Long time back I met a guy with a talent. He was smart, charming and engaging, the kind of person who lights up a conversation, but that alone was not enough to really merit mention. No, what struck me was that he was able to take the spotlight that he created around him and direct it at others in the conversation without any apparent thought or effort. He could easily dominate conversations, but instead he brought others in, others who might not be as casually fluent as him, but who had something to say if you could get them comfortable enough to speak. He was subtle enough at it that it took me a while to notice he was doing it at all, but once I noticed, I could only marvel at it.
I decided that this was a skill I wanted to have. Not only was it something I considered genuinely admirable, I’m really interested in people, and helping smart, interesting people get comfortable enough to talk is something that I’m very selfishly happy to make happen. Over the course of several years, I’ve become decent at it. I doubt I will ever have that kind of fluid grace, but who’s to say?
This came back to me the other day in the context of discussion of what to do when a player freezes up at the table. This is a rough issue for gamers to address because it’s much more of a social issue than one of game mechanics or setting mastery. We often adopt a survival of the fittest approach to speaking and decision-making – if someone is not able to speak up for their position, then they obviously don’t care as much about it as the guy who’s chomping at the bit to shoot his mouth off.
This is infuriating crap. I like to hope that we’re playing games with either friends (who we would treat better than that) or strangers with a shared interest (to whom we have hopefully been taught to be polite), but I worry that we don’t always act that way. Not necessarily out of malice or jerkishness, but rather because we’re not always aware of what we’re communicating. So with that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about players freezing up, and what can be done at the table.
The freeze up itself usually occurs at one of two points – either the player is in a position to make a choice (such as what move to make) or they’ve been put on the spot. There are some similarities between these freeze ups, but they are slightly different beasts, and that’s going to come up in the response. For now, let’s look at the common ground:
The important thing to remember is that these are social games, and as in any social setting, people don’t like to look stupid. When someone freezes up on a choice, they are looking around the table at people who, to their mind, could easily make the right call if they were faced with this the same decision. The last thing they want to do is make a wrong call and look like a fool in front of their friends.
There’s an instinct that kicks in here for a lot of folks to try to solve the problem by offering advice. Sometimes its as blatant as declaring the right answer, but usually it’s couched a little bit more ‘subtly’ with reminders about rules or options. This is usually well intentioned, but it just makes the problem worse. Not only does it cheapen whatever decision gets made (because even if successful, the freezing player will attribute the success to the help) but it also reinforces the player’s sense that they’re the dunce at the table full of people who ‘get it’.
And that leads to the first rule of dealing with a freeze: Shut your pie hole.
Yes, I know, you just want to help, but just sit on that instinct for a while. If they have questions, then you can help out by answering them (briefly, please – don’t use a question as an opportunity to squeeze in your own advice) but keep it limited to that. And that leads to the second rule: A little patience won’t kill you.
I hate that I even have to say this one, but if your response to someone freezing up is to sigh, tap your feet or fingers or stare pointedly at them, you need to learn to not do that. Yes, you could do whatever they’re doing faster and better. That’s great. But you don’t need to convince anyone of that. Take the moment to check your character sheet or just chill. A game takes several hours to play; you can spare a minute or two.
Now, for all that it can be rough to be put on the spot for a tactical or game decision, that is at least a (hopefully) constrained set of options. Freezing up when presented with a roleplaying event or a broader decision introduces a new set of complications. Not only is there the existing stress about doing it right, there’s also an element of performance anxiety. They want to be interesting or funny or fun, and they don’t want to be the reason the game falls flat. When this happens, the advice for a tactical decision applies, but there’s also one more thing you can do, and this is the third piece of advice: Back their play.
Yes, they will probably make a decision different than you might, they might not quite nail the scene, but whatever. What’s important is how you respond to it. If you respond with nitpicking, or with workarounds to nullify or undermine that they’ve done, it’s going to be obvious. Instead, respond like it was the right idea, and you’ll find it usually works out to be. This may seem overly touchy-feely, but there’s actually a very cynical benefit from it – these decisions can take a game in genuinely unexpected directions, forcing you to play a little harder and better to make it work. That is to say, by helping the other player, you’re also creating the opportunity to raise your game.
I’ve made a lot of generalizations so far, and the last important thing to realize is that some of them are going to be wrong. People might freeze up for totally unrelated reasons, or respond well to different kinds of responses. And this leads to the last and possibly most important point: Don’t assume. Ask.
I don’t mean ask when they freeze – that’s just more pressure – but be willing to broach the topic in post-mortem discussion. Make it clear you saw the behavior, that you aren’t upset by it, but that you just want to talk about what happened and what can be done next time. Maybe it’ll be fruitful, maybe it won’t. People are quirky that way. But you will never know unless you ask.
So, those are the four quick and dirty rules for helping with a player freeze:
- Shut Your Pie Hole.
- A Little Patience Won’t Kill You.
- Back Their Play.
- Don’t Assume. Ask.
These won’t help with every problem at the table, but you’d be amazed how far they go.
1 – And that’s the generous interpretation. If this happens a few times, it is also possible for the player to conclude they’re at the table with a bunch of condescending jackasses. I hate to generalize, but this is a problem that female gamers run into a _lot_, with male players a little bit too eager to help. It’s usually well intentioned (though sometimes it is genuinely condescending assholery) but I’ve seen his behavior destroy games for many smart, awesome women because (shockingly) they would rather lose honestly than win because someone has told them what moves to make.
2 – This is, I know, an open door to “My guy wouldn’t do that” kind of responses, to which I can only shrug. If you aren’t creative enough to figure out a reason why your guy would, and if your purity of vision is so important that you don’t mind treating someone else badly, then I acknowledge this advice is not for you.