Powerless player

There are situation in roleplaying game sessions when players are totally powerless because their characters are unable to act because they are incapacitated, separated from the group or in any other situation where the player is doomed to sit at the table unable to play. That’s a situation that in my humble opinion should be avoided at all cost. From my own experience I can recall at least two situations where my characters where unable to act for the majority of the session, so I was doomed to sit there and watch the others play. And I can tell you that it was no fun.

One of these situations occured in a game of “Vampire – The Masquerade”, where my character got caught by several ghouls of an enemy vampire. During a short struggle my character was incapacitated and I was in “torpor”. It took my fellow party members a whole gaming session to rescue my character, while I watched from the sidelines. That was some wasted Saturday afternoon, I can tell you. So, what can a GM to avoid something like this?

The easiest method is to ask the player in question not to show up for that session since it is unlikely that his character will be back on his feet during that session. That is of course not possible in any situation, since there could be some hope that the rescue (or recovery) is getting faster than expected, or when the event that took the player’s control over his character away happened at the beginning of a session.

Another way to occupy the player is to let him play one of the NPCs. In a lot of campaigns I have played in, there are usually a lot of NPCs that are friends, colleagues or acquaintances of the player characters that can be used as a replacement character until the original character is back in action. Or, if time permits, let the player create a new character that he can play until the situation is solved. Everything is better than let someone sit at the table with no task at all.

Some games recommend creating several characters for each players. Especially in games like “Call of Cthulhu” or “Chill”, where player character death or insanity is more or less common, it is advisable always to have some replacement handy. But this should always be the last resort in my opinion. In a roleplaying game everyone should have fun. And being in a totally powerless situation (as a player) or having to play a NPC is  not my idea of fun, so the GM should try to avoid such situations from the start especially if only some fumbled die roll doomed the player to become a spectator for the rest of the evening.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

3 thoughts on “Powerless player”

  1. IMO waiting for the cleric/medic to attend to a character in a combat situation can become boring but that's most often bearable. But I think real problems arise when for example one member of the group has to spend several days in hospital while the rest of the party continues in their quest.

    Another situation where the whole party sits bored around the table is when in Shadowrun the hacker (or decker as he was called before) hacks some computer system. The only way to make a situation like this more interesting for the whole group if you try to switch your attention between the two (or more) groups regularly.

  2. I just think, as a game master, you need to do your best to avoid those situations at all cost. No one like sitting there and doing nothing. Roleplaying shouldn't be like that class in school you wanted to sleep through but weren't allowed to.

    <abbr><abbr>Samuel Van Der Walls last blog post..No Mercy</abbr></abbr>

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