By - May 21, 2009 - 12 Comments

Two Problem Player Scenarios and How to Survive Them


Picture by Carsten Tolkmit

The Problem: “My players keep derailing my plots.”

Your most carefully laid plans are often for naught. You draw the maps, flesh out the NPCs, weave together intricate plot threads, and come up with twists that would have made the old, good M. Night Shyamalan gasp in surprise. And, frequently, you cry softly to yourself as the PCs ignore all your hard work and take the adventure in unforeseen directions. What can you do?

A Bad Solution: Try to plan for every contingency.

Don’t even try it. For every well-crafted plot, there are a hundred ways to walk all over it in three seconds flat. No two people think exactly alike, so unless you have precognitive psychic abilities (in which case you should be ruling an evil empire from your volcanic lair rather than wasting your time on games!!), you cannot plan for every whacky idea your players could possibly come up with.

A Better Solution: Reward player ingenuity and think on the fly.

In times like these, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a competition between you and your players. It’s a group effort that involves you and the players, intended for everyone’s enjoyment. If the players come up with creative, plausible solutions, reward them with praise, treasure, XP, or whatever seems appropriate.

It’s also a good time to work on your improvisational skills. A quick-thinking DM can come up with obstacles that steer the PCs back on course, but don’t discourage them from thinking outside the box. If plot-derailing has become the norm, you might want to make sure the game you’re running is the style of game the players really want.

The Problem: “But, my PC wouldn’t do that.”

Ever notice how some people come up with a good character trait, but take it too far? Think of the rebellious rogue who never bends a knee to authority (which is kind of tough when you’re level 1 and highly killable). Or the drow who refuses to make apologies for her race, and gets in the face of everyone who glances sideways at her (which is kind of tough when the party crosses paths with powerful eladrins). Or the righteous paladin who champions the cause of freedom, provoking slave revolts wherever he goes. You can see how too much of a good thing can become disruptive.

A Bad Solution: Force the player to stop playing their character.

I know it’s tempting, but take a deep breath and count to ten before you scream at the problem player to go away and never return. Gamers game for different reasons. Maybe the player feels repressed in their day-to-day life, so they think of D&D as an opportunity to act brazenly. Really, there are much worse ways to act out one’s impulses.

A Better Solution: Compromise.

The player probably isn’t trying to be a jerk. (It’s a good policy to give folks the benefit of the doubt before you banish them from your table.) A good dose of player-driven humor or unpredictability can be great for a game. Still, if the PC’s behavior is constantly putting the party in unnecessary danger, or if other players have secretly complained to you, it’s time to have a talk with the player.

Be nice, and assume that they will be, too. If you enter into this talk expecting a confrontation, you just might get one. Instead, start off with some heartfelt compliments. “Your PC has really added excitement to the game. We all admire how you’ve explored the concept of the rebel. Here’s my concern…” Briefly acknowledge your concern that the PC is getting too disruptive, or that the player isn’t sticking with their original concept. Explain that you’re trying to make the game more fun for everyone. Then ask the player to share their thoughts. Their perspective might surprise you.

Do you have a player problem that you’d like to see addressed here? Share it in the comments section!

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Written by Janna

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  1. Jon says:

    I’ve had several problems with derailing. The best solution I have found is to not have any scenarios really geographically placed. That is if all the plot hooks point to one particulary place the players just might decide it’s a trap and therefore go somewhere else. It then turns out that that’s the place the adventure is. Works most of the time.
    Another issue I have had is when the pc’s avoid a carefully planned encounter where finally the pcs will come up against something that’s actually challenging and fun. I tried the vengeful DM once on this, wasn’t any fun. Killed a PC. What actually does work is to laugh away, maybe whine a little.

  2. Steve says:

    Yep, derailing is a constant battle for my group. And with the “my character wouldn’t do that”, you have to comb through every pre-made module and make sure that it doesn’t require your players to do the sensible…er, certain actions in order to proceed.

