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 occupyÂ me for the next few hours until the nextÂ 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 upÂ unchecked and causing untold problems the PCs were supposed to be preventing.Â 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 worstÂ disruptive players, I’ve had to deal a bit harshly with some attentionÂ 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 yourÂ 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 disruptionÂ 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 Â 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?
Good article Angela. This topic is one that’s been on my mind for a long time. I’ve had players behaving exactly like that. The solution that I have, while not guaranteed to be a surefire success, has thus far worked very well for my groups with deviating players – basically, to establish an unspoken contract in Session 0 that an RPG is a cooperative game, and under no circumstances should players choose to pursue their own agendas, whether in-character or not, unless it is a part of the main quest or agreed upon by the majority of the players. I keep emphasising over and over again the idea of group-think rather than individual-think; so far players have taken well to this idea. There will still be players trying to be funny, of course, but that’s why I allow the rest of the group i.e. the proper players to drown out the deviating player’s voice on occasion, so as to steer him/her on course.
It amazes me the number of players that still don’t quite get that. Even if you’re focused on your own character, think of the game like an ensemble cast in a movie or a TV show. If the focus of the game is too unbalanced on any one character, the game isn’t as good as it could be.
When I was younger I ran games with an “open door” policy. Anyone who was eager to roleplay could join in, and I accepted any character that wasn’t obviously destructive. That led to some wild conflicts. There were players who showed up drunk, players who showed up infrequently, players who wanted to rob everyone in town rather than hunt the marauders in the countryside the baron hired them to find, etc. The conflict that made me realize I needed to take a more active hand, though, was between two very sincere players. One had a character with a personality like Superman (honest, straight arrow, friendly) while another had one best described as The Joker. You know that group’s not going to last long!
From these trials by fire I realized it was important to bring everyone– players and GM– together before the start of the game to agree on things. The setting. The broad story arc. The tone of the game. The characters and the way they work together and with other people. It’s not about “writing a contract” so much as reaching a consensus. This approach makes it easy to pick out who the jerk players are and exclude them. And it also identifies cases where a sincere player has a preferred style that just doesn’t fit with the game or with the desires of the rest of the group. Using this approach in the last several LT games I’ve started, both as a GM and a player, we’ve build some remarkably cohesive groups of characters.
Setting the ground rules are crucial when you’re integrating new players together in a game. Creating characters together as a group can help figure out where people want to go with their characters and possibly highlight those trouble spots.
Great article Ang. One of my first experiences at Origins Game Fair was dealing with not one but four players who were there to make their own fun. It was a Dread game. It was a serious event. I knew the minute I looked at their character sheets that the scenario was going to go south quickly. They had been drinking…a lot. They were still drinking, sneaking sips from 32oz containers of some booze and mixer. They thought they were sneaky.
Dread has a built in mechanism for dealing with highly problematic players. Pull..pull again. Keep pulling until you die. They were very very good at Jenga. Ultimately, I altered the scenario(one that we had published) on the fly so that if the game ever ran again the other two players would not have the scenario end point ruined. I ended the game earlier then normal with a “oh look…you guys won. Good job.” We gave the two other players generics to make up for their loss of time and experience.
No amount of game control could rein these jokers in. They were having a good time and were the majority. It was not fun for me or the other players. No amount of conversation would have benefited because they were half in the bag and fresh out of f…cares.
I wonder how obnoxious the players would have been without the alcohol. Of course, at that point, they deliberately showed up to a game smashed for shenanigans at the expense of others. I do know that I have seen alcohol make otherwise good players go a little chaotic evil.
