Dealing with problem players

As a new Dungeon Master I’m always looking for tips on how to get better and I really want to encourage people to post here with any advice that you can share with me and other readers. Sometimes though, I’m in a position to share something I’ve learned over the years which can really apply to being a DM.

I’m fortunate. My D&D group are my best friends and we’re able to be really honest with each other if something is bothering us. I know others out there, particularly those finding their groups online in places such as the FG & Roll20 forums or even the D&D Adventurers League aren’t as fortunate. The advice is always the same – “Just talk to the player” – but it’s not really that simple. What do you say?

Here’s some advice I have when it comes to dealing with those conversations.

How to deal with a problem player

The first thing you need to understand is that, as a DM, you are responsible for managing everything that goes on at the table. It’s your game, it’s your rules, and when things go wrong it’s something that you have to deal with.

Deal with it quickly before it becomes an issue.

If you’re at the point where you’re looking to remove a player, and you’ve never spoken to them about their behaviour, you are part of the problem. When someone’s behaviour is not compatible with the direction you have for the game you need to address that player immediately. Very few people want to be disliked so act quickly, let people know where the issue is and you can head off a potentially troublesome situation with very little negativity.

Consider that removing the player isn’t the optimal outcome here – healing the group is the ultimate goal. Removing a player permanently is certainly one course of action but it should be the final, nuclear, option after having considered all alternatives.

Sometimes people need to understand the consequences of their actions and a suspension or even a stern talking to will do the job.

Whatever action you’ve decided upon, you have a moral obligation to deal with that person with respect and to let them know why they’re being punished, even if they’ve not treated anyone else with respect.

It’s gone too far. I need to take severe action.

First, start by doing some self examination. How did it get to this point? Were there opportunities to modify the behaviour. What action have you taken so far? What could you have done? Make a lesson log for your own benefit. That’s exactly why I started this blog.

Consider the group dynamic. What is the likely fallout of removing the player from the group? Will it cause a cascade as the problem players friends also remove themselves. I’d struggle to remove a player from my gaming groups without causing offence, and politics, elsewhere. I’ve removed toxic players from gaming guilds or clans where it triggered cascades. This needs to be managed.

Think about your own reputation. Do you want to be remembered as the GM that just removes players all the time when they act out of line?

Dealing with the conversation.

There are some really strong rules here

  1. Attack the behaviour, not the person.
  2. Have the conversation in private. Praise in public, reprimand in private. Always. You won’t get a positive reaction if someone is being berated in front of an audience.
  3. Go in with specific examples and evidence. If you’re telling someone that they are making people unhappy, be prepared to talk about instances when you witnessed the behaviour.
  4. Don’t work off heresay. You’re not in school.
  5. Do not throw people under the bus. Again, this comes down to your assessment of the facts but if one of your players has complained, you don’t give the problem player the name. You will only create more tension.

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