D&D Is Not a Spectator Sport

So you’ve got someone hanging around.  They’re not there to play, for whatever reason.  They’re just there to watch.  This is one half of the dreaded GFS and it can kill a game dead.  What’s GFS?  “Girlfriend Syndrome”, originally named for the girlfriend who just has to tag along to the game session even though she isn’t playing.  I’m sure it’s gotten a new name that’s far more politically correct in this day and age where geek girls are a more common occurrence than ages past, but the effects on a game are well known.  It may be a significant other of either gender, a sibling, a roommate, a parent, a child, or just someone who happens to have a car and offered to give others who aren’t playing a lift to the game.  These looky-loos can kill a session dead as they spend the entire time hovering without purpose – or worse, distracting everyone with conversations about anything and everything but the gaming table.  Due to the relationships involved whether they are romantic, familial, or just bonds of friendship, this problem can be a very touchy one to deal with and must be handled with care in order to avoid damaging those relationships.  There are several approaches you can take to solve this problem, but first you need to figure out is why the person wants to watch the game rather than play.


If someone just wants to watch because they’re curious about the game but feel intimidated in playing, encourage them to watch and ask questions.  This will slow down or distract from the game, so expect this.  Also be prepared to kill any line of questions that are inane and won’t help them learn about the game – as what happened in the climactic encounter of a two-session long quest for my players where a non-gamer friend showed up to go bar-hopping and then proceeded to spend the next half hour asking what each individual miniature on the board did and why they were there, including “What’s the deal with all the eyeballs on the basketball?” as he removed the Beholder from the table, forcing me to try to remember where the hell it was in the first place.  If you’re patient, though, you might be able to win over a convert, especially if they see everyone else having a good time.


If you can convince them, try giving them a character sheet and a Cliff’s Notes summary of how the game works.  Once they get the basic idea of “Roll dice, add or subtract modifiers, tell the DM the result”, sit them next to a more experienced player (preferably one who can handle both questions from the noob as well as manage their own character without slowing down the game) and let them play.  This is actually the way many people get their start in D&D, showing up to a session with a friend and being handed the stereotypical “I hit things with a sword and nothing else” Fighter character sheet.


If they’re not even remotely curious about the game, you’re in a much harder situation and the idle chit-chat can bog down even the most succinctly run sessions.  You may just be in a situation where the person doesn’t understand how much they’re harming the gaming environment.  After all, if you were playing Monopoly or a friendly poker game, chatting between turns wouldn’t be a big deal at all (and in most cases would be expected and encouraged).  Role playing games require more concentration than any other form of tabletop gaming outside the most intense chess matches and professional poker games.  Many times, calmly explaining the difference between the two to the person in a very polite way will resolve the issue.


If the outsider is a gamer or if he/she does realize that an RPG requires more focused and constant attention than a video or board game, odds are he/she is just bored.  Find some way to get them involved without actually playing a full-fledged character.  Have them move around the NPC minis for you so you don’t have to constantly reach over the DM screen.  Maybe they could take over a minor NPC like a familiar or animal companion during social encounters.  They could be in charge of drawing the map if you have one of the erasable vinyl mats.  If they have hobbies like calligraphy or drawing, put them to work creating hand-outs for the players like wanted posters or a letter from an NPC.  Worst case scenario, turn them into the group’s waiter/waitress and send them to the kitchen or store for snacks and drinks.


Maybe they’re well-behaved while the game’s going on but start chatting with other players as soon as that player’s character is out of commission (due to character incapacitation/death, the scout character sneaking ahead to get a lay of the land, or just the party getting separated).  I’ve heard suggestions of a sort of “loser’s lounge” area where players go when their characters aren’t part of the action, such as a bedroom, a patio, or the garage.  The idea is that players whose characters are not in the action and anyone who isn’t playing can talk and socialize as they will without interfering with the game.  However, I would highly recommend against this action for several reasons. First, having your character out of the fray is hard enough without being isolated.  Letting players sit around and learn what their character’s wouldn’t know due to being unconscious or dying isn’t as game-breaking as you might thing because, as soon as they’re revived, the first thing the character would ask is “What happened?”  And finally, being isolated like that feels a lot like being the first kid on the playground out during dodgeball or tag.  You get to sit around twiddling your thumbs all alone while your friends get to have all the fun.  If this is the sort of problem you’re having with your players, you may just ask them to move to the kitchen or living room or whatever other room is nearby but not completely isolated until the encounter’s done.   You’re not sending them away so much as putting them at the other end of the table so there’s less cross-talk.


If all of that fails…well then you need to examine exactly what reason the person is coming to the game if all they’re doing is disrupting it.  Odds are they’re a friend who sees everyone else getting together and having fun but they’re not invited.  It’s possible they’re just want to hang out and be sociable and don’t care that they’re disrupting the game.  If there are players who are chatting with them, odds are they either don’t mind or don’t see it as disruptive…or they don’t care either.  Something as simple as a non-gaming movie night or weekly bowling game might resolve the issue by letting everyone hang out together and socialize without having anything on the agenda.


If that still doesn’t work, you’ve gone past a problem with the game and into a problem with your friendship.  A friend or significant other of you or one of your players continues to show up to your games even though they have no desire to play, no interest in what’s going on in the game, and no wish to be involved at any level.   They know they’re being disruptive and yet continue with the same actions, and scheduling time specifically to hang out with this person isn’t enough to appease them.   You have much deeper problems than the scope of a single gaming blog, problems for which there are hundreds if not thousands of self-help and psychology books written on the subject that would be far better suited to address the issues at hand.  Thankfully, things will almost never get that far and one of the ideas here should resolve your issues with the spectator at your gaming table.

Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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