We once had a regular at the FLGS that was a problem player. He would show up for any and every game, 6 days a week, with poor personal hygiene and generally obnoxious mannerisms. He was not liked, but frequently made comments that built a picture of an unstable individual that might turn up with a weapon if someone set him off. He was a good customer to the FLGS so they weren’t inclined to ask him to stop coming, and neither were we given our concerns. So, we just put up with it, for a couple years. My solution was to stop playing at said FLGS altogether, but I wish I’d had some tools to better handle the situation. I think a lot of people felt bad for him and there were often open seats at the table so it was difficult to turn him away. On the one hand we tried to be inclusive and just put up with it, but other times it was a struggle to not leap across the table wielding double-backhand-slaps. Even now, 20 years later, I get a chill thinking about it and despite having honed my GM and interpersonal skills, I’m still not sure how I’d handle this.
That’s a real shame you had to walk away from a FLGS to get away from a bad player. I’d like to think that modern FLGS’ understand that they need to cull the bad players to keep the good ones around, but I’m sure there are plenty still operating under older social contracts. The Geek Social Fallacies really do point out how we can be far too forgiving of people who don’t deserve it, simply because we don’t want to be exclusionary.
This actually destroyed a 10 year friendship for me, largely because I put up with three “boon companions” who habitually checked out as the game rolled (nose deep in their cellphones, drunk or otherwise couldn’t have cared less) or who actively sabotaged it with dudebro sex banter and teenage drama. I had many other devoted friends/players try to wake me up to it but I was determined to endure it for these three I considered practically family.
Once it finally reached the point where I realized they were in it JUST for the sabotage, I woke up. And quickly put a 2 year campaign in the grave to be rid of them. It’s been a year since I’ve seen them. I’ve fired up countless games with new and more passionate players. And I couldn’t be happier. Such a difference invested players can make.
GMing is a daily baptism of fire. All one can do is keep your eyes open, learn from these mistakes and then try to adapt and improve for the next time. To paraphrase a great Prussian general “No plan ever survives contact with the players”.
Sorry you had to lose a friendship (or three) over this. I do know that some friends are just not meant to be gamed with. I have at least one friend that I used to game with back in the day, but I’d really rather not play at the same table with him any longer. Either he’s changed, or I’ve just become more aware of the rules lawyering and cheating. Regardless, I’ll keep him as a friend, but I won’t roll dice with him.
Glad you’ve had much better gaming experiences since, though.
I recently had one potential player I worried was going to be a problem for the group, despite intentions. (Game never materialized: I got a job elsewhere and moved.) It’s a Changeling: The Lost chronicle, and I was going to emphasize keeping up the masquerade, since the freehold recently attracted the attention of an MIB-like group just before the start of the game. I was planning on giving my players a one-on-one IC interview where I played the Autumn court’s Champion, who was looking to recruit the PC’s motley. And ensure that the new guys weren’t a pack of loyalist infiltrators.
When we got to equipment in writing up his character sheet, his first question was “how many knives can I carry?” He was bragging about his roleplaying skills while basically making a murder hobo assassin with a cliche “I’m a weapon, not a person” attitude that the Champion would interpret as a neon sign saying “I’m a low-Clarity Loyalist” if he said it out loud. I warned him about the problems with his character, and started planning the interview in my head. Basically, if he didn’t show me he could fake sanity or display some depth, my NPC was going to signal his own assassin to pull the trigger.
Interview never happened, so I never found out.
The guys over at Gaming and BS (awesome podcast) have mentioned the guy who makes ‘the dumb boxer’ as a PC for an intensely investigative Cthulhu game before. It can be really tough when you get someone who obviously doesn’t care what type of game you’re trying to run and makes the character they want to play regardless, ensuring neither of you are going to have fun. Glad to hear you never had to find out how much of a problem he was going to be. 🙂
I ran into a player like this once in a Serenity game, his first character was called M.D.L (short for Murder Death Kill) and was more or less a wannabe reaver. After vetoing the char he wrote a new one, a mechanic that seemed like a run of the mill Serenity character with some interesting flaws and a good backstory that fit well with the premise of the group.
Unfortunately during play he tried to play the mechanic as a secretive serial killer, complete with a toolbox of body parts he’d taken from his former victims and trying to subtly find ways to off various NPC’s the crew ran into (with hints of wanting to off the crew eventually.)
