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We're playing a rather serious story of political intrigue with a bit of magic thrown in. Most of the players are fairly sensible, trying to figure out who poisoned the duke, or how to safely dispose of the cursed stone.

Then there's Alice. She's having fun in the game, and she does want to learn who poisoned the duke, but first...

Alice wants to drink that random potion, light the laboratory on fire, and push that big red button. She just wants to try stuff and see what happens, no matter the consequences.

How do I let Alice's reckless style shine, while still respecting the rest of the group's interest in serious story?

Everyone's having fun and getting along, so I'm not looking for some way to "teach Alice a lesson". This kind of wild recklessness is what she likes in a game, so I'd like to respect that. And the rest of the group equally enjoys the story with deep intrigue and seriousness.

(System is not important.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's good that everyone's having fun, but have there been any instances where the group said "Alice, don't do that!"? If so, how did Alice react? Did she ignore the group and do whatever she wanted, or did she respect their request? \$\endgroup\$ – Liesmith May 19 '16 at 9:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Liesmith, generally the rest of the group runs away to a safe distance while Alice does her thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe May 19 '16 at 9:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ What kind of world are you running, where there are dukes and potions living side-by-side with laboratories and big red buttons? \$\endgroup\$ – Mason Wheeler May 19 '16 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MasonWheeler Is that important to be able to answer the question, or just curiosity? Not knowing why a setting has those elements doesn't seem like it would impede answering the question at all. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 19 '16 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Those are just made-up examples; no need to bore everyone with long-winded explanations of the plot in our game. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe May 19 '16 at 16:35
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I had a character like this called Mandred. At one point the party was hidden in the forest waiting for an elven army they were avoiding to march past and he decided to cast glitterdust on them and try to convince them he was the rightful heir to the throne (I should mention he was a Chaotic Evil Human Sorcerer). He failed his buff check (somehow :P ) and was captured by the army and sent back to be imprisoned. The next session was the party trying to help him escape while he was trying to survive in a prison with no magic. The party managed to break him out using subterfuge and even got him a ring of ram which he proceeded to use to smash a wall in a tavern, causing the party to flee.

Basically, as long as the unruly player is not disrupting the other player's fun, let them at it. Generate plots out of their antics. Often they're trying to see how deep your world is and are happy just to see that if they set a laboratory on fire, servants come to put it out and guards come to try and arrest them.

The important thing in any game is not to take away or undermine player agency. This can be a tricky thing to achieve, but for me it's important to remember two things:

  • There is more than 1 player in a party (99% of games anyway)
  • A player choosing to do nothing is still maintaining player agency and still feels involved in the game.

The first one, most DMs are pretty aware of, but the second point is largely overlooked. When you have a wildcard like Mandred or Alice, quite often the party is enjoying their antics and you should let them continue. If a player isn't, however, you should let the option be there for them to stop the wildcard interrupting the flow. Usually I'd accomplish this in game.

For instance when Mandred wanted to cast glitterdust on the elven army, he had to move towards them to get in range. So I said to the group "Mandred starts breaking cover and heading towards the army, what do you do?". If they wanted to just let the army move past, they could have restrained him with ease and I would have been fine with saying the sound of an army on the march covered up any noises the grappling might have made. If the party were to constantly stop Mandred doing this, then it's time to have an out of game conversation with the players and ask them what they want from the session.

Using Alice as an example; when she wanted to burn down the lab, a simple question to the group; "Okay, Alice is trying to start a fire, what do you do?" gives them a chance to make a decision on how the game progresses. If they don't mind playing through the lab going up in flames, they'll run away or watch, or help. If they do mind that happening, they'll stop her from lighting a fire and try to convince her why she shouldn't do it.

A final example from my own group was when the party were sneaking through a dragon's den past a sleeping dragon. Mandred (of course) wanted to throw a tanglefoot bag at the dragon so it would wake up all covered in stickiness. When I asked what the party wanted to do, the dwarf said he wanted to stop him and the two had a conversation and Mandred was convinced that the risk of waking the dragon made it not worth it and the elf wizard offered to use a sleep spell when they got to the tavern to make use of the tanglefoot bag on anyone who fell asleep.

