GM Advice: Problem Players (And How To Deal With Them)

Inevitably, if you run RPGs long enough you will eventually find yourself dealing with a problem player. It is unavoidable, and happens to any Game Master, regardless of skill or experience. These folks can disrupt the flow of your game and bring everything to a grinding halt. Our aim today is to identify these menaces, and in doing so discover methods to stop them in their tracks.

The first order of business is to figure our what kind of problem player you are dealing with. It was either Sun Tzu or Gary Gygax that said said, “Know thy enemy”. Only then can you truly understand what makes them tick. If you can figure out what makes them tick you can de-tick them. Un-tick? Cease their tickery. 

The Rules Lawyer: Long dreaded by Game Master's since the very first rule book, these fabled creatures believe that the path for in-game enlightenment is to understand every rule, no matter how obscure. It is as if they think they can break “The Matrix” by expounding each and every rule, knowing all classes, races, spells, combat maneuvers and special abilities ever written, in every language (including abyssal). 

 "What? It's in the rules! You want me to look it up?"

They can often be found describing the abilities of monsters before anyone makes a check to identify them and sparing more characters from death than Schindler.
The real issue with these folks is that they are so hardcore about the rules, they limit the abilities of their fellow players, telling them that they “can't do that”. That, my fellow Game Master, is your job. What is worse is when they dare tread over that sacred line and tell the Game Master that “you can't do that”.
How To Deal With Them: Like Like any real-life lawyer, get them working for you instead of against you. Take this player and turn them into your de-facto rules receptacle. Unsure of an obscure rule and need a quick answer? Send it to the lawyer. Curious how a spell works that you chose on the fly and haven't taken the time to look up yourself? Get the lawyer working their book-fu.
They can be an indispensable resource if you know how to tap them, and of they have any time between looking up underwater combat rules for you to remind you that thee way you are using a monster's special ability is not how it works, refer them to the page in any rulebook that stats that the Game Master has final say over any and all rules. They hate that rule.

The Munchkin: When the Rules Lawyer has decided to use his powers for evil instead of good, it often means the birth of the feared and despised Munchkin. These paragons of min/maxing have worked special character builds into a science, crafting beings of godlike power that rampage through your campaign world, causing more decimation than Godzilla the morning after taco night. 

 "And you thought the fiery breath was bad..."

Often the product of an evil Game Master who said no too many times, Munchkins find ways to break the game, giving them disproportionate power for their class level. One need look no further than the legendary Pun-Pun to see how far these monsters can take their builds.

 "Technically has more divine ranks than the GM."

And that's the sad part of these types of players they are playing a build, not a character. One of the single most interesting characters I ever played was a kobold cleric. My highest stat was a 15 in Wisdom. Some players would look at that and feel that I was robbed, but in truth in made me more cunning, and that really helped shape the character. A character, not a build.
The real damage from Munchkins doesn't come from the danger they pose to your game, but the danger they pose to the party. As a Game Master, it is our job to challenge the players. If their characters are of a certain level, or within a certain range of capabilities, we create encounters that relate to those thresholds. If, for some reason, they are capable of surpassing that threshold, the encounter is scaled up accordingly. What is happening with the Munchkin factor is that the capabilities of the party are extended beyond their normal means, allowing them to deal with higher level challenges. What isn't scaling with the party are their saves, their skills, and their hit points. This creates quite the juxtaposition for the Game Master. If they leave the challenges scaled for the party as if the munchkin were of a comparable power level, then the munchkin will decimate the challenge and steal the show over, and over, and over again. If the encounter scaled up too much, the munchkin will be challenged, but the rest of the party is set to suffer a terrible fate, all because one player decided to abuse the written rules to make something they knew to be more powerful than it needed to be. 

How To Deal With Them: The Munchkin is a tricky creature to deal with. To say that they can't play what they want to play because it is too powerful feels like admitting that you cannot handle what they can throw at you. Alternatively, you can't let them continue to skew the power scale so drastically. One method is to introduce challenges with heavy moral implications that can't be easily solved with magic or a sword. The enemy could be holding hostages somewhere that will die unless he releases them, but only he knows the location, or defeating their current foe will solve the problem temporarily, but will pave the way for an even more potent threat to take over their position at the cost of many innocent lives. If your munchkin is of the silver-tongued variety, pit them against the occasional thing that cannot be reasoned with. 

 Another method is to talk to the problem player, air your grievances, and try to forge some manner of agreement where they can still play the character they want, but limit their abilities to be more in line with their fellow party members. You could suggest that their incredible talents, while impressive, have made life rather boring, not unlike One Punch Man. Perhaps, to challenge themselves they place personal limits on what they do, sort of like Kenpachi from Bleach (holy crap, two anime references in the same paragraph). They may only use their super devastating ability when it becomes apparent they are facing a real challenge that is capable of killing them. It hankers back to the old Wuxia archetype of the warrior/mage that has sworn to never again use the forbidden technique/spell again because it is so terrible, but a worthy opponent manages to drag it out of them and that forsake all oaths to stop them, looking extra badass in the process.