Given his only purpose seemed to be to derail the game and sow discord within the group, and he was (is?) best friends with the player whose house we were gaming at I tried talking to him first (and got the typical “I’m just playing in character, improvising his background and trying to have fun” excuse) so was left with finding an in game route to solve the issue.
( I simply had the crew receive a bounty notice from the Core Worlds that he was wanted on suspicion of multiple homicides, let them find his tool box of mementos and the crew quietly drugged and air locked his character rather than turn him in for the bounty and risk being associated with the psycho.)
The player naturally threw a huge fuss over his character “being murdered without a chance to fight back and it’s not fair;” but fortunately since everyone else was just “playing in character” his complaint fell on deaf ears and he left the table as a result.
Ever since that incident, I feel a emphatic swell of pity every time hear about other groups tables that had to deal with such players who seem to think ruining the game for everyone else is somehow more fun than playing it.
I think I may need to write an article talking about how “I was just playing my character” is not a defense for being a jerk…
It was very clever to let the other PCs solve the problem for you. By having them resolve the situation with a convenient airlock was quite expedient. I’m curious, though, did any of the players hesitate to space him because he was a PC? I have seen some situations where a decent players are twisting their PCs into pretzels to try and justify the continued presence of a troublesome PC. It took stating out loud that someone was acting out of character because the problem was another PC to actually get things to resolve.
Everyone needs to write an article about that, since some people just never seem to get the memo. I should probably get to work on one, myself. Started an Obsidian Portal wiki on my setting of Buena Vista after I moved, so I should probably get some of that in the character creation guidelines.
Major points I think I’d touch on:
1) You’re not the star. If you were, it’d be a solo game. You’re part of an ensemble.
2) This isn’t theater. While staying true to your character is important, you’re also playing a game. We’re here to enjoy ourselves, and inter-party conflict can easily ruin that.
3) Being true to your character is only worthwhile if your character is worth our time. Pay attention to character creation guidelines and how your character fits in the setting.
4) There’s enough scary stuff out there without the team turning on itself. If you think “one of us is a traitor” would make for an interesting story arc and are volunteering to be said traitor, discuss it with me beforehand, so that I can consider facilitating that fear instead of the external ones I have in mind already.
5) If you don’t get the message, I can just ask you to leave and retcon your character out of existence. I’m not that desperate for players. Or I can encourage the other players to carry out their in-character response to your nonsense. Don’t expect me to fudge the rules or dice in your favor if the latter happens.
The group were pretty hard core role players, and since the character in question had a tool box of body parts, and was wanted for multiple murders, the group seemed more worried about their characters being his next victims, more than worrying about him being a fellow PC. (For the past several sessions before that, his char had been complimenting the ships medic on having incredibly beautiful eyes/enchanting gaze, which when she found a pair or ocular organs in the tool box, unsettled the entire crew greatly,)
The medic also raised the valid point that if the crew was known to be associating with the serial killer they would likely find themselves outcasts on the rim at best, and go down as his accomplices at worst, so they wanted him disappeared as quickly as possible. (And the drugging/airlock method was settled on as being the least risky, and had the least chance of damaging the ship compared to a more physical confrontation.)
This kind of player are not so rare, as someone a would like it.
Last time it was on a Star Wars Force & Destiny game. This player immediately choose to play a smuggler. We agreed that he should be the pilot and that we have group cash. On every turn of the game he started to be annoying, by not giving cash or the possibility to ride the star ship. Then his character threatened other characters and when the story didn’t fit him, his character went berserk.
Over time I got a zero tolerance politic for this players. If someone argues at my gaming table with ‘I’m just roleplaying’ it always raises a red flag. If it happens twice, he can look for new gaming round. It may sound harsh, but the problem is never solved through the game and I’m not their psychiatrist.
