Bruce Tuckman performed a fair bit of research in the 1960s regarding the theory of “group dynamics.” He published his findings in 1965 titled “Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development.” Am I going to go on about him here? No. You could read from the same Wikipedia post that I would. You’re not here for a biography, and I’m not here to write one. No, you want to know how to be a better player, how to “stand out” and meaningfully contribute to your table. We’ll get to that, for now, though, I would like to discuss a few things about this interesting theory because it’s prevalent in many aspects of life.
Team formation is an important phenomenon that you should be cognizant of, regardless if you’re playing with a group of friends or a pick-up-group (PUG) of strangers that may one day be your friends. This cycle that we’re about to discuss is a great template for how you should expect your party to develop over the coming weeks, days, and months. Remember, this is meant to be a cooperative game. You aren’t trying to outdo the person next to you. A large portion of the game is to understand the diverse and unique attributes of one another (both on paper and in real life) and then utilizing that throughout your journeys together.
IN ORDER TO HAVE GREAT SESSIONS, YOU MUST HAVE GREAT PEOPLE AND GROUP COHESION
In my experience, the best memories are often made alongside the best people. You don’t even need to know them that well; so long as they are like-minded and have similar goals, great things will happen. I’m a picky DM – I interview prospective players before they even interact with the other people at my table. In a sense, I try to “own my table” as much as possible, and part of that responsibility is making sure we have quality players.
You can’t expect a new team to perform well when it first comes together. Creating a great group takes time, and work. I’m extremely passionate about this game, and I’m willing to put in the work. At the time of this writing, I run five weekly games online, two games every-other-week at a hobby shop, and I obviously blog about it. Very few people in your group will be this passionate, and that’s perfectly fine… probably great. I say passionate, others might say obsessive.
Let’s First Discuss POOR Group Dynamics
Building upon a poor foundation is a bad idea, so let’s discuss a few things of which we should be cognizant.
- Silence (AKA: “The Watcher” or Free-riding): Everyone has their own idea of fun; “The Watcher” tends to sit back and watch the story unfold. When I used to play, this was my style. As an online DM, it’s difficult to have players like this in the group because I can’t see their face in order to determine how engaged they are and whether they are having fun. Too many Watchers and story progress crawls to a stop. The “free rider” may really shine on their own, but in group scenarios they just let the rest of the party make the decisions and perform most of the heavy lifting, figuratively speaking.
- Blocking: This goes against one of my favorite guidelines about DMing and improv ; the “Yes, and…” guideline – I’ll discuss this in a later post. Blocking is when party members behave in a way that disrupts the flow of information within the group. This can be in the form of withholding important information the DM has given to one player in particular, or when a player directly opposes the goals of other members of the party. This can happen periodically, but as with “The Watcher,” too much and you have a big problem. It halts play and can often upset players when their ideas are constantly shut down or dismissed.
- Groupthink: Simply put, this is when someone has a desire for appealing to consensus and makes that more important than their desire to reach the right decision.
- Excessive Deference to Authority: I’ve actually seen this one happen quite a bit. I use the term authority” loosely here. Some groups elect an official leader, while some don’t. However, what typically happens is that the more outspoken and charismatic players (note the distinction: that I didn’t say characters) will make the majority of the decisions for the party while the introverts (and let’s face it, this hobby attracts a lot of them – especially in online play) choose to go along because they’d rather avoid conflict and want to appear to agree with “the leader” instead of voicing their own opinion. Some people are fine with this, like “The Watcher,” but it can lead to resentment. A lot of the enjoyment of these games is the very fact that you get to disagree and ROLE PLAY why your character thinks they way that they do.
- Weak Leadership:As with authority above, I use the term “leadership” loosely. This may sound contradictory to the point I made above, I know. But in groups that have elected a leader, if that leader lacks a strong leader that can take initiative (no, I don’t mean they have a poor dexterity score), be dominant when they need to be, nor have someone that is willing to weigh in and follow through on a tough decision – it hurts play. Again, this can lead to stalled play and long pauses because the party assumes the Leader will make a decision; after all, that’s why a leader was elected.
The Five Stage Team Building Model – Applied to Players and Parties
Forming – The Ol’ Meet and Greet
This is just what you think it is: the stage when your group comes together for the first time and begins to feel each other out. While all the stages have “their own place” and are all vital to understanding group dynamics, this one is the most important. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, and some of these impressions will be lasting ones and therefore hard to overwrite, so to speak. New research suggests that first impressions are so powerful that they are more important than fact. The sine qua non should be to focus on learning personalities and establishing “mission goals.”
- You’ll notice in this stage that relationships, both in character and out, are guarded and often noncommittal.
- Characters will be less willing to go out on a limb for one another, and things are often harder on the party as a whole due to a lack of structure and communication.
- You’ll observe group members that are more willing, and tend to, act independently; they’ll also be more secretive than their usual selves at this point.
- Don’t even think about trying to get anyone to share their backstory with you at this point, especially the shadowy edge-lord rogue sitting in the corner of the tavern that grew up as an orphan because their parents were killed by [insert cliche reason here] and they must now hate all members of [insert some race or order here].
I mention that last one because this will most likely be your first impression of the person playing Sasuke, but give them a chance and watch what happens when they open up and come out of their shell!
In Tuckman’s words:
“Any conflict, controversy or personal opinions are often avoided, as team members form impressions of each other and gain an understanding of what the group will do together.”
