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How to Deal with Instigators

Written by Janna - Published on October 7, 2008

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

Fighter: “I’m pretty banged up. I look around for a place to make camp.”

Cleric: “Yeah, I’m all out of healing. I need to rest and pray.”

Mage: “I’ve got nothing left. It’s nap time for me.”

Fighter: “Where’s the rogue?”

   *     *

(10 minutes later)

Rogue: “Uh, guys? The good news is, I found this 500gp gem. The bad news is, the guy I took it from wants it back. And he has a small army. Time to go!”

Meet the Instigator. There’s one at every gaming table, isn’t there? These are the players who make things happen – often with the subtlety of a morning star to the face. Oh, they don’t usually think of themselves as problem players. Some merely see it as their gods-given duty to set things in motion. Others just like to keep the party members on their toes. 

The 4th Edition DMG says that Instigators can be disruptive, but can also be a lot of fun. It’s true that zany characters and risk-takers are often remembered long after the game is over. But you want them to be remembered fondly. You don’t want them to be remembered as “that bloody stupid oaf that got us killed all those times”. Therein lies the real challenge for Instigators: Striking a balance between mild yet entertaining chaos and Royally Screwing Things Up. To illustrate the difference, let’s take a look at the two major sub-types of Instigator.

The Smart Instigator

This player just wants to have a good time, and he’ll take everyone else along for the ride. The cool thing is, he knows how to push limits just far enough that they bend but don’t break. He plays characters that keep the other PCs in stitches – figuratively, but often literally as well. But because he can reign in his chaotic tendencies before the fun stops, he’s always remembered as a quirky player who’s fun to game with.

This type of Instigator doesn’t need much guidance. Give him a plot and he’ll twist it beyond recognition, but he won’t get the party killed ad nauseum. The best way to handle a Smart Instigator is to put him in situations that can be resolved in many different ways. You can also flex your creative muscle by drawing up NPCs with strong personalities that rival his own. Just don’t get caught unarmed in a battle of wits with this guy!

The Dumb Instigator

This guy gives Instigators a bad name. If he sees a button labeled “Do Not Push Under Any Circumstance”, he’ll push it just because it said not to. The Dumb Instigator will make bad choices that disrupt the game. He will straight-up Bull Rush the Tarrasque. (Of course, after that, he won’t do much of anything. So… problem solved?)

There are a few ways to deal with a Dumb Instigator, and only one involves a really hungry gigantic creature with sharp, pointy teeth. The approach you choose should depend on your gaming group. Are they seasoned players who’ve weathered the storm of Instigators before? Are they comfortable enough to stand their ground and not follow the Dumb Instigator to certain doom? If so, your involvement should be minimal. After the Dumb Instigator’s party has left him out to dry half a dozen times, he’ll start to rethink his methods.

Then again, maybe not. He’s not called the Dumb Instigator for nothing. If a player makes really stupid choices at every turn, constantly endangers the PCs, or even tries to turn on his allies, it’s time to step in. Don’t confront him in front of everyone, but do take him aside and let him know that his antics aren’t adding to the fun of the game. He’ll either shape up or find another group to play with.

As a DM, I welcome good Instigators who challenge my creativity (and, occasionally, my patience). They don’t really become a problem unless they’re taking away from everyone else’s fun. In fact, some Instigators can be good allies for a DM. If you’ve got timid players that you can’t seem to engage in the storyline, try enlisting an Instigator to get them involved in some crazy shenanigans. Before long, the shy folks will be having such a good time that their anxiety will be forgotten.

What about you? Do you have any nostalgic tales (or horror stories) about Instigators you’ve known as a player or a DM? Let’s hear ‘em!

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.



11 Responses to “How to Deal with Instigators”
  1. Yax says:

    I cannot get enough instigation. Don’t get me wrong, my players are great at moving the story forward and coming up with ingenious ideas. But it’s so much fun when the players give the DM a good show (instead of everyone participating equally in telling the story) that I wish it happened more often.

  2. Ravyn says:

    I wrote an article about this type a while before I got involved in the Network, though since I’d never read the 4E DMG, I used a different name for them. Here: http://exchangeofrealities.today.com/2008/07/16/introducing-the-current/

    As for stories–I am one. That’s really all there is to it. It just sort of happens…. there was one time I kinda broke a freeform game by coming up with a bunch of new uses for a hole in space (the first time, it saved the party’s bacon. After that, it was a little less convenient. I was just waiting for it to backfire), and there were two long-running campaigns where I ended up as leader of the free world. By accident. And don’t get me started on strange things that can be done with oneiromancy.

    I have one in the game I run, as well. The really funny part is that he’s the group straight-man most of the time, but every now and then, despite being the Voice of Practicality, he’ll hop out with an idea so ambitious, so off-the-wall, that it really should be impossible, and then justify it. This is someone who managed to get himself and the NPC with him out safely when they’d gotten stuck in the demon realm by slapping on a disguise and doing a convincing impression of the attitude of some of the highest-ranked among their kind. The one whose response to walking into a long-abandoned city of automata was to try to pass the tests to rule it. The one who’s currently got a plan involving linking a couple world-gates that probably shouldn’t be mutually compatible in order to facilitate a military maneuver… it’s just awesome. I keep telling them I want to see more….

