Behind the Screen: Pet Players?

2010 February 2
by Dante

Have you ever been playing in a game where there was one member of the group always got a little extra treasure or a bit of circumstantial luck that kept them out of harms way?  Perhaps this person was a significant other or spouse of the DM, or maybe they were a long-present player in the group… but any way you shake it you may be looking at The Pet Player.

Perception or Reality?

Does this actually happen?  Yes.  Does it happen in my campaigns?  Not on purpose.

I usually structure any significant damage dealing encounter in a fashion where player actions will determine who gets the brunt of the badness, but in the case of a battle with ignorant opponents I tend to let proximity to the bad guys or randomization (i.e. a die roll) to determine who gets hurt.

That is fair, isn’t it?

Only if you’re making it obvious to your players that you’re using a die roll to determine who gets the reaction.  The trouble with this mechanic is that patterns emerge, especially in small groups like most D&D adventuring parties.  This may be perceived by your players as favoritism or picking on a player, depending on if the die roll is awarding good fortune or bad.

One way that I cope with this problem is to use a cheat sheet to keep track of who the dice have chosen for good or bad results.  This way I can selectively skip someone if they’ve been randomly selected too many times.  Does this eliminate the value of using dice in the first place?  Some people may say yes, but I’d rather use a mostly fair 90% random, 10% fudged process than have a discussion why the same person got attacked 4 out of the 5 last rounds by the bad guys until they were a bloody pulp.  When real life feelings get hurt, then you’ll wish you had fudged something, I promise!

What happens if there really is favoritism going on?

Well, its hard for me to answer this question.  I’ve had the good fortune of not experiencing this problem personally, although I did participate in a few campaigns where certain characters were made much more significant in the plotline than others, which tends to erode party dynamics in a very “un-fun” way.  When this occurs, you can either choose to talk about it to the DM or just go with it if it doesn’t bother you that much.  I tended for the latter approach and it turned out to be a very fun game to participate in despite the extra-special treatment for certain characters.

Has this happened to you?  Have you been a pet player or been in a campaign with one?  What was it like, and how did it resolve?  Inquiring minds want to know!

9 Responses leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010

    Sometimes I feel like I am giving my husband too much plot, but it’s less a function of favoritism and more a function of time. He spends a lot more time with me than my other players, and we talk about the game a lot more. He gets very involved in his character, and when he’s coming up with all this great plot for himself, it seems just wrong to tell him no.

    Discouraging a player from coming up with the story for you seems self-defeating.

    In battle, though, I tend to pick on the squishier party members more. But that’s because they’re squishy. I like to hit things as much as my players do.

    I agree, though–if it bothers you, as a player, then communication is key. I hope if my other players ever have a great idea for their character, they know they can easily come to me to explain it, and we’ll make it happen.

    And in case they don’t know that, I’m going to go e-mail them right now.

  2. February 2, 2010

    I guess the worst it got for me was when my girlfriend kept on asking me to show a little favoritism just because we’re together. She was doing this more jokingly really, but I tended to punish her character a little bit because of it. However, it actually ended up in some very hilarious situations that everyone, herself included, enjoyed.

    I’ve also fudged some die rolls as well, just to keep players from feeling hurt or picked on. I remember one specific situation where the die rolls would have actually out-right killed a player’s char (everyone was still low-level at the time), but I modified the damage such that her char only fell unconscious and bleeding to death. The player was genuinely freaking out about already losing a character that she had put so much work into, back story included. So in the end, the character lived, and later on contributed into some very fun story arcs.

  3. February 2, 2010

    Jenny —

    I have something similar happening in my campaign. I’m currently out of the GM’s chair (our group generally has someone run for 3-4 months at a time, and then yield the spotlight) and in the interim I’ve been running play-by-email individual storylines for each player, as the PCs had reached a point in the story where they were able to go their separate ways. My husband has been much more active in pursuing that individual adventure arc, and since we live together we have more give-and-take about where to go with his character.

    A couple of the other players, seeing the steadily mounting log posts, have made comments about how much more has happened with his character. And two, having seen his character aiming towards taking on something that had been placed in the campaign world as a completely optional potential side-quest that has no connection to the main campaign arc — have said things that have led me to believe they sorta/kinda worry that he’s getting a juicy storyline and they aren’t. Thing is, he’s the one going after it, and every one of them has the option to do something similar — and with one exception (a player who simply moves more slowly), none of them are doing it.

    On the other hand, when I was running the weekly table-sessions, I tried to set up arcs that spotlighted each character in turn. And if anything, the “main” storyline is set up for a player other than my husband.

  4. February 2, 2010

    Bevin–yeah, you’ve pretty much described it pretty well. And I have compensated by fleshing out awesome destinies for everyone (or trying to, as you pointed out, not all the players are as forthcoming). It’s just harder to sit down with everyone the way I do with him to get all the really juicy details.

