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?


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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