The Controller: A lot of parties choose a leader, a player character that makes the hard calls. The heart of the adventuring company. The Controller thinks they are that person, even when they are not. You typically find these players barking orders, complaining about tactics, and generally telling the players what they can or can't do. They can be spiteful, and even mean when they feel they aren't being heard, sometimes sabotaging other players on purpose to “punish” them for not following order. Should they still not get their way, they sometimes have what is basically the equivalent of a hissy-fit, and skulk away to some darkened corner to pout in, both in game and out. This player often thinks that they know best, even if they subscribe to the Jon Snow School of Knowing Stuff.

 "No you don't Jon. You know nothing."

How To Deal With Them: The only thing that can be really done about this lot is that to take them aside and let them know that their way of playing is affecting the fun level of their fellow players, and that cannot happen. They need to lighten up, or they may have to walk away from the table for the duration of the campaign. Above all else, this is a game, and the point of a game is to have fun. If it's not fun, it needs to be fixed.

The Jester: There are many times during a game when something happens that leaves the players, and the Game Master, in stitches. It could be a spectacularly failed save, check, or attack, a botched maneuver, or even a reference made a the perfect moment. Those moments are entirely acceptable, and damn funny when they happen. What isn't funny is when one player takes it upon themselves to attempt to manufacture these moments... perpetually.
It is pretty much a law of nature that everyone at the table has seen or at least heard of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It's a funny movie, mostly because it was a film written and produced by comedy legends in their prime. It was funny then. The lines cease to be funny when continuously repeated by the play ad nauseum every week. The same can be said about any little joke they must repeat until they have beaten the dead horse into a fine slurry. Comedy comes from the moment. If you aren't a comedian, or good with comedic timing... stop. 

How To Deal With Them: Try and get the player to turn their efforts to inspire laughter toward their character. Have them embrace the role of the fool or prankster. Gnomes, and especially bards, are excellent choices. Such levity can help to raise the party's spirits in especially heavy moments. Just keep it in character.

The Disinterested One: This player can often be found on a phone, tablet, or laptop while you are running you game, which if I am correct is a sin! The Disinterested One is the type of player that frequently misses games, zones out when they are their, gets easily distracted (especially when it isn't their turn), love to pass their phone around while showing everyone at the table pictures in the middle of combat. or (and I have seen this with my own eyes) falls asleep at the game. They know very little about what is going on at any given time, and often can't tell you what their next action is without first having to ask the dreaded “Wait, what's happening?” The player lacks interest in the game, and it may not be (and probably isn't) your fault.

 How To Deal With Them: Ask the player of they are having fun, and what things they would like to see in the game, especially in relation to their character. If you can get them invested in their own character, you can start getting them vested in the rest of the game. If that still doesn't work, put them to work. Hand them a pencil and a piece of paper at the beginning of combat and have them keep track of initiative and damage taken by each player. They will have to pay attention at that point, and they may even become engaged in the encounter now that they know what they have been missing. You could expand these duties to make them the party scribe, detailing NPCs, treasure, and important notes.

 "Back to work, note slave!"

The “Sexy” One: The campaign world is populated of a wide cast of colorful and interesting characters, and one player is determined to sleep with all of them. The “Sexy” One often has the highest Charisma in the party, and has made it their personal mission in life to boink every humanoid (and sometimes non-humanoid) NPC that they come across. While playing a hedonist character can be a hoot, this is taken to new, and often times uncomfortable levels, especially when the player turns their amorous attentions to other player characters. There is a fairly good chance that this player also owns a copy of the Book of Erotic Fantasy.

 "Yes, it's a thing."

How To Deal With Them: Rejection is a powerful tool in game. If you cut off their source of power (in this case sexy times), you stem their ability to bring the discomfort. Funner yet though is to introduce consequences for their actions. Bedding the innkeeper's daughter seemed like a good idea at the time, until the innkeeper caught them both, and is forcing the player character to marry her, or he'll to to the local constable and report that the character forced themselves upon her. Maybe all these trysts across the land have spawned a handful of children. The mothers could have combined forces and hired a bounty hunter to track down the dallying perpetrator and force them to make some kind of financial contribution to their childrens' future, or, if the character is female and she has been busy with members of the opposite sex, she could find herself with child. Adventuring get way more challenging when you have to worry about a baby. Worse case scenario, kobold STDs can be a real problem these days.

Are there other types of problem players out there? Absolutely. They come in every conceivable flavor, but don't let them distract you from the really important thing at your table; the good players that are actively engaged in your story and are having fun. You do this for them. Never loose sight of that.

Until next time, dear reader; I've got ninety-nine problems, but a player ain't one,

+Ed The Bard 

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