The topic of group development and dynamics has been at the forefront of my mind during the past week for two reasons. First, the group I DM has undergone some challenges this year. Two players had to drop out entirely because of personal concerns unrelated to the gaming group. Another player is currently dealing with some medical issues, but is recovering well and will likely return in the coming weeks. As a result of the departures, we had to cancel our regularly scheduled game early in the month, and our session slotted for last Friday was on life support. However, we were fortunate to get two new players from Meetup and Pen & Paper Games. It was excellent to welcome the new players to the campaign, but it shifted the group dynamics in several ways.
Second, I had to opportunity to participate in beta testing for the Dungeons & Dragons Virtual Table. I created a fresh character and played through an encounter with a new group of players and dungeon master. The experience was pleasant, but it was interesting to feel unfamiliar with my fellow adventurers and dungeon master. I have been gaming with the players in my two groups for well over a year now and know what to expect each week.
Combined, these experiences reminded me of a theory of group development that could be helpful to consider while running your campaign. The theory was originally developed by an educational psychologist, Bruce Tuckman, and the linear stages are forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Below, I will discuss each stage of group development, how it can relate to your gaming group and offer examples of these dynamics at work during campaigns.
Tuckman first published his stages of group development in 1965, and introduced the concept of forming this way:
Groups initially concern themselves with orientation accomplished primarily through testing. Such testing serves to identify the boundaries of both interpersonal and task behaviors. Coincident with testing in the interpersonal realm is the establishment of dependency relationships with leaders, other group members, or preexisting standards. It may be said that orientation, testing, and dependence constitute the group process of forming.
Another way to conceptualize this is to think about the personal goals of each member joining the group. During the forming stage of group development, individual behaviors are typically driven by a desire to be accepted by the other and to avoid controversy or conflict. The individuals typically remain comfortable by avoiding serious issues and keeping with surface-level interactions. At the same time, each individual is gathering information about the routine of the group – when to meet, who does what, etc. – and about the people in the group – first impression, etc. The forming stage of group development is important because the members of the group learn about one another, slowly exchange more personal information, make new friends, and perhaps learn from mature group members whom model appropriate behavior.
The information above appears quite relevant to dungeon masters and players as they prepare for a new gaming group. As a dungeon master, understand that your players will likely be putting their best foot forward during the early sessions of the group. Everyone, including yourself, is likely “trying to be nice” by avoiding conflict and squelching anything that could break the cohesiveness of the group. It is important to realize that the behavior you see from players in the first handful of sessions will not be the behavior that you see throughout the life of your gaming group. As group members become more comfortable with the routine and structure of the group, they will avoid conflict less and will not focus as much energy on “being nice.”
Thinking about my game over the weekend, our two new players were new to 4th Edition but jumped right in and seemed to have a good time. Our mature and long-standing members welcomed them with open arms. Pizza was eaten. Beers, whiskey and scotch were consumed, and all was right in the world. The new members asked questions, were attentive throughout the session and respectful of the other players and DM. Did we magically find the two best players in the surrounding metropolitan area? No, this behavior is expected by anyone that would have joined the group.
Which brings me to a caution for DMs out there who are forming a new campaign or adding on new players. If you have a new player that immediately starts conflicts within the group, then I would shut that down quickly. In all likelihood, time will not heal wounds. If anything, the person will become more of a headache moving forward as the group enters further stages of development. The forming stage of group development should result in your players politely testing the waters with you and the other members. For lack of a better phrase, if someone bursts into the group acting like a jackass from Day 1, then they will likely always act like a jackass throughout the life of the group.
The second stage of group development is known as storming, and Tuckman introduced the concept in his original writings this way:
The second point in the sequence is characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues, with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere. These behaviors serve as resistance to group influence and task requirements and may be labeled as storming.
To phrase this another way, individuals in the group can only remain nice to each other for so long. Sooner or later, important issues need to be addressed. Minor confrontations will arise that may be quickly dealt with or glossed over. Some members of the group will relish the opportunity to “mix it up” while others will prefer to keep communications on the surface level. The maturity of the majority of group members typically determines if the group will ever move on from this stage, as some groups can remain stuck in the storming phase indefinitely.
The storming stage is considered necessary to the growth of any group. This stage of group development can be unpleasant and perhaps even painful to those that are averse to conflict and disagreement. As a DM, tolerance of each player and their differences should be emphasized. This phase can become destructive to the group and can lower motivation to continue participation. Rather than continue with the group, members who are dissatisfied will fade away from the group to avoid the unpleasantness.
As a DM, prepare yourself for the more combative stage of your group’s development. Watch for signs of players disagreeing with each other or you as the game progresses. Keep track of any quarrels that arise, which can come in the form of annoyance over a ruling in the game, disputes between PCs in-world, or personality clashes at the table. More often that not, group members unsatisfied with the experience will vote with their feet; they will start to arrive late, leave early or miss sessions entirely. For example, if two players butted heads last week and one of them cannot attend the next session, that is likely not a coincidence. Speak with the player directly about the conflict and be proactive in working that out if you want to keep both members in the group.
In my campaign a couple of months ago, I had a situation where two of the players got into an argument. It got the point where I had to encourage both of them to drop the issue and focus on the game. In the following week, I spoke to both of them outside of the game and checked it to see if there was any residual feelings or conflicts that needed to be addressed. Both players indicated it was “water under the bridge” and “things like this happen during games sometimes.” I did not ignore the situation and simply assume it would resolve itself; I actively addressed the incident with both players.
It is important to note that not all conflict is bad. The storming stage of group development is seen as vital to increased productivity and group satisfaction in the long run. If the DM can resolve minor conflicts and encourage players to be respectful of each other, then it is likely that everyone will enjoy themselves to a great degree since they will not have to waste energy “trying to be nice” and instead can “be themselves.”
