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Problem Players

A few months ago, Tazo asked [1] in the Suggestion Pot [2] that the Gnomes tackle the issue of problem players, specifically mentioning ‘the Munchkin, the Overactor, and He of the Chronically Bad Ideas’

I wrestled with the topic for a bit, and then fell back and called for backup. (“Gnometron [3], 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).

Treatment Plan

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 [4] and here [5].)

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.)

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Problem Players"

#1 Comment By xero On May 14, 2009 @ 5:25 am

What about players that just plain suck without fitting into any of the archetypes? Boring, prone to distraction, horrible rules comprehension, consistent tardiness, absence, and underpreparedness, disruptive, etc.?

#2 Comment By Rafe On May 14, 2009 @ 6:44 am

[6] – You still follow that process. Those steps are universal to any issue, really.

Ultimately, if the person isn’t a fit (as per Dismissal above).

Good stuff, Kurt!

#3 Comment By Nicholas On May 14, 2009 @ 8:14 am

Gamers I’ve noticed are very hesitant to use the dismissal option.

In any other context is someone was being a jerk and wrecking everyone’s fun, there would be no question about throwing them out of the group.

I think gamers as a group are reluctant to outcast anyone because most of us remember being outcasts ourselves.

#4 Comment By Cole On May 14, 2009 @ 8:47 am

I have a slightly different approach to problem players.

If the problem player cannot or will not respond to subtle hints by the group, I will give the problem player another session or two to see if the problem solves itself. If it doesn’t, I will tell the person not to come back.

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 14, 2009 @ 9:45 am

Great list!

Dismissal can be a problem for a number of reasons:

1. You play at the problem player’s house.

2. The problem player is your friend.

3. Losing a player drops your group below critical mass.

4. The problem player may be the “ride” or buddy of another player, meaning if you dismiss one you lose both.

5. You need to ensure that you’re fair, or at least perceived as being fair. If you dismiss one person while allowing another person (who’s seen by the other players as even more annoying) then it’ll cause problems.

Ultimately, if you’re going to wield the Dismissal bat, you have to be prepared to accept the consequences (and sometimes no game is better than a crappy game).

#6 Comment By BryanB On May 14, 2009 @ 9:50 am

Good article Kurt. Communication in these matters is indeed critical to group success. I also believe that this is less of a problem for older and more mature (hopefully) groups.

@Nicholas – Many gamers suffer from geek fallacies. In particular, that dismissal of a gamer from a game group is akin to sleeping with a good friend’s wife or the severing of a long friendship over money owed. For some reason, there is a commonly held dogma that one must keep a person in the group to avoid ending a friendship. I would argue that the two are not intertwined, even though I can understand the emotional concerns.

#7 Comment By Hawkesong On May 14, 2009 @ 9:59 am

I have an unusual “problem player” in that she understand rules – what she doesn’t understand she tends to make an effort to learn, at least once it impacts her character. She isn’t rude at the table, and she isn’t a spotlight hog: exactly the opposite in fact!

The problem the group has with her – and every player at the table has mentioned this to me – is that she does nothing. Nothing at all. She rolls when she’s told to, but she never roleplays, never interacts, and if we ask her “so what do you do?” she tends to reply more often than not with “I don’t know.”

In the campaign we’re running, the characters spend a great deal of time talking and interacting with each other: a game where speaking up and having some idea of what your character wants to do is key. When I proposed the campaign, this player was eager to play. Now that we’re well into the campaign, she’s on her second character: her first character was so dismally boring that the player had the character drink herself to death rather than continue play.

But the player didn’t want to drop the campaign. So now she muddles through a largely non-combat game with a pure-combat character: a straight fighter, former gladiator. And she *still* can’t string two words together in a social interaction.

I’ve tried talking with the player in an attempt to build some encounters around her character. This failed utterly, as she told me what she wanted to do, then sat at the session completely silent and unresponsive despite all my work. I’ve tried just discussing the issue with her and pointing out that she really has to say *something* during the game.

The group tried to talk about the issue, deciding that perhaps we all were to blame: we instituted a kind of “social initiative” so that everyone would be guaranteed a turn.

Even on her turn, without having to risk interrupting anyone and being rude, she still didn’t have anything to contribute.

My other players are frustrated, I’m frustrated, and yet we all want to avoid dismissal: because this nonresponsive player is the woman whose house we play at!! If nothing else it would force us to cram ourselves into a room half the size of the one we currently game in.

So what else could we possibly do with such an “odd man out” player? Is there no other choice now but to cut our losses and find a new place to play?

#8 Comment By John Arcadian On May 14, 2009 @ 10:30 am

Great article! I love the ACRID approach. Dismissal would be a hard one for me though. I usually game with my friends, because they are my friends. So if there is a problem, it will likely be taken care of with communication.

