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Difficult RPG players and how to deal with them

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Difficult role play gamers are an occupational hazard of being a games master. At some point in your career as a GM, you will encounter one.

Just as in every day life, we don't get along with everyone and find the behaviours of others challenging or sometimes unacceptable, the gaming group is no different and the game itself can bring out sides to people that we need to navigate or deal with. The question is how to do this without wrecking the game.

This blog is a handy guide to dealing with behaviour that isn't conducive to the group having a good time.

Establishing Group Norms

Often, by the time you have a problem in a group, it's already too late.

The best means of dealing with problems is pre-emption, and that's why establishing group norms is a good idea.

Group norms aren't strict rules or bylaws that you impose on others, they are an agreement about the following things:

  • What the group is for.

  • What the outcomes you're working towards are.

  • What is required of members.

Here's an example:

"The members of this group are here above all things to have fun. We do this by playing together in a collaborative, friendly way and accepting that all members have the right to be heard. We know that everyone comes to the (fill in your current RPG here) game with different experiences, perspectives, life journeys and stories and we accept everyone. By working together as a team we realise that no one player is more import than another and everyone has a chance to enjoy the game equally. We come together in a spirit of kindness, solidarity and care and in doing so, get the satisfaction from the game that we're all looking for."

You might ask 'why bother going to all this trouble, don't people already have these values?'

And the answer to that question is, that yes, most people do, but a few won't and others may never have considered them.

The point of articulating them at the start of a game session, or when a new member joins the group, is that a broad and unspoken consensus then emerges.

You can refer players to the group norms if they do start to behave in ways that flout them.

Check out our recent Two Minute GM video on group norms:

The Ego Player

Modern life can be quite a disempowering affair, and role play gaming allows us to live out our fantasies, which for many people involves becoming very empowered indeed.

Some players, who bring all manner of resentment and anger to the table, enjoy imagining themselves as a super powerful mage, assassin, cybersoldier or barbarian.

These players seek to play characters that are either very powerful, or which are motivated by the acquisition of power. They don't usually make for great playmates unfortunately.

The player becomes hyper fixated on their own character (which is a vehicle for their own needs and fantasy fulfillment) and can often pay little interest in the rest of the party.

They frequently become bored and restless when the campaign isn't exclusively about their character or working towards their overall goals (more power, more glory).

How does one deal with such a player?

Very quickly, the rest of the group will get fed up with them, as such narcissistic behaviour is a collossal drag, and if they are playing with friends they might quickly learn that a bit of give and take is the only way to ensure the game continues.

If they are slow on the uptake, you can remind them of the group norms, and that the game is there for everyone.

You can also look at how you structure the adventure, creating opportunities for all the party members to shine. If your ego player has fewer opportunities to smash and another player can use their persuasion, stealth, piloting or computer hacking skills then this might force balance onto the game (though your ego player might not like this).

Excluding a person from a game is pretty much an admission of defeat, but sometimes the GM is left with little choice, so consider that as a last resort (we'll look at the instances where it is the first resort next).

The change that you need to help the player realise is that the game is not exclusively theirs and the world you have created is not their playground, and this might do them a lot of good in the long run, because often:

The way they think about the game is the way they think about life

Now a role play game is not therapy and should never be treated as such (I am a therapist and I know of what I speak here), but it's not to say that people can't have realisations about things as they play and very frequently, people do.

The utterly offensive douchebag player

Ok, if you're a player or GM who believes in the right to say racist, homophobic, transphobic or sexist things at the gaming table, the only pleasure you're going to get out of the next few paragraphs will be based around feelings of rage, entitlement and victimhood. I think that's fair warning.

Now we've cleared that up, let's proceed.

There isn't a public or a private space where bigotry or harassment is ok (I think we can take this one as read) and there isn't an argument in any sport, hobby or activity that free speech extends to the right to make someone else's life a misery.

One might have thought that the world of role play gaming would embrace this as a universal law, but if one did think that, one would be sorely mistaken.

Each week, RPG Twitter fills up with stories of players who have left their regular game because one player believes they have a right to either express bigoted comments or to act them out in the game.

They frequently use an argument of entitlement, emphasising that they are exercising free speech, as if free speech were some neutral thing and not shaped by power relations.

Put simply, and old, male established player using free speech to upset or offend a younger, female newer player isn't exactly parity of arms, it's a form of bullying.

This needs to be stamped on immediately, and if it's you, the GM doing it, then you need to have a think about why you're GMing in the first place. If the game isn't for everyone, it's not worth playing.

OK, so if you've read this far, I will assume you're a foe of ignorance and an enemy of the bully (after all, are we role playing a group of heroes, not armour wearing arseholes?).

What do you do? It depends on your degree of patience, but either a 'one more comment like that and you're out of here dude' statement, or a simple automatic exclusion is the best way forward.

