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What Should You Do When One of Your Players is Pissed?

If you GM for long enough, it’s inevitable: at some point, a situation will come up in-game that really ticks one of your players off.

It might be your fault, or it might not, but either way a pissed-off player can have a poisonous effect on a gaming session — whether they mean to or not.

So what should you do?

1. Take a Break

It doesn’t matter whether your player is justifiably or unjustifiably pissed, or even if they’re pissed about the game itself. If you don’t take a break, the Gaming Session Express is going to go off the tracks, possibly with casualties.

Take five, and put that time to good use. The goal is to resolve the situation (or as much of it as possible) and restore the group’s mood to normal. Nothing casts a pall over a game quite like a player who’s sitting there fuming, even if they’re trying to make the best of it.

2. Talk to the PO’d Player

Before you can resume the session, you need to have a quick, informal chat with the player in question — on your own, not in front of the rest of the group. Lead with something along the lines of “Hey, is everything okay?” and then go from there.

If the player says “I don’t want to talk about it,” explain that until you find out what’s wrong, you’re not sure it’d be a good idea to restart the session. If they still won’t tell you what’s up, take a mental step back and ask yourself whether or not the session should go on.

If you decide to stop, don’t blame it on the ticked-off player — just say you’ve decided it’s time to call it a night, and leave it at that.

3. Respond to the Player’s Concern

This is a pretty fuzzy step — it depends entirely on what the player is pissed off about, and there are too many options to come up with a general plan of attack.

In general terms, though, it’s most likely to be something they disagreed with that happened in-game, or something you or another player did that bugged them on a personal level.

If it’s a game-related problem: Did you make a GMing error that you can fix? Is the player bored because they have nothing to do? Are they upset about something that happened to their character? Is being ticked now really the end result of having been annoyed about something for several sessions?

If it’s a personal issue: Do the players involved generally get along? Do you need to have a quick chat with the other player, too? Is it something that they can work out themselves before you start up again? (If it’s a major personal issue, that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Even if you’re not able to resolve the problem on the spot, there’s a good chance that committing to sorting it out before the next session will be a good start. As long as the player isn’t still inwardly seething about it, get rolling again.

4. Get Back to the Game

Try to start the session back up as soon as possible, and with a minimum of fuss. Do a quick “So, when we left out intrepid heroes…” recap, and jump right back into the action.

And even if Bob, the pissed-off player, was kind of being a dick, don’t say “Now that Bob’s done being a dick, we can start playing again.” Take the high road and set an example for your group.

These are pretty simple steps, but in the heat of the moment — especially if you’ve never dealt with an upset player before — it can be handy to have a script to follow.

How have you dealt with pissed-off players in your own games?

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#1 Comment By Cody Jones On July 13, 2007 @ 6:11 am

Spot on. In the one or two experiences I’ve had with a PO’ed player, I think acknowledging the problem is the most important part, even if it doesn’t get completely sorted out then and there. Also, getting back to the game quickly helps to defuse the situation as well.

#2 Comment By VV_GM On July 13, 2007 @ 6:22 am

I think that this advice is solid, but I’ve had one player that this approach wouldn’t work with. He was an incredibly sore loser, so much that if the dice weren’t going his way he would do childish things like throw them. If his character got hit in combat he would get pissed.

At first I thought it was my GMing style, so I stepped down and asked someone else in the group to run a couple of games. The player had the same outbursts with a different GM, and when we had a night of board and video games the same thing happened then too.

There was nothing we could do to convince this guy to calm down and just let it go when things went against him. We had to ask him to leave the group because we couldn’t tolerate the outbursts anymore.

#3 Comment By Micah On July 13, 2007 @ 6:45 am

Although you never came out and said it, I like the fact that there was a definite message of “Don’t embarrass the person.” in this post.

Whenever there is some sort of conflict, the players will naturally look to the DM. If the DM starts tossing blame or pointing fingers, the whole situation will quickly collapse.

If everyone can save face and walk away with dignity, it will go a long way to resolving the conflict.