  3. Morten Greis says:

    You wrote:
    “This guy gives Instigators a bad name. If he sees a button labeled “Do Not Push Under Any Circumstance”, he’ll push it just because it said not to. The Dumb Instigator will make bad choices that disrupt the game. He will straight-up Bull Rush the Tarrasque. (Of course, after that, he won’t do much of anything. So… problem solved?)”
    I see this as the DM’s fault. You chose to place a button labled ”Do not push”, and you decided the consequences of pushing the button, so if you don’t want him to bull rush the Tarrasque or push the button, why the heck did you place it there?

    If you give the player a choice between pushing and not pushing the button (and it is given the very moment you mention the button), then you must also assume, that one of the players will choose to push the button, otherwise it isn’t really a choice. The same thing with the Tarrasque. If you want the players to either fight the Tarrasque in a specific manner (it can only be defeated, if you ambush it) or flee from it, then inform them, otherwise the choice become false, as the players are assumed to only choose, what the Dm has already decided they should choose, and if they choose otherwise, they are punished: “You see a Tarrasque, what do you do?”, “Fight it!”, “Wrong answer, you should’ve have fled it, now your character’s are dead”.

    This ofcourse doesn’t mean that there aren’t poor insitgators. Players who by their own choice causes needless problems for their fellow players through inconsidirete choices, as when their characters are invited to a lavish dinner, and they decide they want attack the host during the dinner just for the heck of it. Knights of the Dinner Table springs to mind.

    But otherwise no more derailing your thread from here.

  4. KatsObsession says:

    I love instigators! but having too many in one group can get annoying and become a hassle. One of my old DM’s when he would play he would be a huge instigator but the kind that made it fun and the DM was able to work with him.
    Then we had another instigator in the group who instigated the group itself, his character would not ‘work with’ the groups characters and his reason would be “because my character would never be friends with this group”. So we never understood why he would make a character that was trying to sabatoge us, made it for a very tough game.
    Eventually it ended because many of the group eventually just could no longer get along. Way too many instigators.

    So, I think maybe one instigater per game MAYBE two..if they are working together that would work out really awesome!

  5. Micah says:

    Here’s a rule of thumb for gauging the type of instigator you have: If the negative outcome of their actions impacts others more than themselves, they’re the Dumb kind. If, however, they step in to accept the brunt of the punishment, they’re probably more likely the Smart kind.

    Basically, if they start something and then leave everyone else to deal with the consequences: Dumb.

  6. HeirToPendragon says:

    I have been known to be one myself, but I do it for a reason. I DM my group right now, and I know how bad a feeling it is when you plan out something really cool and dangerous but no one wants to touch it or even bother.

    So I poke things. A lot. Like this one time when we went into a town where a sleeping primordial existed, chained to the ground, pretty much invisible to the civilians.

    …I released him. It was fun. My character died and I had to make a new one, but I know that I at least made the next few adventurers a bit more interesting.

    However, when I played with a different group, we had two types of players. The first was the one that pretty much tried to break every single storyline given too him. It caused some fun, but a lot of times it just caused annoyance. He never took the straight forward method. The other didn’t want to do ANYTHING unless it interested him. He was the opposite of an instigator and as such was a horrible team mate.

  7. Tommi says:

    I love instigators. My standard game mastering style relies on them as far as longer games are concerned.

  8. Labareda says:

    Heh, if you had a group of Instigators like KatsObsession describes, you could place them in a cell or deserted island and their characters would enact an RPG version of Lord of the Flies.

  9. vdgmprgrmr says:

    My DMing style sort of hinges on instigators. Ever since I stopped planning adventures (other than basic story concepts like “war” or “theft” or something) my games have basically become, “Something is happening near you, go.” And as the players go, I add more to it, so the bandit attack on the caravan was linked to an agreement between the bandits and the goblins, who are bound to a contract with the dwarves, who are angry with the leader of the town the caravan came from, because an important dwarf was killed in the city by someone, who was actually part of the thieves’ guild, which had a contract from a rebel dwarf, who was rebelling against the dwarven king because he was imposing outrageous taxes because he was out of money because a seductress had stolen his money, who gave it to an elf who died two years ago, killed by a person who…

    And most of it happens because the players do stuff on their own and always try to get information out of NPCs that I don’t have. If they didn’t the whole story would be that some bandits attacked a caravan.

    It’s cool to both be the DM and not know what’s coming up next at the same time, so everyone, not just the players, can be surprised by the story.

  10. Noumenon says:

    Destructible terrain is great for instigators, as collapsing the battlefield is the kind of trouble they love to get into. I set an encounter on a giant spiderweb once and my instigator couldn’t resist it.

    ps: I put your antispam word in non-case-sensitive and it gave me four crash errors and ate my post. It also wouldn’t accept it when I hit Back without reloading and reposted.

  11. Whatever says:

    To Morten Greis:

    I think your logic here is more than a bit off. The DM may put all manner of things in his (and the player’s) world that don’t involve choosing the obviously moronic action. An obviously superior foe could be fought with well-thought out tactics or avoided through stealth or tricked through clever word play. Of course there’s always choice “D” – Bullrush it. Just because someone chooses to be an idiot does mean you have to entertain their delusions. The difference between a smart and instigator and a dumbe one should be painfully obvious.
    It is not incumbent on the DM to not place these so-called “false choices” simply because one neanderthal thinks it would be cute to try to jump the magma pit while wearing plate mail and carrying 100lbs of equipment versus using the “optional” stone bridge which looks perfectly safe. The “Do not Push” button is simply short-hand for any foolhardy activity which any sane person (or PC) would avoid.
    So again let’s not be nonsensical here.

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