    Has anyone had any luck with those questionnaires that are sometimes recommended to help players develop their characters? Anytime I’ve seen them done, a lot of the answers come back way too brief to be of much use. That’s kind of how I feel sometimes with my players. I go “So you’re going to save all of your people against the plague that has cursed them for ages,” and the player is all “Ok. Sure.”

    Maybe I have a hard time gauging how much my players are enjoying their storylines, I dunno.

    Also, I find I don’t have to fudge many dice rolls. I have a genuinely hard time trying to kill my players. They’re a little too resourceful sometimes 😛

  5. February 2, 2010

    Seems like spouses and significant others are common elements of favoritism. 😉

    In my case, some reverse-favoritism has happened on occasion in the campaign that my girlfriend is running. In this campaign I’m generally in charge of designing some encounters and assigning treasure, though I’m out of the loop with regards to plot.

    However, my character tends to take a backseat simply because making his motivations drive the plot would create the appearance of favoritism. In recent sessions, the rest of my group has not been very proactive, and it addles me sometimes because I want to go, “Screw this prophecy stuff! Imma goin artifact hunting in Xendrik,” so I don’t have to deal with them plodding around, but I know that would seriously wreck the telling of the story.

    Simply put, I feel like my character is being cheated of what he wants to do simply because my girlfriend and I are deliberately casting the spotlight away from him.

  6. February 3, 2010

    Matthew —

    My husband’s similar feeling about his character being “support” for a main storyline that focused on someone else was part of what drove him to leap at the opportunity to have an individual story arc when the party went their separate ways at the end of my last run. Some time is going to pass, and things happen off-screen, before events will conspire to bring them back together again. Until then, the focus is no longer on the main storyline and the involvement of the other player I mentioned, and he can do whatever he wants. He chose the side-quest that has been present in the game since day one, but that never really engaged any of the other players. (Just as an aside, he’s not getting extra XP for this, because I don’t want to unbalance his character in comparison to the others — he just gets to develop lots more relationships with NPCs, and a richer background for his character.)

    All of the others have real life reasons for not moving things as quickly — the guy who has a really busy social life; the guy who works two jobs; etc. But I’m not going to put the brakes on one character’s individual story just because the other players aren’t moving things along.

    I don’t know if that is a feasible option for you and your wife, to do something on the side with the same character that doesn’t directly impact the main storyline that everyone else is working on. But it is working out quite well for us.

  7. February 3, 2010

    Jenny —

    I’ve had little luck with the questionnaires, beyond perhaps eliciting some NPC relationships or locations that I can use as possible hooks for things. Some players come through with some really interesting and useful things — and I’ve found that happens if the players have had the opportunity to settle into the character for a while first.

  8. February 3, 2010

    Exactly so. It’s a year into this campaign, and only now am I starting to get an idea of how to tug the strings of people’s characters, because only now do they have enough character to tug around.

    I think it’s time to arrange one on one conversations with my players, just to help flesh out who they are and where they see themselves going. Maybe that’s the problem with questionnaires–they’re like a quiz on your own character, one for which you haven’t really studied. I think it’s much better to start an actual conversation, instead.

    Which is why my husband gets all this plot. He and I have too many actual conversations in comparison to the others. About time I started making time for them, too…

    And not to wholly threadjack from the original topic, I’ve seen reverse favoritism too. My best friend totally admits he’s actually meaner to his wife in game, specifically because he doesn’t want to be seen as favoring her. It’s a fine line to walk when loved ones are involved.

  9. February 3, 2010

    Jenny –

    As Bevin’s husband, maybe I can give some input from the other side.

    email is your friend. A year in, you should be able to toss some of the questions from a questionnaire at your players. My three best gaming experiences came about because I was able to communicate things to my GM out of game. Two were with my wife, one with one of our DM’s when we were working together. It’s kind of a poking and prodding issue, I think.

    As for whether I am a Pet Player, I don’t think so, though I may be a little biased. From the beginning of the campaign, I had been interested in one of the dangling hooks my wife left out there, but I had created a character that would have had no reason to follow it. My wife gave me a reason in game, so now I am heavily invested in it and working towards it and it looks like I might be a Pet.

    But the other players didn’t look at the setting and pick something that they found interesting, so am I really a Pet because I did? Just because I am the DM’s spouse? I think as long as the PC and NPC’s are being played faithfully (to their personalities and abilities), there shouldn’t be any problem. If one player takes more time to play (such as in email or private notes) then so be it.

    Unfair bonuses and advantages should be avoided, though. We have a player who physically can’t use email much, so he shouldn’t be punished or left behind for that. We have other players who work overnight hours and so don’t have the same amount of time to email, and they shouldn’t be left behind, either. So my character gets to interact with the setting more, but he gets no OOC bonuses (XP, money, magic) that the others don’t get. And I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS