Handling toxic players

Tips for handling problematic
players in a roleplaying game

Everybody knows one and nobody likes them. They’re the players who are always late for a session. The ones who always take the spotlight for themselves, leaving little screen time for others. They sabotage the plot just because “this is the way their character would act.” All these cases represent so-called “toxic players”, but there is a solution. Below is a brief guide on how to handle such players.

Impact: ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Difficulty: Expert

Time to read: 9 min

toxic player roleplaying game

What makes a toxic player?

A toxic or problematic player is someone who regularly disrupts the game’s flow and atmosphere. The gamut ranges from someone who ruins a touchingly sad scene by bursting out into laughter to players killing their whole group just for the “fun” of it. So, what sets these people apart from others? Often, they lack empathy for how their actions affect the other players’ feelings and the general mood at the gaming table.

They usually don’t want to upset anyone on purpose. They just don’t understand that their way of playing might spoil the fun for the rest of the group. And that’s what makes it so tough to get along with them. When you confront them with their misbehavior, they don’t view what they did as wrong and will likely become irritated.

The most annoying things
toxic players do

Here is a list of the most common things a player can do to irritate the GM or other players:

  • Rude behavior toward the other players (e.g. inappropriate remarks regarding race, gender, religious beliefs, etc.)
  • Sabotaging the plot (kill an important NPC, needlessly splitting up with the group)
  • Killing the atmosphere with inappropriate out-of-character remarks (e.g. cracking a joke during a sad or scary scene)
  • Hiding relevant information from the other players
  • Interrupting other players, not giving them a chance to speak, being too bossy
  • Interrupting the GM several times while he/she is describing a scene
  • Always arriving late to the gaming session
  • Playing with their smartphones and not paying attention to the game when they are bored
cheating player roleplaying game

When to address a problem

Picture this: The player characters are in a dark, damp crypt. They hear a distant scraping noise coming from a gloomy corridor. The atmosphere is creepy and sinister, fear lurks in every corner… Then one of the players yells, “Anyone else want pizza?” while waving his phone around. And poof! The atmosphere is gone! So, what now?

Should you, as the GM, openly criticize this player and kill what’s left of the atmosphere? Or should you generously ignore what’s happened and try to repair the atmosphere? In reality, it’s not only the GM who is annoyed by this disruptive behavior but the other players too. You can then feel the tension in the room, and not addressing the problematic player often makes things worse.

Don’t interrupt the game for too long…

Ideally, the GM tells this player that what he just did was harmful to the atmosphere – as short and brief as possible. What has often worked for me is to simply say, “Please don’t do that. This is ruining the atmosphere.” Avoid a long discussion with the player, as this would ruin what’s left of the mood of your session. In case the player won’t give in, it helps to say, “Let’s discuss this after the game. For now, let’s move on with the story.” The shorter the interruption to the game, the better.

…unless it’s a critical situation

There are some cases where you will have to pause the game. If one of your players decides to kill another player character in his sleep, for example, then the only option is to stop the game and discuss as a group whether or not this storyline is acceptable. But in most situations, a short and clear appeal to the problematic player will work out fine. Don’t worry, most players will immediately realize a mistake after you have told them.

tip for rpg gamemasters

Don’t let things slide. Deal with toxic players quickly. Otherwise one of the other players might quit, because they don’t enjoy playing with the group anymore.

How to address a problem
and give feedback

How should you tell a player that you’re unhappy with something they’ve said or done? Try to phrase your feedback from your own perspective. Don’t tell them, “You‘re always ruining the atmosphere” or “You‘re stealing the spotlight from the other players.” This comes across as reproachful. Instead, tell them how their actions are affecting you and the rest of the group. Try saying, “For me, it looks like…” or “I find that…” This softens your feedback considerably and makes it sound less like an accusation. And it lets the other person express their opinion without having to justify their actions right away.

Also, mention that your goal is to have fun together while creating an immersive atmosphere at the gaming table. Try to work together toward a common goal. Asking a third person (e.g. another player) for their opinion can also help. The third person usually has a more neutral view than the GM or the player causing the fuss. This can give the discussion a more objective spin.

giving feedback to problematic players

What if the issue can’t be solved?

If even a friendly discussion after the gaming session doesn’t solve the problem, then you might consider the fact that this person is not looking to settle the argument at all. Yes, people like that do exist. You might call them unwilling to compromise or simply antisocial. If you’ve got a toxic player in your group who values their own entertainment more than the fun of the whole group, here’s some friendly advice: Have them leave your group.

It might sound harsh, but there’s no other way to solve this dilemma. Discussing issues will only get you so far. If somebody is lacking empathy for their fellow players, this person won’t change their behavior. Even if this player had a crucial role in your campaign, or if you’re one player short without them, dump them! You won’t be happy with such a character in your gaming group and you should be able to find other eager players who will happily join the group and positively contribute to the game.

