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?