It’s no secret that our media laud the loners. We adore the one-soul-against-it-all narrative of a reluctant hero saving a world they don’t feel attached to or welcome in. While it’s not the only narrative, it’s definitely an attractive one to a lot of people, and unlike an ensemble cast, it’s one a single player can bring to the table by themselves.
Loners in tabletop games have been an issue so long one of the best articles about them is almost 14 years old – which I’m pretty sure makes it slightly older than some people rolling dice on a regular basis. Despite making me feel super old, the advice is still relevant: when you’re faced with a loner PC, entangle their goals with the party’s, limit their time in the limelight, and force them to rely on the other PCs to achieve their goals.
But as any GM whose done it can tell you, the most efficient handling of a loner PC still winds up feeling like a chore that lasts far too much of the game – an ongoing cat-herding effort with a player who will always strive to maintain and emphasize their lone-wolf aesthetic regardless of the logic of the situation or the impact to the others at the table.
One of Grove’s recurring themes – “have a talk with the player” – is something she and I agree on in general whenever there’s friction at the table. In the case of loners, however, it presents an opportunity for player education that may help corral loner PCs in a way that not only doesn’t hamper their fun, it gets them exactly what they genuinely want from their character and the game without disrupting what others are trying to do with theirs.
The truth is that “loner” is a blanket term that we too often use to bundle together a wide range of concepts – some of which are perfect in RPGs, some of which are terrible. That nuance is critical to steering a player toward a brand of “loner” that works to get them the tone they want while still being a team player at least on an out-of-character level.
The major brands of loner I’ve seen players bring to the table again and again in different combinations are:
- The Wanderer
- The Specialist
- Allergic to Feelings
- Darkmood McBroodpants
- Nameless Psychosis
Let’s take them in no particular order…
The Wanderer is a character whose detachment to place and people is a major part of their history and professional identity. They often treat the campaign like one more in a long line of adventures, and don’t invest a great deal into this being their one shot at greatness with this particular group. What’s deceptive about a wanderer is that they’re often vibrant and interesting characters – the Han Solos, the pirate captains, the time travelers – but they also need to be at least somewhat interested in the game and the other characters to mesh with the game and avoid being dead weight pulling the party in the wrong direction.
The good news is that a wanderer is a very easy loner to work with (just look how Han turned out). The secret is to
freeze them in carbonite give the player a specific window to leave the party behind, with the understanding that they’ll return when it’s dramatically appropriate. To avoid casting a total shadow on everyone else, this shouldn’t be at the Big Ending (à la actual Han), but as a short side-arc toward the middle of the game. It’s typically plenty for the loner to feel they’ve proven they’re willing to walk away and came back out of choice rather than obligation, with the added benefit of a showy moment that wanderers tend to love.
The Specialist is far, far, far too common a loner in RPGs, and often rides sidecar with players who adore complex and optimized character builds (though not necessarily – oddly, players who have no sense for the rules at all also gravitate toward specialist loners, in my experience). The Specialist is the Black Widow or Gamora of the group, a highly-trained character with a specific purpose in mind (assassins and snipers being the favorites in this category) that by its nature doesn’t allow for cooperation with or attachment to others in a team environment (like, say, your game).
Often one of the best ways to keep a Specialist true to the player’s desires while integrating them with the group is to mirror that progression in your bad guys. Give the loner a rival – an equally talented enemy specialist with either similar or contrary skills that keep the pair at odds throughout the campaign without either getting the edge over the other. Then have that rival join up with the main bad guy or a team of bad guys who serve as your primary antagonists. The PC Specialist will often ‘tag along’ with the group for another chance to take out their rival, ostensibly using the other PCs as ‘distractions’ for the team the rival has gathered, thus evening the odds again.
