Monday, July 19, 2010


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'.[1]

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.[2] 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:
  1. Shut Your Pie Hole.
  2. A Little Patience Won't Kill You.
  3. Back Their Play.
  4. 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.


  1. More often than not, I find myself at a table with players who are awesome or just have that knack for knowing what to do, and I will freeze from time to time -- definitely a performance anxiety kinda thing. In one way or another, most of the folks I play with seem to have intuited your advice here, but it's really good to see it codified so clearly into 4 simple rules.

  2. We were having problems with this just yesterday. I think we didn't handle it _too_ badly, but I'm forwarding this post to the rest of the players (not the freezing guy) for future reference.

  3. The worst part for me - and I'm a confirmed freezer - is that I freeze in a very specific set of situations as a player (having a major solo speaking moment, in essence) but can handle it just fine as a GM.

    Go figure, right? It seems to work best if I just avoid playing the Face of the party.

  4. Thanks for writing about this topic. I've done it enough, I could probably write a book about freezing. I like your suggestions, particularly "saying yes (and)" to people's ideas. I get people throwing lots of ideas at me. Lately if I'm suffering brain freeze, I'm taking a suggestion I like most and running with it, not worrying as much that it's not mine. It seems better to keep things moving. I'm gradually freezing less as I learn how to have fun and not focus on "performing."

  5. @Sarah, I know what you mean. I have yet to freeze as a GM, but I've frozen many times as a player. When I GM, I basically view my job as follows, I create the beginning of a story idea (a hook) and I ask my players to help me flesh it out.

    While I have ideas of where the story goes, my ideas are no more important than theirs. This means, that when I GM, I'm helping them tell a story and I can't really do anything wrong as all pathways through the story are equally valid.

    However, when I play, I feel tremendous amounts of performance anxiety. Only I get to say how my character feels or thinks and I feel the pressure from the rest of the group to do "the right thing" even though as a relatively new player, I often have no idea what that is.

    As Rob mentioned, the players then often want to tell me what the right thing is rather than help me understand the world so I can make those decisions for myself. At that point, I might as well just hand over my character sheet and let them play her since they obviously know her better than I do :)

    A big problem for me is that I still don't really understand how to role play as a player (I play 4e D&D). There are lots of guidelines like don't be a jerk and things like that, but since they aren't well-defined, it's hard to sift through that social element of the game.

    Add to that the fact I learn best by experimenting which means trial and error, and I just freeze up at the table. Since I know that I'm going to make mistakes that seem obvious to others, I'd rather not make any mistakes than suffer the loss of confidence from my fellow players.

  6. Awesome article. Pretty much nails the feeling I have when I freeze as a player.

    In my case, I don't know if there's anything the other players or the GM can do to relieve the 'performance anxiety' part, since its all self-generated - they're already all pretty gracious and patient.

    I actually like having suggestions - my creativity works like fire where I'm good enough at generating fuel and heat.

    For the 'oxidant' part, it seems I rely more on the environment.

  7. I've seen this happen at the table countless times over the years, and I feel that I usually handle it quite well (14 years of teaching experience helps)... except when that decision is taken out of my hands by asshats at the table. I've unfortunately experienced gamers with no patience for the freeze who try to take matters into their own hands and then when spoken to after the session, they defend their words and actions with things like, "He's holding the group back/wasting our time." Even, "If he can't live up to the standards we set in this group, maybe he should find another group." Honestly one of the reasons I'm not running a game right now.

  8. @Darren:

    "He's holding the group back/wasting our time." Even, "If he can't live up to the standards we set in this group, maybe he should find another group."

    ... wwwwoooowwww. It's sort of stunning that anyone would say that of anybody. That's. Hunh. Wow.

    Ironically, it seems like this is exactly the kind of statement that a freezing player is dreading, and part of what might be making them freeze up. Man. I'm sorry.

  9. I've been the frozen player now and then. It's a pretty awful moment and it is compounded by the well intentioned suggestions pouring in from all sides. Even if one of the suggestions was shaping up in my own head, I feel that I can't accept it once it has been offered by another player who is just trying to help.

