Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Dealing With Player Turnover

One of the unavoidable truths of running a campaign for any length of time is player turnover. It happens. People have to live their life and sometimes that means they have to be responsible and say “No more games today/for a while/etc.” I got to thinking about this as it concerns me since I lost six players in the span of about four months. One moved away, another was removed for behavior, another two got job workload required them to cut nighttime activities, another had trouble with the gaming schedule, and one had to deal with “life stuff.” I personally don’t hold a grudge against any of them except the one I kicked for behavior. I know these guys and gals didn’t jump ship because of me, but rather because of circumstances beyond their control. I know this because I asked for the truth and I got it. Hopefully you (as a GM) are in a similiar situations where you and your players can be honest with one another and part ways amicably. That part is mostly easy. What happens when you go looking for a replacement player (those FNPs – Funny New Players!)? You’ve likely already got a good group dynamic place. Your players and their characters already fit together in a certain way… except now there is a hole from your player who has gone whence he came?

I’ve been running RPGs a long time and for many players. That’s given me a certain… perspective on adding new players to existing groups. Hard won experience that nearly destroyed my gaming group on two separate occasions. Maybe you can get some benefit from that knowledge:

No Player Is Better Than a Bad Player
This one seems so easy and obvious… but it’s not. (This is the same problem players have when looking for a group too.) You (as the GM) have to understand that if you have a good thing going with a group of players then adding a potentially unvetted player to the mix could cause the entire campaign to implode. When in doubt no player is better than a bad or troublesome player. Be completely sure that the person you want to add will fit in and not be disruptive.

Screen Your Players
Don’t just randomly add someone to your games. Talk to them. Ask them what they like to do hobby-wise other than gaming. Ask about their music interests. What they like to read or watch on TV. Basically, get to know them. And do it first. Ideally a couple weeks before they would play and on met with them on multiple occasions if possible. Don’t even talk about gaming the first time – save that for later; introduce your other players in a second or third meeting. The first time should just be prospective GM and prospective player. Even if you keep it “professional” game-wise understanding a person and how they might act under pressures or influences from others will tell you if they can or can’t fit in your campaign.

Be Up Front
Do. Not. Pussyfoot. Around. You put all your cards on the table. All of them.  You explain your players (to the best of your ability) and their particular inclinations. Explain yours. Explain your character creation process (including house rules and system modifications, if any) and why you do things that way. You explain the campaign your running and give examples from fiction and pop culture of the sort of game you have. You take the time to explain this things and repeatedly ask if they have any questions or ideas to add. If they don’t you’ve either got a player who is only working on half a gear (which can be fine for beer and pretzel gaming) or who isn’t really interested in the game itself but wants to play (which can be fine too – but can cause problems for some campaigns that become unfixable later).

Do Not Kill the Leaving Player’s Character
I am guilty as hell of this in my early days. Don’t do it. If you’ve parted amicably – and I hope that you have – then that presents the possibility of the player returning to your campaign at a later date. So how do you keep the character active with an absent player? Background. Shuffle the character into the background, have them go off and do something important to the campaign, but something that doesn’t need the remaining players involved.

Be Involved and Hold Hands
There is a chance you might recruit a new player who has little gaming experience with your chosen system or may be new to gaming completely. In such cases help them make their characters and explain why they want to do specific things for their particular concept. This is a good way to teach a system and if you have good players they will help you do this.

Know Your Existing Player Base and Dynamic
If you have a player who is energetic, one who is shy, and two who are middling then losing the shy or middling players will be much easier then losing the energetic one. Conversely, adding an energetic player player to that same group might prove disastrous (or awesome, it really depends). Basically, know your current players and find a player that will supplement or compliant them – not clash.

Speak Your Mind, Ask for Criticism, & Be Firm
Being a gamemaster is a position of trust. Your players trust that you will be honest with them. That you won’t screw over their characters for the sake of screwing over their characters. That you will be as immersed as they are in the world you are collectively creating. That you will be fair. In turn, the GM must be willing to accept honest critique from his players. Are they having fun? Did something particular happen in game they didn’t like or ruined their fun? Is there more you can be doing to make things better? The reverse is true too – if a player is being disruptive to the campaign or being hurtful to another player(s) then speak to them. Maybe they aren’t aware of their actions. If they are are they acting out? Or just being a jerk? Find out. If the player has soured ask why. If there appears to be no reason (Some players just want to watch the GM’s campaign world burn) remove the player immediately. No player is better than a bad player.

Picking Over the Bones
Loosing players isn’t always a bad thing. It’s often a sad thing and occasionally a mad thing. In the case of the latter it can be a glad thing and in most cases you might gain a comrade from the thing. (See what I did there? ^_^) Basically, picking out a new can be complicated and if the GM isn’t paying attention he can really mess things up. This is why I run my gaming group as a pirate democracy. I’m the captain and the players elect me to that position. in this way they have power over me and I in turn have power over them – power they gave me. I guess what it all boils down to is trust. Trust between the players. Trust between the GM and his players. Trust is the key.

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  1. Some damned good advice here. Thanks, Christopher – I'd like to think that these are all things I know *in theory*, but I'm certain that in practice, when the situation arises, I'd be liable to forget at least one of them, trusting everything to "just work out". So these points seem very good to keep in mind.

  2. Being a GM is like being a storyteller, psychologist, car salesmen, and librarian all in one. At the same time. I think it makes you a better judge of character and better able to multitask. Or maybe those sorts of people just make better GMs. 🙂

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