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Related: What kind of rules promote good team cohesion? Unlike that question, this one is about problem players, not problem character personalities.


There is a group of good friends who I regularly play Pathfinder with who have trouble working as a team. I am a player in this game, not the GM. There is very little team cohesion in-game: everyone tends to want to do their own thing, all at the same time, and combat rarely has any cohesive strategy.

From my observations, our team has three major problems:

  1. Talking over the top of one another. I have never played a session where people weren't trying to make their voices heard above everyone else (there are 4 players) fairly regularly. I consider myself a good listener, but the rest of the team are not. We (myself included) often don't listen to the GM carefully enough either. We once tried a talking stick approach, but it didn't even last a whole session.
  2. Technology. Of the 5 people, 4 bring a variety of devices to the table (myself included). 2 of us have our character sheets on Excel and our GM uses a tablet in conjunction with a book. I am guilty of often looking at Facebook when it's not my turn in combat* and another player is constantly looking up rules to contradict the GM on. Even the GM is sometimes looking at something unrelated on their tablet. The obvious solution here is to get rid of the tech, but one of the aforementioned players will kick up a fuss if this is attempted as he is very adamant that he prefers a digital character sheet to a paper one. We also often need one to reference a rule on the wiki.

  3. Inexperienced GM. Our GM has played on-and-off for a few years, but he does not have a good grasp of the rules. Adequate, certainly, but significantly less than all 4 players. We're using an official adventure module for our current game, but I get the impression he only gives it a quick skim before each session rather than properly preparing. This is unlikely to change as he is less committed to the game than the players.

*Combat tends to be slow because not everyone is prepared for their turn, either because they weren't paying attention or are still just working on a strategy. Usually the former.

The only other noteworthy item is that I might be the odd one out. I'm actually not sure whether any player other than me is bothered by the lack of teamwork. The GM also is, but he resigned himself to it a long time ago rather than trying to be proactive.

What are some ways I could encourage the group to work better together as a team? I would appreciate any ideas or suggestions that address the above three points.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A player constantly uses his mobile phone during our game session is possibly a duplicate of point (2), except that it's from the perspective of the GM. The fact that one point out of three may be a duplicate may indicate that this should be three questions; on the other hand, the overall question is about team formation and those may just be the contributing factors. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 28 '16 at 0:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie The reason I have made them one question is because they all contribute to a single issue, they aren't three separate issues. There is also much more to #2 than just inappropriate tech usage. Apologies if this was the wrong way to ask the question. \$\endgroup\$ – StarDart Jul 28 '16 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ How long has this been going on? A few sessions or longer? Have you approached the group about this? Generally these types of questions are immediately answered with "Talk to people" type responses \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Jul 28 '16 at 1:03
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1. Talk to the group.

With issues involving group dynamics; people not listening, doing their own thing, disregarding others etc., this is usually best handled by discussing the issue with the group. You mentioned you tried the "talking stick" - which is a good idea; but you have to enforce it. Some ways to do this might be:

  • Get a physical object to hold. Something unique like a small(ish) ball - small enough so that it doesn't get in the way, but big enough so it's noticeable. Don't use an object like a pencil or ruler - these will likely be discarded/ignored in the case that more than one person may have one.

  • Remind the group to use the mechanic. Get one person (perhaps the GM, or you, being the one who notices this issue the most) to remind the group of the "talking stick". This is probably something you want to discuss with the group, because it will turn into nagging. But if the group welcomes the idea, it will help to ingrain the mechanic into the group.

2. Turn off the WiFi. (Or turn on airplane mode)

This can help two-fold. If someone absolutely needs to double check something, talk to the group, maybe even call a quick vote, then turn the internet on to check the rules. That way, people won't be distracted, everyone will be involved, and no one is contradicting anyone. This will also help with people getting distracted and not paying attention.

3. Employ a 2IC (Second-In-Command)/Assistant GM

The fact that other people in the room are contradicting others, shows that the players may have more skill than the GM (This is an assumption). If this is the case, employing a 2IC can help the GM understand and learn the system/rules better. In my experience, as a player there are times when new players are attempting to learn the rules, the more experienced players have one of two approaches:

  • Being blunt - When a new player does something (wrong), some players immediately snap at them and say "No! It's (x) not (y)! Write it down!" This is never helpful. It makes the new player feel inadequate, or frustrated because the more experienced players are not allowing for their lack of knowledge, which usually leads to players ignoring the advice.
  • Assisting - Allowing for a player's lack of knowledge is the better approach, as there is no conflict of interest. The player wants to learn, and the more experienced players can teach. If you assign one person to teach the new guy, you'll get less of a reaction from the whole group, because it's no longer everyone's responsibility. Additionally, the new player will be more accepting of the advice, and be more likely to listen in future. You may still get a comment or two, but only when the 2IC gets something wrong, in which case it'll only be a reminder.