    Fred handled this really gracefully at one point. I tentatively started to suggest something, putting it out there as a question, but Fred treated it like a fully formed idea. He ran with it with enthusiasm. When it was tweaked along the way, it was done so in the way that any idea gets tweaked once it's out there. Suddenly, I felt brilliant and far more confident. Most importantly, I did not feel like a provisionally acceptable player, there as the GM's wife. I felt like I was part of the game in my own right. That was a great session - and the other players did not have to try to encourage me after that. Fred had done the trick, simply by acting as if I _didn't_ need help. (He probably doesn't even remember this, too.)

    The idea that you need help - that you're not as adept as the other folks at the table - is part of the problem. I don't think the well intentioned helpers look at it that way at all, but every idea they shove forward at you just reinforces the issue. They're not trying to be patronizing and, intellectually, I know that. Intellectually, I'm sure, they understand why I'm gritting my teeth and 'you patronizing bastard' is emanating in steam-shaped letters from my ears.

    I put it that way deliberately. I'm sure it seems harsh (because it is) and I apologize for that. I'm trying to convey the sheer frustrated dismay that goes through the mind (at least my mind) in the middle of those suggestions. The thought process is not . o O (Thank god someone told me how to think!). It's a lot closer to . o O (This sucks great big rotting donkey wang.)

    This is just my perspective from the freezing up spot. Other people may feel very differently and mileage may vary.

  10. I think the other thing that contributes to freeze is the size of the decision.

    Some games force bigger decisions than others.

    "I hit it with my axe" vs. "I hit it with my sword", isn't as likely to cause freeze compared with "There are five aspects on this scene, you could free-tag this one and this one". "The bad guy is monologuing, what do you do?"

    Or, "OK, it's your scene now, what do you want it to be? Who do you want in it?"

  11. Most of the time I've seen it happen is because the gamemaster has put the spotlight on the player in question. And like a deer or kangaroo, the player simply freezes in the light.

    To stretch the metaphor to breaking point, a better approach is to have a fixed spotlight shining on the stage, and then invite the players to perform in it, so that they step into it, rather than you shine it on them. Your job then becomes one of ensuring that no player dominates the spotlight, and that all can (not must) have a turn in it.

    [Oh, and never let people criticise someone's choice. That leads to people starting to doubt themselves and they get trapped in double-think. As they say in the military, any decision is better than no decision.]

    I find that body language can be very useful in moderating player behaviour. After all, they are already looking toward you for direction, so it is insanely easy to set the appropriate cues. You'll find that by projecting an eagerness to hear from the less vocal players at the table that you will not only draw them into the game, but you'll also get the other players to listen silently as well. [Usually.]

    [The worst freeze I've had in one of my games was when the Engineering Officer asked the Captain what they should do in Star Trek the RPG and the player suddenly realised she was the focus of attention of a whole room of people...]

  12. @Deborah, heh, you're right. I don't remember the incident. Can you gimme some specifics to jog my memory?

    The funny thing is I'm sitting here reading Rob's post and thinking, crap, I so do not shut my pie hole. I think I'm pretty good at the whole back their play thing -- that's what was going on in the situation you're describing, I'm betting -- but I am NOT good at sitting still or keeping my mouth shut.

    I have been learning, though, slowly, *how* to open my mouth. Rather than say "you should do X" type stuff outright, I just try to open the door a little: "if you want a suggestion, holler". If that gets any kind of action I'll usually follow it with a set of suggestions (which I suppose could emphasize there are many right decisions here). Most of this, I think, comes from looking at the table from a GM perspective of Discover What The Wacky Solution of the PCs Is And Roll With That No Matter What.

  13. I definitely could learn to shut my pie hole as a GM when faced with a reluctant or newbie player.

  14. @Fred It was almost a decade ago, but it stuck out in my brain. This was the 3rd ed campaign.

    I was on the spot to propose our position to a potential ally. Thing is, this was Sheva's shtick (and why I will never play another socially slick character). It was reasonable that this be her moment of awesome. Except that Rob was GMing, which amounts to 'please be more adept on your verbal feet than Rob and good flipping luck with that'. Every other player sat back to watch, and several of them were heckling in good natured ways. I locked up and kind of just stared helplessly. I floundered around a bit, mid peanut gallery remarks, and then fumbled onto an idea (and I'm trying to remember it) and shoved it Tayven's (your) way. And you ran with it as if I had proposed an actual plan.

