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Another question discussing alpha gamers which might be relevant.

Alpha gamer is a type of player in cooperative games, who effectively makes a decision for another player.

On tables, I'm usually the guy who generally figures out that doing something is a bad idea. Examples include shooting the Big Bad Evil Guy surrounded by goons, walking into an explosive trap, blowing up the walls of a submarine with us still in it, etc.

Since reading the linked post above and hearing player complaints, I have come to realize that my actions constitute a form of alpha gaming. And as a result I have stopped offering suggestions in that regard.

Here's the problem: the mistakes they make (which are largely unintentional, I think) are impeding my characters and others (which, in some cases, my objectives with these characters is to make as much money and xp) in some cases.

Example 1 (Cyberpunk Red):

We breach a compound and neutralize the threat posed by Johnny Badguy, securing the common area. We notice a door near the common area that is slightly ajar and stack up on it. Just before the breach I realize there's probably a good reason why nobody came out of that door during the fighting. I suggested to my breaching buddy that the door might be trapped. She figures it's probably fine. I suggest again, whether she wants to check the door for traps. (We were under no immediate danger). She figures it's probably fine again. I let the incident go. As it was her turn, I could not move my character as she pushes open the door and we get set on fire.

Example 2 (Pathfinder 2E):

We prepare to infiltrate a highly guarded palace. I suggest aggressive recon of the site, including disguising ourselves as workers. The party suggested busting in guns blazing. I did not press my opinion of stealth, and we busted in. We lost 2 PCs.

Example 3 (CP Red):

We stake out a compound that we (based on recon) know has automated defenses. Naturally, caution was to be held as I encouraged the team to take a slow approach. This worked out and we were able to neutralize turrets before they could be activated. Until one of the party decided that the place was clear and ran ahead, activating the final turret. Thankfully we killed it before it could do damage.

I have already talked to other players about this, but ultimately due to some of these games being part of Westmarches, I cannot reliably use a session zero tool every time I play with previously unencountered players.

I am unsure what's the best way to proceed and need methods to make this work better at the table.

Specifically, what I can do to negate the negative elements of alpha gaming (which causes player dissatisfaction), as the act of not "alpha gaming" also seems to cause player dissatisfaction. Please let me know if more info is required.

To Less Determined Readers

  1. Stopping other players from making mistakes causes player dissatisfaction.
  2. Not stopping them places PCs at unnecessary risk and also causes other player dissatisfaction.

I need a method to resolve these two sources of dissatisfaction.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's the question? \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Jan 17, 2023 at 10:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Huhk I always thought that stands for Too Long, Didn't Read. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2023 at 12:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your language choice, particularly the nebulous and misleading "alpha gamer" phrase, is unclear and inconsistently used. Add in the connotations of alpha (douchey, pushy, nonsense, false, etc.), and that phrase makes your question significantly less clear. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Jan 17, 2023 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps of note, the linked example describes someone metagaming, whereas all of the examples in this question would be perfectly reasonable in-character exchanges... \$\endgroup\$
    – A C
    Jan 19, 2023 at 0:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ The next time your Cyberpunk buddies want to rush ahead, can you remind the in character about Examples 1 and 3? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 19, 2023 at 20:48

8 Answers 8

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Accept that PCs losing is the price of allowing players to have agency.

Most players prefer to have agency to winning every fight and encounter and whatever. 'West marches', aka one shot communities, can attract more mechanistic players who want to win and don't care who makes it happen, and are famous for sometimes becoming almost 'mechanics challenges' rather than what most people would recognize as ttrpgs.

If you are at a table with players who prefer to win than to have agency, giving instructions that lead to victory at the cost of the player's agency will be more acceptable.

While you can have flash cards and people to tell you not to and a rubber band you snap against your wrist when you do it, rather than conditioning yourself to stop one behaviour, you should instead address the underlying cause - that will result in usually a bevy of related changes rather than addressing one specific thing and not realizing about/dealing with the rest.

Ergo, mentally and emotionally accept that failing/losing/dying in a ttrpg is perfectly acceptable if people gain what they prefer - agency, choice, ability to succeed or fail on their merits - from that.