Tuckman described the third stage of group development with the following:
Resistance is overcome in the third stage in which ingroup feeling and cohesiveness develop, new standards evolve, and new roles are adopted. In the task realm, intimate, personal opinions are expressed. Thus, we have the stage of norming.
By this time in the group, the “rules of engagement,” tasks and responsibilities are clear and agreed upon. The group members by this point understand each other better, and are more willing to listen, appreciate and support one another. The group typically becomes cohesive and as a result may become overly protective and resistant to change. Since it takes work to reach this stage of group development, the group may resist change for fear the group dynamics will change yet again and revert to the storming stage.
As a DM, you may see some players in your group begin to compromise, give up their own ideas and agree with others in order to keep the group functioning. The compromises should not be mistaken for the forming stage when everyone is staying on their best behavior; the norming stage is more of a give-and-take between group members.
Keep this stage in mind if you have a well-functioning group and plan to add another player. The group may be unwilling to take on a strong personality or someone who could be disruptive to the cohesion that has been achieved. More is not always better; if you have a solid, four-player group that is functioning well, then there is no reason to add two unknown quantities just for the sake of filling seats at the table. It is better to have a smaller group that works well together rather than a large group that cannot agree on anything!
Tuckman described the fourth – and originally the final – stage of group development this way:
Finally, the group attains the fourth and final stage in which interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task. Structural issues have been resolved, and structure can now become supportive of task performance. This stage can be labeled as performing.
It should be noted right away that not all group reach this stage; many groups may not even pass the storming phase. The performing stage is characterized by interdependence and flexibility. By this point in the life of the group, everyone knows and trusts each other well enough to work together. The level of group identity, loyalty and morale are high, which means that everyone is enjoying themselves and working toward common goals. If you are lucky, then your group is currently functioning at this stage.
I like to think that my group is in one of the later stages of group. We have a solid core of four players, but have experienced a frequent rotation in the 5th and 6th seats at the table. By my quick count, six players have rotated through those seats during the past year only to leave the game for stated personal reasons (e.g., scheduling, work, health). If I am honest with myself, then it seems possible that perhaps some of those players left because the group was not a good fit for them. I am more than content with the core members of my campaign; it was only recently that our group dynamics changed to the point that finding new members become a necessity and not a luxury.
Tuckman later added a fifth stage to the model, which deals with the issues of group completion and disengagement. Other authors have referred to this stage as deforming or mourning, since the group comes to a conclusion and there is a potential sense of loss for the group members.
If you are nearing the completion of a long campaign and your group is about to clash with Orcus to complete their 1-30 Level campaign, recognize that the group will likely desire a sense of closure. The group members will be proud of their accomplishments in-world, but will also be happy with their work as a team throughout the life of the group. They should be allowed to recognize what they have done before moving on to another task.
The Virtual Table
I will likely address this topic in more detail in the future, but the group development for those playing through the Virtual Table will be quite fascinating. There are numerous factors – lack of face-to-face cues, increased anonymity, and lack of secondary relationships just to name a few – that suggest conflict will be more present in the Virtual Table sessions. For instance, two of the players in my in-person campaign are married; so they have to deal with each other quite often outside of the gaming group. As a result, any disagreement that occurs during the game may hold ramifications to their relationship together as a couple. Whereas playing the game with strangers means there is no secondary relationship to worry about, so players are less likely to “be nice” to each other because there are not as many (if any?) consequences for being disruptive or combative.
I recognized this during my first Virtual Table session when one of the players voiced a few rules in what sounded like (to me, at least) an aggressive manner. A few disclaimers, the DM’s mic was out so he may have been filling in for rule questions. The player may held every intention of trying to be helpful for the other players and DM in the gaming session. I cannot comment on his intentions, but I perceived an “edge” to the input given by him to the group. Perhaps he did not intend to come off as harsh, but without any visual cues to know one way or the other, it felt jarring to me during the session. The DM had to type in a few times, “Don’t worry about it,” to address one rule issue to move the game along.
What I wonder is, “Would this have happened during an in-person group?” Would a player be adamant about rules and their applications during an opening session (hell, the first encounter) with a new group of players and DM in-person? Perhaps it was not “out of line” as the rules he discussed did apply, including correcting me on how I was using my Cleric, so I am only offering this commentary as my own reaction, which probably says something more about me than the player that was rule policing throughout the session. (Note to self: examine how I take corrective feedback!)
One way or the other, the Virtual Table and other online tools for running games are fascinating in terms of the stages of group development! I enjoyed playing, look forward to the next session, and I wish everyone luck in running those games I encourage DMs to be aware of the added challenges to forming a cohesive group in that setting.
- Ask yourself what stage of group development your current group inhabits, and pay attention for warning signs that group members are dissatisfied with the group. Warning signs include poor attendance, disinterest, lack of attention during game and conflict with you and/or other players.
- Pay attention to communication during the gaming sessions. Refer to my previous article about communication between you and members of the group. If you sense conflict, then do not assume the issue will “work itself out” on its own. Be proactive in discussing the issue in the moment or outside of the group between sessions.
- New groups should be allowed to form with members being “nice” to each other. Do not encourage conflict unnecessarily to move to the storming stage. Storming is considered vital to group development, but there is no reason to be an antagonist just to “make things interesting.”
- Be mindful when adding new players to a group that has achieved cohesion. If you have misgivings about Player X’s personality, then those issues will likely manifest within the group and cause problems.
- The groups’ “task” is to have fun. Do not lose sight of that goal! If the group feels like too much work for you, or too much of a chore to the players, then something is wrong and needs to be addressed.