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In my sessions I've repeatedly noted that after a few bad rolls, one of my players (age 20) seems to become reclusive and stop paying attention.

Now I've tried various methods to get the player to pay attention again, but it seems that no matter how much his PC is punished or rewarded in game, even to the point of almost dieing to a hefty bag of gold, that this player did not care. I've even tried abstract methods, and given him a verbal slap, getting the other players to laugh at his PCs expense just to see if he'd dignify his character. Complete disconnect. The Player didn't even care.

A Few rounds later, the dice rolls are in his favor, and suddenly, he cares about the story again! Participation happens, and the players are moving nicely.

This is bad for both of us. For me because suddenly I've got a brain dead PC that is being lugged around, slowing the game. For him, because he isn't enjoying the game.

How do I as a DM prevent the disconnect that happens when players are on a bad luck streak?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 14 '17 at 19:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please consider before answering - does your answer add anything new besides just restate an existing answer? Is it based on experience per Good Subjective, Bad Subjective or is it just your random opinion? If either is not the case, you probably don't need to answer. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 14 '17 at 19:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Does this player have issues with gambling? Your description reminds me of how the gambling addicts approach their luck at the slot machines. \$\endgroup\$ – Cort Ammon Jul 14 '17 at 22:28

12 Answers 12

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I want to lay out three premises to start with:

  1. There is no “right” or “wrong” here. You should throw out any preconception you have about what is “right” or “wrong” here; no one is either of those things. Laying blame, meting out punishment, etc. is not appropriate and will not help. Cajoling the player with rewards isn’t really quite right either. I strongly suggest you stop these things immediately. Were it me, really no matter what I was doing, having the other PCs laugh at me really would be a very strong incentive to leave the game. So I strongly suggest that these measures are not the right approach, and you should stop trying them.

  2. There is an issue here, even if no one is “right” or “wrong.” Just because no one here is “right” and no one here is “wrong” doesn’t mean there’s no problem: there is. Brief disengagement from the game following a string of bad luck leaving you feeling unable to contribute is not terribly unusual, nor is it necessarily terrible for the game in and of itself, but only if this is brief and infrequent. You are suggesting that it is both frequent and quite extended. That suggests a player who is not having fun, and that’s a problem, even if it is no one’s “fault.” Fun is why we play, after all.

  3. There may not be a solution. The things necessary for this player to have fun, to avoid these bouts of disengagement, may not be things that would make the game fun for you or the other players. This is still not a question of “right” or “wrong”—but it does mean that the issue before the table is intractable. Agreeing to part ways is a valid resolution; an undesirable one, but still better than someone continuing to spend their time doing things they don’t enjoy, or getting into a fight about it.

So the perspective to take here is to try to determine ways for this player to have more consistent fun, to avoid these bouts of disengagement, without tarnishing the fun for yourself or others, and so allow the game to continue without losing anyone or having someone there who isn’t having fun.

The first thing to do is to talk to the player, probably privately, definitely out-of-character. You need to determine a number of things, but most important of which is 1. is this player actually enjoying the game overall? and 2. how that player feels about the disengagement; do they feel it’s an appropriate reaction to frustration and are fine with it, or are they expressing more severe dissatisfaction this way. You should also very seriously consider apologizing for the ham-handed ways you’ve tried to address this in the past.

The second thing to do is to try to address the underlying problem: bad rolls are disheartening to a lot of players. It’s perfectly normal to be disappointed by them in games where you are seeking to achieve some goal through your character, and a failed roll means you are not making progress toward that goal.

Other game systems can avoid this entirely by focusing more on producing a story than achieving a goal, often aided by more “interesting failure” than merely “you didn’t accomplish the thing you were trying to.”

Which is what brings me to my suggestion: player engagement improves when players get to do things. You can offer them alternative options that don’t require rolls, or require lower numbers. You can even offer them effects on missing: you are welcome to say things like “the orc parries your blow, but you could follow the blow through into the rope holding up the chandelier if you wanted,” for example. Being creative here is good—getting your players to be creative here is better. Obviously whatever happens on a miss should—usually—be less than what happens on a hit, but offering circumstantial lesser effects can really bring a struggle to life.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 8 '17 at 15:40
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You've noted that the player is engaged when their character is successful in dice rolls, i.e. impactful on the situation at hand. As DM, you can provide RP opportunities for them to succeed outside of rolling dice, or to opportunities for you to secretly roll dice in opposition. This would allow you "fudge" when necessary to keep the player engaged.