All in all I believe the main issue is the fact that everyone is detached from the experience - distracted by the internet/devices what-have-you.

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All three parts of the question are really just parts of the same problem.

There are several things to do.

First: Read Ben's answer. (I'll admit I borrow a lot from it.)

Discuss all of those things with the group.

  • Introduce the subject.

    "Guys and girls, before we start tonight, I think we need to take a few minutes to discuss how we can all work together better as a group."

(and describe it a little bit.)

  • Get a reaction to it.

    "What do you guys think about this, does anyone else feel that focusing more on the play would improve our overall enjoyment? Or do you all like the way things are now?"

You will probably find a few things...

  1. Everyone thinks it's a good idea, and it would be great to improve teamwork.

  2. No one thinks that what they are doing is really contributing to the problem.

  3. This applies to you too, "looking at facebook when it isn't my turn." If one person is doing it, this gives all the other players permission to do it also. And if none of the players are focusing, why should the DM either?

Based on the reaction, now you have a direction to proceed, as a group.

If the group doesn't really care as a whole, just stop here. They're more or less content with the way things are, and aren't really going to be interested in putting in a bunch of effort to change.

If, as I suggested they probably will above, the group agrees that improving things in this direction would be a good thing, then discuss how to implement them.

A "permission to talk" item.
The magic stick/rock/ball/beanie baby/funny hat/whatever. The person holding it has the right to speak to the DM, and everyone else should remain quiet. Yes, maybe it sounds a little childish, but so does a group of adults each trying to out-shout the other.

Bad technology.
Not all technology is bad. I mean here we are on this internet right now, trying to help each other right? However, there are times and places for it, and times and places where it does not help.

Turn off the internet during the game. Whether you actually turn the wifi off, or simply have everyone turn on "airplane mode" depends on the group, and who else is using the same wifi network. But making sure that no one at the table uses internet is important. No facebook, imgur, silly cat videos, etc. for anyone at the table. This includes any other kinds of games as well.

Some people prefer a digital character sheet. I'm one of them. This is not an excuse to let the distracting technology keep being in the way. A digital character sheet can be saved as a local file, so it can be accessed without internet.

I also prefer digital rulebooks whenever possible. One laptop is so much lighter than dozens of rulebooks. Also, physical books don't have a search function to make rules lookup easier.

Don't turn the internet back on for a rules question. If you can't find it in the books at hand, within about 5 minutes (many groups would feel even this is too long) then have the DM make a ruling on the spot. Make it understood that this is a one-time ruling, and when the proper rule is found after the session that it will be used going forward. But, more important right now is to keep the session moving. If the rule is so obscure that it can't be found within a few minutes, then it is probably not significant enough to really affect the overall scene. Much of this is also "player preparedness". If you're going to use obscure rules as part of your character idea, then it's up to you to know where those rules are found.

Learning the rules.
This is important. The DM needs to understand that they have a larger job than just "show up and play". Even players need to do a little homework, like updating their characters between sessions if they've leveled up. The DM needs to spend time planning ahead to understand what will be coming up, and possibly reading up on rules for likely occurrences if they aren't familiar with those rules yet. Even when they're running a pre-made adventure, they need to read ahead and check the relevant rules to get ready.

Planning ahead during the game.
If everyone uses the time between their turns to stop and think about what they want to do on their next opportunity, and follows along with what is currently happening, turns will naturally speed up. Paying attention follows along as a natural progression from not being distracted.


If your group is willing and ready to take steps towards a more cohesive play experience, you can all work together to make it happen.

And, having started a trend of discussing a problem to resolve it, you can continue that behavior when/if other problems come up in the future.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for reminding us that everyone is part of the problem/solution. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Jul 29 '16 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I also like your suggestion to keeping the internet off. This gives the GM the authority they deserve. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Jul 29 '16 at 0:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ In honesty, I would have PDF rulebooks with me, even as a player (or whatever they are come as). A consistent experience is important to me, and usually, "by the book" is the easiest way to do that. But we're here to play the game, not do a research project, right? Just make a ruling, and look it up later. If it takes more than a couple of minutes to find, it's probably pretty minor overall. Besides, much of the blame is typically on the player here; if you're going to use obscure rules with your character, it's your business to know where to find them. \$\endgroup\$ – tzxAzrael Jul 29 '16 at 6:48
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Though I basically agree with other answers, I will suggest other approaches:

Stop playing pathfinder

Most of your problems (2 and 3) seems to come from the complexity of the rules, either because the DM don't know them well enough to keep the pace interesting or because players always have things to check. Pathfinder's rules are among the most complex ones I know. Simply choose a simpler system, or one your GM knows better.

Rotate GMs

A player who have never GMed before can lack some empathy toward the GM. With a bit of experience as a GM it is easier to tell when the GM is waiting for players to talk and when he has a speech to do and don't want to be interrupted. Of course it may not completely solve the problem, but it can't harm trying.

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  1. People Skills cannot be taught, only learned through experience.

