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Alpha gamer is a type of player in cooperative games, who effectively makes a decision for another player. In this question I am asking how to deal with a 'soft' version of this player archetype, who does not make the decision per se, but is quick to point out what he would do.

In RPGs, this often manifests during combat encounters, where one or multiple players, who oftentimes are more experienced than the one making the turn, tell them what to do. They can be quick with probability theory calculations and tell them how do deal the most damage. They can be quick to point out a tactical possibilities to exploit, like a squishy target without cover.

GM: That's all, right?

Player A: Yes, I end my turn.

GM: Ok, Player B, it's your go now.

Player B: Sure. Hmmm...

Player A: The bloodied Lizard Rogue next to you has the lowest AC and didn't Disengage, if you attack him, you'd probably kill him.

Player B: That's right! I attack the Lizard Rogue.

While such behaviour is desirable when the player making the turn asks for it, some players have a habit of announcing those kinds of decisions whether anyone asks for them or not, sometimes approaching the encounters, especially combat ones, as a cooperative puzzle to solve - that's why the term from cooperative board games seemed applicable to this case.

Such behaviour, if frequent, can effectively hamper the players on the receiving end and take away their agency. While I would personally want all the players to make their own decisions and only ask for help when they want it, I understand that some players like to have an always-on guide. However, 'soft' alpha players can effectively command the game whether they themselves notice it or not, which I feel can slow down the roleplaying development of newer players.

How can I prevent that kind of player from disturbing the rest?

In some time, I am to GM a game in which I know that players have non-homogenuous RPG experience. I have played with all of them at different times and know that some of them engage in alpha gaming, at least sometimes, unconsciously or unwittingly. I would like to gather some input from more experienced GMs how to handle this problem, were it to arise, before it happens.

I do not feel that full-on cooperation is a bad way to play RPGs. However, the table participants in their private conversations with me said that they want to make their own decisions in RPGs and at least some of them are vocal in criticising some cooperative board games where this problem is very apparent. As we did not face alpha gaming of such magnitude in our RPGs yet, I am not sure whether the players would be able to solve it by themselves.

In summary: How should I handle a player who very often, maybe unwittingly, chimes in with not bad or even optimal solutions to given problems, even if it's not his decision right now?


While there are already questions about bossy players, I feel that the problem described there is of greater magnitude than this here (there, a player effectively takes control over a game), and as such, needs separate answers, even if a subset of them is applicable here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is player B an inexperienced player, one we might suspect of not knowing what to ask in the first place? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    May 25 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are they giving instructions in-game or out-of-game (table-talk)? \$\endgroup\$ May 26 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RBarryYoung If it's in-game I would tell them that they should have said it on their turn. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 at 19:45
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I've been that player; how did GM's get me to back off?

The best GM at handling my over-eagerness to help a novice player had 3"x5" card that he'd hold up to me. On it was written three words: "not your turn".

The set up

He mentioned to me, privately, after a session, that he'd noticed me thinking for two other players, and that he'd rather I not do that.

The implementation

For the next two sessions, whenever he saw me doing it again, he'd hold up the card.
For me, it worked.
Will this work with your soft-alpha player?
That depends on how much mutual respect there is between the two of you.

The in situ appeal

During a board game (Pandemic) last year I was doing it again; this time with my wife as the novice player. My son asked me, about the third time I offered advice unasked for, "Can you just let Mom take her turn? We aren't playing this for money." I got the hint. (My son is/was our most experienced player of Pandemic and you can fairly say that he was at least our games' facilitator, if not a GM per se).

Will this work for your group?
Depends on the level of mutual respect between players.

A few years ago, how I signalled this problem to a fellow player

We had a player in an on-line game who would, without fail, question other players about "Was that a double move?" or "Are you sure you want to do that" and so on - often as the other players were declaring their actions. It was annoying to me.
So I started doing this whenever he'd pull that:
"We already have a GM, and you aren't it."
Or
"We don't need two GM's"
It took a while, but he finally got the point. (That game dissolved over scheduling issues, unfortunately)

Will that work? Depends on the mutual respect between players.

