I had thought I’d be doing women and comics and games in this week’s column, but something came up, and I know its something that every GM is going to have to deal with at one time or another in their gaming career: firing a player.
It sucks. A lot.
I did not realize how much it would suck until I had to do it myself. See, there’s this feeling of tribe and geek unity that I’m pretty sure most of us can relate to. So what do you do when part of your tribe is, well, not holding up their end of the bargain or not meshing with the other members. I mean, they’re your friend or you wouldn’t have invited them in the first place, right? But its just not working out, the rest of the group may well be getting a little mutinous, and there’s really no way out of it. You’re going to have to fire them.
And as much as geeks have a reputation for being tactless and blunt to the point of brutality, I have never seen anyone dance around an issue so much as a GM (myself included) trying to figure out how to fire a player without hurting their feelings.
On my first try, I attempted to get the player in question to fire themselves. My Boy has had some success with this tactic. They’ve been missing a lot of games, and you’re pretty sure that they aren’t as into it as they thought they’d be. So you give them an out. “Hey, look, it just seems like you’ve got a lot going on, and you’d rather be taking this time to do other things. You’re not gonna hurt my feelings if you’d drop.” There is a sizable segment of the population for whom this will work. They’ll hem and haw and mumble about not wanting to hurt your feelings or not wanting to let you down, but generally, they’ll drop with nary a whimper.
You’ll note I said “first try.” I was not so lucky. After weakly asking the rest of the group how they’d feel about giving the player in question one more shot and getting a round of furrowed eyebrows aimed in my general direction, I admitted defeat and had to figure out exactly how to tell the player that it just wasn’t working. I had already, when the player had missed the last game, taken the story to a place where there was just no feasible way to catch them up, so I guess you could say I wrote them out and then informed them of this later. And maybe that was the coward’s way out, but after agonizing over this decision for weeks I took the path of least resistance.
That said, after looking at how I handled it, and how other GMs have handled problem players, I kind of wonder if maybe a brutally blunt approach might have worked better. The real question is, if I had been incredibly blunt and just said, “Look, you don’t show up, when you do you don’t pay attention, I have to spend all session asking you to make INT roles to see if your character is smarter than you just to keep the group from catastrophic death and then there’s the matter of the rest of the group constantly smacking you down” would it have made any difference, or would it just be another notch in the gunbelt of “Mickey is an incredible bitch?”
The problem is do you give them the short intense pain of your smackdown in the hope that it will improve their behavior for other, later GMs? Or do you spare their feelings because they’re your friend? Is the smackdown even effective in the long run, or will it just make you look (and quite possibly feel) like you suck?
The problem being that even if you deliver the most supremely eloquent smackdown in all existence, you still have to deal with the fact that the human brain does not like to hear negatives about itself and can rationalize its way out of a titanium vault.
You’ll say, “You never show up.”
They’ll hear, “I have unreasonable expectations of attendance.”
You’ll say, “You don’t pay attention and I’m constantly having to interrupt the game flow to catch you up.”
They’ll hear, “I don’t explain well enough for you to follow, and I’m boring.”
You’ll say, “You antagonize the other players.”
They’ll hear, “We’re a bunch of irrational, oversensitive bitches.”
You really can’t win. So I say let them go in the way that makes you the least likely to feel like an ass, and don’t linger on it. There is no win in this situation.