If you’ve ever played an RPG, either as a GM or a player, you’ve probably encountered the friction that comes naturally with a collaborative gaming experience: What exactly do you do when somebody wants to go left, but you want to go right? As a player, how do you be a team player while also making sure your voice is heard? As a GM, how do you guide your players through your story without railroading them? (Not that railroading is always a bad thing.)
It’s not always easy. I’d wager that we all have stories of times our groups did something we didn’t agree with or that we didn’t want to do. However, this natural hurdle to successful collaborative gaming is taken to its most difficult extremes when you encounter a disruptive player.
This player actively seeks to contradict or thwart the game in a way is plainly hostile and adversarial, usually in response to not getting their way or to getting bored. They might antagonize deadly NPCs and wipe your party on purpose, or straight up murder or abuse another PC they don’t like for no good reason. Whatever they do they’re an unwelcome and potentially disastrous presence at any table. You might also find that your disruptive player is actually your GM, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
While the best of them can simply be a good player having a bad day, the worst are just assholes. A truly belligerent disruptive player can ruin the fun, spoil your hard-work, and cause a whole myriad of problems which can tear gaming groups apart if they’re left unchecked.
Dealing with this player is as easy as talking to them and taking active steps to foster an inclusive and welcoming table, though one which has little tolerance for negative and aggressive behaviour outside the frame of the game itself. While it can be interesting to roleplay a character who isn’t wholly aligned with the party, or even one who plots its downfall, if this is not in pursuit of a mutually fun and memorable game then it’s not in the interests of you or your fellow players.
My first, and thankfully only, encounter with a disruptive player was with a friend I’ll call Zed. Zed was a good player at first, but tended to grumble when people didn’t agree with him. I was a fresh GM and we’d played a few games together, but this was our last. Zed later turned out to just plainly be an asshole, but I didn’t know that then. And while this does make a great story, one which I learned a lot from, the lived experience was pretty dire.
I was rounding off my very first Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader module with my very first RPG group. I was new to GMing, but this was the fourth system I’d learned and ran. The basic premise of grimdark space pirates in the Warhammer 40k universe was too much to pass up even though I should’ve been honing my mastery of D&D 5e.
I had started to feel like I had a handle on my fledgling GM skills — I’d moved past the anxious, constant rulebook consultation phase and straight into the world of confident improv. It was liberating, honestly. But there were dark omens on the horizon.
Where It Began To Go Wrong
We were nearing the end of the 16 hour play session (which, btw, is a terrible idea), which we were meant to end much earlier, but our motley crew had just cut a swath through a fleet of pirates and were feeling particularly blood-thirsty. They were in the middle of preparations to board a strange, heretical alien craft for the end-of-module showdown when Zed stared at me intently.
“Zed, are you okay?” I said,
“I’ve just text you something.”
“Oh. Wait a sec, guys.” I checked my phone,
Zed: I want to set up a bomb in the ship’s reactor core.
Zed: It’ll be funny.
I paused and looked up at my players: Everyone, including Zed seemed to be having a great time on our grim, interstellar adventure. It didn’t seem very funny to just blow them all up. It felt horrible, actually.
But then I realized that Zed hadn’t really spoken since about an hour ago. Our Astropath Transcendent, Dougie, had vetoed one of Zed’s (admittedly) over-complicated plans in favor of a much more gung-ho approach and I think he felt a little bitter about it. It had seemed fairly innocuous in the moment — the kind of thing I was getting to realize could happen when people disagree at the table. But what I hadn’t noticed while I was occupied by my other players’ zany hijinks was that Zed had been festering away in the corner, plotting something that’d teach us all a lesson.
A Problem Of Character
Zed had chosen to play a Seneschal, which is a little like Varys, the Master of Whisperers, from Game of Thrones — a Spymaster. Zed really liked the idea of controlling a network of super spies so he set out to employ them as often as possible. I tried, as most GMs do, to make sure each player felt as important and as powerful as the others did but at times I found it difficult to fully indulge Zed, who had complex ideas about how he could wield his underhanded acumen while the others blasted stuff with bolter guns.
Feeling scorned, it sort of made sense that a Seneschal might spitefully obliterate his Rogue Trader’s entire dynasty. Sort of. Even though it felt bad, I thought I’d be neglecting my responsibility as GM if I didn’t let Zed play the game his way. So I texted him back:
Me: You’ll need to roll XX to sneak away from the group, and then a YY to navigate the ship’s bowels and find the reactor.
Zed: I got them both.
Me: Can you show me?
Zed: Just trust me.
Me: Sorry, I need to see it.
Zed: I burn 2 fate points then.
The Terrible Power of Fate Points
In the Fantasy Flight Warhammer 40k RPGs, there’s a mechanic similar to D&D 5E’s inspiration points called “fate points”. The rough idea of both these mechanics is that you can spend a point to get a re-roll whenever you’d like. The points are usually pretty scarce. One major difference in Rogue Trader is that you can permanently burn a point (which usually regenerate each session) to definitively get a more favorable outcome.
The other players had burned through their fate points quickly. Either they’d gamed the random character creation system to produce hulking, overpowered monsters, heroically saved their comrades from certain death, or goofed around during their combat sequences to land gruesome killing blows on undeserving pirates. Zed had spent none of his points so far, and had a worrying four to spend.
