I wrestled with the topic for a bit, and then fell back and called for backup. (“Gnometron, Assemble!”) I asked my fellow Gnomes to tackle specific archetypes and how to handle them, and volunteered myself to stitch the monstrosity into shape.
When the dust settled, I went to somehow merge together the Mother if All Gaming Articles, (over 3,000 words). But as I was typing, I suddenly noted an acrid stench. My mind, stirred by some hidden connection between the article and the smell, revealed knowledge long forgotten…
I pulled out a dusty old tome, and there it was:
Problem Player Syndrome may present with a broad range of symptoms, from Munchkinism to Spotlight Hoggery to Attorney-at-Rules or even General Douchebaggery. Regardless of symptom, the treatment remains the same. Use the mnemonic ACRID: Assess, Communicate, Reassess, Intervene, Dismiss. (DSM-IV*, p.719)
The “acrid” stench had reminded me of the mnemonic. (And, as it turns out, my daughter needed a fresh diaper).
If your group has put together a good Gaming Charter, most of these issues will have already been discussed, and you just need to remind your Rules Lawyer that “immersion trumps rules adherence”. In other words, before you have to roll up your sleeves and deal with a problem player, get a Gaming Charter, even if it just puts into words what everyone’s already thinking. (Would you like to know more about Gaming Charters? Try here and here.)
But if your players assume that everyone sees the game the exact same way they do, then you may find yourself playing therapist, boss, and older sibling. Why you? As the GM, you have responsibilities and authority that other players simply don’t have. If the problem isn’t resolving itself via peer pressure and normal social interaction, it may be time to shoulder your responsibility and exercise your authority.
Assess — First, define exactly what is going on. Don’t guess; find out by asking direct questions of yourself and the rest of the group, preferably individually and in private.
What exactly is the problem? Is the player doing something that might be reasonable in another group? Is there a specific aspect of the game (genre, mood, pacing, rule strictness, etc) that this behavior is impacting, or it is pretty universal? Is it a problem for everyone, or just the vocal ones?
Communicate — Talk and listen to the problem player. Try to listen more than you talk, but make sure that you are heard. Don’t be confrontational or accusatory, but be firm. “I feel” and “we feel” statements are useful, because they state an opinion, and not an arguable fact. (But make sure that you have the rest of the group’s permission to speak for them.)
This step is where you can most easily co-opt the problem player. Rules Lawyer? Rein him in, but use him as a resource. Roll (or Rule) Player? Offer mechanical incentives to roleplay, and hope he ‘gets it’. Spotlight Hog? Put him at the far end of the table, so you can focus on others.
Has anyone else talked to the problem player about this? Do they have the same shared assumptions and expectations as the rest of the group? Are they gaming for the same or similar reasons as everyone else? Do they understand that their actions are disruptive? Are they going to do anything about it?
Reassess — Many times, a good talk and occasional reminder is all it takes to reform a problem player. But old habits die hard, some ne’er-do-wells will reform only long enough for the storm to blow over, and some assholes just never get it. Check back with the rest of the group to see if things are truly better, or if they’re just being quiet because they don’t want to cause any more trouble.
Is Johnny still taking five minutes per turn? Does he still separate from the party every session? Is he still pestering you about his Compleat Munchkin feats?
Intervene — This is the last chance at the negotiating table, and it can be as ugly, or as solemn and respectful as you like. Here, it’s not just the GM having a chat with the problem player, but the entire group telling him that things aren’t working out. This step isn’t absolutely necessary, but hearing “you’re being a jerk” from a table full of fellow gamers can be far more powerful than hearing it from that rat-bastard GM who wouldn’t let you do what you wanted in the first place.
The best policy is to be respectful of everyone at the table. Otherwise, it could escalate to the next step real fast. (This is only a bad thing if it’s not what you intended.)
Dismissal — You’ve talked to the player, everyone’s talked to the player, and it just isn’t working out. Be quick and professional, like a nurse who has to remove a sticky bandage. Do not make promises of future gaming, or try to commiserate; just do it and move on.
(* DSM-IV – The fourth and most recent edition of the Dungeonmaster’s Survival Manual, also known as the Dungeonmaestronomicon. I’ll probably get in trouble just acknowledging its existence in public.)