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How should GMs deal with players who turtle or roach?

By turtle I am referring to players who obviously wanted to play because they joined the game, but when they're actually at the table they keep their heads in their shells. They're too intimidated or shy to actually role play. They just sit quietly and spectate even though they are players.

Roaches are players who will get to the table and actually be very active, that is until the spotlight is on them. Then they turn into turtles. They are called roaches because they scurry away from the light.

What are some good techniques for getting these players to open up and actually contribute to the game?

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10 Answers 10

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Sometimes, all that's needed to get shy, anxious players to open up is time. If they're more secure in their place in the group and in how their contributions will be received, they'll relax.

One big factor can be the group itself. If you've got a group where one or two people consistently dominate discussion and action, and a couple of others tend to hang back, try running a session or two without the more active people. The quiet ones may be both somewhat intimidated by the active ones and have learned to "lean" on them. Having to play on their own for a bit might help them build up confidence, while also forcing them to get more active and drive the game on their own. I'm running a campaign right now where the "quiet people" from the last one are my most active players, because the guy who dominated the last campaign I ran with them isn't around anymore. They're now the ones demonstrating how things work to the new people.

Nudging them to contribute more can also help, but be careful; in my experience it works better to offer them opportunities to get involved and to only directly push occasionally, and after they've had some time to warm up. Jumping on them directly at the beginning of the session will often make them freeze. This happens to me sometimes when I'm a player, and it can be very frustrating. Instead, I've had good results with mining their back story for things that will interest and engage them specifically.

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I'm not sure I like referring to players as turtles or .. bugs. Can we just call them "quiet players"? :)

Anyhow, one obvious technique is to put the spotlight on the quiet players. When everyone is coming up with a plan, just pointing out that one quiet player and saying "What is your character doing.." and follow up on it is usually a good way to start engaging that player.

If you can improvise a situation that directly affects that player's character and get's them a chance to make a decision, do it. It may not be something they are willing to engage with every time, or it may be a comfort issue. Sometimes you have to start small. Also, if the player really doesn't want to engage, I recommend you don't force the issue.

People come around when they are ready.

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If you want to hand the spotlight to quiet players, that's a good way to offer them face time. But be aware that their turns might be shorter, quieter, less engaged, than the turns taken by others. Players who are quiet because they are shy might also not want to engage in the game if the stakes are too big/angsty for their characters. Give them smaller conflicts to deal with, at first. And some players are quieter by choice and by style: in this case, just do what you can to make sure they have opportunity to act, and that when they offer, they are heard. –  Viktor Haag Aug 31 '10 at 13:34
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The terminology, for better or worse, is already standard. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 8 '10 at 17:16

For both, I'd try having NPCs interact with them in super-focused ways. Don't push them to make big decisions; that's likely to make them freeze up even worse. Give them light roleplaying interaction, and make it about something that's tangential to the plot so they aren't feeling like the game is resting on their shoulders.

See if you can figure out why they're quiet. If they're enjoying the game, it's maybe OK for them to be quieter than the other players. If they're looking for something different than they're getting, think about whether or not you can provide it. (And maybe you can't; it might not be the game everyone else at the table wants to play. But it's good to find out.) This, as is usual for social issues/questions, is best done by talking to the player.

But they're quiet, so it's probably good to be gentle in the questioning. Turn the responsibility on your shoulders; don't frame the quietness as something they're doing wrong. "Hey, I know you're kind of quiet during the games -- am I giving you the kind of play you're looking for? Is there something you'd like to see in the next session?" Better to do it one on one, also, as opposed to the possibly intimidating ground environment.

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I try to immerse my players into the setting. I encourage them to speak in first person and discourage the third person. Roleplaying with them directly often works for drawing them out of the shell. If the problem is real bad then generally by interacting with a single trusted NPC buddy (or sometimes a PC friends) will smooth things over until the players gets comfortable.

As part of my immersion style I will talk with the player one on one to find out what their goals are what elements of my setting they are interested in. With that established I can focus on making them comfortable at the table. For some the realization they can have a positive impact in my game setting also helps. My campaigns are noted for incorporating what players did in past campaigns.

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Different folks find different paths to immersion. Some groups can encourage engagement through "I do this" instead of "Gronk does this". Others /need/ that distance in order to feel comfortable engaging in the action. You might have more mileage if you let each player at your table settle into the mode they find more comfortable, and when you address their characters with NPCs, shift your mode to meet them. In my experience, this method works better than settling on a narrative mode for the entire table and trying to enforce it. –  Viktor Haag Aug 31 '10 at 13:36

Sometimes its A-okay to be a turtle,

I've had turtle players who when push came to shove, would rather walk then be in the limelight, some people are really shy (or situationaly shy) so trying to force it can rather backfire.

Talking to them, mostly to ensure they are enjoying themselves, and making sure they are not being abused (another player using them as meatshields, being run roughshod over etc) and then just give them time.

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while it's understandable that people can be shy, if they're consistently undermining the mood of play I'd say it's not OK. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 7 '10 at 17:20

I'm going to put this one on the GM: they need to find out what need the player has which they're not fullfilling.

One easy example which makes this point is a player who likes the rules and understanding the limits of the rules, who is playing in a group of players who like to bend rules in favor of imaginative epic-ness. What Robin Laws would call a "Tactician."

Ex:

Other-player: My 2nd level Wizard casts a fireball, uses it as a rocket to propel themselves at the dragon and make a charge attack.

