Stages
As the GM one of your many roles is to facilitate gameplay, this includes (though it does not reside solely with you) facilitating progress through these stages. The goal is to get through Forming and Storming as quickly as possible, without glossing over problems that could arise later. Once the group hits Norming you want to help things keep moving along smoothly so that it will organically shift into Performing. Once you have reached that stage, you want to tend to the group and its dynamic to keep everyone there.
It is impossible for me to tell you how fast this process will take. First of all, depending on the group dynamic it may not be possible. Some groups never get past Storming, and these groups are often dysfunctional and either need serious work to be able to move forward or need to be disbanded.
Second, the speed at which a group moves through these stages is influenced by so many factors things like:
- Age and maturity level
- Communication skills
- How well everyone knew each other/liked each other when the game started
- Mechanical mastery
- Frequency of play
- Personality types
- Trust levels and past trauma
This is to say that people are complex and messy and groups of people multiply that. There is no formula for how long it takes to move from one phase to another.
But there are some things you can do to facilitate the process. Here are some ways to do that:
- Use a Session Zero to help set expectations in the game and of the players during the Forming phase. Set ground rules for how to deal with one another, use Lines and Veils to set content boundaries. Talk about things like PVP, betrayal, etc.
- During the Forming and Storming phases keep the plot simple: simple to get into it, simple objectives, fewer choices. Let them focus more energy on getting used to each other and building up some wins.
- The Forming and Storming phases take time to address table issues. If someone is not being heard, make sure you clear that up. If someone is being the Alpha player, address that. This phase is where you want to identify and then resolve these issues. You may not cover as much story as you stop to address these things, but it will be worth it so that you can get out of this phase.
- If your players don’t know each other and schedules permit, socialize outside of the game. Have a meal together before you play, have a movie night, etc.
- When you reach the Norming phase you can turn up the plot complexity and push on the characters a bit more.
- When you reach Performing, remember that not every night is going to be awesome, so don’t panic if the table is off one night. When you hit this phase you can start raising the stakes of the campaign (i.e. reveal that they need to save the world, kill a god, etc), they are ready for it now.
- When you reach Adjourning, dedicate time to wrap up the campaign. Do a post mortem discussion  about it. Have a celebration , give a real closure for you and the players.
How To Manage Group Change
One more thing to consider. Everything we have been talking about, this progression, is with a fixed set of players (and GM). When you add or remove a player from the table, you disrupt these phases and often the group takes several steps back. A new player joining a group that is Performing will push them back to Norming or Storming depending on how much of a disruption that addition caused. Also, when someone leaves a group they disrupt the power dynamic and leave a gap in how the group deals with things. This will cause the group to slide back until they fill in those gaps.
Also, on a lesser level, but still significant, your group can slide back if someone loses or changes their character. A new character has to adjust to the group and the group to that character. Your Performing party may go back to Norming until the new character is integrated.
All of this is to say that the best times to add or remove players and to change characters is during the Forming and Storming phases, where things have not been set.
That does not mean you should not add players or lose players when the group is Performing, but rather recognize that there is going to be a step back (or several) when it happens, and you need to adjust the game and the story to account for that change of phase (i.e. if the group goes back to Storming, then simplify the plot a bit until they work things out).
Group dynamics are far more complicated than what can be covered in a blog article, but understanding what is going on and why things are happening is the first step in our ability to help facilitate change. Even with a simple understanding of this model, you will have a better idea of where your group is, and some ideas for how to facilitate them to be a Performing group.
In your current game, what phase is your group at? What do you think they need to do to reach the next phase?