Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dealing with a lone wolf

First, a definition.  A lone wolf isn’t a player who simply splits the party for good reason.  A lone wolf is one that sends their character off on their own, often while the other characters are sleeping, and thus prevents the rest of the party from having anything to do while the lone wolf follows their own needs.  I further define it as when the lone wolf’s scene will take a fair while.  A character giving his wife a call during a session isn’t lone wolfing it.  A character running off while the rest of the party sleeps so that they can attempt to locate and kill a villain on their own most certainly is.

Most players will do a ‘lone wolf’ on occasion – perhaps even just once.  A few will do it whenever they have the chance.

My core advice is – don’t buy into it and keep the negotiations out of character.  Don’t attempt to punish the player through their character.  It doesn’t work, makes them angry, and takes longer to resolve the scene.  I’ve seen Storytellers try this angle several times and I’ve never seen it work.

So what can you do?

If it’s a simple scene, run it like a movie scene and ensure that there’s as little faffing about as possible.  Don’t waste air time with boring drives, social niceties or long descriptions.  Get to the action – even if the action is romantic or conversational.

If it’s complex and might take awhile, see if you can do it during an individual session or perhaps meet up earlier during the next session.  If you can’t commit the time, do it at the start of a session so that the other players can socialise for awhile longer before coming into game.  Don’t take more than an hour, though, if other players are waiting.

If it’s complex but needs to be done now, get a consensus.  Are the players happy with them running off on their own?

·         Yes.  Great.  Run it but keep one eye on the other players to see that they’re still enjoying themselves.  Perhaps convince the player who needs to run off that they should do it at a time where you can cut between the two groups to keep them all engaged.  Let the uninvolved players leave the table and do something else, if they like, but still keep one eye on the clock and keep to an allocated amount of time (perhaps a half hour).

·         No.  Politely point out to the player that the scene would be complicated and take too long to run while the other players do nothing.  If possible, offer a dice roll and some quick summaries.  If not, ask them if they can think up ways to involve the rest of the party.

When dealing with a lone wolf, don’t make the assumption that they’re just spotlight hogging dicks who want to bore others senseless with their antics just to get a sense of power and control.  It might be based in ignorance about the time the scene would require or perhaps they just have a need to follow their character’s motivations to the very end.  Some people might smarten up after being told that the scene will take a long time.  They might have thought it’d only be require a few minutes. 

If the player insists that it’s what their character would do, point out that few games enforce strict realism and that everyone must make concessions to ensure that everyone is having fun. 

However, give them a way to stay true to their character while keeping everyone else involved.  Offer them a few IC excuses for not delving into the scene but pitch them on an out of character level as otherwise the player might chafe at being restricted by a series of unrealistic coincidences.

As an example, the lone wolf’s wife was molested by a villain but the other characters aren’t the killing type.  The Storyteller points out that it would take too long to devote a scene to it without the rest of them.  She offers these options:

·         The lone wolf insists on heading out for a confrontation but the villain is nowhere to be seen
·         The lone wolf’s attempts to leave are overheard by the team who follow him and get involved
·         Someone else in the group could decide that perhaps the villain must be killed after all and helps the lone wolf convince the others.  The lone wolf could be granted the right to the actual ‘kill’ but the rest of the team would be involved.
·         A sudden new threat rears its head and prevents the lone wolf from leaving the team for now. 

The player could select one of the above or come up with a reason of their own.  This little bit of control about the character’s word might even help deal with frustrated players who are acting out or even the actual jerk players who like to throw their weight around.

If reasoning with them doesn’t work, reinforce to the player that this is a social and communal activity and that they don’t have the right to monopolise the attention.  It’s like going to a party and insisting that everyone else listen to you talk for an hour.  It’s not going to happen.  You’re not going to let one player monopolise it.  Be polite, tactful, and firm.

You’ll need to deal with lone wolf issues on an out of character level because that’s where the issue lies.  If you try to punish the lone wolf with bad dice rolls, wandering monsters, and escalating action, you’ll just reward those seeking attention, drag it out longer, and offend any other sort of player as players generally don’t take being punished through their characters well.  It also sets a bad precedent and may cause other players to wonder if a certain event only occurred because they somehow displeased you.  Besides, it doesn’t fulfil your original goal which is to keep everybody engaged and having fun.


  1. Interesting; I don't think I've ever had this come up in a tabletop. (I've run freeform LARPs where people have behaved in a similar way but it's less of a problem there). But I can see how it could come up and I agree that it's best to stop and talk about it OOC rather than trying to discourage it through IC means.