#4 Comment By Telas On July 13, 2007 @ 9:20 am

^ True that. ^

“Praise in public, criticize in private.”
– Vince Lombardi

When in a disagreement with someone who makes a foolish statement/action, I try to give them a way out that saves face.

Well, only once or twice… After that, they’re just an asshole.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On July 13, 2007 @ 9:44 am

“Take the high road and set an example for your group.” That is definitely solid advice for everyone, but especially as a Game Master. It takes effect in more than just this too. You’ve got to take the “high road” in a lot of planning and development of your session to make sure that the players have fun. You have to take the “high road” when a situation changes, or people seem to be losing interest in whatever you had planned. It just highlights the path that a Game Master walks in running a game.

Dealing with players who aren’t happy is not a fun thing to do, but the post is spot on about how to do it. Isolate, find out why, fix if possible, and don’t make the situation worse or lay blame.

#6 Comment By stupidranger On July 13, 2007 @ 4:49 pm

Great advice; letting the negative emotions continue really just ruins the atmosphere for everyone. I think that taking a break can sometimes be the most important part of handling the situation; everyone needs to get away for a few minutes from a bad situation in order to gain perspective.

#7 Comment By bignose On July 14, 2007 @ 7:15 pm

It seems to be mainly in the USA that “pissed” means “angry”. In many other English-speaking places, it means “drunk”. The equivalent for “angry” is “pissed off”, which you also used in the article to mean the same thing.

So, I was rather confused when I started reading; the title leads me to believe that we’re talking about players who are drunk, and the included image looks very much like a bottle with a pool of red wine around it 🙂

#8 Comment By Mallmus On July 15, 2007 @ 8:39 am

Before I tell you my experience with a PO’ed player I also thought this post was about players coming to the game drunk, being ‘pissed’ means being drunk in Britain 😀

Occasionally someone gets pissed-off in one of my games, and when this does happen I’ve unfortunately tried to just carry on and not take it to one side and sort it… I’ll try out your advice here, I can’t see it not working.

At my last game on Thursday a player started to get pissed off because the session wasn’t turning out as he’d expected, the session previously had been high-action and high-adventure, this weeks was more toned down with investigation and mystery – he started to get frustraighted that there was more talking than fighting, which he saw as pointless… eventually he got so pisses-off that he began to sabotage the game which fortunately happened to be around 2am and time for the session to end anyway.

I could see him being persistent and continuing to deliberately ruin things because he was pissed-off, what sort of advice can anyone give for that type of player? – In this situation I feel taking him to one side and chatting to him might not work… what do you think?

#9 Comment By varianor On July 15, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

I would just add that it’s a good idea to publish or verbally publish to your players how you do handle a problem. I.e. that you’ll stop the game *briefly* to deal with it. Good article. I thank my lucky stars that I haven’t had one of these players in a long, long time.

#10 Comment By adrian On July 20, 2007 @ 6:26 pm

Mallmus, I totally agree with what Martin said about your player. It might be that you need to explain that different sessions will have different emphasis so that different players get a chance to use their skills and shine. Ask him if he thinks its ok for the campaign to have a switch in focus away from combat and if he could be patient during those sessions, as those who are less “into” combat must be patient during the biffo.

If he can’t accept that, then either you have a couple of choices. The player may not fit with the campaign you want to run, in which case you might have to ask him to leave. Alternatively, you might decide that the campaign you’re running needs a different focus. What sort of characters do the players have? If they know the GM and campaign well, they will choose characters to fit, but if the campaign and/or GM are new, they will make the sort of characters they want to play. A straw poll of the character types and skills can give you an indication of what sort of campaign the players are “voting” for 🙂

A compromise would be to have his character ambushed in an alley every session whilst the others are investigating. A silly example, but I’m sure you get the idea. A little bit of combat put into the more “boring” sessions in order to keep the players interest and avoid trouble.

Which route you eventually follow will depend a lot on the campaign you’re trying to run, the other players, and this players response to your troubleshooting.

Good luck 🙂