This might sound harsh, but think of what the group dynamics will become like if you don't. Anyone who might face bullying and harassment (female, gay, BIPOC, disabled or trans people) will stop showing up, or will sit at the edge of the game and feel like it's not really for them.

You'll lose the ability to represent anything in your fantasy world that isn't pleasing to your resident bully, and you will actually attract more people like them.

If you're a kind or caring person, and you want the game to be fun for everyone, sometimes you need to establish boundaries in order to protect it, because after all, the game is simply the equal meeting place of other people's imaginations.

Lesser RPG Crimes

So we've looked at egomaniacs and bigots, the two biggest problems you're likely to face, but there are other unacceptable (but more easy to manage) behaviours that will disrupt your game session.

The unserious player

This individual is a problem if you want to run a serious game (by which I mean a game where people focus on the game play and are invested in the story, not a game without any laughs at all).

The unserious player doesn't mind role playing but isn't super into it either. They might miss a game session or two (everyone does from time to time), but when they are in the session they often become distracted and distract others.

They will slowly steer the group away from game play and want to gossip, talk about unrelated topics or controversies, suggest that everyone do something else or simply be mentally absent when it comes to their turn. They will play half heartedly and say things like:

'Yeah, er sure, er fireball I guess.'

and then go back to their phone. Above all, it's rude and disrespectful, and it's a waste of your time and theirs.

Ask them if they really want to participate in the game and remind them that it isn't compulsory. If they decide they want to play, it has to be based on the group norms (you see why they're so handy?).

The Hijacker

Some players will hijack the game if you let them. Just a with the previous examples of problematic player behaviour, this is an occupational hazard of being a GM.

If you're playing a system that you're not very familiar with, and, as all GMs do, learning on the job you might have a player with more knowledge who helps out.

This is nice and not unwelcome, but in a few instances it leads to players overruling the GM and trying to control the narrative of the adventure (especially if they are the ego player).

They are often GMs themselves and have such big ideas for their own game that they want to impose it on yours. They seek to 'improve' your game when they really need to be running their own.

They might have gone to the trouble of reading the stats on every monster in the game's universe and seek to find out their weaknesses. The cry:

'But your character wouldn't know that!'

is blythly ignored.

The way to stay on top of the hijacker is to know more than they do and to keep them out of the process of the game as much as possible.

Make your own monsters, create traps and dungeons that will confound them, tell them nothing about the NPCs they meet.

Everything should be supplied on a need to know basis. at some point they'll stop being so annoying because the thing about the hijacker is that they aren't really a malign character, they just love the game way too much (if you can imagine such a thing).

If you protect your own role in the game and perhaps gently point out that they are taking over and they need to leave the GMing to you.

Dealing with challenge

One of the parts of GMing that isn't explained in the rule books for any system is how to deal with challenging behaviour.

There are lots of approaches to this, but here is a simple model for approaching things you don't want in your game.

  1. The behaviour you see is motivated by a person trying to achieve something

If you take the view that whatever we're doing, whether we're queueing up to buy a sandwich or asking someone to marry us, is an action designed to achieve a specific result that is beneficial to us.

A person being an ego player at a games table does that because it's important to them.

They might be engaging in a game based on fantasy, but to them, becoming super powerful provides them with a deep emotional benefit, it either compensates for some real world lack of power or it helps them to imagine what being empowered might be like.

The stakes for this person are actually very real and to take their power away from them in an imaginary setting will be strongly resisted (if done in the wrong way), or deeply wounding if they feel punished or rejected.

2. The behaviour you see is often a cue for you to respond.

When a person acts like a joker in a session, diverts the session towards trivia or is a bigot, they are hoping to stimulate others to respond in ways that suit them.

They either wish for people to join them in their activity, or to be offended by it, or for conflict to emerge as a result. Or something else.

So the trick here is to be conscious of that and not to reward unacceptable behaviour with attention. If the player wants to wind you up, don't become angry, it simply rewards the behaviour.

The best tool you have to deal with poor behaviour calmly is the group norms (see again why they are handy).

They prevent things from becoming personalised, they're just a reminder to the rest of the group of what you've all agreed is acceptable behaviour and the group's shared goals.

3. Have clear boundaries

Some things really aren't a big deal, you can put up with a degree of goofing around before it affects the game.

Other things (like bigotry) are, or should be, non negotiables.

Boundaries are where we express clearly where we stand and what we are and are not willing to accept.

This don't need to be communicated all the time, and sometimes hardly at all, but YOU need to know them and to show them when required.

Concluding thoughts

Most of the time, groups muddle along together and disputes are sorted out quite naturally, but every so often, it's important to have strategies to deal with unacceptable player behaviour. Remember though, your table, your rules - you're providing a service to your players that would be expensive if you charged for it, so you're entitled to ask for a minimum standard of good behaviour that makes the game playable for everyone. Ultimately, if a player refuses to adhere to some basic ground rules then it's their choice not to play.

Here are some other articles that you might enjoy on NPCs, world building, GMing and the like:

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