For on line play, how I police myself

When my brother is the DM (we play using a Virtual Table Top, but I am sometimes the DM for the group when he can't make it) I have learned that, to avoid being overbearing I need to turn the microphone off or to set it to mute.
I only turn it back on when it is my turn, or when my input is called for.
Now and again I forget to turn it back on, so I am occasionally talking out loud and nobody hears(except my dogs) but I usually get something like "Uh, K, your turn, are you there?" and I get to start over again. Hilarity ensues.
But it keeps me from doing that, and that's a good thing.

If your situation is on-line play, you may want to discuss this with that overly helpful player and see about implementing a PTT (Push To Talk) default so that they don't slip up.


As a footnote, from the DM side, for on line options: @Baskakov_Dmitriy pointed out in a comment that as a GM, if you are using a platform such as Zoom, you can also "forcemute" someone (or every one) to keep people from talking over each other or talking over you. It is very common for large gatherings of people to mute everyone at the start of an event and only letting someone speak if they "Raise their hand", a built-in function of Zoom - notifying that they want to speak. Each on line tool has its own variation on such controls, so it's a good idea to explore that functionality to its fullest as it may be able to help you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding to your lest point: as a GM, if you are using a platform such as Zoom, you can also forcemute someone. It is very common for large gatherings of people to mute everyone at the start of an event and only letting someone speak if they "Raise their hand", a built-in function notifying that they want to speak. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 17:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy Ooh, thank you, I'll add that as a foot note \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the down voter: what's in need of support for this experienced based answer? Or are we dealing with the usual AC here? \$\endgroup\$ May 25 at 21:22
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You have a resource. Make use of it.

If you've got all new players looking around for their best option, who's going to help them? You, the GM? You're running the bad guys! (Of course, you're not there to actually be a bad guy, you're there to make a good game for everyone, but part of that good game is that you're there to run the bad guys, so.)

If you have experienced players who know the whole system, you can delegate part of your game-teaching duties to them. They're a place advice can come from that's actually on the players' side!

Set expectations...

When you're meeting to set up the campaign and outline how people should make characters and such (often called "session 0") you can lay out your expectations for how that's going to work, maybe like:

We've got a mix of player experiences, so I'm not going to run this difficult enough that only experts could succeed. You can try things out, make mistakes, learn how to play the game better by playing it.

But, Steve, Bree, I know you two have some time in this system already. If somebody's having trouble deciding on combat tactics, or anything else, can they ask you for advice?

Framing it as an expectation of yours that they'll need to be asked, rather than leaving it up to their own initiative, can help shape how they think of giving advice. They're not volunteering it anymore; it's a responsibility.

...and make sure they're being met.

"Session 0" is not the only time you should talk about how your expectations for the game and how it's working out. Make sure and block yourself out half an hour or so at the end of every game session, so you can deal with scheduling or questions about next session, and so you can take your group's temperature.

Maybe you've already got a tool for dealing with that, but one I've found to be useful is often summed up as "rose, thorn, and bud" - go around the table, and everyone shares something from the night they thought was a success, something they thought was a challenge, and something they want to see happen next time you meet.