  3. Wimwick says:

    My group had a paladin in it who whose player wouldn’t tolerate evil of any sort, anywhere. The party found themselves in a very seedy, evil town. The party split up to gather some information and the paladin went solo. He entered a bar, witnessed an evil act and promptly started a fight. The DM was in a good mood and let the other PCs play the NPCs. The Paladin died and came back as a Cleric with a thing for casting divination spells all the time.

    While the players decision to play his character to the extreme was annoying, and eventually caused his death, it remains a very memorable experience. Surprising, the player wasn’t upset at all when his Paladin died. In his words, “I knew something like this would happen eventually.”

  4. GroovyTaxi says:

    My biggest problem right now is that player who always start PvP fights. He plays too much WoW, I guess, ‘cus everytime he gets in an argument with another player, he attacks that player. At the end of the fight (when the other player is K.O.) he always says that ”it’s part of my roleplay, my character is aggressive and all”. Still, every single character he makes is that aggressive and it’s boring for other players to always avoid him : they know they’ll eat a sword in the face if they just confront him in a discussion or anything like that.

    Any advice?

  5. Jason says:

    @ Groovy: As GM I’d have kicked him to the curb after the first time it happened. That crap is not tolerable and I don’t allow it. I make these things very clear when I GM so there’s no false expectations, and if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t need to play in the game I’m running. Lots of other avenues for him to vent that kind of power trip aggression, just not at my table.

  6. Geoffrey says:

    In my game right now I have a character that is quickly descending into evil. He’s become known in town as “the butcher” as he likes to decapitate his fallen foes, as well as some other nastiness. There is no player-player issues, but there is a growing character-character issue at the table. At one point the character in question actually grappled another character and started choking him out. So the mostly good, half and half chaotic/lawful party is finding themselves associated with someone who their characters can’t morally stand beside. I’ve tried hinting at the player that his alignment would change towards evil if he didn’t reform his actions, he instead decided to embrace the alignment change (missing the subtext that the party of characters wouldn’t like it.)

    So a variant on the problem, but a problem none the less…

  7. malealphathree says:

    I recently brought my brother along to a session to see if he would want to play and it pretty much turned out how I expected (outside of being bored and not knowing what to do). He solves all problems, and discussions, with violence. Normally, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but we’re all level 3 and being a neutral evil Barbarian doesn’t automatically make you attack anything that opens it’s mouth. Especially, powerful NPCs giving you quests. Within that one session he almost got himself killed at least twice, and is obviously a burden on the survivability of group.

    The major problem is that it was, in fact, entertaining to have him act like an idiot. It works out fine in Munchkins (when he gets his hands on the thief class), but he just doesn’t take DnD half as serious as the rest of us. I already talked with him about it, and I’m not sure if he’s going to change his ways or just quit.

  8. Crystal says:

    I have this problem with one of my characters right now. He has to do everything by the book, no one can give him any kind of attitude, expects everyone to do everything and tries to take all the credit for the adventure. The way that I dm is have one loose idea that the characters can mold into, and see what happens. But he doesn’t like thinking for himself. He expects me to mold my story around his character alone, and everyone else is a side character. Another problem with this guy is when we offend him, he has to call his grandma to come pick him up because he doesn’t like the language we use. He finds it offensive. But he expects us to be nice to him we he is being insensitive. Do any of you have any ideas that I can do to get him to stop?

  9. Jon says:

    @Crystal, I would seriously consider kicking him out of the group. Take him aside and explain that he has to understand that the rest of the group wants to have fun as well, if he doesn’t understand that, kick him out.

  10. Crystal says:

    @ jon, That’s the thing i have tried several times to do that, and he just won’t listen. at the moment I’ve given up on roleplaying because the only place i can role play at is at someones shop, and that is a public place. I don’t know what to do.

  11. ObiJon says:

    @Crystal
    Create a sign-up sheet for your game. Only have so many slots open. Make sure they fill before the problem player can sign up… even if they’re really not full. This is the best way to appear fair at an open gaming location. Even though it is duplicitous, it is better in the long run.

  12. Chris says:

    This is the most expedient way to get rid of problem players. Crush their mini in a surprise no save room trap!

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