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When Players Deviate from the Expected Conceit

Signposts in the desert that read, Lost, Found, and SearchingThere was a tendency, when I was running years ago, to run into players that would use the following logic, “you can do anything in an RPG, so let’s do [insert thing not well supported by the game or setting].” Because I have been running a lot more roleplaying games that have a focus on genre emulation, and because I’m much more likely to discuss campaign frameworks and to have session zeros to set expectations, I don’t see this as much now as I once did, but it still comes up on occasion.

Because this may be something that game moderators may still run into from time to time, I thought I would walk through some thoughts on why this may be a problem, and how to get a focused game back on track.

Addressing the Issue Head-On

Whenever a player wants to go off on a vector that isn’t really what the game or setting supports, it is really important to actually have a discussion. One of the most important things to do in these situations is to make sure that you don’t try to fix this problem “in game.” Setting up the campaign to remove the player’s desired course of action without a discussion is just going to create an adversarial relationship and create frustration.

When a player wants to do something outside of the expected realm of the game, one of the first things you should do in a discussion is to frame your game as a “writer’s room.” Everyone at the table is a collaborator on a story, and you want the input of your players. The next thing you should discuss is what you think the game, setting, and campaign is good at doing well, and ask if the player agrees with that vision.

If the player disagrees, and thinks that the actions their player wants to participate in fits in the core competencies of the game, listen to their reasoning. It may be that the game is more flexible than you initially thought, or it may be that you misunderstand what the player really wants to get from their deviation.

A mining drill bitDrilling Down

If the player wants to go off on a tangent, ask them if they want a short- or long-term deviation. If it is a short-term deviation, it may be something easily adjudicated. The player may just want to roleplay a certain scene, or it may just be a quick roll to see if something can be accomplished or not.

One style of short-term deviation often seen in various television shows or movies is the change of pace scene that transitions into the traditional action of the game. This may end up being more invigorating, because it accomplishes the same end goal of the game, but forces you to begin in unfamiliar territory, and find a way to connect those activities to the expected narrative of the game.

Examples of this kind of short-term deviation include stories with all-powerful characters trying to teach the characters a lesson or impart a clue about a greater threat, where they get dropped into a very unfamiliar situation (think Q transporting the Enterprise across the galaxy to see the Borg, or Gabriel dropping Sam into a version of Groundhog Day to deal with Dean’s impending death). Other examples might be seeing the characters on vacation, where similar problems find them abroad that they usually deal with at home.

Long Term Deviations

If the player wants to make a long-term deviation from the regular action of the game, it might be worth finding out if they want a break from their character, or just from what their character does. If they still enjoy playing their character, but want to do things that the current game system is not adept at handling, you may be able to drift the campaign to a new rules system.

Characters that want to hunt monsters, but want to do so in a more direct manner, might convert their characters from Call of Cthulhu to Monster of the Week. Characters that have enjoyed low level, over the top, highly lethal fantasy games for a while, but want more rules support for downtime and less lethality may want to keep the same characters but shift from Dungeon Crawl Classics to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

The important part about this kind of drift is that the whole group needs to be enthusiastic about playing the same characters and moving to a new game system, and the game moderator needs to either be enthusiastic about running the new system, or handing the GM reins off to a new player.

This kind of drift might happen more than once. If the party is okay with it, it may even be possible to drift just one character from the previous campaign to a new game. The Professional from Monster of the Week might end up bringing that character into a Night’s Black Agents game, as the monster hunting moves from open-ended to focused on a massive vampire conspiracy.

When performing this kind of drift, it’s important to make sure that everyone is okay with the concept that their game happens across different game systems. This can be similar to characters from one cast getting a spin-off series (like several characters moving from Buffy to Angel), or moving a single character from one show to another (think Frasier or Worf). The important thing, as always, is to discuss this as a group and to make sure everyone is enthusiastic about the change.

New Campaigns
 it is very important to not attempt to use game rules to fix interpersonal issues, because that’s not what they are designed to do 

Sometimes, people don’t know what they want, and having an open discussion on why the fighter wants to start having more adventures where they sell goods from one nation to another in your D&D game might reveal that they really don’t want to play that character any more.

Sometimes people have invested a lot of time and emotion in a character, and even when they aren’t getting what they want out of the game anymore, they don’t want to abandon something they have invested so much into. In this case, it is important to discuss that it might be possible to end the campaign in a less permanent manner. Put it on hold, make sure you have a special, secure, safe place to store the PCs, and do something new.

If it makes the players feel better, plan the new campaign as a short sequence of 3-5 adventures, just to have a change of pace. Maybe you don’t want the campaign to end, but you really want to take the summer off of thinking about the troubles of this world you have been in for the last year or so.

Checking In

When a player starts wanting to take actions that the campaign doesn’t support, or that the game you are playing isn’t good at, try having a conversation with the following steps:

If you agree on what the campaign and the game are about, determine if the player wants a short- or long-term deviation from what the game is about. If it is a short-term deviation, determine what you can do to satisfy this desire:

If it is a long-term deviation, determine if the game system or the characters are what the player wants to drift from:

If the group is worried about putting a game they enjoy on hold:

Finally, and potentially the most important step, is to make sure that the player is happy in the group. If they want to do things that the group isn’t doing, they may not be enjoying the gaming group in general. The important part of this discussion is to make sure the player realizes that if a game group isn’t for you, it isn’t the same as determining that you dislike the people in the group. Play cultures develop, and sometimes a gamer’s sensibilities do not fit with that group. It’s important that leaving a group is not portrayed as being synonymous with fighting with or making a judgement call about a group of people.

Many Facets to the Same Solution

As with a lot of gaming problems, it’s important to have focus, open discussion, and to clearly define the purpose of discourse. It is important for adults to have reasonable conversations that remove blame or moral judgements from personal preferences. And it is very important to not attempt to use game rules to fix interpersonal issues, because that’s not what they are designed to do.


2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "When Players Deviate from the Expected Conceit"

#1 Comment By Brian Kurtz On August 5, 2019 @ 11:46 am

Great piece, Jared! And an excellent use of examples from shows to demonstrate your points.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On August 5, 2019 @ 12:04 pm

I’m in two minds here. On the one hand I’m running large amounts of Savage Worlds powered settings lately, and they can be very tolerant of people going “off piste” because of the general assumption that (within limits) anything goes. But a while back I had a bad experience with a player who disrupted a game of Call of Cthulhu because he decided it should be an action-adventure game when everyone else had signed up for a creeping cosmic horror experience.

So I dunno. I think some settings/games open themselves to your analysis and solution, but some, especially the deep-immersion sort, are less amenable to such rejiggering.

By the way, the photo for the article isn’t a drill. It’s a vertical rotary mill bit. It is used mostly for making slots in metal.