Group Dynamics at the Gaming Table


“I just figured STORM troopers must deal with a lot of rain.”

Here’s a special guest post by Matthew Surber, inspired by a weekend-long gaming and BS session my friends and I had not too long ago.

Bruce Tuckman (Wikipedia has a great article on him) introduced a basic concept of group formation in 1965. In it, he labels four main stages – Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. We’re going to look at the first of these fours stages and how Galaxy Masters and players can preempt problems, keep their groups moving forward, and avoid some of the basic pitfalls of group dynamics.

Forming is categorized as ‘being motivated by the desire to be accepted by others and to avoid conflict or controversy.‘ This is the moment when we all first sit around the table and talk about our characters. If you’re like my local gaming groups, it’s via email for about a month before the game actually begins. These initial conversations are usually along the lines of ‘What do you want to play?
The Forming stage is a GM’s best friend, and should be the stage at which they have the most input. In our Star Wars campaigns (Crush the Rebellion and Blaster At Your Side) players were given a detailed primer that discussed motivations, intents, rules, and expectations; both of and for the players. This initial GM communication created a shared language and understanding for the players and aided our Forming stage.
Unfortunately, missing the Forming stage can have a significant negative impact on many players. If the group already has some cohesion when you bring a new player in, or you’re running a one-shot type game, anyone not already part of the basic dynamic is going to struggle to connect with the game. These players missed the opportunity to ask formative questions and are being thrust into a situation that has already begun to clarify some important group questions.
In a current game we have a player, Joe, who went with a very heavy combat specialization. During our planning emails, we as a group didn’t do enough to to make sure he had a well-rounded character. As such, there have been several sessions now where this player, in a non-combat situation, becomes obviously frustrated and withdraws saying things like ‘I have nothing to do, you guys go.
He loves that his character carries a massive gun, and when it comes time to shoot things, we all jump out of the way so he can utterly cripple whatever is in front of us. Outside of that, though, he feels pretty useless and becomes visibly mopey.
If you encounter similar situations, there are some crucial things to keep in mind.
  1. They may not understand the system or their ability to move around within it.
  2. They may not connect with their character, and therefore lack any motivation to move forward.
  3. They may not be ready for the group’s level of enthusiasm and energy.
These three issues will often manifest themselves in behavior many of us have seen at the table. Players  can withdraw into themselves, becoming quiet and disconnected. They can become agitated at their lack of understanding and take a belligerent stance toward the game and the players. They can even become outwardly angry and pile on offense after offense.
In order to preempt these type of situations, here are a few recommended courses of action that you can do during and around the Forming Stage:
  • Make sure that every player has a clear understanding of what the game is and how it’s going to work.
  • Expect that new players may not ask questions, as they’re still in the formative stage.
  • Try and gauge what questions they might have, and answer them, even if they’re not asked.
  • Avoid gaming jargon like ‘theater of the mind‘, ‘stormtrooper‘, ‘rogue-like‘ or ‘fetch-quest‘. Also avoid referencing rules or ideas from other games. Newer players may not understand the terms, making them useless as explanation.
By taking an extra few steps to clarify what the game is and what the campaign’s expectations are, you can help players make informed decision about how they want to play their character within that set of expectations, if at all.
In the above player situation, with Joe, we recently ran into a more social session and he was somewhat timid about what his character might do. At one point his character just stood in a corner. Finally we decided to start throwing some ideas his way – ‘your character has a cool ass gun, talk to some other people, swap stories;’ ‘there are cops coming, talk to them about tactics or something!’ ‘Someone got killed, you kill a lot of people, ask questions about stuff your character would know.’ With a few simple suggestions he began to get a better sense of his character outside of the combat mechanics.
If a player has missed the opportunity to decide what they want to play in-game, and are thrust into a character, it can be difficult to build any sort of rapport or understanding of that character. Give these players a chance to dig into their character sheet and ask questions. After that, give them suggestions of what you see this character doing and where you think it shines. If you’ve got ideas for the player to use, help them out while asking them to think about who they want that character to become. Combine your knowledge of the character, with encouragement for them to grow into it and take it in whatever direction they choose.
Ross says: As a GM, you can also steer the narrative of the story so that the shy player needs to have his or her character engage the game by making a roll, etc. Don’t give them a choice; save or die! Don’t let Joe decide to talk to the cops, have the cops talk to him!
When players disengage, it is often a defense mechanism and while we take it personally, the question we should be asking is ‘why would a player behave this way?‘ If we can understand the root cause for the behavior, we can approach it with viable solutions and work through it.
It should be understood that not all problems can be solved. Not all players can be brought on board with all game types. This is a difficult reality for some of us to solve, it’s the ‘you can’t save everyone’ mentality. Respect your players enough to try and meet them where they are, but respect yourself and your game enough to cut ties when it comes to that. Have an open and frank conversation, let them know where you’re coming from and ask them where they’re coming from. If a solution can’t be reached, do not consider it a personal failure, but rather a success in avoiding a frustrating experience for everyone.

About C. Steven Ross

C. Steven Ross is the founder of Triumph & Despair. View all posts by C. Steven Ross

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