Handling toxic players
Tips for handling problematic
players in a roleplaying game
Everybody knows one, nobody likes them. Those specific players who are always late for a session. The ones who always take the spotlight for themselves, leaving little screen time for the others. And the ones sabotaging the plot just because “this is the way their character would act”. All these cases represent so-called “toxic players”. Here is a brief guide on how to handle such players.
Impact: ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Time to read: 9 min
What makes a toxic player?
A toxic or problematic player is someone who regularly disrupts the game flow or atmosphere of a roleplaying session. The gamut ranges from someone who ruins a touchingly sad scene by bursting out laughing, to players killing their whole group for the sake 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 get 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 misbehaviour, they don’t see what they might have done wrong, and will be likely 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 the other players:
- rude behaviour towards the other players (e.g. inappropriate remarks regarding race, gender or 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
When to address a problem
Picture this: The player characters are in a dark and damp crypt. They hear a distant scraping noise coming from a gloomy corridor. The atmosphere is creepy and sinister. “Anyone else want pizza?”, one of the players yells while waving his phone. And poof, the dark mood 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, not only the GM but also the other players are usually pretty annoyed by such distruptive behaviour. You can then feel the tension in the room. Not addressing the problematic player often makes things worse in such a situation.
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 briefly 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, 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 booboo after you have told them.
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 how to 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 very 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 and to create an immersive atmosphere at the gaming table. Try to work together towards 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.
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 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 his 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 concern for his or her fellow players, this person won’t change their behaviour. 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.
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 of the rest of the group, they might feel somewhat betrayed by you. The argument could easily escalate to the next level. Then it’s not about their behaviour anymore, but about your friendship. This means if the problematic player is a good friend, 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 like that 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.
For your entertainment: The worst cases of annoying players I’ve encountered
Enough theory. Let’s take a look at some real-life examples. Here are my top 3 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 the 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 learnt his lesson!
2. The lovebirds
One of the players wanted to bring her new boyfriend along. They just recently fell in love. During a 5 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, to be honest. 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 just kept on interrupting the game to discuss how unfair the rule mechanics were. In this case the 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 :).
Summary: The three-step plan
to handle toxic players
Follow this easy 3-stage process to handle players who are spoiling the fun for the rest of the group or ruining the atmosphere at the gaming table.
Stage 1: Ask for a change of course
(works in 70% of all cases)
During the game, ask them to stop their disruptive behaviour. Try to avoid a discussion, as this would harm the atmosphere during play even more. If this does not work, proceed to stage 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 for both of you.
If this does not work, proceed to stage 3.
Stage 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. Enjoy the relief of having not to worry about this person anymore. Spend more time with the fabulously nice players remaining in your group. Onwards to new adventures with them.