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Stay in character

If you play your character right, then staying in character instead of commenting on the situation on a table/metagame level will help you solve most of these problems, or at least help you by providing a tool to judge if you should comment or not.

For example, if your character in the first situation had reason to suspect explosives or a trap (has a background in this, has appropriate experience, etc.), and they have enough time in game to say something to their buddy that they are worried about a trap on the door, then it would be incredibly selfish and daft from their buddy to not react to that and check, or at least give them enough time to step away and take cover if they are afraid for their life.

On the other hand, if you are involved in a chaotic swordfight and your character has no good line of sight to another area of the battlefield, it would not make any sense to give tactical advise to someone there, for example on blocking a route, even if that means a monster will be able to close in with you.

In the end, as you are realizing, it is not all about you. Other players want to have fun too, and if that fun involves them making their own, bad decisions, then so be it. Even if it affects your character from time to time. Your character can talk shit to their character about it afterwards.

You cannot entirely avoid that if you want to give them that space. And I think it is good to do that. Think about it -- how would you feel if someone at your table was consistently smarter about what to do than you, and told you what to do all the time? You as a player, even if you are more experienced and able to assess the tactical situation, let them have their fun, too. If that is hard for you, try and find a group of people that are roughly your equals when it comes to optimizing tactics.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, this seems like "a roleplay problem" with roleplay solutions. The lady opening the door might be impatient, or just is roleplaying a character who is. That consideration should quickly impact the OP's character, too. "Stack up!" "Nope." "What do you mean no." "I know how you handle door breaches. I'm ducking down behind the concrete barricade." \$\endgroup\$
    – JamieB
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ The roleplay solution is something I will inform the other players on, as it sounds like an excellent suggestion. It shields characters from being negatively affected by other players' agency without depriving others of said agency, allows for narrative continuity, and lets the issue be addressed in RP. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2023 at 8:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ We have a party member whose character delights in causing chaos. We have fully incorporated this into our campaign, resulting in several near-death incidents, high in-character tensions among party members, and a blood feud between his character and what would otherwise be an important ally. However, we are all very good friends IRL and we are all enjoying the mix of strategy and silliness. This dynamic might be harder to pull off among strangers without someone getting annoyed about the chaos-causing player taking over the game. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 19, 2023 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just watch out for "My Guy" symptom if you try to use roleplay to achieve what you view as the most efficient/best/fun outcome, this seems like something where it could rear its head \$\endgroup\$ Jan 19, 2023 at 23:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I remember a session where the party rogue, having scammed a rich widow of everything, was confronted by her children to return the property. Everything was set-up for an adventure/campaign of working for them to work off the debt, but he noped out of that and the campaign instead became running and hiding from mercenaries. Good times. \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Jan 20, 2023 at 13:02
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Video games =\= TTRPGs

Video games have the idea of an "Alpha" because there is often a right and wrong decision - a video game can't account for personality, moral choices or any of the million possible choices you could make. TTRPGs, on the other hand, can be enjoyed as collaborating to tell a story. Failures can be part of that story.

A PC dropping unconscious because they fell into a trap could mean they're taken captive and you have to rescue them, that cursed object you would have stopped them picking up might lead to an interesting character arc as they consider the implications for their character.

At the end of the day the people at your table, and their choices, make up the story together. If you want to have discussions in character, go ahead, but your game will be poorer if you try to remove another player's choices because yours are most efficient at getting to a goal.

I've had players expanding the scope of my games because they made non-optimal choices. I had a player break into a secure military base to soak the special ops uniforms with a glow in the dark dye. The risk of getting caught was huge, the outcome was only minimally helpful and if they'd been caught they would almost certainly have been dead. The group still laughs about it.

I'm sure every table has multiple stories of "Do you remember when..." and I doubt any of those sentences end in "Bob made the optimal choice and everything turned out OK".