Alternately, (and I think this holds in general) it may be a good idea to avoid purely "you failed to hit the orc" results. No fight is simply two people standing there randomly swinging. Reward engagement by giving the player an opportunity to RP their way to success.

Use your flavor to talk about the glancing blow as busting the links in the enemies armor, and reward the player for trying to target that spot.

Missed your opponent and hit the tree behind them five times? Maybe this oak is ready to topple, allowing an observant PC to push it on to the advancing enemy line.

DMing is all about flexibility and improvisation. And when you DO start rewarding creative RP, hang in there - it may take a while for your shut down player to finally "get it" and start engaging with the new opportunities you're giving them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Reward engagement by giving the player an opportunity to RP their way to success." I absolutely love this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – ThunderGuppy Jul 13 '17 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ If this is something like "tilt" in poker, where a player becomes unable to concentrate after a streak of bad luck, it might have to look like the dice luck has changed to get the player back to normal. Note the might though - lots more options in an RPG than in poker. \$\endgroup\$ – JollyJoker Jul 14 '17 at 11:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer reminded me of the old Elder Scrolls computer games, where player attacks were roll-based and at lower skills it was not uncommon to be swinging and hitting nothing but air during most of a fight. This actually was one of the major criticisms leveled at those games, leading the designers to do away with the mechanic in later games. It is a common technique in the video games industry for games to employ tricks to hold the player's interest and often "fudge the numbers" to make a player feel like he is on a winning streak. See also casino games ;p \$\endgroup\$ – Darren Ringer Jul 14 '17 at 13:45
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So... this player shuts down after a few bad rolls, and perks up once the rolls become good. This suggests that rolling well is part of the fun for them, and rolling poorly is demoralizing. This might have to do with the connection of rolling well with effectiveness and success, or it might just be that something in them thrills to rolling well.

If it is the actual dicerolling that gets them going, try to adjust their experience of rolling the dice. Help them build a character who specializes in getting advantage much of the time. It won't necessarily be more effective overall than the other characters who specialize in other things, but they'll have the experience of "rolling well" more of the time (and I suspect that they'll find the experience of covering a particularly bad roll with a particularly good one to be especially satisfying).

If they don't care about the rolls themselves so much as about the effectiveness, then figure out what sort of play feels really effective to them, and help them build a character who can get that thing more consistently (and perhaps adjust the campaign a bit too). If the player's happy place is cleaving through hordes of ridiculously outclassed orcs, then maybe throw a smallish horde of ridiculously outclassed orcs at the party from time to time as a restful interlude. Not all encounters have to be meaningful threats.

The things that feed us energy get us interested and engaged. The things that drain energy are quite the opposite. If you can figure out how to give your players more of what they want (while still giving yourself plenty of what you want) then everyone winds up enjoying themselves more.

Incidentally, 5th ed DMG page 6 (my copy, at least) is the best tool I've ever seen for finding out what sorts of things get your players going. I encourage... basically everyone who's looking to DM to have each of your players read over it and tell you which of the kinds of play they enjoy (or in some other way get the information out of them). You may not be able (or perhaps willing) to give them everything they want but I bet you can figure out ways to fit in more of it without reducing your own fun, once you know what it is.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer, though my concern is that it seems the player just finds enjoyment from winning/success. Any time something goes badly for this kind of person, they shut down or quit. The kind of person who likes to play with console commands; in a game where they are not in control of the outcome, they don't tend to enjoy it, and in a game where they are in control, they'll (ab)use that control in their favor. It's a personality thing that is not likely to change with a conversation or two, IMHO. Granted, D&D is about making your players feel like heroes, but sometimes heroes die/lose/roll nat 1 \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Jul 14 '17 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TylerH that's purely a matter of preference and playstyle. If the players find enjoyment purely from winning/success, and the DM finds enjoyment from giving it to them, and their enjoyment is not tainted by the inevitability of their glorious victory, there's nothing wrong with that. If only one player in the group likes that, and the other players and the DM want more challenge, then it's a playstyle difference, and often it can be managed reasonably well with a bit of adjustment on both sides and still wind up with an enjoyable game for all involved. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Jul 14 '17 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right, I never said there was a problem with that (in fact some games I play are enjoyable to me only because I can "fix" them). Just pointing out that if this is an issue with one player in a group, it's not likely to be fixable in the short-term, unless the rest of the group wants to bend over backward to let this player become a real-life Mary Sue in their campaign. Definitely talk to them away from the group/OOC about the issue, but be prepared to write that player out of the campaign, too. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Jul 14 '17 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is perhaps the best answer. The player enjoys the rolls. He might not even enjoy winning or cheesing the game that much. But it's the rolling that gets them excited. It's maybe much better to get them something very dependent on luck; wild mages come to mind, or some plot line involving chaos. \$\endgroup\$ – Muz Jul 15 '17 at 17:28
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Just wanted to add my two bits to some already really solid answers.