Interacting with other people isn't something you can set down rules for and walk away. It's something you have to practice, all the time - and taking time to check in will also give you time to discuss how the campaign's going and how people are playing relative to your expectations at the start.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. To add to this, you can also encourage newer players to make decisions by and for themselves by overtly offering, say, an inspiration point if they ignore any unsolicited advice and come up with a reasonable action or plan themselves. Doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be their own (or at least altered "enough" from any advice they may have received). Also, explicitly tell Steve and Bree, "give them the time and opportunity to come up with a plan for themselves, but be ready to help if they ask for it", and make sure it's clear that advice can be ignored. \$\endgroup\$
    – cas
    May 26 at 13:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, DM/GM as coach is a strong theme of mine, but your point on "you can delegate some coaching to experienced players" is good advice if those players are up to it, and, as you point out, you frame it correctly. +1, as usual, for another high-quality Glazius production. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 at 20:32
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Generally speaking, I have a No Table Talk Rule during action rounds. I let some comments slide, but mostly if they're reactionary (EG: "Way to exploit that flank in your attack!"). If a player really wants to relay information to another in a time critical, they must use their appropriate character actions to speak. This means that if they want to convey something to another player, it needs to be on their own turn - whether in actual initiative order, or with a Ready action, and must be in character.

As a house rule, if a player is stuck on Analysis Paralysis or has some other other ability that lets them think faster in the current situation than the average person, I let them make a roll. The result of the roll (no matter how low) determines the amount of out of game time the players can discuss the challenge at hand. More often than not, this is used in social situations but occasionally it's the tactician of the group coming up with a plan as long as they roleplay the in character decisions. My inspiration for the idea was to deter characters having dump stats.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the best solution. If the players have entered into a combat situation measured in seconds, lengthy discussions of how to proceed simply should not be possible in role play terms. Catlord's house rule is one way to proceed; another might be to allow one player to coach another on what to do, but require them to expend an action or bonus action to do so - to impose a communications cost. \$\endgroup\$
    – tbrookside
    May 26 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ My table would have hated this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex M
    May 26 at 18:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you give us more detail about the relationship between roll and time? Is it a d6 and that's the number of minutes? d% and number of seconds? 5 seconds times roll of a d20? A chart? \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    May 26 at 20:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes : If a player is new (to the character or table), they can ask me questions because it's in the realm of what their character would already know 'instantly', and I may offer suggestions if I designed the challenge to give them a practical example. This is how I handle quarterbacking and metagaming, and always adapt to the table. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    May 27 at 11:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aslum: 10s x Proficiency Check Result, in D&D. For example, rolling Diplomacy. It could also be a straight INT roll if it's something like remember a previous discussion. Obviously this isn't meant to be an every turn thing, but it's used to move things along or let a player get the best of a character with different talents than their own where appropriate. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    May 27 at 11:52
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While it's not the only factor, I find that the system does have effect on this - it happens a lot more in systems that encourage / demand tactical teamwork. For example, it occurred a lot in 4E D&D for our group.

And from having been on the other side, it can be frustrating when your character's main contribution is making certain actions advantageous, and other players ignore those actions without a good reason.

P1: "Ok, I've hypnotized and cursed the giant, the basilisk is the only real threat left."
P2: "I attack the giant, using my most powerful strike I can only use once a battle."

P1: "I put a triple target lock on the enemy carrier's weak point. Anyone who attacks can bypass its heavy armor. It'll only last for one turn though."
P2-4: Attacks the fighters instead, or decides this is a good turn to spend maneuvering.

So I'd say - for players:

  • Don't have your character's tactics be at all reliant on other PCs.
  • In your own mind, think of people's questionable choices as just another element of the challenge.
  • When you're really struggling not to blurt out something, that's a good time to take a restroom / snack break.

For GMs:

  • Don't use a system that expects a high degree of tactical cohesion.
  • Don't make challenges so close to the wire that a poor choice from a PC can doom the entire party.

And also discuss it OOC, of course. But reducing the circumstances where the desire even arises will help.

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It all depends on the mix of players, in a campaign I am in now that has been going on for 2 years now everyone does this. Some of our most satisfying sessions are chocked full of people throwing around ideas constantly about what we need to do as a party and as individuals whoever's turn it is. That level of cooperation and the success that results can make for an incredibly fun game.

