Q&A

How Should I Handle Players With Jerk Characters?

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Over the last few years, I’ve been making a gradual transition from hack-and-slash based campaigns to more story focused play, and one problem I’ve encountered is that many players don’t seem to get that their characters are allowed to grow. I’ve now had 2 specific examples with different players in different campaigns.

– In one Wild Talents campaign, I had a character whose backstory was that he had only joined the party […] to avoid being forcibly recruited into [a cult] and was only in it for himself. I kept dangling ways for the character to gradually develop into a less selfish individual in front of the player and he always refused, saying more or less outright “my character is a selfish dick and he wouldn’t do that.” This led him to ignore plot hooks and ultimately when the group was called into a big boss fight, the player decided that his character would opt to sit it out, which led to pretty significant in- and out-of character bad feeling from the other party members and basically excluded this player from participating in one of the most climactic sessions.

– Later on (different campaign, different player) […] I talked with the player about a possible endgame in which the villain would try to get the player to betray her liege by capturing one of her nephews. The player thought that this was cool and his response to this was that he would totally accept the offer because his loyalty was to his family not his master. […] In the end there were a lot more hurt feelings after this one and one of the other players refused to ever play with the player again.

These are the two most extreme examples, but I’ve seen some lesser ones as well in which players determined to role play treat their character’s flaws as written in stone. Have you ever had this experience before and do you have any ideas about how to talk to players about this without them thinking I’m making/playing their characters for them?

-Graeme

Hey Graeme, thanks for writing in!

I’m sorry to hear you’re having this problem, especially while you’re trying to transition to a more rewarding, story-focused kind of game. I’ve been there, and it’s no fun. While every group and player is different, there are a few broad possibilities for what’s going on here, and going through them may help you figure out the best course of action.

First: This may be a situation where your players are acting as, what we call, “Jokers” because they’re used to the hack-and-slash campaigns you’ve previously run. A Joker is someone who deliberately acts out in order to make their own fun when the campaign isn’t providing any. You see them a lot in hack-and-slash games, because a lot of players are bored by hack and slash. This behavior can take a while to unlearn, but as you’ve experienced, it’s particularly disruptive to more story-focused games.

If that’s the problem, then the best solution is to give these players time to adapt to the more story-focused game. In the meantime, you can minimize damage by not giving them story opportunities that affect the other players. It’s still good to give them tailored story content, so they have a reason to drop the Joker act, but that material can be siloed from the other player’s material. For example: instead of linking the Joker’s character to a group you know will be a main antagonist, give them a story about a long lost sibling who needs their help. If they act out in that story, they’re only hurting themself.

Second: It’s possible that these are simply problem players who enjoy being disruptive for its own sake. I’ve played with more than my fair share of those, and it sucks because you can’t force them to be better. You’ll know this is the case if you try the first solution for a while, and the players don’t improve at all. The best solution is not to invite these players back to your table, but that’s not always an option. If you can’t cut them out of their gaming group, then my advice is to introduce a powerful NPC to assist the more cooperative players. That way if one of the problem players betrays the party, sits out a fight, or otherwise hinders their fellows, you have a built-in mechanical excuse to mitigate their actions.

You can also use your GM fiat to say, “No, you can’t do that,” but that’s more likely to cause an argument. Having an established NPC bodyguard who can step in is less likely to escalate in my experience. It’s still not an ideal situation, but sometimes that’s the reality of roleplaying.

Third: Some types of stories are simply more likely to bring out a player’s bad side than others – in particular, storylines that require major change from the character or where the character’s loyalties are questioned. Players often don’t like developing their characters because they’ve grown attached to how the characters are at the beginning. Likewise, there’s a certain appeal to betraying the party, because it’s obviously not what the characters are supposed to do, and in fiction, traitors are often the coolest characters even if they’re villains.

For this, the best solution is to reserve such risky storylines for your more trusted players. If a player talks about starting with a major flaw, you can ask if they’re actually interested in having that character arc – if you think they’ll answer honestly. Otherwise, you can either say no or simply not engage with that aspect of their character.

If you’re up for some reading, we have a few roleplaying posts that might also be helpful.

I hope some of this is helpful, and good luck with your future campaigns!

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Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    Graeme:

    I’ld recommend talking to the second player and saying:-
    “I asked for the betrayal. I did it because I felt that your character should be placed under a moral test.
    If you want to blame people, please spread the blame around fairly.”

    As to “written in stone”, if a character sheet says “this character is a jerk” then the player should be rewarded for playing “in character”.
    But jerk-dom is a two edged sword:- if the guy is a jerk then he should be placed in a position where his jerk-ishness undermines his character’s agency by as much, if not more, than jerk-dom liberates his agency.