My players aren't big into roleplay, but I find they tended to do it with Mandred because he gave them an organic reason to.

Insofar as intefering with the plot, I tend to build the plot around the players' actions rather than having one set in stone, so it has never really been spoiled per se. Though I wasn't expecting the PCs to visit the elf city so quickly as they did because of Mandred!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you expand a bit beyond that anecdote? Did you have a meta conversation with the party first? Were they ever bothered in game or out of game by it and how did you handle it? What things do the GM do to encourage this play? How did you manage to do this without stealing spotlight from main plot and other characters? If you didn't balance antics with plot how did that change the game? \$\endgroup\$ – Ringo_St R May 19 '16 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Alice is trying to start a fire, what do you do? \$\endgroup\$ – Daenyth May 19 '16 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is specifically on how to set up situations where the reckless character can shine. This answer is mostly anecdote that boils down to "Let them do something, but ask the party how they respond." That is fine for letting one PC be reckless without disrupting the game for the other players, but doesn't answer how to create specific scenarios where that PC can be the star, which is what the OP is looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz May 19 '16 at 18:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ What I'm saying is you don't need to create specific scenarios for a reckless character to shine, they set them up for themselves. Their reward is watching the world react to their mischief. \$\endgroup\$ – gaynorvader May 20 '16 at 8:58
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Rather than think of players like Alice as a distraction, take the opportunity to inject a little spice in your games. It's a nice chance for you to break up the pacing before it gets too same-y.

The best way that you can make unpredictable, explosive, reckless characters like that shine, is in situations where planning and careful consideration won't do.

Have something go wrong in the player's plans. Introduce a threat that demands action rather than planning to deal with:

  • a traitor in their midst
  • the player's headquarters discovered and raided
  • the cursed stone turning out to be an enslaved entity that awakes and is quite irate....

Talk to the player; see if they would like a certain event to happen where their character will have their moment in the spotlight to help them have more fun with their character.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 For talking to the player to see what they would like to have happen. It is always a good idea to work your players' desires directly into the narrative. As another idea, you can have the reckless player cause trouble to shake things up while the rest of the party uses the distraction somehow. "You set the lab on fire, and we will explore while the servants deal with that." \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz May 19 '16 at 18:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ “The best way that you can make unpredictable, explosive, reckless characters like that shine, is in situations where planning and careful consideration won't do.” — as a player I often play this way precisely because I’m tired of half an hour of discussion on how to solve something without a fight. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael May 20 '16 at 12:02
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Imagine this: there is a big red button in the middle of the room. Does that player have to press it? If they do, than you can probably predict their behaviour in most other situations, so you can set things up specifically for them and plan for suitable outcome ahead of time. Hopefully you can keep them amused and occupied, while advancing the plot in a direction you want.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ And it's always better for GM to know what generally going on with that button - which parties/mechanisms will be involved when player push it. So you could think (at least in the general terms) about consequences and perhaps beforehand alter the world to make those underlying tense reasons... less deadly when they start to move and unravel. Because somebody will push that button anyway (perhaps not for lulz and chaos but thinking that is purpose is different from what is apparent to you). \$\endgroup\$ – Jaiden Snow May 19 '16 at 17:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Here's an example of designing an encounter to have a big red button, along with 4E's description of the Instigator player type. enworld.org/forum/… \$\endgroup\$ – Noumenon May 19 '16 at 19:12
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There's two ways to handle this, in the meta and in the game. You should do both.

Meta

The basic steps here are find out what Alice wants out of the game and why she acts like this and then check with your group that in general this idea meshes with them as a whole. If it does, you're done with the meta. If not, you need to discuss what compromises can happen.

Step 1) Why the Why is important

This is exceedingly important because if you don't know why they are being reckless and impulsive it's very hard to provide scenarios that scratch that itch and still gel with the overall goal. If all you know is she will be impulsive, you have to plan for anything, because she might (read: will) do anything and chances are no matter your prep you'll not expect it.

I play characters like this fairly often and most of the time I do it because I'm naturally ADD and going more than 10 minutes without doing something is hard. Sometimes it's a deliberate character trait but more often it isn't. Another player at my group plays them because he likes the idea of chaos. He's not so much interested in the plot as he is in “what happens if I do this?”