I ticked off the fate points and nervously shot glances at my players hoping they’d notice this frantic exchange and do something.
The Call for Rescue
Zed: Okay. I plant a bomb.
Me: You’ll need to find or make one first.
Zed: I make one.
Me: Okay … Get a ZZ on your demolition skill
Zed: I burn a point.
Dougie, the Astropath who’d snubbed Zed earlier caught my glance.
Me: Now you need to set it. If you fail it might not blow up at all or it could just kill you. Beat an XX.
Zed: I made it.
This time he sent me a picture of his successful roll. I was confident he hadn’t fudged it at the time, but now I’m not so sure.
Me: Okay. You made a bomb.
Me: It has a ten minute timer.
I set an alarm and sent a solemn screenshot to Zed. In nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds, what was, at that point, a 14-hour-long game would reach a disappointingly explosive end. I won’t say I wasn’t relieved to finish the game after a grueling session, but I didn’t want it to end like that.
Fortunately Dougie had now noticed that something was up.
Dougie’s character had become the tank of the group. Even though his class was meant to be a glass cannon, he’d doubled down with his fate points to turn himself into a daemon, which made most normal attacks worthless against him. In hindsight he was OP and this was probably bad GMing, but my players loved the idea of hiding a daemonic heretic amongst their holy pirate crew. He also turned out to be the perfect anti-hero to gun down Zed.
The Grand Finale
With Dougie’s Spidey senses tingling, I tried not to jump at the chance to save my players and slightly too calmly informed them that Zed wasn’t on the ship’s bridge anymore. Suddenly alert,they dropped everything and set out to to locate him. Meanwhile, desperate to stop him by myself as he attempted to tinker with the bomb’s timer, I fudged a roll and sent a serendipitous patrol of eight men against him. He burned his final fate point as the fight got heavy to score a critical strike with a plasma rifle, burning a few guards to ash, critically injuring others and sending the remainder into mental shock. Injured, but pleased with himself and confident the others had no time to find him in, Zed sat back and waited for my timer to run down.
There was about four minutes left. The Voidmaster and Rogue Trader scoured the ship’s sensors, “luckily” rolling well and locating deadman’s signals (which I made up) from the slaughtered guardsmen in the reactor.
Dougie and the only other viable fighter, Jennyfer the Arch-Militant, besieged the reactor room.The Seneschal entrenched himself, launching an opening volley from his plasma rifle which downed Jennyfer. Pulling his comically large chainsword from his back, Dougie plowed through Zed’s defenses and attempted to lay the killing blow.
I was fair in this moment, I think. With less than two minutes to go I asked them to roll opposed on their strongest relevant stats. Dougie landed a critical hit, Zed didn’t. Dougie described the scene as his sword chewed through Zed’s chest and hacked him up, leaving him a pile of viscera.
With a minute left and my GMing skills entirely shot, I pointed out the ticking bomb directly. Dougie was hardly a savant in the field of demolitions, so the team vented the bomb into space with seconds left to go. I was feeling guilty about foiling Zed so entirely when the timer rang out. I had the bomb explode out in space just beyond the reactor’s vents, knocking a hole in the ship and almost obliterating Dougie and Jennyfer.
Zed left without saying anything. Nobody tried to call him back.
How can you deal with a disruptive player?
I think the key thing I didn’t do here as a GM is talk to Zed about what he was feeling. I’ve found the majority of clashes at the table can be sorted when you take time to hash things out. Whether you take a break in play to address a disruptive player directly, or you speak to them privately outside of the game, the worst that comes from talking about it is that you’ll lose the disruptive player from the table. Either way, it will eliminate that disruptive influence from your game and your table will thank you for it.
Another way in which I dropped the ball is by not recognizing Zed’s disruptive mood earlier — an hour’s a long time for a player to be silent. Oftentimes the mark of a good GM is how attentive they are to their quieter players. It’s easy to prompt amazing roleplay from your star players, but you’d be surprised how easily you can energize and pull gold from a reserved player by asking them directly what their character is doing or slyly maneuvering them into action. I think if I’d have put more effort into bringing Zed back into the fold he mightn’t have acted so poorly. Its important to remember that you’re managing your players’ fun, and if you’re not having any fun managing them then they probably won’t be having any either.
There’s a lot to say for the disruptive power of “splitting the party”, like I did when I answered Zed’s texts. I’ve definitely had some memorable and fun RPG experiences where I’ve split my party or passed secret information/held quick roleplays over text, though I wouldn’t recommend it generally speaking. Running two games at once certainly takes its toll on a GM’s brain, and their campaign as a result. I don’t know if I would’ve made better, more active decisions dealing with my disruptive player if my attention wasn’t split, but it can’t have hurt.
Ultimately, a GM’s responsibility is as much to collaborate with their players as it is to facilitate a game. I think I was too literal on that latter responsibility, acting too strictly as a facilitator and not enough as a player in my own right. The golden rule of improv is that you should always “Yes, and …” someone else’s improv, meaning you should always be building on someone’s input rather than knocking it down. The same is true of an RPG. That said, there are definitely times where we should all feel comfortable to say “no”, whether it’s to your GM, or your players. This is especially true if a disruptive player spitefully asks to blow your whole game to pieces because “it’ll be funny.”