    I’ld say your players are wishing they could go back to hack `n’ slash.
    And too a degree that’s okay. Heck, ordinary war-gaming will spice up your role-playing, so farm out the GMing work. If players want to be devious and cruel and mean and jerk-ish, maybe they should give being a GM a serious go.They’ll either learn that people don’t tolerate jerk GMs for long or they’ll learn that teamwork doesn’t just happen on the football field. Either way, it’ll make a better player of that player.

  2. Dave L

    One thing you can do is talk to the player privately, outside the group, and explain the situation. This should be done one-on-one, not w/ the rest of the group present, so the player in question doesn’t feel like the rest of the group is ganging up on them

    If the player says “I’m just playing my character”, explain how this character is disrupting the group and making the game less fun for everyone else. The player might not even realize that they’re being a problem.

    The player might agree to modify the character or take a new character. This might solve the problem

    If the player insists on being a problem, maybe that player is a bad fit for your game altogether

  3. Michael Campbell

    Actually this whole situation asks a different question.
    Should GMs create an in-game cosmos that distributes karma in a moral manner or an amoral fashion?

  4. Jasin Moridin

    If the player keeps using the excuse of “Well, that’s what my character would do” for disruptive stuff, definitely discuss in private with them and point out that those actions are making the game suck, and that their character needs to evolve into a better person. You can also try getting other players to have their characters try to drag the character kicking and screaming from merely “jerk” to “still acting like a jerk but beginning to care enough to cooperate” through roleplaying.

    If that doesn’t work, there is an option short of exiling the player, however. It may lead to the player rage-quitting, but you can kill off the character who they keep blaming for their game-disrupting BS. It’s a weapon of almost-last-resort and it’s a tricky one that’s more likely than not to backfire, but done right, it might make for a meaningful moment in the game.

    If you do take that just-short-of-nuclear option, you need to tailor the event properly. It can’t just be “Oh, the monster in this random encounter inexplicably decides to focus solely on your character” or “a huge rock falls out of the sky and kills you at random”. It needs to involve consequences for the character’s previous actions. If they’re playing a complete git, then they’ve very likely managed to seriously annoy at least some NPCs with the resources to order an assassination.

    • Michael Campbell

      “It can’t just be “Oh, the monster in this random encounter inexplicably decides to focus solely on your character” ”
      Well it could be.
      “Send forth your best warrior to challenge me!”
      “Whatta ya mean, all the other guys, all took one step backwards?”
      “Ahh, the champion has been chosen…good I will smite him swiftly.”

      You just need to make it clear that the comeuppance was a product of the character’s jerk-o-meter being off the scale.

      You should also talk to the player about what he’s aiming for. Ash from the evil dead movies is a jerk. But people love that guy.

      • Dave L

        >Ash from the evil dead movies is a jerk. But people love that guy

        I agree that WATCHING Ash be a jerk can be a lot of fun. But would you want him in your group? I can think of many characters who are fun to watch/read/whatever who I would not want to know IRL or as a party member. Other characters in the story might love him, but that’s writer fiat

        OTOH, Han Solo, while a selfish jerk at first, would still be okay as a PC. IF the player could pull it off. Of course, Solo is an example of someone growing and changing for the better

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, there’s a big difference between having a jerk character in a story or having one in a game.

        • Michael Campbell

          @ Dave L.
          Agreed. If the player lets the other players in on the fun of having a jerk in the group, it can be really entertaining.
          But if it’s a private little entertainment, then most likely it’s a player who’s bored by the stimulation of the game…A.K.A., if you think one PC is too easy, take 50 NPCs and see if find that’s stimulating enough for ya!

      • Jasin Moridin

        I’d say that example would fall under consequences, largely because it would involve the other PCs throwing the character under a huge stompy plate-armoured bus, BECAUSE he’s earned their ire.

        The kind of stuff I was cautioning against was more “DM is directly and obviously taking revenge on the player without bothering with verisimilitude”.

        Also, dealing with other replies… another jerk character who manages to be a jerk while not screwing over the group he’s in is Stepanek from the movie Down Periscope. He was coerced by his father (an Admiral) to sign up for submarine service in the Navy, and generally acts like a horrible grossly-insubordinate git in an effort to get himself removed from that situation. But when a golden opportunity to succeed at that goal comes up, he ends up not taking it because it would have basically scuttled the careers of his shipmates. He explains it with, “That would’ve been unethical, sir. I’m only out to screw myself; that woulda screwed everybody.”

        • Michael Campbell

          @Jasin Moridin.
          It’s been one of the long running debates about role-playing games.
          Should Game Masters create a game universe that has punishment & reward?
          Or merely a game universe that has consequences???