One tool that can help to move things along faster is a charter of sorts, or what I refer to as the Social Contract in my DM guides. It will help establish ground rules and remove some mysteriousness and ambiguity from play. I’ve also seen some groups elect a “leader, ” though this often leads to as many problems as it causes due to conflicts of interest or differing character morals. If a character’s conviction about something is strong enough, the role of leader won’t matter as much. I’ve played with my fair share of military, active and veterans, and this still holds true – perhaps more so.
Storming – But not like Storm or Thor
You’ve had a few sessions together now, and you’re all more comfortable with one another. But prepare: there’s a storm on the horizon. Storming begins with conflict. Often, there will be conflict – between characters first or between players. If there’s four people in a group and a DM, that’s potentially nine different personas you have to keep in check (ignoring the plethora of masks the DM wears as all the NPCs).
Since this is a meta approach, being aware of this phase should, ideally, help you and your party work through it. I’ll address this part in-depth and how to deal with it in other posts aimed at DMs as well as Players. For now, it’s beyond the scope of our discussion. Simply put, you’re probably playing with a bunch of adults, so deal with the problem like an adult.
I don’t see this phase early in Dungeons and Dragons as often as I do later. Yes, there will be minor disagreements, but I haven’t seen big blowups until weeks, months, or even after years of playing together.
One anecdote I can share regarding an early example of storming is when a player falls unconscious and the “party healer” (designated that merely because they have access to a healing spell) takes an action other than to rescue their fallen comrade. The unconscious player might have assumed they would be rescued, however the player playing the cleric just isn’t that kind of cleric. They might not have even prepared a healing spell, thereby expressing a rigid dichotomy between players’ expectations, and causing confusion and/or resentment. Pro tip: if you ARE planning on playing that kind of cleric, AWESOME – but please “warn” the others at the table that you’ll be using your spell slots for something other than boring healing spells.
Norming – Settling In
At this point, your party has settled in and have sufficient clarity of the situation and those around them. Individuals, and the team by extension, will become increasingly positive. There will be more ideas, opinions, insight, and inside jokes. Players will begin to acknowledge the successes of one another more readily, and people will begin to respect and trust one another. Perhaps the cleric I mention above will at this point decided her friends were worth preparing a healing spell for, and the others trust that she has done so.
In stark contrast to Storming, failure will just be seen as a diversion to success. The party would fall back, reevaluate the plan and move forward renewed, rather than merely running away and arguing among themselves about whose fault it was. Norming is great because it leads to Performing!
Performing – Gettin’ Stuff Done!
Inside jokes abound, and table chatter may get out of hand at times due to people just wanting to talk among friends at this point. Performing is YOUR GOAL and where the real magic and memories will happen. You’ll be able to quote lines from past sessions that will result in laughter from the rest of the group. There will be little-to-no thought in how the party proceeds – they know what to do and do it because they also know how the others will respond and act. I’ve had numerous sessions such as this over the years because I run so many games and groups and I sincerely hope that all players get to experience it. When you look back on the session, it will have flown by and potentially be full of nothing but new, extraordinary memories (role play is my goal for my groups, but you may look back on climactic moments in combat as well).
Contrary to Storming, when disagreements occur they are resolved quickly and positively. Groups will often “run themselves” with little to know prompting from me in this phase, rather than having to constantly prod them with inquiries of “What’s next?” or “How would you like to proceed?”
Adjourning – And Now Our Watch has Ended
Tuckman didn’t add this stage to his theory until a year later. Adjourning is as it sounds – the group separates. Hopefully this doesn’t happen in the middle of the campaign, or EVER! You should be aware and prepared for it, though. Some of my best groups have just fallen apart after a campaign ends, much how I lost contact with every single one of my close friends from high school. If the separation is planned, then it’s not a problem. The process can be stressful or demotivating for groups, though, if it isn’t. Furthermore, it can be chaotic if one or two people leave, only to be replaced by one or two people that also leave ad infinitum.
How To Apply This To YOUR Table
As the title suggests, this is a DND Player’s guide (the first of many) – but it’s important for Dungeon Masters to be aware of as well. Speaking from the point of view of a Dungeon Master with 10,000 hours or watching people struggle with puzzles and riddles designed for toddlers, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to watch many teams go through this cycle.
If I had to give you only one piece of advice for all of this, that would be to FOCUS ON COMMUNICATION. This applies to many aspects of the game, but for to stay with the scope of this discussion, I mean to actually communicate with one another directly, respectfully, and with the frame of mind that you’re all gathered with the simple task to have fun. Communication is essential in and out of game. Can’t make it to a session? Let everyone know, at least the DM since we seem to quite often be the point of contact between all other players. Have a problem with another player, let them know like an adult, or go to the DM, since we seem to be the HR department between all other players. Have a great idea? Have a question? Shout it from the rooftops. ASK the question.
This is a collaborative story-telling experience. Gather your group, grab your spell book, exchange some thoughts, and be the best group you can be.
If you’d like to dive deeper into how to help a forming group, there’s a lot more detail here.
Signing off with some sweet finger guns! *pew pew*
– DM Patrick
Let’s Hear From YOU!
Share with us YOUR horror stories or fond memories of first time impressions and group formation. What techniques have you used or you recommend to facilitate faster growth. What’s worked well, what’s made things worse?