Fun doesn't have to mean no mistakes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like this answer because it highlights one of the core differences, subtle though it is, between video games and TTRPGs. In a video game, the range of choices or story outcomes is necessarily limited, so there's a limited number of possible progression paths and a wide array of failstates, leading to players being fail-averse. Died? Well, just try again until you don't, because the story can't progress otherwise. In TTRPGs, that's just part of the story. It's not Harry Potter randomly dying during the Triwizard tournament, it's one of the Lannisters falling in the thick of war. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aos Sidhe
    Jan 20, 2023 at 15:09
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ICA = ICC

There's a common rule in freeform RPG that goes "In Character Action results in In Character Consequences", commonly shortened to ICA=ICC. While it is meant most often as "You need to realize that what you do will have consequences, and you can't control those", it's also a parable about what you met: players getting pointed to something and then decide to ignore the pointer and act in a certain way should - in principle - be ok with any consequences that brings.

Mitigating problems?

Now, people are dissatisfied with the highlighting of options, but there's only so much you can do as a fellow player or GM:

Telegraphing

A method from more freeform Roleplay systems is to hint about things that might happen or what an action's consequence is. In some games, such as acts that will result in losing honor in L5R 5th Edition, are encouraged or required to be telegraphed by the GM, so the player can re-evaluate their process. But if they reaffirm, that's that, they suffer the consequences alluded to. You get one warning for an act, not two or more.

Common Sense / "Are you sure?"

the Old World of Darkness has a merit that was known as Common Sense. Whenever you described an act that might get you into trouble, the GM would be tasked to ask "Are you sure?" and if you still proceed, you suffer the consequences. I have seen it commonly at tables that this part of common sense was granted to anybody, even without a merit for it, and even in games that don't have such a merit. But if they reaffirm their action, it's upon them. You get one warning for an act.

Optimal play is BORING unless it's optimized for fun!

Something that I embrace from more roleplay-heavy games is that mechanically optimal characters and numerical optimal play are usually boring, and as an extension, optimal play is usually actively unfun, as it forces solutions down in certain ways. Optimal play is in this regards not roleplay, it's rollplay and puzzles, a dice orgy where you don't face choices or dilemmas. Unless you optimize your game for fun, it's not fun!

A mechanically optimized shadowrunner running a perfectly planned run is boring - the run gets interesting because it is not able to be optimized for the tasks coming up because there are unknown variables! The run gets interesting because there are problems and even dilemmas. What's the difference? Problems have a solution, dilemmas are choices where all outcomes are bad!

A gametime-optimized solution to bad loot distribution would be a word of god that retroactively redistributes wealth OOCly, taking it away from the characters that grabbed it and to the character that needs it, but that would actively diminish the fun of the players that lost items and possibly wouldn't be mechanically perfect. A least-upset-optimized solution tries to first solve the underlying player problem in a non-upsetting way, and then finds an IC reason to redistribute some wealth or allocate future gains, but that's clearly not time optimized as it takes away. A Fun-optimized solution does strive to even have fun in solving the underlying player problem, and that is neither time optimized nor mechanically optimal!

The big takeaway is, that while striving for better solutions can be fun, always forcing the optimal solution is actively unfun: it puts all the agency in the hands of the one that offers the optimal solution that avoids dilemmas and solves the problems in the least expensive way to the group resources, but what fun is that to every player around? This is not about characters, this is about players. You are playing to all have fun, and if there's only one that has fun because he's the best at the game, that's not missing the target by a long shot. And in my opinion, the only optimization goal worth shooting for is to maximize fun, whatever that means for your group.

The only optimal play is the one that is most fun - even if it's Earn your FUN TvTropes Warning

Ignorance is bliss

In most games I play in, we don't share character sheets. We can't assist with pointing to features they don't use or might want. As we don't know, we can't try to use information that's not divulged to us by the other players. If you don't know about a feature that might be optimal in a situation, you can't call for its use!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thumbs up for the optimal play section \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2023 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin TBH, one of the most fun rounds we had was when we outright ignored a GMs hints about a runaway murderer plot and instead had a picnic and only looked into that thing the day later. Samurai Problems (TM). \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jan 17, 2023 at 22:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jan 18, 2023 at 12:59
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A few words from someone guilty of the same behavior

While this mostly comes from my experience in the world of online video games, I still feel that it relates quite closely to TTRPG.