    We got the alliance (and I'm trying to remember WHICH alliance). The thing that stuck out for me was the 'yes AND' of your response.

  15. Had a feeling Taevin was at work there. We had plenty of Power Couple moments. :)

  16. This is SO going to be the topic of Narrative Control #45

  17. When this happens at the table, I like to gently point them at something that might inspire them: Aspects, Beliefs, Keys, etc.

    Also, at times, I have offered to go to a different scene and come back to them, taking eyes and pressure off and giving them time to marinate in a healthy way, rather than stewing in pressure.

  18. @Sean,@Judd You two have GM'd a couple of my favorite con game sessions (Sorcerer and Mouse Guard respectively), which are when I'm often freeze-prone. My experience in your games was most like my good improv theater experiences. (I froze in improv a lot too...) Right off the bat in your games, I wanted to have fun and bring my best to the table and your GMing (prep you had done beforehand and GMing at the table) was a big part of the reason why.

  19. @Number Ten Ox

    Wow. Thanks a ton. That is a huge compliment. Not only that the prep and style helped the game... but you just put me next to Judd! *awesome fan boy moment*

    I'm really glad the games rocked for you!

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  21. *sigh* I'm definitely one of those impatient players. I like fast, cinematic games, and it's so obnoxious when anyone slows us down! *roar and fist shake*

    I'm not so bad as that, but I do tend to bring along a book to read through the slow spots that happen during any long-running campaign. Anything from someone figuring out their character sheet numbers again to taking five minutes to decide what to do on their round in combat. Reading in the middle of combat might be weird, but it beats sighing, finger-tapping, or starting a distracting side-conversation. If people seem to find the books rude, sometimes I'll use those down times as an excuse to get up and get a drink or make tea, while still keeping an eye on what's happening.

    It's easy for people standing by to get swept up in the moment and cheer on, toss ideas out to, or side-chatter around those who are freezing up on a decision. Even shouts of "Dude, I have no idea what I'd do there!" feel like being part of the team, but are probably just unhelpful noise.

    I don't agree with every point in this post, but I agreed with a whole lot less of it when I first read it an hour ago, so thank you for writing it. :-) I'll be much more watchful of ways I accidentally show my own impatient tendencies in the future.

  22. Thank you for articulating this. This problem has gotten so bad for me that I rarely if ever play tabletops. It's odd, because it only happens in tabletops; I LARP extensively and not having the gap between my immediate perception and my abilities (being able to see the field, etc) makes it so I can just immediately react.

    It's gotten to the point in tabletops where I just have a 'default' action. "I shoot it." or "I hit it." or "I run." And I keep them in my head ready to whip out if I freeze just to stop all the tapping and the eye rolling.

    This problem is further compounded because I really have very little love for systems. I just don't. It's not my interest in a game, and when I do get all into a system, usually people don't like what I have to say anyway, because I try something people don't think is the "right" way to spend out a character. So my hatred of systems leads me to do something while everyone else is rolling; draw on a piece of paper, knit, write in a notebook. Otherwise I will die of boredom.

    So unfortunately people perceive my freeze as I wasn't paying attention. I was, I just don't need to know every nuanced piece of a roll. I don't. The freeze isn't that I don't know what's going on. It's that something more than simple reaction is being asked of me and I never expect that.

    It's something you never see in LARPs, because at worst, you can just run in the direction everyone else is running. But on a tabletop you have to ASK where everyone is running, and then you feel stupid, and then you freeze.

    Thank you for your advice here. I hope people take it to heart. I might even tabletop again.

  23. Rob, might you consider writing up a version of this for the D&D website? I have no idea if you'd want to, or if they'd post it if you did, but if there was ever an audience that needed to hear this advice...

    Thank you so much for posting this. I think it'll improve the kind of player I am at the table. I was thinking about this post all week, and I figured I should comment and let you know.


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