There is no magic bullet to learn all the myriad of social cues and conventions of group communication to prevent talking over each other. You will simply have to learn the hard way, you have to play the game and everyone will have to keep their wits about them to the subtle cues of when to interject if ever. Playing round table games where you have the complexity of so many interactions and role-play on top is how you develop such communication skills.

People in real life don't need a talking stick, they learn to collaborate. But part of that is learning hierarchy, one accepted hierarchy is that when the GM talks, everyone shuts up and listens. But beyond that, people need to look up and learn to read their friends, it's the little things like telling when they've got a brief funny interjection or want a moment to be a badass without being interrupted half way through.

This is where the GM can very much be the conductor or the session, a GM must learn to leverage his authority to control for tensions and rowdiness. But always in a benign way. If a GM abuses their position of power to scold and talk down to them then he will end up with an empty table. When I mean guide the conversation I mean use interruption powers to invite someone to speak.

I am dead set the idea of a "talking stick" that is not how you learn to communicate like functional adults.

  1. People won't ignore an engaging game.

This is entirely down to the GM, if the GM keeps every member of the group engaged with the game then they aren't going to be checking out to some other distraction. This is hard but it is part and parcel of the game, taking away their distractions and locking them in to be compelled to pay attention will be a poor compromise.

This is an answer that can go on forever as it's essentially the entire art of Gamesmastering. It's like if people in a movie theatre are looking at their phone rather than at the movie... the director should just make better movies. Easier said than done. You may be able to do this as GM, you may just need to give the GM a metaphorical kick in the pants to make things more exciting.

But it's not just about the higher stakes, but broader stakes, all the time every character has something to do.

If the GM is lagging, take the reigns and start making your own story and in character be the entertainment. Do your best Zapp Brannigan impression and riff on your character, inviting others to get in on the riff. If the GM is unsure where to take the plot have your character loudly interject with a hair brained yet humorous scheme. Start wild speculation as to what the plot of the GM's story actually is make what is going on in the game actually be relevant.

It should obviously go without saying that this is ironic. In absolutely no way should a PC hysterically speculating in a silly way (just to bring some levity to the table) should actually mean the GM should take such a tale as the literal understanding of the player. Especially not that the case that the GM should then make the story go that way just because he wrongly thinks that the player thinks that's the way it is. It's just buying some time for the GM to get their act together while the PCs kick their heels and the GM can get a humorous what-if scenario.

  1. The only way for the inexperienced to become experienced is through... experience.

The only way to get better at being a GM is to actually run games. Progress will be slow only if they don't learn from their mistakes and that seems to be the problem. If they haven't learned the rules and haven't prepared enough (or prepared too much and railroading) they need to learn from this.

I had a GM who could rarely take criticism, they did not tend to see mistakes as a GM as a learning experience but a personal sleight against their character. This is an utterly poisonous idea and should never be allowed to take hold, every GM must be willing to see their inadequacies and always strive to improve.

It's not like they crashed a plane or something, a fun gaming session simply wasn't that awesome as it could have been. It's not a disaster. Remember, feedback isn't telling the GM how to be a GM, but it is the players telling them what they did and didn't like. It's part of framing this the right way.

For example, it's not a "rules lawyer" to except consistency in understanding. Players have every right to feel frustrated if the GM isn't following the rules, since literally every decision the player characters make is filtered through what the rules allow. If the rules are being essentially made-up on the spot it's not really a game any more but a mess. So it is a legitimate complaint that the players are limited by the understanding of the rules by the GM being so different from the Player's understanding.

For example if the GM suddenly declares "standing up doesn't provoke an attack of opportunity" that's totally undermining their decision to double move right next to the big bad. They might as well have stayed well away from them in that case.

If the GM is not willing to commit to that then he or she should not be the GM. Someone else should be the GM. But anyone else who steps forward must be willing to commit, to learn from mistakes, listen to their players, to strive to manage the game and the social interactions. This is not going to be easy. But that's part of the fun.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I did not exclusively talk about the GM though the GM really really is the most important part of this. They are the Game MASTER. You cannot possibly argue to minimise their importance, you cannot refute that great GM's do not need to ban smartphones to ensure attention. Responsibility is mutual, people have no responsibility to feign interest in what is not interesting, GM has most control of excitement/engagement. The 'wild speculation' is supposed to be obviously ironic, I will clarify. Questioner said "he (GM) does not have a good grasp of the rules" I'm being reasonable in rules aspect. \$\endgroup\$ – TREB Aug 2 '16 at 14:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Firstly, I completely disagree that people skills cannot be taught, which is your first argument." Go on. What people skills can be directly taught? Don't tell me you're just going to say I'm wrong. I think I've explained myself well enough that subtle social cues cannot be directly taught, you need to learn. Please tell me WHY I am wrong, don't just say I'm wrong without explanation. \$\endgroup\$ – TREB Aug 2 '16 at 14:46

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