For this week's Ask a GM topic, I posed the following question to our GM panel:

How do you go about vetting a potential player into your game? Do you meet with the player beforehand, invite them over to watch a session, or have them dive in -- sink or swim style. What if you end up inviting the player, but after a few sessions they aren't working out? How do you handle that?

The very nature of a site like Pen & Paper Games is to bring people together from different walks of life who enjoy the same thing - roleplaying. It's an awesome thing when you can travel outside of the confines of your social circle and meet new people, but at the same time, it can lead to disaster for a gaming group if the player isn't properly "vetted." This is even more important when you are taking on the daunting task of putting together a group from scratch. If you bring together the wrong mix of people, the group can implode before it ever really get's started.

So, what's a GM to do?

Step One - Talk to Your Current Players
Before you set out to bring in any new players into your group, you should first discuss it with your players. I really do consider my D&D group to be a part of my social circle, and before I bring anyone from the outside into that, I want to make sure my players are comfortable with that. This is something that I try to make sure I do before I have conversation-one with any new players.

Step Two - Interview the Potential Player
This is something that is really critical for the GM to do before bringing in the player to the gaming group. Once the player has attended even one session, it gets harder and more emotionally tense to remove them in my experience. So, after I have found a potential player either from the Player Registry or a referral from one of my players, I set aside some time to chat with the person first by phone and then usually in person as well.

Usually the first thing that I try to do when I interview a potential player is to get a feel for their ideal game. What things do they like, what things do they dislike? Do they like a game with a lot of action and combat or perhaps something more intrigue-centric? If your game is heavily roleplaying centered and they like something a little more akin to a scene from "300," this might be your first red flag. It certainly doesn't disqualify a player from playing in my game if they prefer a different style, but I do want to make sure they will enjoy playing a different kind of game than they might otherwise. And, hey, if you're a versatile GM who run and enjoy different styles of games, knowing what your potential players want is a great way to start forming up your new campaign.

Overall, here are the typical topics I generally cover.

  1. What roleplaying games / systems does the player most enjoy.
  2. What style of gaming do they like -- heavy combat, roleplaying, a good mix? Intrigue, dungeon delving, dark and gritty, epic save the world type?
  3. How often do they want and will they be able to play? Will they usually be available for games? Do they have any periods that they aren't available for? This is especially critical to find out if you are putting a new group together, since a lull of several missed game sessions when one or more players isn't available can kill the enthusiasm for a new game.
  4. How long have they been gaming? If they are new to gaming, you'll want to make sure that you and your group has the patience for having a new player and if they don't own the manuals or even dice, that you have some extras they can borrow during or even between games. If they're hardened, grizzled players who have been gaming for decades, then you can probably guess that the standard fare of "Answer the King's call and save the damsel in distress," is probably old hat -- so you should be prepared to spice it up a little.
  5. How would they describe themselves as a player. This is a little abstract, but their answers can be enlightening.
  6. Do they have any pet peeves? If you're running a dark and gritty campaign and they believe that the protagonists should always be shining heroes, this might be something you want to discuss. Or, if they hate it when GMs use house-rules, and you run your games "fast and loose," this can signal a problem.
  7. Now it's your turn. Take time to tell the new player about your group (or the other players you have invited so far). Tell them about the type of game you will be running, your preferences, your house rules, and any information that would be helpful about the gaming system and/or story. I like to have a short intro or teaser to let the player read so to see if this is the sort of game they would enjoy. Be careful though, if you have a long running campaign, try not to bore your new recruit with hours of back story.

Step Three - Talk to Your Group
Okay, you have interviewed a potential player and you like him or her. They seem to gel well with you and you think they'd be a good fit for my group. Before springing them at the next gaming session, I recommend going back to your group again and tell them what you've learned about the new player. By this point, I've generally spoken with the potential player in person and have spent at least an hour talking about them and our group. Give the group your honest impressions and tell them about any pitfalls you see.

Step Four - A Trial Run
You've chatted with your group and everyone is on board with bringing in the new player. Here, I recommend inviting the player with the understanding that the first session or perhaps even the first several sessions are a trial run. This will give the new player a chance to see if he or she likes the game, and it gives the group a chance to see how well the new player fits in.

And Finally...
After the "trial period" is over, it is a good idea to chat separately with each of the players and see how they feel things are going with the new player. If the consensus is that things are going well, then great. If they aren't and you don't think that the problem can be easily resolved, it's probably best to cut the player loose -- or as my Dallas group was wont to say, "Vote them off the island." Many a'time have I tried to force a square peg into a round whole by trying to keep a player on despite the group's and my misgivings, and without fail I wished in the end that I had listened to my gut and made the painful, but necessary snip.

Most of the time, there's no way around it, if you have to remove a player because they aren't working out there is almost certainly going to be some hurt feelings. Its going to be even more difficult for both parties if this person is a friend or coworker. This is why I think it is so important to really take the time at the beginning during the "interview" stage before inviting a new player into the game.

When It Doesn't Work Out

Ways that you should NOT "tell" the player things aren't working out:

  • Killing every character they make session after session or otherwise thwarting their character's every move hoping that they will eventually get so frustrated with the game that they won't come back. Unless they are truly clueless, they are going to recognize this as a malicious way for you to get them to leave, so you haven't saved yourself anything.
  • Scheduling or rescheduling games and simply not telling them about it. This is pretty underhanded and eventually you are going to get busted, so you might as well come out with it. The same goes for constantly scheduling the games for days and times that the player can't come...
  • Writing the player an email. Unless this is a play-by-post / online game, it's probably best that you at least have the conversation over the phone -- if not in person. Rejection is bad enough. Getting "email-dumped" is just adding insult to injury.

What you should do is:
If at all possible, talk with the player in person and as soon as it becomes obvious that they just aren't working out. Don't allow it to languish over multiple sessions. In general, it is probably best that the GM have the conversation with the player -- you didn't think it was going to be all fun and games did you? -- However, if someone else in the group has a close relationship with the player, it might be okay for them to give the player the bad news. Whoever does it, it is best to do it privately after the game away from the other players. My advice is to just come out and tell the player that while you may think they are a cool person and still may want to hang out with them, they just aren't going to be a fit for this gaming group. Perhaps someone out there has a more suave way of putting this, but the bottom line is I think being honest and nonjudgmental in your discussion is the best way.

If they want feedback on why, give it to them in the most neutral way you can. Focus on explaining differences between their style and the group's instead of making it a discussion of their perceived character flaws. If, however, it really comes down to some personal flaw, be it hygiene, belligerence, general disruptiveness or whatever else is going to be a problem no matter what kind of group they try to join, then if you can bare it, bite the bullet and tell them. You'll probably get some blow-back for your trouble, but maybe the person just truly needed to have someone come out and say it before they could grow out of it as a person.

(And, what the heck, if they don't already know about, you might want to go ahead and tell them about this site or others out there than could help them find a group more suited to them)

That's my advice. Take it for what it's worth, and read on for more good advice from our panel.