If you can also give the other PCs something vital the Specialist needs regarding the rival, it can switch the power dynamic and let the ‘tag-alongs’ control the conversation a bit, which may help bring the Specialist truly into the fold, even if they also fall into our next type (which is often the case)…
Allergic to Feelings is a slightly trickier form of the loner. An AtF character not only has a stoic, surly or detached personality, they rely on it as a primary trait. The actual detachment may seem like the chief issue with an AtF, but more often is the sense that the player is trying WAY too hard to be so loudly unaffected that their absence of reaction winds up drowning others out. At best, an AtF is a statue in the corner. Much more often, they’re a statue in your face, and that makes it hard for anyone to go anywhere.
Coaxing an AtF player toward more agreeable solutions can be tricky. There are some systems that will give you a mechanical out, which oddly enough, seems to work for many players of AtF characters. If your system has traits or merits and flaws, even feats that lend a mechanical certainty to the character’s stoicism, point the player toward them. It serves as a sort of merit badge or, perhaps more accurate, a medical bracelet to let everyone know about their feelings allergy without them having to drive the point home so often.
Lacking that, ask the player for an exception – a single thing the character cares about, possibly so deeply that it makes up for all the detachment otherwise. It doesn’t have to be a common thing, and it shouldn’t necessarily be tied to the main thrust of the plot. It could be kittens, or a particular profession or genre of film, whatever they like. Then let them know it will come up once toward the middle or latter half of the game (but that you won’t lean on it repeatedly).
The contrast their character gets to show during that scene should immediately highlight to the other PCs (and players) just how detached (but also complex and human) the loner is the rest of the time. Establishing and taking control of that contrast early will often let a player relax a bit on the promise that the high contrast scene is coming and all the comedy with it is worth the wait.
Darkmood McBroodpants is the loner with either a dark past or a lingering curse, something that just puts a dark raincloud over their head at all times. Darkmood loners are one of the most self-sustaining type of loners, with many players all too happy to leave them in the corner to sulk. While wanderers and specialists are often interesting and even charming or funny, Darkmood loners are the Eeyores of the game (even if they were going for more of a David Boreanaz effect), and that means they’re truly on their own as far as getting integrated with the rest of the party.
When you talk to a player about their Darkmood loner, the first words are typically “maybe back off on the ennui a little.” But the first helpful guidance you can give them without breaking concept is to try steering into the skid, deliberately going overboard with the brooding to the point where it’s so absurd it becomes comical to the other players, and then reveling in the humor. That will often make the intervening moments much more enjoyable to the other players, like watching Drax try to be super serious a foot from Rocket and Quill being themselves.
Nameless Psychosis is, I’m sorry to say, an eerily popular type of loner for players to try and bring to the table. It’s also nearly impossible to integrate, and I’d genuinely recommend against trying. In part it’s because the popular notion of “psychosis” is hugely misunderstood in terms of actual mental illness and those who experience it. More players with these characters are aiming at a generic and completely nonexistent “full-goose crazy” sort of disconnect from reality, morality, and rational reactions to stimuli.
This is the one type of loner I will ask a player to leave at home, not because it’s difficult to integrate, but because the last thing any of us need is one more bad representation of mental illness. Even if the character themselves is meant to be “humanized” and a “good person,” the presentation of mental illness is often played for comedic effect, used as an excuse to misbehave without reprisal, or treated as lazy way to trigger emotions in the other players.
Naturally, if someone brings an actual mental illness to the game through their character in a respectful way, that’s more than welcome, but I think you’ll find that a player who understands the illness they’re representing will also have no problem integrating the character with the rest of the party and the game world, so the only advice I can give is “let them.” At most, be prepared to handle questions and concerns from other players at the table if and when the character’s illness becomes obvious to the others.
If all else fails, the typical rules for dealing with loners from Grove’s article still work to reach a playable solution for everyone, but if you’d prefer an arrangement that runs on its own steam, steering the loner’s player toward a more agreeable form of their brand of loner can save you all sorts of work and headache, especially for a long-term campaign.