All 3 of these types, the bored ADD, the deliberate impulsive character, and the meta love of chaos, all need different things. The ADD player just needs moments of stimulus every couple of minutes. They don't need anything too big or spotlight stealing, just something to do. The impulsive character design needs ways to show off the character's tragic flaw. The chaos lover needs buttons to push and sandcastles to knock over.

Step 2) Finding out Why

Finding her actual motivation will really help you provide what she's looking for in the game. So pull her to the side and have a frank, honest, but non-judgmental conversation with her. It's absolutely key this does not come off as an attack. The natural instinct is to justify our actions and she may do this, even if the query is presented completely reasonably. I suggest making a list of things she's done that seem incongruous with the tone of the rest of the game, pick one or two, and at some point between games give her a question something like…

"Hey Alice. I've noticed that your character is taking some risky and impulsive actions, like X and Y, fairly often. It seemed a little out of tone with the rest of the game and I wondered if I'm providing you with the experience you're looking for. I don't think there's anything wrong with what you're doing — I want to make that clear — but it's kinda throwing me for a loop. Any chance you can help me figure out the types of things you're looking for so that I can be sure I'm providing them?

Step 3) Adjust the Game to the Why

Spend some time trying to pry into these motivations. Once you're pretty sure you understand them you can start to figure out what you need to add to your game. If that is already jibing with what you have, you're done. If there's some conflict between the two, approach the rest of the group (I prefer to do this individually so people feel free to talk unjudged) and make sure the changes work. If they mention that to Alice, ask if she'd be wiling to have a quick discussion about character choices and theme before the next game. Spend 30 minutes trying to get everyone on the same page. If it takes longer than that you have a more serious problem and might need to do some deep group talks, but it doesn't sound like you are there.

In Game

Make the world Real

First and foremost you said she doesn't care about the consequences. That may be, but in a serious game you have to. Actions have results and those results will affect your world. Make sure the things she does don't just disappear into the aether. The people it affects should react like real people. This will possibly (almost certainly) cause trouble for the party. And as such they will care about her actions. And that may get her character to care about her actions. This is great inter-party tension and role play and if you have a mature group you should highly encourage it. The journey her character will have to go through as her actions have negative outcomes on her friends is a classic one and can lead to some really cool places.

Match actions to story beats

Alice's reckless style may not seem to fit because you haven't left room for it. In most serious dramas there are breaks of levity. Sometimes this is done with humor but other times simply with moments of satisfaction where there is no tension. In most serious role playing games, that levity is brought about out of game at the table. Call of Cthulhu games are notorious for being dark and scary in game, with gales of laughter and constant joking happening out of game at the same time. I would suspect the same is true in your game. However even if it's not, this advice will work.

The idea is to try and leave space for humor and levity in-game. Look for story beats that come up when she performs her actions. If you haven't read Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin D. Laws, I highly recommend it. It talks a lot about how story beats work and how to use Up beats (positive moments in the story, where tension is relieved) and Down beats (negative moments where tension is increased). That is what you'll be looking to do: trying to find the right moment to put the ooh shiny in front of her.

If the party has been doing a long, intense scene with a potential enemy/ally trying to convince them of something, stakes are high, and everyone is eager for the outcome... It's the perfect time for her to spot a potion to drink. It will break the tension and lead to some more casual RP. Then ramp it right back up as they try and finish negotiations. However, you can't do this trick too often — and generally never at a climax of a story, only of a scene. You want to use it to break up moments of high drama but not take over the drama. Good rule of thumb: 1 every 4 dramatic scenes.

You should also look to use this to spice up any downtime. I'm a big believer of the rule: if nothing is happening, blow something up. So whenever my party has downtime and they aren't actively pursuing interesting things, I'll make something go wrong they have to deal with. You don't have to do that though: Alice has gift-wrapped you all the trouble you could potentially want. Just point her at the interesting-looking thing and let the chaos happen.