Unfortunately dice are not always going to "play nice" with the players, but in many cases the problem is more about keeping things interesting. Here is a short list of ways that I, and GM's I play with, do that.

1. Be cinematic (i.e. ignore the dice)

The reality is that dice (generally) only exist to create a sense of randomness to a story. I am hard pressed to think of a time when I absolutely required a die roll for a scene. Most of the time, even with combat, having a wordy conversation can be more effective.

2. Do something weird

I've played in Shadowrun games where we -literally- destroyed dice in the name of "teaching the others a lesson". Granted it didn't actually affect the (pseudo)random outcomes of the dice but it DID give everyone a laugh and a psychological pat on the back. Did they really start to roll better? Probably not but it felt that way.

3. Take a break/Try a different game

Players (and GM's) can get burned out from time to time. Speaking personally, I get quickly bored of systems where I have to constantly roll x dice to accomplish y task. Maybe having one session of [another_game] will wipe away the bad dice memories. Heck maybe even 20 minutes with a regular deck of cards and time to laugh about all the good things that happened during the campaign will help

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Point 3 is excellent. We have, many times, dumped a D&D session that wasn't going too well in favor of breaking out Magic: the Gathering cards and putting on some truly silly movies, like Killer Klowns from Outer Space. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul TIKI Jul 14 '17 at 16:52
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My first question on issues like these is: have you talked to the player explicitly about this? Your description of what you've tried sounds like you may not have. He may not realize that he's so obviously disconnecting or that it's a problem for others.

One of my favorite ways to deal with a player not doing something I need as the GM is to ask them to do it as a personal favor to me. Something like "it helps me run a better game when everyone pays attention and engages, so I'd really appreciate it if you could try to do that consistently". Instead of a reprimand it becomes a request from a friend.

I don't know your player, but for some people a reminder that D&D isn't about your character winning or losing can help.

This situation may also call for a healthy does of dice superstition. When my wife gets on a series of bad rolls she chucks the offending die across the room and says nasty things to it. Others I play with like to "charge up" their dice by placing them with the highest number on top in between rolls. Randomness is a harsh mistress, but making light of it can become part of the fun.

And KRyan is completely right in saying that punishing the player/his PC is only going to make things worse.

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    \$\begingroup\$ An addition to the healthy dose of superstition suggestion: all the people I play with have a "time-out" bag where they put naughty dice. This is mostly for fun and laughs, but when it devolved to the point of Excel spreadsheets it's also lead to discovery of a few decidedly non-random dice, and one guy who--through means I can't even speculate at--consistently rolls lower than random chance on any dice. I got him a plastic cup to use to roll Yahtzee-style and that seemed to help. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Footed Booby Jul 13 '17 at 18:59
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I agree with BanjoFox.

In my bag 'o tricks, I have prior to a session, written out interesting failures, sometimes with a hidden benefit.

This all depends on what weapons they are using, but it keeps bad dice players engaged. You can, of course, also talk to him, but adding negative experiences on top of the ones he is already having due to the dice will make the player lose hope. Rominus' advice on talking to him is good.

But your current strategies aren't going to work. Basically, they've been hurt by the dice and circumstance, so they aren't going to connect back until they get positive reinforcement of some kind.

So I like to sprinkle in positive effects, that, while they don't cause direct damage, can re-engage players. I don't do these all the time, but I like to surprise my players because battle should be a messy thing.

Examples:

  • The dagger catches in the armor, just above the warrior's armpit. It doesn't penetrate to the skin, but it's stuck in there pretty good. As he swings his weapon, it gets in the way of his arm. (give the warrior a -1 penalty until he gets it out).