    I guess there's a certain number of ways this could happen and my response to it would probably be tempered by which seems to be the case:

    - A player might be deliberately playing their character as a brooding loner (or just a dickbag) who IC wants to block the other PCs from being involved in their personal stuff, but OOC the player is 100% happy with the other PCs intervening. In which case (to run with the "sneaking out to kill the big bad whilst the other PCs are snoozing" example) I'd be inclined to suggest that one of the other PCs might wake up either as the lone wolf is leaving or just after they've left, just to spice up the situation and stop the session from becoming the Lone Wolf Show. Going on your own to kill a villain is exciting; going on your own to kill a villain whilst simultaneously the rest of the group is racing against time to catch up with you? That's double exciting!

    - A slightly more dysfunctional situation: the player feels a sense of ownership over a particular area of the plot (this is particularly likely if it's part of their backstory) to an extent where they want to deal with it on their own because they consider it to be Their Story and would feel deflated or sidelined if another PC happened to ice their nemesis. This is something of a personal play style issue but in my campaigns you just can't do that. PC backstories aren't the exclusive property of the player who cooked them up in my games - they don't exist for you to tell a story exclusively on your own terms, they exist so that I as a GM can throw in events and incidents which help you shine a little spotlight on your PC whilst at the same time entangling everyone else with the events of your backstory. You can't lock the other players out of a portion of the game and I'd be mildly disappointed in a player who tried; I wouldn't flat-out tell them off at the table, but I certainly would try to nip their lone wolfing in the bud as speedily as possible.

    - A somewhat more sympathetic situation: the player/PC got outvoted, but they feel strongly enough about the situation that they're taking matters into their own hands. This can be cool and dramatic and interesting - and it's certainly a sign that I'm doing my job right if the player or PC feels strongly enough about something do this kind of thing - but there's also a "playing nicely with others" angle to consider. This is probably the trickiest situation. If there were a group of 5 players and the vote on killing the villain was a 3-2 split in favour of mercy, I'd be entirely up for the 2 players in favour of whacking the villain to conspire to do it anyway, but then again at least there's multiple players invested in that whereas in a 4-1 split you've only got the lone wolf dissenting.


    1. (2/2)

      At the same time, I know how frustrating it can be if you really want something to happen in a game but it gets blocked essentially because the other players say "Well, that'd be cool, but IC I can't justify my character supporting that". In this sort of situation I'd probably negotiate with the players as a whole. If the group has no problem with the villain being killed OOC and think they can deal with the IC ramifications of the lone wolf PC showing up at breakfast tomorrow with the bad guy's head in an icebox. If the player of the lone wolf PC says "Guys, clearly IC my character is no longer seeing eye to eye with your PCs on any level, so if you want to kill him before he gets to the villain or kick him out of the group once the deed is done that's 100% cool with me", great, run it like that and let that character exit with a bang. If the group feels that they don't want a group member to be able to just override a collective decision without the party at least having a chance to stop them, go for the "main party races to stop the lone PC making a terrible mistake" angle and pitch it such that the lone wolf PC has a chance to get what they want, but only if they play really well and genuinely outwit the other players.

      In any case, my instinct would be to get another player involved as soon as possible. If it were an action the PC in question were taking in downtime I might roll with it differently (though "killing a villain" isn't really the sort of project PCs get up to in downtime - that's the sort of situation which really demands to be played through in uptime), but if it's something which will require actual session time then I'm going to try to get the other players involved unless they're actively saying "No, go for it, we want to see how the lone wolf screws this one up."

      I'm in a Neverwinter Nights campaign at the moment where we're all playing orcs and my character is kind-of-sort-of drifting in a Dark Lordy sort of direction. There's all sorts of times when she could end up going off and doing stuff on her own but I try to minimise it as much as possible and also have been fairly open with the other players on an OOC level as to what direction the character's going in. It helps that as a sort of orcy fascist she considers her brothers - the other PCs - to be worthy of being in the master caste of orcs, so she's not out to enslave them in the way she might be trying to manipulate the other orcs; it also helps that NWN makes it easy to pass "notes" to the GM in the form of the DM chat channel, so I can talk about my plans with the DM privately and arrange things so that my character does all their lone wolfy stuff in downtime (when you're kind of expected to be working on your own personal projects anyway). I certainly wouldn't consider having her go off all on her ownsome during actual gameplay any more than I'd consider having her deliberately shoot her fellow PCs in the back.

      I guess the take-away lesson is that it's OK to play a brooding loner (or an off-the-leash psycho) provided that you remember that you don't have to behave like a brooding loner or an off-the-leash psycho in real life. Showing respect for other players' time is a crucial skill, recognising that your character's personal story a) isn't necessarily interesting enough to merit monopolising the game and b) ideally needs to be something the other players can interact with rather than something you maintain sole control over are also key.

    2. Thank you. You said it brilliantly. It really is important to figure out what the issue is before offering solutions and it's always best to collaborate with the players even if the situation, at first, gets your goat. There's little worse than punishing them like a disappointed parent trying to prove a moral point.