by Mike Shea on 6 December 2010
The hardest part of running a great D&D game is finding a great group. Getting five people together who all have the same drive for D&D that you do is a daunting challenge. Even harder than finding players is making sure you found the RIGHT players. A single disruptive player can ruin an great gaming group. Today we're going to talk about how one selects players and, in particular, how you might go about interviewing potential players for your game.
Why do you need to interview players?
Interviewing potential players sounds like the ultimate in snobbery. Who are you to determine which players should and should not come into your elitist game? Yes, this could be seen as snobbery but I propose that such an act leads to a better game for all of the players involved, including yourself, the potential players, and even those you might reject.
Find a venue for the interviews
There are a few ways to interview players to determine if they're good for your group. One way is simply inviting them out to lunch. Let them know you're putting together a gaming group and wanted to see if they are interested. Let them know you'd like to take them out to lunch to talk about the game, their gaming experiences, and see where it goes. At worst, the potential player gets a free lunch and at best, you both help establish or reinforce a good gaming group.
Another way to interview players is to play with them. Invite them for a one-shot adventure away from your normal game. Bring along a player you trust to the game as well so you have an alternative opinion on how well the potential player fit the game. Try playing with a potential player at a local game shop or an RPGA game.
Third, and most risky to potential hurt feelings, invite them into your regular game on a trial basis. Let them know you need a player for a couple of sessions only and have them come in. If they work out, you can always extend it. If they don't, you can let them know the sessions are up.
These venues can all work together as well. Start with the lunch-time interview. Than either set up a one-shot game or watch them play at a local RPGA game. If that all works out, invite them to join in a couple of your regular games and see how it goes.
What to watch for
When you're at a lunch interview or face-to-face conversation with the potential player, here are a few questions you might ask. What game systems have they played and what are they interested in? What games do they like outside of table-top gaming? Which do they like more, roleplaying or tabletop combat? Ask them to talk about some of the most fun games they've had in the past. Ask them to talk about what they liked and didn't like with previous game masters.
When they're answering these questions you want to look for a few things. Are they giving you room to talk? Are they too loud or too quiet? Do they seem to really enjoy talking about gaming? Do they criticize a lot of other players or DMs? If they seemed to have a problem with a lot of other players or DMs, that probably means they are the problem. Are they talking over you or dominating the conversation? Do they seem to focus more on story or mechanics and which do you think best fits your game? Beyond any specific check list of questions, you should feel, down in your gut, whether you like the person or not. If you don't, don't try to convince yourself that you're wrong. Like Malcolm Gladwell writes about, you have 10,000 hours worth of time meeting and getting to know people. Trust your instincts.
If you're actually playing a game with the potential player, here are some triggers to watch out for. Does the potential player attempt to dominate the table or does he or she sit back and let others have a turn in the spot light? Are they argumentative or do they accept the DM's decision? Do they like the campaign setting and rule set you're using or do you feel they are constantly looking for the next system? Do they get along with the rest of your players? Do they fit the style of your game whether it's a heavy roleplay game or a battle-focused game? Do you think they're cheating? Cheating at all, on its own, should likely be a deal breaker. Are they more loud or obnoxious than you or your group can take? Are they happy and enjoying the game?
Don't go away mad, just go away
Hopefully this has led you to find a player who fits well into your group but maybe, during this process, you found a potential player that you don't think will fit. How can you turn them away without hurting their feelings? An honest approach might be best. You might tell them you don't think they're a great fit for your style of game. Don't get into specifics or you will sound like you're criticizing. Just send them an email or call them on the phone later and tell them you don't think its going to work out. The earlier you do this, the less pain for everyone.
If you aren't comfortable with such a direct approach, the above three methods of interviewing a player all have safety nets built in. If, after the lunchtime interview, you don't think the player is going to work out, tell them the game group you planned to put together didn't really work out but you'll keep them in mind if something ever formulates. It's a white lie but it won't make them feel bad.
With the one-shot game or the local RPGA games, you really don't have to do anything to get rid of them. Just don't have another one-shot game with them or don't invite them into your home game after seeing them at the RPGA group.
If you've had them join you as a substitute for a couple of games, simply tell them you won't have room at the table next time and thank them for subbing in for those couple of games. Again, let them know if a spot opens up later for them (remember, it's an open spot FOR THEM which will likely never open) you'll let them know. Again, a white lie, but easier than simple rejection.
Whatever pain you have to go through to turn away a potential player you don't think will fit is far better than trying to get rid of one once they've joined your game. It is a lot harder to get rid of them when they're in than it is to turn them away before they join. Take the time and take the pain to do it as soon as you can.
Getting rid of a bad egg
Let's say you've failed at that, though. Let's say you have a player in your group that really isn't working out. How do you get rid of them? This is a really tough problem and is the reason you will want to interview players in the first place. It happens, though, and it needs to be taken care of before your whole group implodes.
First, you can confront them. Tell them right out that his or her participation isn't working out for the game. Tell them you don't think the game you're running is right for them (it's not you, it's me).
Second, and more sly, break up the group and reform it without them later. If you are in the same social circles, this might end up being impossible as they are very likely to find out you're running a new game without them. Even still, it might be easier to deal with that when they do find out by telling them you're running a game that you don't think they would enjoy.
Third, you could pass leadership of the group to someone else at a different location and become a player. When that has solidified, you can take it back over at a later date. This is similar to breaking it up and reforming, but you're doing it far away.
Building a great gaming group takes effort
No one likes to deal with these sort of social and interpersonal games. It isn't fun and it isn't the reason you want to run games. If you want the best game possible, however, you want to make sure you have the right people at the table. This means taking time and effort to properly vet potential players to make sure they are the right people for the game you want to run. Do this early and it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Three D&D books cover a lot of ground on player personality types and give you a lot of potential material when interviewing players. If you enjoyed this article, consider picking them up using these links. Page 8 and 9 of the original 4e Dungeon Master's Guide has a lot o detail on different player motivations, what they want, and what they likely won't want. Keep these in mind as you're talking to potential players. Does their motivation fit what you want to give as a DM?
Page 26 of the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has some excellent questions you might keep in mind when talking to a potential player. Look beyond their answers to the emotions and subtext of the presentation of their answer. For this reason, you cannot interview potential players with email. You have to meet them in person.
Page 158 and 159 of the Player's Strategy Guide gives advice for players on how not to be a jerk. The specific suggestions it offers are excellent things to look out for and even to mention to your potential player. When you're watching a potential player play, keep a mental tally if they repeatedly violate these rules.
You can also learn more about running a great D&D game from Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips.
If you already own these books, you might consider supporting this site by bookmarking this link to Amazon or picking up the new Beholder Collectors Set from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.