What if the toxic player
is a good friend?

Do make sure to address the issue with your friend outside of your gaming session. Having a discussion in front of the other players could make matters worse. Your friend will always expect you to be on their side, no matter what’s going on in the game session. So if you call them out in front the group, they might feel betrayed by you. The argument could easily escalate to the next level. Then it’s no longer about their behavior but about your friendship. If the problematic player is a good friend of yours, talk to them privately, maybe over a bottle of beer or with a piece of cake.

Aside from this, just treat them like you would treat anyone else. I get it, criticizing a friend is hard. But ask yourself this: If she/he is such a good friend, why are they behaving poorly during your sessions? A good friend will listen to your feedback and will try to find a way to have everyone at the table enjoy the game.

blaming other players at roleplaying game

For your entertainment: The worst cases of annoying players I’ve encountered

Enough theory. Now let’s take a look at some real-life examples. Here are my top three funny or weird cases of problematic players from my roleplaying past, including some advice on how to handle similar cases.

1. The one who’s always late

Some years ago, I had a player in my group who always arrived an hour late. When asked about this, he always replied, “I just don’t want to be too early. I hate waiting for the others.” He wasn’t exactly a guy to be reasoned with. Asking him to be on time did not work. He needed special treatment. So I told the others to be one hour late for the next few sessions. It took him two gaming nights until he had learned his lesson!

2. The lovebirds

One of the players wanted to bring her new boyfriend along; they had just recently fallen in love. During a five-hour gaming session, they spent the majority of it drooling over each other and kissing. They paid little attention to the game itself. It was a horrible experience for everyone else at the table. For the following gaming sessions, we had them sit on opposite sides of the table. It worked wonders to keep their attention focussed on the game.

3. The “everybody’s-against-me” player

There was this one guy who just could not lose. He blamed the other players and the GM for all of his failed actions and botched rolls. He kept interrupting the game to discuss how unfair the rules were. In this case, a friendly argument after the gaming session brought no solution. I remember him saying stuff like, “It’s just how my character would act” or “if you don’t do like I say, I’ll leave this group.” No sooner said, than done. We unanimously sent him on a solo quest and kept playing without him. Problem solved.

Yeah, discussions like these don’t always end well. But I hope that these tips for handling problematic players are helpful to you. I’d also love to hear about your stories regarding problematic players – leave a comment below :).

tabletop rpg players arguing

Summary: The three-step plan
to handle toxic players

Follow this easy 3-step process to handle players who are spoiling the fun at the gaming table.

SteP 1: Ask for a change of course

(works in 70% of all cases)
During the game, simply ask them to stop their disruptive behavior. Try to avoid a discussion, as this would harm the atmosphere during play even more. If
this does not work, proceed to step 2.

Stage 2: Discuss in private

(works in 28% of all cases)
Talk to the player in private. Listen to their side of the story. Try to find a solution best for both of you.
If this does not work, proceed to step 3.

SteP 3: Part ways

(for the remaining 2%)
Tell them that you think they’d be better off playing in a different group. Maybe you’ve grown apart, maybe they were a toxic player all along, but now you get to enjoy the relief of not having to worry about this person anymore. Spend more time with the fabulously nice players remaining in your group. Onwards to new adventures with them!

pen paper rpg player conflict

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Comments (2)

I had the case, where “ignoring” the “toxic” behaviour works out well, too. I had a player, which was always using their phone scrolling up and down and so on. But was not bored and always kept an eye on the story. They was even the first one at rolling initiative. But of course their behaviour gave some critics from other players, and once they had followed the critics. For one evening they let the phone aside but now was building dice towers… Over and over and over again… Or switched to tapping the pencil on the table…. So we always had this noisy background sound.

It turns out (privatly to me, as they didn’t want admit to the whole group), they has a kind of ADHD. All these doings are absolutly not meant to disturb anyone, and they felt very sorry to do so. But they really need something to keep their fingers busy. For the following sessions we’d paid attention that they sat always at the corner of the table, keeping the usage of the phone modest as possible. Because “playing” with the phone was much, much less disruptive as building these noisy dice towers.

(I’d hoped they would use a fidget cube instead, so they got one to their birthday. Didn’t work neither.)

Hi Jörg,

Thanks for sharing this story. This shines a new light on the whole matter. I would also have tried a fidget cube as an alternative to the phone. 😁 Having one person at table play with their phone during play might just send the wrong signal to the other player as you mentioned. Great that this person opened up to you, so you could try to find a solution which worked for everyone at the table.

I once had a player (and good friend) in a long-term campaign who would always draw stuff during play. It took me a few sessions to get used to it. At first it seemed like he was kind of bored, so I talked to him about it.
He said he needed something to help him focus on the game. To be fair he really always paid attention to what was happening in the story. I asked him if he could draw NPCs who appeared during play. So we ended up with great NPC portraits which contributed to the immersion of the whole group.

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