Following this question Imagine, that you are trying to create a dark and scary situation: haunted mansion, spooky forest, ancient crypt... There is something out there that definitely is malevolent and players are entering into its lair. Finally this culminates into scene where they meet the enemy - make it a ghost, Nexus Crawler or Great Old One when... one player just simply breaks the mood. This can be divided into few categories:

  • Kender/Malkavian/Ragabash syndrome: "It has blood dripping from its fangs? I'll throw a cake at it!". Yeah, it is funny and to a degree it can be expected from such character, but it can also absolutely devastate the whole horror theme...

  • The Rationalist (aka "X-Files Scully") - "No, its not a ghost, ghosts doesn't exist, it must be a hallucination". One such doubter can be fun in a group, especially if he can play it right (especially when his believes have to be confronted with reality), but where are more of them... And in the end there can be only one solution to "I'll just turn around - after all there is nothing behind me, right?"

  • Mannierist - It can be i.e. a tinker gnome from Dragonlance or Son of Ether pretending to be Mr. Spock. First one will be trying (and of course failing) to solve EVERYTHING (from unlocking the door to fighting a dragon) using machinery that will obviously fail, second one will be constantly using Start Trek references (i.e. calling Technocracy agents "Borg")... Again, it can be good in small amount but in the longer run...

I had such players and I feel really bad by punishing them for good intentions by killing their characters and asking for "cutting down" their character behavior turns them into sulking "I have no fun here" player. - What is the better way than simple saying "Quit doing that! "that will help me dealing with such players?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I suggest also having a look at this question: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/50820/… --> Real horror calls for real motivations in characters which encounter it. Does your jester type have a good reason why he followed the path which lead him to encounter a great old one? If yes then he should be unlikely to throw cake at him... \$\endgroup\$
    – fgysin
    Feb 25, 2015 at 10:20

3 Answers 3


If your players are playing their characters then you are a really lucky GM, and you should be proud of them.

But yeah, I understand. We've spent ages preparing an encounter for the group. We've gone over all their possible approaches dozens of times and put stuff to gently railroad them into the right places to cover every eventuality. And yet still, the group will never, ever stick to our mental script of the encounter.

The Malkavian, completely in character, throws a cake at our Seriously Badass Evil Villain. That wasn't in our mental script! Aaagh! Tell him off!

No. The player has just thrown us a bone, the ability to build on the actions of the character while at the same time showing the personality of our villain. We're a lucky GM indeed.

How does our villain react?

  • Does he unflinchingly ignore the missile as beneath him, and let it bounce off and roll away unheeded, perhaps casually dabbing at the cream with a lace kerchief as he berates the party?
  • Does the cake just dissipate into nothingness as it flies towards him?
  • Does he block it effortlessly with his staff?
  • Does one of his minions catch it from the air, crush it, and fling it contemptuously to one side?

The contempt the villain shows, the way the humor of the situation falls completely flat and unnoticed by him, will only build the villain's stature in the eyes of a player.

(If you know that you have a habitually-cake-throwing character, then you can prepare for it in advance! Instead of "that wasn't in my mental script!" you have the advantage, and can have a response lined up ready! I'd discourage too many OP disintegrations, though: most lower-levels would just wipe it off and say something like "Freaking Malks!". Only a fellow Malk would be amused or distracted by it... and THAT encounter would be a delight to play! "Oh my! Beetroot? Delicious! You MUST give me the recipe! Torturers! Take this one to the dungeon kitchens: I will have his secret!")

As GMs, it's not about us: it's about the players' characters, and about the players' fun. If they're having fun, great. If we're upset because our carefully-crafted atmosphere got ruined, then that's sad... but also just plain wrong-headed.

If we let the players have those characters, and then we place them in a setting in which they cannot both play those characters, and still have fun... then we messed up somewhere. Where?

