A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about the differences between public and private games, particularly with a view to some problems that are more common in public games. Before I go any further, you should go read Steel Wing’s great post about his own public play experiences over on ENWorld. The post is Why Organized Play has been an Awesome Experience. Organized play really is pretty good–my first two takes on this post had a rambling section about my public play history, just because I wanted to tell you about some of my good experiences to balance the advice below with some positive. Fortunately for you, brevity prevailed.

In my previous article, I mentioned some common problem player symptoms. Reading and acting on the module, cheating on die rolls, and hogging the spotlight are all behaviors that may get you kicked out of the event or shunned once the behavior comes to light. Other practices you should avoid if you want to sit at the cool kids’ table: getting your characters killed frequently, regularly shouting (or cursing at any volume), talking over other players on their turn, and wandering away from the game (physically or mentally). If you’re late, you’ll get the leftover space–which is probably at the table everyone’s eager to avoid.

Organizers spend a lot of time talking with their GMs and getting a more complete picture of their players. Beyond balancing character roles and other game specific constraints, organizers have a number of additional restrictions when they’re setting everything up. Here are some of the factors that many organizers consider when they’re deciding where to slot you (and everyone else):

  • What are the player conflicts? Are there two people who can’t sit at the same table?
  • Are there any players that everyone wants to avoid?
  • Which groups have positive play experience/regularly show up together/ask to be seated as a group?

Before you ever get to selecting character groups that will work together and be a good match for the adventure, many ideal parties (measured by their character sheets) have been sunk by player conflicts.

Once the event organizer has triaged the lists, the organizer now needs to match a GM to each of the tables. Almost invariably, the organizer takes a “problem table”– either the table requiring more GMing expertise (because the players use more exotic character options, min-max their characters to overcome the written scenarios without challenge, or assertively present wrong rules interpretations that will trip up GMs who haven’t encountered them before). Many organizers don’t have the luxury of a large GM pool, encouraging them to assign the least problematic players to GMs with less experience, especially since good player groups double as a role model for new GMs. Sometimes you’ll schedule your best groups to reward and recharge hard working GMs, to remind them that organized play is fun for GMs too. There’s always a balance–hopefully you have enough good tables to keep your GMs happy and eager to return and help out next time.

Seating Frustration

As a player, it can be annoying to get seated at a problem player’s table. Getting seated with the player that everyone wants to avoid often falls on new players–who don’t know to ask for other tables! Even as the GM it can be frustrating–it can feel like your hard work and experience earned you a tougher set of players.

Organizers have to watch out too. Keeping a stable “cool table” can develop cliques, leading to stagnation and a declining player base. It’s good to mix up groups–even groups that play great together–if only so more people can experience awesome play! If “newbs” only ever get seated with the problem players, you’ll have difficulty retaining them. It can be rough–particularly since you’ll listen hardest to the players you want to retain–but they too can stretch every once in a while.

Handling Problem Players

How do you handle problem players as a fellow player, GM, or organizer? I know that my responses vary.

As a player, I tend to silently put up with a problem player–figuring it’s one slot, that they didn’t get that way overnight, and that as a player I don’t have authority to force better behavior anyway. That’s definitely not optimal–it slows the community’s improvement and puts more burden on GMs and organizers. I don’t know if problems (other than black and white issues like cheating on die rolls) is easily addressed as a player.

As a GM, I tend to silently put up with a problem player–unless it’s a young or new player, someone who might be unaware that their behavior is off-putting…and leading toward permanent problem table exile. It usually takes repetition–GMing the player in a second game, or seeing them engage in problematic behavior repeatedly, before I’ll decided to catch them after the game and explain my perceptions. It’s never a fun conversation to start–but it can salvage a player.