  • A piece of your dagger breaks off, flying towards the eyes of your opponent, causing him to take a step back.

  • You fully miss the duelist, but you pin his flowing cape to the wall.

  • The arrow neatly misses, but catches your opponent's braid as he whirls to combat your friends. This throws him off balance for an instant. (Those in Melee now get an AOO).

Now, I don't do this a lot. Because unless they are actively "winning" some players like these may well pout and withdraw no matter what you do. If you ignore them mostly, the dice will turn again and they'll come back to you.

This is just another variation on positive reinforcement. Take your focus off the person who is doing it wrong, look for the person or people who are doing it right, and then reward them for it.

If OTHER players have a bad streak but are still engaged you can maybe offer THEM XP "Even though the dice turned against you, you were still engaged and involved in the session and roleplayed throughout." This indicates that there might well be a reward for engagement when things go wrong for those pouty players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I use the positive stuff with fails a lot like you do. Now that I re-read your answer, it's probably better said than mine :) \$\endgroup\$ – Paul TIKI Jul 14 '17 at 16:48
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I was going to agree with @CR Drost - have him listen to Penny Arcade early episodes and discover that rolling poorly can be as much fun sometimes as rolling well.

I wonder if you have a large group and there is a while between turns so he becomes disenfranchised when his turn comes around and he rolls poorly only to go back in wait queue. This can be a problem when playing a fighter in 5e with limited options although combat should go pretty quickly compared to say 4e so there shouldn't be all that much down time.

Alternatively take a page out of Dungeon World's book and reward experience for poor rolls. Either that or as some responders have said encourage role playing of failure and reward good such role playing with inspiration dice so at least he gets to roll twice in future!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome. It's certainly possible, we have 4 players. \$\endgroup\$ – tuskiomi Jul 13 '17 at 17:14
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Instead of punishing him to get his attention, try to acknowledge his mood as if his character was behaving like himself in-game. For example, if the party is fighting orcs, you can attack him with one of the orcs, miss on purpose and describe the scene using an element of his background, such as:

The orc bearing the axe charges towards you. You easily deflect his first blow, they are really clumsy. It reminded you of that night at that giant's lair on the spine of the world, where you could see the giant's blows coming for hours before they hit. You could dodge them with a blindfold. A pity there was only copper and rotten meat in his loot, what a waste of time, at least the cave provided a decent shelter for the cold night, despite the reek and... The image of the orc's blade approaching your eyes takes you back to the present and you arch yourself backwards on a split second, and thus dodging the blow. You can feel the woosh of his blade right near your nose. While dodging the blow, you glance up the ceiling and you see one of their shamans trying to hide in an alcove on the ceiling while casting some sort of spell.

So, by doing this, you acknowledged his feelings, accepted it as part of the game as if he was roleplaying, and added a new element to the encounter that now depends on him taking a decision. He is the only one who knows the shaman is casting a spell upstairs. Having your feelings acknowledged is a powerful psychological tool for engagement.

I'm against granting circumstantial bonuses just to get them back to the game, as it would make the power play kind of player expect those bonuses and use manta-game to plan their actions around it. I would advise against anything greater then a one-time advantage on a roll.

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A good, out of character conversation is always a good place to start.Consider the players real life personality when going in. That is going to shape how moving forward looks.

I recently ran a game with two kids that were a little difficult. One was was a kid who could be distracted by lint(ADHD, but I don't know if he was actually diagnosed), and the other was a kid who was on the Autism Spectrum. He was an almost extreme stickler for the rules. Needless to say this is breeding ground for potential problems. The ASD kid sounds, in my mind, kind of like your player.

So how did I deal with this? I made my expectations very clear at the outset. Since the ASD kid was new to our group, I took the time to remind all of my players that we were there to have fun.

My play style is to use the rules as guidelines because with RPG's, the most fun happens when you try to make sure the story trumps even bad rolls and that I am more than willing to let players wander outside the scope of the mission, so long as they understand that I am going to change from dignified DM to demented kitten if they go too far afield. With this in mind. I borrowed something from a gaming buddy from way back in the past...Structured, funny, fail roll results.