  1. We let some players into our group who are just so mean and ill-spirited that they are out to ruin the game for everyone. Solution: let them back out again.
  2. We're just not doing our atmosphere-building well enough, so our sense of atmosphere is destroyed by nothing more than a flung cupcake. Solution: Ask whether our villain would let his thunder be stolen by a Malk cupcake? Yes? Then that's fine. No? Then get in his head and role-play him!
  3. We are caring too much about setting and atmosphere. We want, perhaps, the players to be hanging on our every word, instead of having fun. Solution: accept that if the players are having fun, we're already winning at being a GM! Even if they aren't enjoying themselves as we had planned!
  4. We let the players have the wrong characters for our campaign. Solution: apologize to them, explain what the campaign's about, and ask them to re-roll.
  5. We have created the wrong setting for this encounter, given the party and the players. Solution: play it through, learn from it, and change the setting for future encounters to work better with the party dynamic.
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for tackling what to do when the problem has already arisen, instead of focusing purely on preventative measures. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Feb 19, 2015 at 6:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for great answer! I don't mind that much if Malkavian would throw a cake ONLY at Big Bad Guy, problem starts when he tries to throw it (or do something as silly) at absolutely everything and calling it "playing the character" \$\endgroup\$
    – Yasskier
    Feb 19, 2015 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you have a Malkavian or whatever whose default interaction is "I throw a cake at it" then A) You have to wonder where the heck he keeps getting all these cakes and B) You PROBABLY have a clear cut example of case 4 - a character that doesn't fit the game. Take your player aside and tell him he's ruining the mood, and see if he can either work with you, or think about a different character. \$\endgroup\$
    – Airk
    Feb 19, 2015 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please edit the useful bits of this conversation into the question and answer as appropriate, so it's preserved after the comments are inevitably removed. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Feb 21, 2015 at 6:34

You've only talked about retaliatory responses to players who step out of line. Have you tried a group conversation before the game, so everyone can set parameters and know what they are? That works a lot better than punishing them for crossing lines they didn't know existed.

This is especially important with horror games. Suspense, dread, terror, and the other emotions which horror games thrive on, are delicate to construct and easy to tear down. ALL games require everyone to collaborate if they're going to work, but horror games are less robust in their ability to absorb social contract miscues.

Pre-game flight check: Make sure everyone's playing the same game before you start.

Before a group starts playing a horror campaign, they need to sit down and talk about what it means to be playing that sort of game. Some horror RPG systems, like Call of Cthulhu, have sections about the implications and necessities of horror gaming. There are also essays on the subject which you may find helpful.

Some of your problems may stem from a disconnect in the kind of horror your group is interested in. A gore-heavy story will reward study of the monsters' statistics because it's dismemberment which brings the chills; a dread-heavy story can be utterly ruined by familiarity with the beasts stalking in the shadows. If some participants expect one style and some expect another, the tone will be pulled in multiple directions at once and probably won't survive.

It's important (for reasons I'll get into a little bit later) that this pre-game meeting doesn't just consist of the GM telling the players how it'll be. Good horror stems from things the participants find unsettling, and also requires all the participants to buy into the kind of horror they're agreeing to experience. This means the group should work together to agree on what the game will be like, so it's good for everyone. Your goal should be that everyone at the table, GM and player alike, becomes a co-conspirator working to make the game great for all involved.

Use the right tools: System choice can help or hinder your gamegoals.

Once your group's goals are agreed upon and coherently expressed, you may want to experiment with various systems to find ones which encourage those goals. For example:

A d20 System campaign (which gives hit point and defensive statistics to all creatures) comes pre-packaged with the idea that defeating an enemy is always possible given the right circumstances. That's going to actively oppose any attempt to cultivate "cosmic despair."

Cthulhu Dark, on the other hand, says that if you attempt to fight any monster, you automatically die. This totally re-frames the Investigator's position in the world, and reinforces the implacable nature of the horrors the Investigator faces. (Naturally, Cthulhu Dark is an awful game for zombies-and-shotguns gorefests.)