I've been guilty of this behavior often in the past, and I still sometimes fall in this vice of trying to "help" others by giving them advice on what are the options or most ideal moves available to them when I see them struggle. To me, it feels nice to help others, and I often act thinking they'll be happy that they're learning and getting the best out of their actions.

There's one thing I've learned, and that I now try my best to apply, both to games and to real life : people don't always want help, and unwanted help can actually be quite a fun killer. While some people will indeed enjoy getting help or even being told what to do in some situation, many people are the opposite.

Either it's wanting to do what they want to do, or feel the struggle that was intended for a new player's experience, or anything else entirely. For example, it can relate to someone trying to figure out who's the killer in a detective story, and you telling them straight away all the clues that give away the answer. Satisfaction often comes from how difficult the reward was to obtain, so taking away the difficulty may also take away the enjoyement.

However, it isn't fun or satisfying to watch others repeat mistakes, not be able to understand something, or simply throw the game for everyone. So while doing nothing and letting them drag the group down might be an option, it isn't always the best one for everyone.

A possible in-between approach

The approach I've started to take is that when someone is really struggling, or there's some crucial information they're missing on how a game works, I'll ask them if they want help or advice.

If they want it, I can go ahead and guide them, or explain what they did not understand, so that the thing they're struggling with doesn't get in the way of their fun. If they refuse, then they're probably already having fun, and it's better to let them learn and struggle past this obstacle with their own strength. I personally find it quite satisfying to see teammates learn how to defeat an obstacle, and thus having the group overall do better over time.

The difficulty with this is to not sound condescending. Playing a game and having someone placing themselves above you, going "I know how to do this, if you don't want to listen to it then do it yourself" rarely feels nice. The key is to "offer" help, not "give" it.

Do note that by "helping" them, you're also potentially stopping them from playing the game altogether. If they're having trouble making a decision and want someone to point out some solutions they might not have thought about, that's fine. But if it's about you making choices for them, then they might as well not play the game and let you handle their character, and it would be the same.

The most important thing is to recognise whether or not the person wants "help", because in some situation, even a more optimal play could be wrong. While it may seem normal to "do things the most optimal way possible" to many people, it isn't the goal for many others as well. In general, people look for the solution that's "fun" to them, even if it isn't optimal, and even if it could be somewhat detrimental to the situation.

What if this doesn't solve the issue?

Of course, there's always the situation where the person does not want your "help", but you (and/or the group as a whole) is suffering from it. In this case, then maybe this player's way of playing and your way of playing are simple not compatible.

I have friends who enjoy the same games as me, but won't always participate in the same content or groups. That's not because we don't like each others, but simply because we know our ways of playing this content and enjoying it aren't compatible. So we simply play it with different people. Don't be scared to ask others how they're feeling about this. Maybe the majority likes playing more like your friend does, maybe they like playing more like you do.

In the end, the important part is that everyone's having fun with the game, even if it feels like their way of having fun is "weird" to you. There's no wrong way to enjoy the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While the perspective-matching is probably more palatable to the OP, this answer suffers for it, and not recognising that your "help"/"advice" may be entirely wrong. I don't run headfirst into a trapped room with cannon-carrier baddies on both sides of the door because I haven't learned how to deal with that situation, I'm doing it becausethat is what I've learned for dealing with it in the way I enjoy. The implication that somehow it's always a mistake to do something you wouldn't do is the entire problem here, and reinforcing it is not useful. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nij
    Jan 17, 2023 at 22:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or otherwise: the attitude that other people need to be helped at all is the problem here. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nij
    Jan 17, 2023 at 22:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Nij I see what you mean. I was wondering if I managed to express that this is indeed a bad habit, and it would seem that it was not the case. I'll edit my answer in an attempt to correct this. Thanks for the feedback. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Jan 18, 2023 at 7:05
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First of all, it is the responsibility of the GM to make sure the difficulty level matches the player experience and that no players are unnecessarily killed. If the GM has played with you before and now relies on you to Alpha-game the group, you can talk to them between games and let them know that you want to change your behaviour and maybe they should adjust the difficulty.

