When playing tabletop games, it’s understandable that people might not get along. Different people have different ideas of what a game night means. To some people it might be “hey, let’s get some brews and pay half attention to a game.” Others might see it as a focused and quiet experience, while others still might see the game as a background activity to something else, like conversation or watching a movie. It’s reasonable that a group of friends might not agree on exactly what sort of reverence should be put toward a game. As such, when they come into a session or an RPG or board game, they may be more or less focused than others at the table, more or less sober than others or generally doing something that is a pet peeve of someone else without them knowing.
The way around this is to establish some house/table rules when playing tabletop games. Now, your first reaction might be that this sounds too strict. Afterall, they’re just games. That’s definitely fair, and if your group is the type that meets to game once in a blue moon, then by all means, let people run rampant. However, if you are regularly meeting with your gaming group for more adventures in tabletopping, then you’ve gone beyond just games: this is now a hobby and your group is a club of individuals taking part in that hobby. You are a crew. A squad. A gang of nerdy droogs. As such, everyone at the table has some level of passion for the hobby, so it’s reasonable to have a discussion of what sort of parameters the group may need to put in place to ensure nobody’s experience is stifled. It might not be easy, getting people to agree, and then one of two things may need to happen.
First, it might fall on to the GM to establish rules that they think will better the experience. If you are the one running a campaign or providing the featured game of the evening, it should ultimately fall to you to decide what may be best. This sounds totalitarian, but there is nothing more depressing then putting time, effort and money into having a fun experience with a group you care about, just to have someone take that experience from you, intentionally or not. Lay down whatever restrictions you feel necessary, and if someone isn’t a fan, they can walk. Which brings me to thing number two: it may be necessary to ask someone to not be present at every session. If someone in the group simply does NOT want the experience everyone else is looking for, they may need to find a new group or at the very least sit out during sessions or games that are more important or serious. Say the group decides that they want to be liquored up and raucous each game night, but one person is looking for a more focused and serious experience. That person can a) start their own campaign or provide their own games and lay down their own set of rules b) leave the group altogether or c) try to compromise (i.e. can we not drink while we play our D&D campaign at least, I’ll hang out until things get too boozey, keep me posted if we’re doing a non-drinking night, etc.).
You and your group all want to have a good experience, and while rules may at first seem excessive, as adults and people who share a passion, limiting problem behaviors and addressing pet peeves shouldn’t be a dramatic event. If someone makes a simple discussion an issue, then there are deeper issues. This brings me to my next point: enforcement. If you are going to have table rules, you need to be willing to enforce them. This is tough for a lot of people, since the people you are playing with are typically your friends. You don’t want to hurt a relationship by saying “hey, you can’t play with us any longer.” It’s important that it is made absolutely clear that any penalization is NOT personal. I find the easiest way to do this is with a strikes program. If someone does something disruptive at a session, swallow it and approach them calmly later. Try not to make a scene at the table, since it will only make the person feel immediately attacked. Later on, approach them and remind them of the rule in question and remind them of what the punishment is. Strike one is this warning. Strike two could be anything from NPCing their RPG character for a session or asking them to leave during a game. Strike three is complete removal from that particular game or possibly the game group in general. Do whatever layers you’re comfortable with, but again it is super important to remember three things:
- These people are still your friends even if they are a problem player. No game is worth losing a friend over, no matter how hard Munchkin may try… (I was in last place, Jeremy! You didn’t need to hurl monsters at me, JEREMY!)
- The punishment should meet the crime. If your rule is “no eating at the table in case of spills” and someone ignores that and ends up spilling and ruining an expensive game board, then yeah, stop playing with them. If they just eat a few chips before you glare at them and then they put them away, maybe overlook that or politely remind them. Don’t go crazy with the ban hammers.
- Forgiveness is key. Like I said, these are your friends. Don’t hold a grudge because someone showed up buzzed to a round of pandemic, or someone wouldn’t stop talking over other people, or someone just HAD to do every single skill check. Even if they fail multiple times and get banned, throw them a bone and let them back in later, just make them aware that they only get one strike for a probationary period. There are definitely horrible things people can do that don’t warrant a second chance (reddit.com/r/rpghorrorstories), but most of the time it just boils down to a difference of opinion or a bad habit creeping to the table.
My personal example of a table rule is called the Attentive Rule. I put this into play a few years back, and it’s been pretty sound. It essentially states that when we play, each and every player should be focused on the table and all happenings on it. Staring at phones, falling asleep, generally chattering off to the side, disappearing and roaming are all punishable offenses. It also asks that nobody shows up drunk or high (yes, this has to be stipulated, welcome to my life). Punishment is a three strike offense with multiple strikes possible in one night. Strike one is a polite warning. Strike Two is removal from the immediate session. Strike Three and I will no longer invite you to games I am running. I allow exceptions, if for instance we are working on something and your character is EXPLICITELY not involved, but I request that my players ask just to be sure, because when the group splits I tend to bounce around to keep the action up and not have anyone getting bored. I also allow for phones to be present and people to answer phone calls, since we all have different obligations in our lives. Overall, this rule has worked out really well, and honestly it isn’t a sweeping rule. I’ll often let my players know “attentive rule is in play” before a game night. For instance, a night of Gloomhaven is an attentive night. Sitting down and playing various smaller games like Munchkin or Epic Spell Wars, meh. Some nights it’s just more fun to be more casual. I even have a Pathfinder campaign where drinking is allowed, just because there is no experience quite like drunk tabletop….
For me, this rule serves to satisfy two of my pet peeves. First, if people are paying attention, you don’t have to backtrack or have the game slowed down. People can work together better in combat or in rounds of a board game. They know details of the game’s development and story, and we don’t waste time repeating those things later. Generally, the game just is a whole lot smoother. Second, gaming for me is a social experience. I don’t smack down table chatter because in my opinion the chatter is part of why we’re here. I want to have game nights to have fun and make jokes with my friends. Having someone zoned out or hardly focused is something that bothers me in ANY social situation. Doesn’t matter if I’m at a bar or party or theme park, if someone in the group is just buried in their phone or constantly breaking from the group or falling asleep, it gives off the impression that person doesn’t want to be there. If they truly DON’T, then by all means DON’T. I don’t get my feelings hurt when someone just generally doesn’t want to do something, in fact I prefer it over people who do stuff because of FOMO or worry that people will be upset with them. I’d rather have the people I spend my time with either be there with gusto or stay home. Maybe I’m asking too much. So sue me.
The attentive rule has worked well for me, but it’s just one example of rules, and each group will need to decide what works best for them. A friend of mine recently told me about how he is going to require everyone in his group to make a Facebook account, because communicating schedule changes and whatnot has just become too hit or miss. Another GM friend actually requires people to drop their phones in a bowl by the table, a la 60s swinger party but without the end result. I’ve talked to people in the past that require you to stay strictly in character and even a guy who banned chairs from his gaming table. These seem strict, but ultimately their groups agreed to these restrictions because it somehow improves their experience. That’s what this all boils down to: enhancing and maintaining the experience of those with a passion for gaming. You folks meet regularly to play games that you love. You dedicate time in busy schedules to your passion. You deserve to have the best experience possible.
So, don’t be afraid to lay down some law. Just don’t become a tabletop tyrant.