Make parties that work together.

When players create characters together, they act as a force multiplier to push things in the direction the group wants to go, while also reining in ideas that are counter to the group's needs.

You'll find a number of questions on the site already dealing with the details of party cohesion, including What kinds of rules promote good team cohesion?. It's a great way to help avoid issues like "My character isn't interested in that," "My character fixes the problem before anyone else can help," and "My character has a worldview totally at odds with the sort of story we're telling."

Some systems have this concept built into their mechanics already, but you can add it to most systems with trivial effort.

Don't force horror on the unwilling.

Most important of all: you have to be sure everyone wants to play the game. If some people are uncomfortable with the subject material, or just bored, they shouldn't feel pressured into doing it anyway. That's the fastest way to get players who disrupt the proceedings. They don't usually do it on purpose, but they will fight the tone of the game every step of the way. If you have players who don't want to play horror, or just don't want to play one particular flavour of horror, don't push them into it.

Take breaks from being scared, and guide action toward productive channels.

Don't go overboard on enforcing the horror experience all the time. A little levity is important, as it gives us a chance to breathe and recover so we can be scared again. Without breaks in the terror, we get overwhelmed and stop being scared. System mastery is laudable, as I'm sure you don't want players who are unfamiliar with the game they're playing. Studying the books means they're interested in what's going on. If you punish these behaviours all the time, they'll never find appropriate outlets which enhance the game experience.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't put any particular system in the question, but I had in mind World of Darkness mainly - I do explain players main theme of the world but I definitely not try to keep the "doom, horror and gloom" mood all the time. Still its a dark system in the end and "funny" characters like Malkavian or Ragabash shouldn't be played (at least not in the moody moments) as Groucho Marx \$\endgroup\$
    – Yasskier
    Feb 19, 2015 at 2:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer: nice range of prevention steps, and good advice on not forcing tone, too. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 19, 2015 at 7:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not so sure that World of Darkness is actually a dark system, which might be part of the problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Airk
    Feb 19, 2015 at 22:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KrisWojcik It'd be great if you mention that you're playing WoD in your question (whether or not you tag it that way), as a WoD expert would probably be able to help you more than I can. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Feb 20, 2015 at 10:39

For horror to be effective, the situation has to actually be (or at least appear) dangerous. If the player feels he can openly mock the Big Bad with no consequences... give him Consequences.

Hurt the character. Not just hit points, but something lasting.

Now, I wouldn't do that at the drop of a hat, and not per se at the "first offense"; but if a player is consistently doing this kind of thing, you have to find some way to re-establish that the Monster is actually dangerous. And yes, sometimes a character dies.

Maybe the monster kills an important NPC in response -- there are lots of options.) But as somebody suggested, if your villain is foiled by a tossed pastry, what kind of villain is he? Throw a cake at Cthulhu. Go ahead, I'll wait... but I'll get in my car and drive 100 miles and wait there.

In the end, if a player realizes he can throw cakes with impunity -- and he's right -- he's just going to keep throwing cakes. Either let the big bad get angry at the disrespect and retaliate (which I think is the lesser option as it actually makes the monster seem weaker); or have him dismiss it -- and the character -- without a second thought. For the villain, the act was so beneath contempt it doesn't warrant a response. Obviously these "heroes" aren't much of a threat.... (ahem)

EDIT: Note: even in the best horror there can be moments of levity. There should be moments of downtime where the characters can catch a breath. But in the end, horror is horror.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your input: problem is not as much with consequences of getting monster angry and eventually killing the player as much of spoiling the mood: Cthulhu with a cake on his tentacles is as much deadly as one without but it suddenly turns a blood curdling monster into something taken from Scoooby-do cartoon. It might have its purpose as a last act of defiance (whole "spitting in the eye of god"), but when happens too often its very annoying. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yasskier
    May 19, 2015 at 20:40

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