I do try and be understanding and help a little in getting people to better integrate into groups, but you’re right. We GMs are not paid psychiatrists and there’s only so much we can do to help someone. Sometimes you may be doing more harm than good by letting them continue bad behavior because it’s too uncomfortable to confront them about it.
Sometimes it can also be a lack of understanding the premise of the game that causes a player to be a problem. If the problem players only prior (or recent) role playing experience has been games where inter-party conflict was core to the setting, (Paranoia, Fiasco, etc.) Or playing deeply flawed/twisted characters was the norm, (Kult, some versions Vampire The Masquerade or Mage the Ascension, etc,) then they may not fully grasp that this particular game is different.
Thankfully though with such players a short out of game chat about the problem can help them adjust their play style, (rarely) or help them realize that your table isn’t compatible with the kind of games they like play (which was what happened to me in one case many years ago.) and they’ll amicably move on rather than be a continual disruption.
Holding your tongue and not making it clear there’s a problem in my experience only serves to exasperate the problem, and gives those deliberate problem players the handy excuse of, “If it was a problem someone would of said something long before now” should the situation ever be addressed in the future.
Of course should the problem be adressed. But I did stop the endless discussion that I’ve done before. How often did it happen that not only I was trying to help, but others players also involved themselves to rescue the poor, misunderstood soul. These troublemaker get what they wanted and hogged the spotlight.
Interestingly it was never about so called complicated characters, like they appear in Kult, the Sabbath or Nobilis. Often this kind of player chooses something simple, because they know the particular rules (or sheated) to wrest control from the GM.
Most of my experience with this sort of thing was as a kid. It’s one thing when you’re in high school and some kid is being a jerk. But I seriously do NOT have time for this BS as an adult. I basically interview new players like they’re applying for a job, or I need another player to vouch for the newbie. Filtering up front like this goes a long way to preventing the dumb happening at the table. (It also tends to build really good groups). And if it still happens even after this, I’m nice about it, but the reaction is the same: buh-bye! The world gets 6 days a week to be an ass face to me. Thou shalt not sully the 7th.
Yeah, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in one of my groups several years ago when a player tried to invite someone to the game without actually checking to see if the rest of us wanted to game with this new person. For me, it’s often a group decision that needs to be made, but we also treat GMing as a collective round-robin rather than a one-man (or woman) show.
From my experience, anyway, I see a correlation between the sabotaging player and a -much- more common problem, the power-tripping GM. You know the type, not the one who railroads because he or she genuinely thinks that it’s the best way to go, but one who clearly gets a kick out of controlling the PC’s (and thus the players) in ways that they can’t do outside the game. In my experience, someone who does this likes to be GM because they perpetually have the spotlight, can do their controlling more easily, etc.
One time, we had this GM be a player in someone else’s game, and the results were quite similar to all the horror stories in the article and the comments: It started off slow, with the player just butting into conversations to interrupt them, to try to get the spotlight. Everyone else would have none of it, so the player’s antics quickly got worse. Ultimately, he attacked a warblade prisoner, turning a peaceful foe into someone who started unloading his powerful maneuvers into us. Everyone had enough of that, so the guy runs off and abandons the party, throwing an arcane hand grenade at us as he goes. He certainly had the spotlight throughout that final encounter, though!
The point is, the personality of the disruptive player might be an offshoot of a much more common problem in GM’ed RPGs. Naturally, this is not the only reason why a player could be disruptive – maybe, for instance, the player’s objective is to vent anger, rather than wresting the spotlight from everyone. I propose that we could use our knowledge of the aforementioned GM archetype to help understand and deal with a good number of these disruptive players. I don’t have much practical experience in GM’ed RPGS, so this task is beyond me for now, but possibly my words could inspire someone else to give insight.
Yeah, there’s always a danger that the GM is provoking the disruption in how he made the game. It makes for a good reason to communicate with your players, so you won’t be forcing them onto rails or leaving them to meander without direction. While there are problem players who just like to mess with GMs, don’t be quick to assume you’ve got someone with that motivation.