Whether or not you know the term, every GM has run across the concept of the “teflon psychopath” in a game somewhere and sometime, often much more than once.
The teflon psycho is similar to the concept of the “murder-hobo” (and, to be fair, equally offensive) – a character who is driven by no discernible motive save violence and whimsy, and to whom nothing ‘sticks.’ They don’t get attached to fellow PCs, key NPCs in the setting, plot hooks, story twists, screaming children in burning buildings, nothing. They are an instrument of a player who typically has no more investment in the game than to roll dice and kill stuff, and they can be extremely problematic for even a skilled GM.
While the teflon psycho (or TP) often gets a bad rap, it’s worth understanding why some players will resort to building a TP instead of a character with actual background, emotions and motivations, since it doesn’t always stem from boredom or griefing (although those are high on the list). An old Kyle Aaron post sums it up perfectly – before you try to put all the blame on the player, make sure you aren’t part of the problem as GM.
When you find yourself across the table from a player with a TP, regardless of the motives, it introduces several issues. Primarily, it’s hard to ‘hook’ the character into the action or onto the path of the main plot – they often act as an island unto themselves. And a volcanic island at that.
Social encounters are practically tricky with a TP, and even well-meaning TP players can wind up either bored or disruptive and grief a whole session with their attempts to entertain themselves through random acts of violence. A TP is as likely to gut the helpful NPC bargaining with the party for passage through the haunted pass as they are to listen to the deal being offered. Not a good mix.
So if you can’t hook a character, but you can’t ignore them either, what’s left?
First, remember that hooks come in two varieties: push and pull. You either give the player something they want to move toward (pull), or something they want to avoid (push).
A common mistake many GMs make when faced with a TP is to lean too heavily on the latter, expecting that a character with no emotional attachment can’t be ‘pulled’ by anything. “Literally light a fire under them” was only half a joke, and while it can be occasionally effective (and somewhat cathartic for a GM forced to pull double-duty), it’s definitely not a crutch you want to rely on.
Not only do ‘push’ incentives wear thin fast in terms of enjoyment, they create a combative environment between player and GM, and that’s already going to be a risk when someone brings a TP to the table with other players. Don’t exacerbate it; use ‘push’ hooks only when you have to.
So how do you ‘pull’ a character with no attachment to the world they’re in?
You don’t. You pull the player instead.
Going back to the article on why players play TPs in the first place: anything from boredom to rebellion to social awkwardness. If the TP belongs to a player you know, use what you know about the player themselves to hook them.
In a more general sense, playing to the dice-roller and showboat in any gamer can be a very effective backup plan. Any time you have the party largely engaged in a social encounter or stealth mission you don’t want a loose cannon TP to wreck, lure the TP with a ‘side job’ that gives them a chance to roll more dice and showcase their skills (especially if it involves killing things).
The action you lure them into should be away from the main thrust of the scene, and you merely split-screen between the TP and the rest of the party. While the other PCs chat up the grand viseer about the attacks on local caravans, your TP is off following a nervous-looking nobleman with heavy sacks that sound like coin tied to his belt as he hurries through the streets, looking worriedly behind him every few steps.
What seems like a simple task of following him into a dark alley and making off with mad loot then takes a twist when the assassins who were also following the noble (and thus making him feel nervous) show up to claim the TP’s ill-gotten booty. Now you have something for the TP to handle solo (good), roll lots of dice (also good), and feel like a total bad-ass (very good), without having to disrupt the rest of the party (best).
The icing on the cake is to have the booty they lifted from the nobleman be something the TP can’t easily convert to currency directly, thus giving them a side quest later or a need to work with party members better versed in areas their typically-optimized build is not.
Three key elements in this scenario work on just about any TP out there: 1) a chance to work solo, 2) a chance to roll lots of dice, 3) a chance to feel like a bad-ass (or to completely dismantle an encounter the GM ‘clearly intended’ for a larger group). Regardless of why the player built a TP, these sorts of scenarios will typically hook them and keep them having fun without ruining everyone else’s. Just remember to split the time evenly – which doesn’t mean 50% TP and 50% everyone else.
If you find yourself with a bored or vengeful TP, there’s one other tip for ‘pull’ hooks to keep them busy: build failsafes into many of your plot pieces, and then let the TP dismantle a piece every now and then legitimately. Remember: it should look different enough to reward the TP without negating the efforts of the other PCs along the original line.
The rest of the party won’t get screwed over because you have a failsafe ready to go, and the TP still feels like they had a major impact on the game. That’s often plenty to sate them for a bit. Just expect the TP’s player to give you a bit of ribbing for the piece they dismantled. You don’t have to tell them it was a strawman set up specifically for them to knock down and feel good about, any more than you should ever tell players when you fudged the numbers to let them succeed.
It’s true that many TPs are griefers, but it’s not always the case. Assume the best in your players: use solo hooks to draw them into the larger party when you can and keep them busy in the interim. Done well, even teflon character will end up a little stuck on your game.