          • Jasin Moridin

            My thoughts on it are that a player having his character deal with being vilified or hunted specifically for in-character choices will leave less bad feelings than “Okay, I’ve had it with your character being an ass and sucking the fun out of this for the entire group. A random meteor strike obliterates him and only him. See if you can make a character who actually CAN play with others this time.”

            Sometimes, when the player is toxic enough that you’re better off with them rage-quitting the campaign, that IS the appropriate response. But if the player is a decent person who’s making horrible decisions because they’re in-character, having an “evolve or die” ultimatum pushed onto said character with steadily-decreasing subtlety works better.

          • Michael Campbell

            @ Jasin Moridin
            Yeah, it helps when the GM has actual emotional foresight capacity and can see the jerk rep’ building before the other players start making ultimata.

            Talking to players during the pizza break and alternate-week war-gaming sessions are actually quite vital to directing the group toward becoming a team.

  5. Lizard with Hat

    I think, from my GM-Experience, there is a distinct difference between a jerk-character and a jerk-player.

    The former is a character, at least in my experience, with a flaw that results in them being insufferable, insulting or otherwise unpleasant – but that’s just in world and the other characters and the world can react to that accordingly (which was the intend for my players at least – because being a jerk was the characters FLAW)

    The jerk-player is a person and they are normally out to ruin your day for the fun of it … the medium and actions they take are less important that the power they feel for ruining other people’s fun, without any reason. Form my experience these people are few and far between. I only had one such player in 5 years GMing and thier jerkness was mostly hardcore loner and zero comunication in-game.

    Though frustrated player might act that way because they care about the game a feel mistreated so… but I found that unhappy players easy to spot… but I might be biased

  6. Quin

    Not the most useful answer but if a PC has a jerk trait on their character sheet then that should be a big red flag. You shouldn’t even start the game unless you’re sure the player can handle it in a fun way, the other players will also enjoy having that PC in the group and you too can work with it and enjoy it.
    Having a jerk character definitly can work but it’s a complication and it can easily go poorly.
    A jerk player is a whole other problem.

  7. greg

    Players have an obligation to do what they can to not ruin the game for others. If you play a jerk character you need to come up with whatever reasons you can to not screw the game up while remaining in character. For example, imagine the scene in Star Wars where Han refuses to help Luke rescue the Princess. As Han’s player, you could say, “My character wouldn’t do it, but maybe one of you other players could talk him into it by appealing to his selfish nature.” Now instead of being disruptive you’ve created a roleplaying opportunity.

    As GM you can have a chat with each player and ask him or her what their long-term vision is for their characters. If the player’s response is that they want their jerky character to remain a jerk with no development, that’s okay. Now you can be sure not to offer them any character development hooks. If they change their mind later, they can always let you know at that time.

  8. Jenn

    I found this advice earlier about playing evil characters, but the questionnaire applies just as well to ‘jerk’ characters:

    http://edthebard.blogspot.com/2016/04/player-advice-how-to-play-good-evil.html?m=1

    Basically, they need a damn good reason to be with the party in the first place… let alone a reason to leave the pub. Getting solid answers to those questions can help you design plot for both that character and the group.

    • Jasin Moridin

      I’ve played a Lawful Evil character in a campaign (a Drow Rogue/Warlock capitalizing on the reputations of others who’d left the Underdark to get people to not look too closely at his actual motivations) who ended up being one of the two sensible characters in the group, along with the Chaotic Good Paladin. He fell into the Evil alignment more because of the methods he was willing to employ in pursuit of the party’s noble goals than because of being willing to screw people over for no reason.

      One of the most interesting things I’d ever seen in any gaming supplement was a 3.5E D&D book called the Complete Scoundrel, and its explanation that “Scoundrel” could be applied to any alignment, with examples… And the one for Chaotic Evil was Jack Black’s character in the King Kong remake that Peter Jackson did. I’ve used that example to help deal with the misconception most players have of “Chaotic Evil is pure ‘BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD!’ random murdering”.

  9. Greg

    It’s easy for a player to say, “My character would betray my party because his motivation is to put family first.” if their characters don’t have any strong internal conflicts. I think a key to making jerk characters work in the framework of a group is to have some kind of internal conflict that forces them to not always be a jerk.

    What if the character selling out his party for the sake of his family has to do it in front of his ten year-old son that looks up to his dad as a hero? What if the vengeance-seeking character finds out that she’s in love with the sister of the man she’s seeking vengeance against?

    Maybe GMs should stipulate that a player of any character with disruptive motives furnish a conflict to keep them in check. If the player doesn’t agree, the GM can simply make the character’s goal a side plot that doesn’t influence the main story or the other player characters.

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