What do you do when a player at the table deliberately subverts the stated goals of the other players? Or when that player does things simply to mess with the GM? What do you do with a player that acts like they want to be there and play the game, but when they’re actually in the middle of the game, they just want to set it all on fire and watch the world burn?
A small, sad little con I attended many years ago found me sitting in on a D&D game I wasn’t really interested in. Unfortunately, it was the only option on the schedule during that particular time slot and there wasn’t much else going on to occupy me for the next few hours until the next time slot. In this particular game, all of the PCs were siblings that had been adventuring together for some time. The hook was that they had been requested to leave their home city and go investigate a magical disturbance in the countryside. There was a brief period of supplies and information gathering, but before we could actually get past the city gates, one of the players decided his character was going to turn his brother (one of the other PCs and a rogue) in to the city guard. At that moment, it didn’t matter to him what the rest of us wanted out of the game. Before we could even get to the meat of the adventure, he decided it would be more fun to mess with another PC than play the game the GM was running.
Back then, I didn’t have the gaming vocabulary I have today, but even then this pissed me off. First, he completely disregarded the background of these characters. They were siblings who had stood together through thick and thin for years. Everything in the background pointed to them being able to work together despite differing opinions on how to get a particular job done. Second, there was no good way to deal with the problem this arrest caused without completely delaying the rest of the game. If we had abandoned the brother that had been turned in, that player would have missed the rest of the game, and I sure as heck wasn’t putting up with that. If we attacked the city guard to break him out, the characters would have lost their home (not to mention the brother that turned him in). If we tried to fight the charges through legal channels, that would most likely have been incredibly boring and the impending doom of the magical threat in the countryside would have ended up unchecked and causing untold problems the PCs were supposed to be preventing. Players freedom of choice is an absolute in RPGs, but this wasn’t deciding to go left instead of right. It was taking the whole wagon cart and driving it over the cliff, Thelma and Louise style. Without the hand holding.
(I later learned this player had a history of behavior like this. He’s been banned from many a group in the region for similar and worse behavior.)
Luckily these misanthropic players have been relatively rare throughout my gaming experience. Still, it happens often enough that most gamers have at least one similar horror story, and I’ve met one or two others over the years that attempted similar disruptions. So, what do you do?
If you’re the GM, player management is one of the skills you need to have or develop anyway. It can be difficult to discern if a player is truly trying to mess with the game, or if they’re just taking things in a direction you didn’t expect. Every GM learns the struggle of planning for your players to do A, only to have them do B. That’s something you need to cope with and adapt to, but occasionally there will be a player who thinks in radically different ways and decides to do Q. If that divergent player is interfering with the fun of the rest of the table, you still have to corral them back into the same play space as everyone else. Inexperienced players will often veer off into unexpected territory, but they’re usually a bit easier to nudge towards the rest of the players. There are also players who are used to a more chaotic game, where the status quo is to try and break the GM’s game and run wild. Sometimes a conversation to manage expectations on both sides of the table can help. If you can’t get them back into the flow with everyone else, don’t hesitate to sideline them, at least temporarily, so you can focus on everyone else at the table. While not the worst disruptive players, I’ve had to deal a bit harshly with some attention hogs over the years, so the spotlight of the game can get to the other players.
If you’ve ruled out the more benign kinds of disruption, but you’ve still got someone causing problems at your table, you’ve got some work in front of you.
For one shots, you’ve got less room to maneuver. Very often, players have paid to be at that convention or event and play in your game. You owe them the best game you can give them, so if one player is making that difficult, it’s your duty to deal with it. Use all your in-game tricks to try and reign them in, but if that fails, call for a 5 minute break and have a frank talk with the problematic player. If that doesn’t work, it is okay to ask them to leave. You may have to explain your reasons to the event organizers, but you’ve got a responsibility to the other players at your table to give them a good game too. I’ve personally never had to take it so far as to eject a player from a game, but I have had to talk to players about their behavior before.
If you’re dealing with a disruptive player in your regular campaign, you may have a little more time to try and address the issue, but it becomes even more crucial that it gets dealt with. When every single session revolves around one player running rough shod over the other players and the game world, the rest of your players will eventually start to check out. Some may even stop bothering to show up to the game. You don’t want to lose your good players just to keep one disruptive player happy. The same rules for dealing with a problem player in a one shot apply to a campaign, even when that player may be a friend outside of the game.
Players, take note that you’re not powerless in these situations. When you run into a player that’s ruining your fun with a game, it’s okay to speak up. If the player is inexperienced or used to a different play style, your comment might be the note they need to adjust their behavior. In any case, it lets the GM know quite clearly that there is a problem at the table. In the example I talked about at the beginning of the article, the GM wasn’t very skilled and pretty much willing to let the loudest player push her around. Until someone else spoke up about the disruption being annoying, she was letting it happen and ignoring the other players at the table. It’s your game too, so don’t hesitate to speak up. As long as you do it politely and respectfully, it should be fine. Just don’t let it be an explosion that causes a whole host of other problems.
I’m a firm believer in assuming best intent and giving people second chances, but there is a line where you need to stand up in defense of your game and your players. Much of the advice given here can be applied to any type of problem player, but the disruptive and misanthropic ones can become an urgent issue that has to be addressed sooner rather than later.
I’m interested to hear other people’s stories about disruptive players. Have any of your games gone up in flames because one obnoxious player wants to watch the world burn?