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October 10, 2014


Turtling is a player behavior that occurs in tabletop RPGs and LARPs.  There hasn't been a lot of theory discussion on the behavior as far as I can see, and definitions vary.  Video and board game designers talk about it all the time, so I'm going to use a definition similar to theirs.

Source: Wikipedia

Turtling is when players become protective of their characters to the point where it detracts from the fun of the game.

In video games and board games, designers try very hard to prevent turtling, because in video games it makes the game boring; and in board games, it detracts from the fun of all of the players at the table.  Tabletop RPGs aren't any different.  I've included three different turtling behaviors in the table below, all of which fall under this definition.

In my experience, turtling happens when the players feel like they don't have much control over the game.  Here's a troubleshooting table of some of the turtling behaviors I've seen, some of the mistakes I've made that caused the problem, and some solutions that have worked for me.  Some of those solutions have inspired previous posts, so check out the links in the table.

I haven't made all the mistakes you can make as a GM, of course, so this isn't a complete table.  Feel free to suggest additional rows in comments!

Possible Causes
The players have a goal but don’t know what to do next.  They spend time asking pointless questions and interrogating NPCs instead of pursuing the plot.
The GM has not provided the players an opportunity to achieve their goal.  Nobody wants to play “hard work and perseverance, the RPG.” And sometimes the players want to pursue a goal different from the one the GM wants them to.  This is likely a failure of power (railroading) or a failure of buy in.  They’ve lost control because they feel railroaded or out on a limb.
In a tabletop RPG, either you hand wave the hard work, and skip straight to the “a problem arises!” scene, letting their goal be the hook, or you skip the hard work and let the PCs achieve their goal through great heroic deeds with hooks.  If the PCs are trying to follow a goal other than the one you want, you need to let them, and run the game they’re playing.  If they’re so far off your goal that it seems like they didn’t read your pitch, you need to have an OOC conversation about the shared premise and maybe end the campaign.
The players are over-planning, and even they don’t seem to be enjoying it.
If all of them are doing it, and not having fun, it’s because they’re afraid of the Gotcha! Making a plan is a challenge that can be failed.  The amount of time the players feel they have to plan depends on how likely they think it is that you have created a puzzle that they will suffer for not solving.  They’ve lost control because they think they’re going to be punished for not outsmarting you.
If the players are over-planning and they all like it, or the ones doing all the planning seem to enjoy it, that’s OK (as long as the other players don’t get too bored).  If you created the puzzle, give them help and hints.  If you didn’t mean it to be that complicated a puzzle, clarify your boundaries and give them hints about your scaffolding.  

And stop pulling gotchas on them, because that could be it, too.
The players are taking undue defensive measures to make themselves invincible in combat.  This manifests in over-preparing for combat, avoiding combat when they don’t feel 100% prepared, and the “five minute workday” in D&D.
They do not feel like bad-ass heroes.  In a game where the PCs are not supposed to be tough action heroes, the players may have a mood disconnect.  They’re trying to get action hero defenses in a dark, gritty or horror game.  In a game where the PCs are supposed to be action heroes, they probably feel weak, possibly because you’ve been “red lining” them.  They’ve lost control because every battle seems to be a close call.
In a gritty game where the PCs are not supposed to be action heroes, consult the Horror-Hunter ladder and make sure everyone’s on the same page about the mood and genre of play.  In an actual action hero game, you need to give the PCs encounters that let them kick butt at least half the time, or they'll start getting hyper-cautious.  If every encounter is super hard, they will feel like it’s their fault they’re not kicking butt, and compensate by putting a lot of effort into system min-maxing.

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