#9 Comment By kenmarable On May 14, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

[7] – Personally, it sounds to me like there might be 3 possible causes (in my armchair psychologizing).

1) Insecurity – If she is not comfortable interacting more, then taking turns or creating situations geared specific to her PC just put even more pressure on and will only further discourage rather than encourage interaction. If this might be the case, I’d say just give up and accept that, at least for now, she won’t interact much at all. You might be surprised that a) her inactivity really doesn’t impact others’ enjoyment if they just accept it, and b) taking the pressure completely off might do the trick to get to slowly begin to interact more.

2) Unfamiliarity – I’ve played RPGs for long, I can’t even imagine not knowing what to do. But it could be possible that for some people there is a steep learning curve figuring out this role-playing thing. If she is newer to RPGs, then I’d suggest, again easing up the pressure and frustration, and instead when she doesn’t know what to do, offer some suggestions. Sort of “Do you want to try A or B?” After a while, it can be less multiple choice and more leading questions “The guard looks shady and might be willing to, you know, take a bribe. What would you like to do?” With time and practice it might become easier.

3) Different play style – This can be frustrating as well, but maybe she just doesn’t enjoy interaction as much. However, if she wanted to stick with the campaign, she must be enjoying some aspect of it. (Maybe killing off her old character was just trying to please everyone else and not that she was bored with the PC.) Maybe she does only like combat, but is willing to sit through hours and hours of non-combat for those few moments. If that’s the case, I’d say that’s fine. Maybe she just enjoys hanging out with people even if she isn’t interacting much*. If she is enjoying herself, let her be. As with #1, I’d guess that if everyone just accepted her play style, and let go of the frustration of trying to make her play how the rest of the group plays, I’d think her inactivity wouldn’t really take away from everyone else’s fun.

* For myself, I’m this way with card games. I enjoy sitting around with friends or family as they play euchre or poker or whatever and just watching, chatting, making some occasional play suggestions. Once they deal me in, my enjoyment plummets and I just suffer through. For some people it can be fun to just be minimally involved on the periphery. And that’s ok.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 14, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

[7] – If she’s enjoying herself, leave it be. If we all liked exactly the same things, it’d be a boring world.

Just a thought: If the rest of the group has a problem with her play style, then you might want to talk to them about it, not her.

And what, nobody liked Gnometron? *shrug* Like I said, everybody doesn’t have to like the same stuff.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On May 14, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

[8] – I like Gnometron. Just one question. When we form Gnometron, why do I always have to be the belt buckle?????

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 14, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

[9] – Why do I always have to be the crotch?

#13 Comment By Rafe On May 15, 2009 @ 7:42 am

[8] – I totally agree. Unless the other players feel it’s a problem, I wouldn’t worry about it. She’s there each game, seems to enjoy combat (based on the fact she plays totally combat-oriented characters) so it’s all good.

Follow-up question: Is she the significant other of someone at the table?

A suggestion: If time allows, you could always try a one-on-one, single-session adventure with her and see if she’s more responsive. If not, well… it goes back to what Kurt said: If she’s happy, let’er be.

I’ve only ever seen a Dismissal used once. One player was a serious issue, and we all talked to the DM (who also felt the same, if not more strongly). A consideration was that we were playing at his place… and his wife was also playing. Our main issue was how he was basically using his wife’s PC for his own PC’s ends (to gain spotlight moments) and just outright heckling and yelling at her. In the end, the DM told him, “Sorry, we’re not standing for it. You’re out and, unfortunately by association, so is your wife.” We switched games to the DM’s house and picked up two more players (friends of mine) and the campaign persisted another 1.5 years to its wondrous, epic finale.

#14 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 18, 2009 @ 10:52 am

[7] – You totally need to build a campaign completely around that player. Not because it would “fix” her playstyle or anything, just because it would be complete and utter blast. Try out this forumla:
Work closely with her to make her character and make sure that she knows only one language and it’s an obscure one, or is mute and only speaks sign language or something similar. Then, it’s clear why she never says anything. She can’t!
Now, work with another player. Make sure it’s your most ham-it-up over-the-top showboater. Make sure that they build a charisma-based fast talker of questionable morality who shares both a common language with the rest of the group and the obscure language of your non-talker.
Everyone else can make whatever characters they want as long as they don’t take that obscure language.

Now, the premise of the campaign is this: The fast-talker and the quiet girl are friends, and have been for some time. The fast-talker has managed to con both the rest of the group into believing that the quiet girl is some kind of prophecied hero in the flesh, and the quiet girl that nothing unusual is going on. Since he’s the only conduit between the two groups, he edits communications heavily to keep up his ruse and see to it that he and his friend are as well taken care of as he can.
Then, whenever quiet girl has nothing to contribute, fast-talker can lean in close, “listen” intently, then spit out a completely made up story of what she “said”.
Wacky hijinks ensue. Weather the girl is actually a chosen one or not is comepletely up to you.