Then I want to point out that not in all situations it would be bad play for your character to insist on a certain behaviour: If you are playing an experienced mercenary and one of the party members suggests a foolish plan, you are totally in-character if you insist on a better plan or you refuse to go along with the party. After all, knowing when to not run in an ambush is what kept your character alive for all these years.

The same applies if you have a very intelligent character that noticed that the door was left alone by the enemy forces and after the fight asks: "Do you think there is something strange about this door?" Your character might even try looking for traps yourself, which can give a hint. (You as a player might know that the Rogue played by Bob would be well better suited for that, but Xendred the Sorcerer doesn't think he would miss a trap). Just don't say: "Bob, you should check for traps!"

In both cases you let your character speak and act, instead of yourself. These examples assume that your characters are in the same location and you have enough time to talk. Having a discussion 200 meters apart, or in the course of 5 seconds between attacks should not be possible.

Also keep your characters background and intelligence in mind. It actually is a lot of fun to hold back the knowledge you figured out as a player, because your character isn't smart enough, or in my case because he is to shy and humble to speak over the more dominant players (who didn't figure it out).

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Western March games are tricky. You might go into them with a quirky build or character and ruin the fun of the other players by getting the other characters killed. There are a few ways I've seen to mitigate it, though a lot involve negotiating with whoever manages the games.

Ask the DMs to post warnings for their type of session

A lot of your issues seem to be that the DMs want to play the sort of game where you need to be sneaky and stealthy and the players want to play loud and shoot and charge everywhere.

As such, ask them to tell players what to expect. Something like "This is a game more like Thief or Dishonoured or Metal Gear solid, rather than Skyrim or Call of Duty. The enemies are dangerous, outnumber you and outgun you. If you charge and run and gun you will die. Checking for traps and using stealth is important, and if you don't death is likely."

This in my experience helps get the team on board about not suiciding by charging into guns.

Prepare maps for everyone.

One of the big reasons players suicide a lot is that they can't really picture what's going on and so just leeroy jenkins their way to death. Having maps to explain that a location is dangerous with turrets visible can help a lot.

It's a lot easier to avoid danger if you can see it.

Ask the DMs to signpost roughly how dangerous locations are

There's already a lot of uncertainty in combat and such. One of the important thing about western marches games is player choice and being able to choose to go to one location or another. As such, it's helpful for DMs to tell you how dangerous one location or another is so you can make an informed choice as to whether you risk it.

Ask the DMs to tone down the lethality level to "Dangerous for a competent character and lethal for a newbie" not "High chance of death for everyone."

Very high lethality games have a tendency to result in suboptimal play. Mechanically suboptimal characters are a problem because they drag the team down, players tend to get depressed and quit a lot because death is routine, quirky characters become uncommon as quirks mean death, intelligent opposition becomes uncommon as that leads to team wipes and a DM that keeps killing all their player characters tends not to get new players, and corner case rules arguments become common because they're life or death.

Ask them to try and keep lethality per session down to 1-9% per group rather than 10-40%, and try to avoid killing more experienced players who are dragged into dangerous situations by newbies. It should be possible, and likely, for an average session to go through without a death.

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Kind of a glorified comment: I think in the case of TTRPGs, Groody's answer is already excellent. It adds a natural additional constraint to the gameplay that means you can still try to play optimal within those constraints while also letting others make decisions.

I will add a few words for co-operative games in general. Namely that you can also think of choosing your company more to suit your needs. I love co-ops and my group definitely always plays "alpha gamer style" in the sense that any player will point out optimal strategies for any players turn. It has never ever been a problem. Why? Because we are all smart and know the games roughly equally well. We decide what to do as a group (with each player having the final say over their character). We never end up with just one player making all the decisions. Most co-operative games are designed to be complicated enough that no one can actually fully track the game and find the optimal move on their own. Often being mostly in charge over your own character's stuff gives you the best perspective on your best moves. But, in my games, all players are definitely looking out whether their different perspectives (knowing their own characters best for example) are giving them some additional insight that should be shared. Everyone always feels like they contributed, because they actually have.

This approach runs into problems only when someone is less smart, less attentive or less familiar with the game you are playing and can therefor not contribute without the artificial constraint that everyone decides for their own character.

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