Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #3: Mind your Players’ Styles, Part 4 of 4

(This is my 900th post as the Chatty DM, nearly 5 years after I started back in late July 2007, chances are, Dave also posts his today. I’m very proud of our achievements as bloggers.)  

Welcome the last part of this series on helping DMs recognize what motivates their players to play RPGs and how they can make sure both DMs and players find what they seek. After the introduction in part one, I discussed how DMs can tweak adventure to address Power Gaming, Butt-Kicking and Tactics in part two. Part three was about  Specialty, Method Acting and Storytelling. This last part will talk about Lurking and Instigating. As a bonus, I’ll talk briefly about a my persistant pet-peeve, the Selfish player.



Watchers and Lurkers are easy to cater to, they are there to hang with friends and groove with the others, regardless of the activity. Your effort to meet their needs should not  so much focus at the gaming table as around it.

If you suspect that lurkers hide under your table, you should

  • Keep the game on the  lighter side of serious as you won’t likely get very deep commitment in the early sessions.
  • Allow some  “social unwinding” time before the game. Let players catch up with each others and chat about movies, hobbies,  families, etc. You should also plan a few breaks during the  game to allow such players to hang out without having to focus on the game all the time.
  • Be tolerant of the use of electronic devices, lack of focus or occasional out of game geeky conversations.
  • Be on the lookout for the evolution of the players, many stop lurking with time and become motivated by other aspects of the game.
Do not
  • Call on the players to take an active role, decision or a leadership position unless the player requested it.
  • Enforce strict adherence to table rules like speaking in characters or razor-sharp focus during combat. Please avoid any “you snooze, you lose” attitudes.
  • Encourage players with more dominant personalities to dictate, or more importantly, berate lurking players into adopting efficient tactics. Some lurkers are very comfortable doing basic attacks all session long*


The instigator is the nemesis of many DMs, always on the lookout for the one element that will unravel the DM’s carefully crafted plan. Just ask my friend Yan when I once managed to reach the end of a battlemap with my barbarian 1 round before it was scripted to explode and destroy a dragon’s hoard. Yet an instigator can also be your best ally to make things move at a healthy, breathtaking pace.

When players make you go “hmmm”, you should

  • Provide lots of hooks, clues, levers, buttons and figurative “Do Not Open” or “Don’t You Dare Touch This” signs all over your adventures
  • Put seemingly crazy dangerous elements in some encounters that end up saving everyone’s bacon when triggered
  • Be ready to have the social boundaries of the gaming group challenged. Stand as guardian of what is or isn’t acceptable behavior at the table

You should not

  • Treat instigators as enemies of your game. Instead harness their energy and impulsiveness to drive the action
  • Put dungeon combat encounters too close to each other so the instigator “accidentally” triggers them all at the same time
  • Prevent the actions of players from changing the planned outcome of an adventure, instigators will resent it

Bonus Content: The Selfish Player

A fellow reader left a comment on a previous post about another category of player: One that exploits the game to his own advantage. I tend to put such players in the same bin as those who hog the spotlight, argue endlessly to extract advantages for their PCs and generally are complete and total dicks. I think these shamelessly selfish players are the most toxic, fun-killing people you can have around a table, on both sides of the screen.

I wrote a very virulent post on them a while back. Were I to re-write it, I would likely be more diplomatic but my fundamental belief about dealing with them remains the same: don’t tolerate overly selfish behaviors at the table and kick recidivist out of your game ASAP.

But What About my Fun?

As I mentioned back in Part One, the key here is to marry your own style, which very likely overlaps with a few of your players, with that of the others by adding elements to encounters. Don’t overdo it and don’t try to please all players at the same time, therein lies madness and frustration for all. Rather, hit one player’s motivation here, two there and try as much as possible to cover everyone over the period of two sessions. This will improve your players’ enjoyment of the game tremendously and will lower the chances of your campaign fizzling out.

Here’s one last piece of advice, try to become more of a Lurker/Watcher yourself. You derive fun from creating worlds, fighting battles, building complex encounters and such. You can however derive true satisfaction by facilitating your players’ fun. Witness  how much pride and joy they get from overcoming your challenging encounters and interacting with your rich story hooks. I’ve had moments of pure joy where my players were deep deep in character for long minutes and all I had to do was observe them, arms crossed behind my head, nodding as they excitedly planned for the next scene.

Thanks for reading.

**I’ve found that many of the simpler basic attack -driven D&D Essential classes like the rogue and the fighter were great for lurking players.


  1. highbulp says:

    At my table, I’ve found Lurker-ism to be kind of contagious, particularly in the “tune out to use mobile devices thing.” Players come to the game to hang out with friends, but when its not their turn (or they’re not otherwise interested in what’s going on, because they’re only there to socialize) they retreat to the phone or computer and tune out. And for some reason–maybe because it’s being shown to be acceptable?–even the more active players start doing it as well.