I have been in other games where the DM was very strict about not giving suggestions to other players. I am very experienced (have been playing for over 10 years) and in that game everyone else had only played a handful of sessions before and the DM was a newer one (he was really exited to try it out for the first time). The other players and even the DM were making constant mistakes forgetting potent abilities and ignoring major rules. The game was chaotic and only the people that were there to "hang out" had a good time.

Like I said at the start there are people that are there to game and people that are there to hang out neither group is wrong but in this case I think the gamers have absolutely no problem with this behavior and those that are there for social interaction are put off by it. A frank discussion with the gaming group can find a solid middle ground where all of your players can enjoy the game.

This In the end my opinion is that this kind of light influence from an experienced player allows those who are less well versed in the game (or even the concept of roleplaying in general) to get up to speed and enjoy all the game has to offer while allowing the experienced player the satisfaction of teaching someone about their favorite hobby. A too strong reaction can turn off your more experienced players and leave the new ones never even knowing what they missed. After only a short time the newer players will begin to think like adventurers and even start sharing their own ideas for the party.

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I am not sure how I would prepare for this as a GM before the game started, but I can think of 3 things I would do as a player.

  1. I rejection his ideas, but phrase it as RP. "I know that attacking the necromancer is the mechanically best option (only because you told me), but my character doesn't, so he'll attack the zombies."

  2. I have my characters intentionally do sub-optimal strategies. "I know that attacking the necromancer is the mechanically best option (because you told me or because I figured it out on my own), but my character is terrified of magic, so he'll attack the zombies."

After enough of his suggestions are rejected, hopefully he will take the hint and lay off. If I went with #2, I would continue acting in this way even after he learned his lesson because that is some really nice RP. However, the absolute best option is #3.

  1. Honestly talking to him about the issue, while acknowledging that he has good intentions. "I know you are being helpful by telling me what the correct chose is, but I feel like in the long term it would be better if I got use to doing the calculations without your help."

The 'I feel' phrase is very important because it recontextualize the issue as a problem with me, rather than a problem with them. That makes it clear that you are not upset with them. If they feel like you are accusing them of doing something wrong, they will most likely try to justify their actions, which can unfortunately lead to a fight. In addition, I am telling them that by refraining from speaking they are still helping me.

Edit:
I have actually done #2 in a session once and it was really awesome RP. My character was a kobold warlock who worshipped Bahamut. There was a bar fight between the party and some thugs kidnapping someone. Eventually, the chief thug took the victim hostage and threatened to kill him unless we surrendered. When we did, he killed the hostage anyway. My character was so enraged by this he ran out of cover, dodged an attack of opportunity, got directly in fornt of the chief thug, and used Burning Hands. Unfortunately, the chief thug did not go down. Considering I was a Lv. 1 sorcerer kobold with Constitution as his dump stat standing in front of a melee fighter with multi-attack, things went rather well. I got taken out in a single hit, but the fight ended before I died, so I'll count that as a win.

The other players didn't find this annoying because it was completely in character, a really cool scene, and significantly helped the party. Sub-optimal just means that there were better actions available for you to take, not that your actions were so stupid they actively harmed the party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While you explore what you would do, have you done this during and did it work out at the table? I think you are most of the way to a good answer, even though some may find your #2 option to border on passive aggressive, and you may have gotten a downvote for missing support. Your #3 option is, of your points made, the strongest one in terms of how to approach this from an out of character angle. (And of the three, I suspect it is the one likely to get a positive response from the other player) \$\endgroup\$ May 26 at 20:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ This issue has never come up for me before, but I am extremely confident that #3 would work. #1 or #2 may be better for someone who is socially awkward and has difficulty confronting others. I will admit that #1 can be passive aggressive, but I think #2 is fine. I have actually done #2 in a session once and it was really awesome RP. \$\endgroup\$
    – E Tam
    May 27 at 3:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, it would be useful to add, maybe under the bullet point for #2, your having done that and the result. Comments are for clarification, so putting that into your answer via an edit helps to support that recommendation via your own experience. \$\endgroup\$ May 27 at 13:45

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