Not every session at the game table goes smoothly. In fact, you can end up having some pretty heated discussions about things, both in-game and out-of-game. In your multifaceted role as GM, you might have to take on the role of a councilor. Let’s start off by exploring this idea as it tends to happen in the classroom.
Teachers and the Problem Problem
When you’re a teacher, you hear all kinds of things from your students. Hopes fears, dreams, things they love, things they hate, or things they think they love and things they think they hate. And sometimes, students come to you to talk about things, or you feel you need to approach a student about an issue you see. Neither of these things is easy. It takes carding, compassion, and an understanding of when you might be in over your head. You always need to know when to direct the student to someone who is better qualified to handle their concerns. That’s what schools have guidance counselors and psychologists.
However, you always need to know how to handle issues and personalities. From flare-ups during class where you need to mediate things long enough to get to the end of the period so further action can be taken, to handling ongoing conflicts between students, teachers need to know how to handle drama.
At the Game Table
One would hope that you’re able to have people in your group that are friends outside of the game. If so, this tends to help make sure that any issues are handled quickly and don’t affect the game. However, not every group is so lucky, or has friends who are not contentious with one another. At the least, you need to be able to mediate between personalities.
In-game, you’ve got less to worry about. Or you should have less to worry about. If your Paladin and your Rogue are having issues, that’s great fodder for roleplaying and it’s something where you should be able to sit back and enjoy the interplay between the two characters. However, this assumes that you’re playing with intellectually and emotionally mature players that can separate their character from themselves. This is not always the case, and this is what you need to watch out for.
Some people have no separation between themselves and their character. This makes every disagreement between characters a potential issue. If the aforementioned Paladin is berating the aforementioned Rogue and the person playing the Rogue takes it personally, you’ve got issues. This is where you need to step in. Make sure your players know to keep a separation. If they cannot, then you other accommodations may need to be made. Maybe someone needs to change classes, or maybe you need to avoid situations where the players can come into conflict.
This is analogous to a teacher changing the desk that a student sits in. Remove the person from the issue if you can, and see if that helps. Just being across the room rather and side-by-side means that the conflict should be diminished, at least. The lessened presence of the source of the conflict and take something that’s at a boil and turn it down to a simmer. It’s not a perfect solution, but it can help get you through the day.
However, that might not be enough. We’ve all be in situation where someone would go to great lengths to antagonize us. Or maybe we’ve been the antagonizer. I know I’m not innocent of that. People will go out of their way to cause trouble if they feel they have an axe to grind. If you’ve got this happening at you game table, then it’s time to escalate things.
Talk, Talk, Talk
As a teacher, you sometimes need to take a student aside for an extended conversation about their behavior. It’s not fun, but it needs to be done. You want to handle your own classroom issues, and not just pass them off to the administration. At the game table, the same is true, but there’s not an administration to fall back on. You’ve got to handle your business. If you’ve got a disruptive player, you need to sit down with them, discuss the issues, and try to find a resolution.
I strongly recommend that you do this in private. If you try to address the issues of one person in front of the whole group, it can feel like the problem person is being ganged up on. Keep it one-on-one, and try to resolve things. If you can’t, the next step is that dreaded conversation about parting ways. It sucks kicking someone out of the gaming group, but if no other resolution can be found, it’s what you may have to do.
It’s Not All About the Bad
Sometimes being a counselor means dealing with the happy, or the sad, too. Just like a teacher needs to be aware of how all the personalities in their classroom fit together, you need to do the same as a GM. You need to be able to celebrate with your players in-game and real-world successes, and mourn the losses that they and their characters experience. You might find yourself listening to someone talk about problems you have no experience with. At that point, being a willing listener is about all you can do.
As with all analogies, this falls apart at some point. Teachers are in a position of authority that far supersedes that of a GM (and if it doesn’t, well, I think you’re probably playing with the wrong people, but that’s just me). Teachers will have students come to them with issues and problems that a GM will never have to face. After all, we’re playing a game when we get together and roll dice. We’re not dealing with the issues that affect us in real life. Most times, anyway.
The final point is this: be ready to listen and be aware of the possible issues in your group. Doing that will help you navigate potentially treacherous waters. It’s just a game, but we can sometimes take it personally.
I’m Tracy Barnett and This is My Game
Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I write about RPGs like it's my job (man, I wish it were), and I am working on a campaign setting called Shadows of the Collegium. Also, I design games. You can find out more about me on Twitter, and about Shadows of the Collegium and my other games at sandandsteam.net.