Paranoia and paralysis

It is a perennial problem in games I’ve run and played in that players (myself included) are prone to sudden bouts of paranoia, leading to the inability to take decisions. I call it player paralysis.

Player paralysis can waste hours of game play. I say waste: if you enjoy watching while the players second-guess themselves, it isn’t a waste at all. Many games rely on paranoia for their appeal, and the odd session of this kind can be enjoyable. But for the typical gaming group, pressed for time, probably only able to play once a fortnight or less, provided everyone’s free, etc etc – it’s a pain in the ass if nothing happens because paralysis has set in.

The primary type of player paralysis I’d like to discuss today is the kind that is generated by the perception that the enemy has the group outgunned or outflanked. There are other types of player paralysis, such as too-difficult puzzle paralysis or over-planned mission paralysis, but I’ll save those for another day.

As a player, it’s a good idea to be watchful for player paralysis, and prepared to occasionally take action despite your misgivings. But of course, some times paranoia is justified. Maybe the bad guys really are that bad-ass, and maybe it’s better not to take them on. In that case, don’t just sit there worrying about it – take alternative action. Running away is an option, as are trying to find ways around the baddies that don’t involve fighting them. Presumably that’s what the GM had in mind when s/he set you up against such a challenging adversary. If in doubt, it’s reasonable to ask the GM: are you expecting us to fight this? You might not get an answer, but you’ll probably at least get a hint of some kind as to whether your foe is beatable or not.

As a GM you have more opportunities to tackle the problem. You have a lot of tools at your disposal here:

– Rumours and reputation. You can prompt paralysis by bigging up an NPC’s reputation as a bad-ass killer who is immune to conventional weaponry, and you can help to puncture it by allowing the group to hear of the NPC’s defeat, or some mistake he has made, or a weakness.

– Reinforcements, resupply. If your players are quaking in their boots, you can give them some back-up. Maybe the local militia offer to help, or they acquire a better weapon, or some other boost to their capabilities to improve their confidence.

– Reduce the threat. Maybe the bad-ass NPC has to send some of his minions somewhere else, or perhaps he turns out to be vulnerable to kryptonite.

– Prompt alternative action. Either through an NPC, or prompted Intelligence checks, or straightforward GM hint, you can help the players to spot alternative ways to solve the problem. Is there a way the players could avoid confrontation with this overwhelming foe? Perhaps there’s some source of information they haven’t consulted. Find a way to let the party know.

– Take the heat off. If the group is feeling under pressure to the point where they can’t think straight, give them some breathing space.

– Put the heat on! It’s difficult to stay paralysed when you’re in a plummeting elevator. Have something happens which forces the issue, and maybe the group won’t procrastinate so much next time they get a little breathing space.

You have to be very careful with all of the above. It’s natural for groups to want to spend some time planning and discussing – it only becomes paralysis if it goes on for too long and it’s clear the group are jumping at shadows. Similarly, the group may become frustrated and apathetic if they feel like every time the going gets tough you’ll bail them out with some reinforcements or a heavy-handed hint. If you are patient at first, and use a mix of the above tactics when it’s clear the group really is suffering from paralysis, then you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Above all, learn from your mistakes. If the group becomes paralysed, take some time after the session to think about what prompted it and what you could have done differently. As much as anything this is about understanding the personalities of the people who make up your group. Perhaps they don’t react too well to a particular type of situation, or maybe it’s one individual you need to keep an eye on; it may even be that an OOC chat is called for if one person keeps locking things down.

Player paralysis isn’t something you can entirely banish. If you adopt a flexible approach and get to know your group, you can keep it to a minimum.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

3 thoughts on “Paranoia and paralysis”

  1. The main thing is to have a shared understanding from the start of what kind of story it is that you’re making.
    In some games intense paranoid planning against every eventuality will be appropriate, in others the gung-ho ‘let’s fire it up and see what happens’ will be correct.
    One might characteize these extremes as ‘realistic’ and ‘heroic’.

    1. Good point. Though I would say that even if you’re playing the “realistic” side of things there needs to be a limit to planning. And, there comes a point where you have to commit to executing your plan even though there may be things that could go wrong with it. I’ve seen players second-guessing themselves endlessly – not actually coming up with contingency plans, just sort of chewing over all the stuff that could go wrong.

      On the “heroic” side of the spectrum, this should hopefully happen less often, but even so if the bad guys get the upper hand at any point (bound to happen someday unless the game is all about the heroes just romping to victory uncontested every time), this problem could emerge. To some extent it’s about trust in your GM at this point, believing that they won’t screw you over arbitrarily, or that if they do it’s to make a good story not to punish you.

  2. Forgot I’d commented on this one! (I would really like it if there was a way to be notified of comment responses…) but yes, basically, I agree with everything you say here.

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