    And when there’s even one player that is tuned out, it totally saps the energy of my table. Players find it hard to get up enthusiasm or come up with plans or ideas when a quarter of the party isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care. But more drastically, it saps my energy as a DM, since it looks like a quarter of my table isn’t having fun, which screams to me that I’m failing in my job of facilitating fun. And then I lose energy, burn out, and the whole thing falls apart.

    I don’t mind people that hang back and watch, and I’m great with tangents and social chit-chat taking over. But the “playing on the phone” thing drives me crazy, and I rather strongly ask people to leave those things alone while we’re supposedly playing.

    ((It’s worth noting that for our group, the lurkers eventually split off and have their own social gathering in the same room that we’re gaming. So everyone is hanging out, we just have a split of activities going on. So maybe it was just how our group dynamic worked out)).

  2. I understand where you come from and allowing (or disallowing) phones/lapstops/Ipads at the table is justifiable the majority of times. Especially if contagion sets in.

    But people who are drawn away from the table usually are because they aren’t being motivated to pay attention. That’s may be a sign of a disconnect between what the DM seeks and what the players want. But then again, if the split of activity occured and everyone is fine with it, it’s a win win.

    That being said, the reason why I’m not as rabid about phones (or knitting kits, or drawing pads…) is because I’ve gamed with people with significant social anxiety. I got the feeling that hanging around while having access to a side activity to retreat to when not required to act at the table was a way for them to feel more comfortable at the table. I may be wrong here, but my experience so far supports that theory,

  3. Excellent end to an awesome series of posts. I have a couple things to say on this one in particular.

    For Lurkers:

    Do not call on the players to take an active role, decision or a leadership position unless the player requested it.

    Agree completely. On the other side, however, it can pay off to occasionally ask if the player has any thoughts during decision-making. Never force it, and never single them out, but a general query can sometimes bring fantastic ideas that they weren’t comfortable sharing until invited.

    It is a fine line to walk, though. Be sure not to ask too often, and pay attention to the player’s behaviour. You can sometimes tell when they have something to add, but don’t feel like they’re welcome to speak while everybody else is.


    Regarding Instigators, of which I am one:

    As an instigator, I know I can tend to dominate what’s happening. Nobody is paying attention to the archer skillfully taking out orcs, while there’s a madman climbing the statue to grab its gemstone eyes. And sometimes this is ok, and cool.

    But I know it can get out of hand, especially when what’s going on isn’t being dictated by the combat round. Don’t be afraid to put what I’m doing on hold, no matter how cool or interesting it may seem, while you attend to what the other players are doing simultaneously.

    I don’t instigate to be in the spotlight, I instigate to make things happen. As long as I still get to make things happen (or fail to make things happen, which is fun too), I’m perfectly fine with waiting a few minutes and sharing my time.

    Also, this is kind of covered in the “acceptable behaviour” and “social boundaries” caveat above, but if you see me doing something that you know is going to short circuit something you had planned for another player, or will inadvertently ruin someone else’s fun? Stop me. Tell me to hold off on that, and later on maybe tell me why. It’s cool. I get that I push boundaries, and that you know better than me where those boundaries will intersect in-game.

    For example, let’s say Player A the Method Actor is having a great in-character moment, kneeling and praying at an altar to his deity. Let’s say that I’d climbed up the wall behind it to an alcove above, and found a trapdoor that I’m about to open. Tell me to stop, and let Player A complete his scene first, before I open the trapdoor and let a swarm of anrgy monstrous bees into the room.

    Also, make good use of “Are you sure you want to do that?” That single sentence lets me know instantly that what I’m about to do may have adverse affects on the group’s fun at this point in time. While I may still do it, I will probably wait for more buy-in from the group before I do.

  4. @Graham: Your comments on playing as an instigator are great. Good points to keep in mind if any DMs out there need to have “that talk” with their own instigator player.

  5. About the last part of this helpful post: I started one of Pathfinder Adventure Paths lately, and as I have many friends that wanted to join, I allowed my players to play whenever they want; so they can skip sessions, play on all of them – no big deal. The funniest and best roleplaying scenes are those, when someone skipped a game, and his PC is trying to find out what happened lately (“They did WHAT?!” “Are you serious?! I went to get some business done just for one day, and you did that?”) 😀 And one of the best, and longest serious RP scene took place in… an inn! Great ‘ol classics! And i just planned to give them around 15 minutes so their PCs could get to know each other… 😀 I did exactly the same thing that you wrote about – just sitting there and watching how they have fun with it after my few words of introduction 🙂

  6. Last paragraph sums it up quite nicely. Thanks for the read, Chatty.