Remarkably baffling to me is that “drop a rock on them” still exists as a piece of advice regarding the relationship Game Masters have to their players in RPGs. You can see the same passive-aggressive and maladjusted responses to situations in games all over gaming forums and blogs and over all kinds of issues. They often revolve around D&D, mostly because D&D has a lot of mechanisms that can create adversarial relations between the GM and the players, whether they’re intended to or not, like alignment (and any mechanics attached) and the one-sided and very binary resolution mechanic (players roll but the GM solely interprets and decides). You’ve all heard stories about “making” Paladins fall for not playing how you think they should; about taking away the party’s equipment to “teach them” a lesson; taking away spells or powers to “see what they do” without them or to “disrupt” their preferred play styles. This is all terrible advice, and terribly prevalent, and I feel, actively toxic to the community as a whole.
I like to think that people who play roleplaying games together can do so as friends. Most Roleplaying games are collaborative in nature. There is no game that is larger than the sum of the individual’s contributions to it. Every person who plays with you should be important, and there should be trust between you, or else problems arise. I know that this is not always the case – sometimes you play with people who are genuinely disruptive, or who’ve set out to mess things up. I know because when I was a kid I was that guy. But I would’ve either tried talking to me, or kicked me out of my games, rather than take all that advice. I don’t think any of that advice is effective when dealing with problems in the game, and just compounds them.
Passive aggressive solutions within the game seem to more often result from simple differences. I hardly ever hear a story where I think “that player is being genuinely disruptive.” The Paladin acting out of alignment is not reason enough to think the player is trying to disrupt the game. Alignment is an interpretative morass, especially where Paladins are concerned, and both new players and fairly advanced players can be confused when alignment starts to butt into what’s otherwise a fairly straightforward game of fantasy exploration and interaction. This is the time to open the lines of communication after the game and ask the Paladin what’s going on, clear up any confusion, and tell them what you envisioned out of the game. Not what you want, or what you like, because the game is not all about you – tell them what your expectations were coming in, and explain why you would be more comfortable with a different behavior from them. You shouldn’t be tyrannical, but understanding. Listen to what they say back to you.
Similarly there is no lesson you can “teach” the players by actively twisting the game mechanics against them. You’re the GM, congratulations, you exercised unlimited power to overturn the table and scatter all the character sheets into the air. It’s essentially what you’re doing. What you’re doing is further compounding that an adversarial relationship does exist between the players and the GM – that the game is about each party trying to subvert or overcome the other instead of working together. If you gave them too big a sword, you can say “hey, I messed up, can we dial that back down to like a +2 sword?” and explain yourself calmly. The game’s rules don’t have a “no take-backsies” provision, this is all a fiction you’re creating.
If they’re using the same powers over and over – well, what do you care? Your side of the game is under control. You have your monsters and your traps and so on, and they have variety. If the players find it fun, why stop them? And if you feel bored with their play, if it’s really a problem you’re facing, you should talk to them. Explain yourself. Calmly! You should also be willing to listen to their side as well. Roleplaying games thrive on communication, I can’t stress enough how important it is. I really wish someone had told me I could just talk to the players about things and resolve them like adults, because it would have made a lot of my games as a teenager legitimately better. It’s like night and day when I realized the power of just communicating openly and communicating in good faith about the game, the story and the characters.
And if it’s truly impossible for you to communicate to players, then it’s time to rethink the group. Do you really want to play with people who only collaborate with you when you coerce them into doing so? That’s not healthy, and I’m willing to bet you get far more kickass games out of a group that wants to play with each other in good spirits, than one where everyone is trying to slip out from under everyone else, kept together only by the hanging sword of damocles. It can be hard finding new players, I know. And it can be difficult to tell people that you might know and might even see in real life often that things aren’t working out. But they’re players in a game, trying to have fun. And I don’t see how you can have fun getting into real life conflict all the time. I have friends who are great friends but I probably wouldn’t invite them to play RPGs with me.
But who knows? Maybe some people really like that stuff. I think it’s pretty noxious, though.