Lastly, if she does something impulsive when you aren't setting it up, try to make it fit the story beats. If things have generally been going well when she does something, now is a great time to have the consequences be a bit more dire. Alternatively after they handle it they immediately find that “bad thing” has happened and they need to prepare for some serious doings ahead. On the flip side, if things have been going bad, this becomes a light hearted incident that the characters themselves should find themselves smiling at. Or, after they are done cleaning up and are furious at the delay, a bit of good news they've been waiting on appears. Try to use it as a catalyst to hit the next story beat. Alice is acting as an embodiment of chaos — in almost any written story that means she will be a symbol of change. While RPGs don't benefit as much from symbolism, if they can follow the same tropes with it they will benefit greatly.

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Alice's random actions can have unforeseen positive consequences. The player characters have the advantage of surprise. (Enemy) NPCs are baffled and make mistakes that help the party; e.g.:

The player characters are having difficulties finding the enemy spy. Alice suddenly decides to drink a potion at the banquet. A servant gasps and speaks to Baron X "master, that stupid wench drank the poison for the duke; I was our last batch, you know how hard it is to smuggle it across the border.

The player discover that Baron X is the spy they were looking for. Alice shines. Alice now must somehow be saved from the poison.

The random actions of a player provide lots of opportunities for 'Deux ex machina'-like actions where the gamemaster can help and/or give clues to the players when they get stuck, miss vital clues, or are in over their heads. While at the same time allowing random player's character to shine and hiding the dissatisfactory gamemaster intervention.
Ofcourse, you should use this in moderation; unless you want everyone to act random and crazy when they encounter some obstacles.

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Alice's behaviour could be considered a viable strategy, and the contrast with more careful and methodical characters can actually be good for the story, after all the mismatched partners trope is pretty common in crime drama.

There is also a big difference between one player not taking the game seriously and a role-playing a character who doesn't take life seriously and it is certainly possible for a character to be irresponsible and reckless while the player controlling them respects the game and opther players.

The way to make it work in the story is to set up situations where there is a good balance between risk and reward so actions come up which potentially speed up or short cut the investigation but carry significant danger.

For example if you think a drink has been poisoned you could either spend a day analysing it or you drink it and find out instantly but there is a chance that if it is poisoned you go blind for 48 hours. This way you get to spell out the risk vs reward in-game and there is a genuine choice between care and risk-taking. Also a penalty which incapacitates the character for a while physically reigns in their ability to be reckless so they are forced to be more considered for a while. Similarity having serious but temporary consequences which actually happen are more interesting for the story than a vague threat of death or forcing a character to behave in a certain way.

Also if Alice's actions have an equal chance of being spectacularly successful or failing catastrophically she should, on average make the same contribution as the more careful characters while still being able to play the way she wants. You can either let chance decide this or effectively use Alice as an unwitting vehicle to advance the story. For example even if she gets the party thrown in jail they could end up meeting another prisoner who has a vital clue. Equally if she is doing something plainly ridiculous she is also giving you the opportunity to slow her down for a while.

If you give Alice opportunity to take calculated risks with potential rewards for the whole group everybody gets what they want and Alice may be less inclined to be reckless just for the sake of it.

Subjecting a character to reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions need not take away from their agency and isn't at all the same thing as punishing them for not following your story. How far you want to flag up risky actions is up to you (ie 'are you sure you want to drink this unknown potion in the black bottle with a skull on the label ?'. But saying 'you drink the mysterious potion and are immediately wracked with burning pain' shouldn't be a hugely surprising outcome and is very different from 'you decide to take the path heading north, you fall in a pit trap and die'.

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First, you need to know why Alice is doing this?

Possibility 1: she likes the attention and adding humor to the situation. If this is the case, then there is a disconnect between the goals of the party and the GM (conduct a serious game) and Alice and, depending on how it's affecting the fun of the players (don't fix it if it's not broken), this should be discussed with Alice outside the game.

Possibility 2: she gets bored and needs to be doing something. In my current game, there is a female druid who has a very low self discipline. Every time the group stops to strategize (either in-character or meta gaming), she looks for something to do. She might steal a book, or see what's behind that door over there or drop a pebble down that well. The rest of the group might notice her or not (depending on a perception roll). She often moves the plot along when the rest are paralyzed by indecision. What this accomplishes with my group is that strategy sessions are noticeably shorter and, to me, this is a good thing.

Is your group spending too much time talking about things and not enough time doing them? If so, eventually, you may find that an equilibrium is reached between Alice's method of play and the rest of the party.

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