If a roll is a miss, but it's close, I try to throw a little positive the players way (you nicked the goblins helmet, it rang like a gong , and is now facing backward on his head) If it's a critical fail, I try to make the result not only bad, but ridiculously so. An example is when one character missed with a fire spell but he was near a bunch of brush. He set the brush and therefore, his hair, and I made the character run around for 3 combat rounds trying to put his hair out. I keep the critical fails humorous when I can. I also let the players try to use the fails to set up future actions based on the fail. I don't really know how to explain this, but an overly simplistic description is like "you miss with your mace swing, but if you continue the swing in a full circle you might either get hit in the back, or I'll give you 1.5 times damage if you hit on your next pass" They can turn a failure right now into a potential win in the next minute or 2. Fast, positive, feedback. I'm guessing your player may switch moods pretty fast. keep the feedback loop going. If the mace misses the second time, give him a chance to do a Dex check and start break dancing. He now has something to look forward to, to stay engaged with. With luck, after a few situations you set up, he will start setting them up on his own.

If the rest of your group can get behind this kind of outlook (and you will have to be the judge) and your troublesome player is alert to this, you might be able to create an environment where everyone can have fun, and you get a lot less dead-heading.

It seems to have worked for me, We all have fun, and every now and again, a nat 1 is nearly as satisfying as a nat 20.

Hope you get this sorted to where everyone in your group has a good time. Game groups too hard to find to let one fizzle. Best of Luck

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The described mood swings go beyond play-style preferences. As described, this sounds like to me like the player has some sort of mood disorder, which I would say is outside a GM's job description to try to correct or control. When a player is so dysfunctional, I think it's important for the GM to offer consistency and strong inter-personal boundaries, and not get sucked into an inappropriate attempt to become responsible for the happiness of an unbalanced player.

Providing a fun game for players is one thing. Falling hostage to an unbalanced player's imbalanced mood swings is not likely to work. I have seen GMs try to bend a game to please sulking players, which tends to make the game as imbalanced as the player with the mood disorder, and tends to warp the game in probably-unpleasant ways for the other players.

Unless everyone agrees that unlucky rolls are bad and good rolls are great, in which case you might try letting PCs play with loaded dice, or switching to a game designed to always have success for the PCs, perhaps one that doesn't use dice.

I would speak to the player outside the game to get a better grip on what is going on and how aware they are of their mood issue, and whether they're getting any help with that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Trained psychologists do not offer diagnoses from such a short description; untrained psychologists certainly should not try to do so. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 14 '17 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I wasn't trying to make a diagnosis. I do think a GM should develop a good sense of what's a play style preference they want to indulge, and what's not. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Jul 14 '17 at 22:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, then in that case, I will just say that I disagree with your analysis of the situation and determination that it is the player who is in the wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 14 '17 at 22:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan It is hard to know what's really happening. I answered from the assumption that the GM was correct that the player sulks and stops paying attention when he has a few unlucky rolls. Other things may well be going on. I mainly wanted to offer a counterpoint to the answers suggesting trying to warp the game to cater to a seemingly-unreasonably sulking player, as I've seen that way lead to madness (and read about it very frequently). \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Jul 14 '17 at 22:50
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There is something called "tilting", it happens in all games and you can find many articles about it online. For example here are some:

There are plenty of techniques your friend can learn to handle the impulse, but it is down to them to want to. You can't make them do it. My suggestion would be to just ignore it in session, keep playing as though it's not happening. By your own admission after a while they get back into things and drawing attention to it will not improve things.

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If it continues to be an issue, it might be worth having a private discussion with him about it, approached from the angle of him detaching during games. The dice thing might just be correlated with something else or coincidence, so discover and address the root cause. But if you really think he cares that much about bad rolls...

GMs ultimately should have a lot of discretion. Dice are, after all, very boring things, only spitting out numbers. As a GM, it is a heavy burden, but it's entirely up to you to transform those numbers into meaningful results outside the vague guidelines of success, fail, criticality, and game rules.

On top of that, I'd cite Dwarf Fortress and games like Paranoia with the concept that losing should be fun. A classical RPG trap to fall into is to allow games to become too dependent on success for the players to enjoy a session. Some games do have a more antagonistic vibe (the GM is trying to kill the players while the players are gaming the rules as best they can), but especially for more casual games winning shouldn't be the only path forward.

You could increase how often you roll on his behalf and give him interesting results rather than being exposed to raw luck. Short of weighted dice or him not rolling at all, you can't really stop a bad streak from ever happening, so mitigation and avoidance are the only options you have.

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