GM: That's so epic! Forget the dice roll! The charge rips right through the dragon's body, landing your wizard right next to the tied up princess.

Tactician: I take a defensive stance and ready an action to fire my bow.

GM: Ok. Now the dragon attacks you both.

Other Player: I swing my sword to cut a hole in the dragon's claw and then jump through at the last minute!

Tactician: My defensive stance gives me +2.

GM: Other player, you make it! Sorry Tact, your +2 doesn't cut it against the dragon.

This GM is turning an interested player into a Casual Gamer by ignoring that player's needs and interests. Eventually that player will feel what they do is futile, and soon they will turn into a Turtle/Roach.

Some might say that given the inconvenience (or losing a turn to a def stance and then getting hurt etc...) the player should eventually catch on and change their play style, but this kind of indifferent punishment ('cause that's what it is) isn't cool, and the GM shouldn't punish a player for their game style unless it is disruptive.

Don't be that GM.

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As long as they are participating, fine. No player has to be the prime focus unless only one player is present; if they are content to play the supporting cast, let them. In other words, so long as the roach isn't disrupting the game, and is having fun, they're fine, leave them be.

The "turtle" is often worried about their own inherent issues, like ineloquence, biting them. If they are not happy turtling, cut them a deal: if they take more roleplaying opportunities, you'll resolve it based upon the character's charisma, not the player's. And switch to using a mechanical resolution when it comes time to convince the NPC's. Later, give bonuses for Good RP.

But, if they're having fun, the game is running well, and no one else is complaining, it's no big deal. Some people play RPG's as a form of board game, after all... and it's not anyone else's place to say "You're having badwrongfun; stop now and play goodrightboring!"

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A few techniques come to mind.

In terms of background, privately see how they want to create a backstory and motivations. Sometimes this helps them feel stronger about the roleplaying. See if they like to write it themselves, or have you help in a private session. Sometimes a few emails can really slowly build this.

Create tangible Roleplay benefits in-game. This has been a huge game changer for me. I normally use a 'declare, roleplay, roll, result' system, where after the PCs tell me what they are doing (in anything. I've allowed this in combat, for pete's sake), I allow them to 'act for their bonus', so players who roleplay their situation well get a small bonus. You'll be amazed at hwo this shifts things and behaviors, especially when the roll is a really important one. The other players will start to encourage RP here a lot if it matters to their survival and success. Also, give EXP bonuses at the end of every session for roleplaying. As the last thing to happen during a session, hashing out the Rolep[lay and rewarding it with EXP creates a real, 'Roleplay Matters' feeling.

Set up a few situations that are best suited for the quiet player's character, in terms of character skills. See how they handle this. If they step up, that tells you something. If not, then you need to subtly speak to the more confident players about encouraging the quiet one. (You can even set up in-game reasons for this encouragement, such as a mutual acquaintance or guildmaster who wants someone looked after). A more advanced mechanism for increasing thir RP and inclusion is to literally team them up with someone else.

It also is very helpful after this to set up social-gaming situations where the Player in question is the only one who could really answer the call. Such as guild or church specific interactions. Nothing hard-core, but make it very easy for them to step up.

See how they like to interact and communicate. I have online chat going on during games so that I can send private emails and spur things on. Some people contribute and communicate differntly. Offer them the position of notekeeper, or treasurer so that they feel more necessary.

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The quiet player in my campaigns keeps saying how much he likes them whenever I ask him. So these days I just let him be there, sitting and enjoying it. I roll with the stuff he brings up on rare occasions. In some way I'm also happy to not have a table full of alpha-people trying to push the sandbox campaign in different directions. It's cool to have three of those movers and shakers and two or three quiet dudes that will just go along.

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I find, during character creation for new or "quiet" players, ask them who their "storybook" heroes are, who would they like their character to be like?

Sir Sparhawke, Raistlin, Jimmy the Hand from Magician, etc

Then have them base a character on that, someone who they can associate with, when something happens, they can think "I know what Jimmy would do in this situation" and they will be excited to see their version of Jimmy / Sir Sparhawke / etc performing that role.

Also, if we've had a new roleplayer join us, I will have a word with one of my more experienced players and have them "mentor" the new player; have their character interact with the new player's character;

The Experienced player will introduce themselves in game, and help the new character have a "conversation" with their character "in game", not as John and Peter, but as Sir Sparhawke and Raistlin (or whatever their character names are).

The experienced player will also help them with game mechanics and help them with options and encourage them along (as all other players should).

I encourage first person play, where a player will say "I am throwing this spell / firing my bow / etc" rather then "My character is throwing this spell / firing their bow / etc"

I think as soon as you can start having your quiet new character thinking through their character, they will enjoy it more.

Often, we will send the "new player" off to buy supplies before they leave on their quest / expedition / rescue / etc with a list of "things" from each of the other characters, and I will turn this into a "mini-adventure" for the new player, with LOTS of interaction with NPC "characters", from a dodgy pie saleman (ala Mr. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler from Ankh-Morpork) to a "lady of the night".

This also helps them develop a character on their own, and gives them a sense of purpose, as well as not having to make an "end of the world" decision. They get to haggle ("You must Haggle" from Life of Brian, is ALWAYS a favourite to bring them out of their shells ... humour works for everything).

But most of all, it is about bringing a FUN experience to the quiet / shy player, be patient, encourage them, and they might just surprise you ...

Have fun playing ...

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