As the producers of reality shows have learned, dramatic personalities lead to dramatic interactions. In the intro to MTV’s The Real World, the voice over reminds us that we are about to watch what happens when people “stop being polite, and start being real.” This can make good entertainment, but if you’re trying to play a game, especially if you’re trying to run a game, these shenanigans can ruin an evening of play. Worse yet, those conflicts can ruin your entire gaming group.
In the mid 1960s, an American psychologist named Bruce Tuckman developed a theory that explains why good groups can go bad. It also helps us understand how to keep groups moving through rough spells and into the smooth sailing beyond.
When any group first comes together, it enters the forming stage. In a typical gaming group, this is when everyone meets, creates characters and gets to know one another. People tend to be on their best behavior when groups are brand new. Players are less likely to complain about any dissatisfaction with the game because new groups usually defer to existing hierarchical leadership. In other words, players will look to the game master to lead them. Since players aren’t particularly invested in the game, they might drift quietly away if other demands for their time arise or if they are dissatisfied in the game.
Sometime soon, maybe during the first session, maybe the second, sometimes it takes three or four, the group will begin to Storm. When the rules debate turns heated, it’s a sign that you’ve entered the storming phase. In my own weekly group, it was most clearly signaled by an argument about the food arrangements. Another group I played with had rules debates that could last for hours. The storming phase is when the struggle for the group’s identity takes place. Power dynamics are challenged, feelings often get hurt, tempers flare and it’s all perfectly normal. The good news is that the group members care enough to express themselves. Since the purpose of gaming is, more or less, to have fun, this phase brings its own risk. During this phase, players who were having fun might quit over hurt feelings.
Be brave. Storming is only the second of four phases, and if you can keep the group together long enough, it will pass. My next post will discuss the other two phases of group development, norming and performing.