GM Protip: Handling the Disruptive Player

There are many player “types” I’ve come to recognize over my years of GMing.  Actually, it seems like an article in and of itself.  But I want to specifically approach one common type: the Disruptor.

The Disruptor lives to make the game less fun for everyone but himself.  Usually, they’re a little anti-social, and they may have general problems with authority, making the authority wielded by the game master a thorn in their side.  To pluck out said thorn, they work their hardest to make sure that the GMs best-laid plans are laid to waste.

One of those plans may be the harmonious cooperation of his PCs—nope.  Not happening.  The Disruptor will steal from his cohorts, break their stuff, poison them, cast hexes on them, stab them in the back, and straight-up murder them for no reason.  Not cool—because, ultimately, this leads to less fun for everyone except him (unless, of course, you’re all playing Drow.  Or a game called “Paranoia.”  Then it makes perfect sense.)

The following are some methods I’ve found effective in dealing with the various irritating tactics of the Disruptor bent on breaking your game.

1. Control character creation

Seriously, this gets overlooked by GMs so often is makes me sad inside.  With a little more discipline, so many games could not suck that end up sucking because the GM is trying to be everyone’s friend.  You can be friends, but the office of GM can’t.  If you try to please everyone, you end up with way-overpowered characters who then aren’t in the least challenged by all your carefully-laid plans—but more importantly, you give the Disruptor too much room to work.

One of the most common Disruptor subspecies is the Annoying Little Thief, also commonly known as the Munchthief.  Almost always, this character is a pickpocket munchkin—something that it’s especially easy to do in GURPS, but that can still be pulled off in many other game systems.  You solve this problem by never letting the Munchthief be born.  Limit his stats or his skills at creation, if the game mechanics include these concepts, or disallow a known Disruptor to make a thiefy character in the first place.  Remember, when you’re the GM, your responsibility is to making the game fun for everyone, not letting one player get what he wants so he can bully the rest.

2. Let Nature Take its Course

If it’s too late to nip him in the bud, often the best plan is to give your Disruptor enough rope to hang himself.

For example, if you’ve already got the Annoying Little Thief in your party, don’t fight the results of his actions.  The first time he steals something, maybe nobody can reasonably tell, especially if he’s a severe enough munchkin.  But eventually someone will notice that their stuff goes missing every time that douchey halfling is around.  In fact, as GM, it is your responsibility to point out to player-victims that their character has noticed this.  From there, it’s not long before the PCs handle him in the way that real people handle real thieves in their midst: by pinning him, checking his bag, and then beating the proverbial shit out of him.  If he’s still alive after all that, kicking him out of the party is only logical and in-character choice for the rest of the characters.  And once he’s out, don’t give him extra attention by running a separate game for him.  There’s nothing interesting happening where he is (see below).  And now he’s an NPC anyway, because he’s not part of the party.  Done and done.

Even if they don’t take care of him directly, characters who are aware of a thief in their midst will start being hypervigilant, and if they suspect the Munchthief of his nefarious activities, then they will be watching him when he’s around.  Pickpocket, Stealth, and Pilfer penalties galore.

It’s also entirely possible that Bubba the Barbarian, even in the absence of incontrovertible proof, will be convinced enough to tear the thief in half like toilet paper.  Then if your Disruptor wants to keep playing, tell him no more thieves.

3. Control the World

Another common tactic of the Disruptor is not to screw with other PCs, fearing Option 2 above.  So they will simply screw with the GM.  How will this happen?  Imagine the following scenarios:

  1. The GM spends a weekend planning out a long, involved dungeon crawl that will be delivered by an emissary who meets them in the desert outside the city.  Before he can say anything, the Disruptor, in this case some kind of combat character, kills him.  Just ‘cuz.
  2. The GM supplies the usual GM Says Go Here Sign™ by letting the party find a hidden city of elves in the midst of the forest they’ve been lost in for days.  Clearly, this civilization can be of great assistance to the party, helping them get out of the forest, providing them healing, selling them supplies, maybe even giving them some additional training.  The Disruptor’s character decides to wander off into the wilderness and demands to do his own private game by insisting on “taking his turn.”

These scenarios exemplify two common varieties of the common tabletop Disruptor.  Both scenarios can be resolved, or at least somewhat controlled, with the same principle: control your world.

I’m not a big fan of the improbably powerful NPC as a tactic for stymieing the disruptor’s efforts.  For example, the emissary could be so ridiculously badass that the would-be assissin can’t even get close before he’s knocked across the room.  But that breaks the suspension of disbelief that’s so important to every RPG.  There’s no reasonable excuse for such a bending of reality, and the result feels unsatisfying and contrived.  Similarly, simply dropping a castle on your annoying character’s head doesn’t work either.  So what to do?

In each case a well-constructed world with realistic situations populated by characters who respond like real people do can solve, or at least significantly ameliorate, your problem.  In this example, don’t let the Disruptor be the only guy around when the emissary comes.  Make sure there are plenty of people (read: witnesses) around, and give them a chance to stop him from loosing that arrow or launching that spell.  Barring their success in doing so, go back to Rule 2 and let nature take its course, as he is imprisoned or summarily executed for murder.

Example B is much easier: RPG worlds are fantastically interesting places.  But that’s mainly because the PCs are always in the thick of the fantastically interesting parts.  If you assume that, out there in the hills, there are average people plowing soil, paying their taxes, eating oatmeal, and grading English essays, wandering off doesn’t make the game a whole lot of fun.  It’s highly unlikely in any moderately realistic world that leaving the current locus of action will lead you to something even remotely as interesting.  So, as mentioned under Rule 2, just let your disruptive character wander off.  Then bore him.  When he insists on doing stuff, tell him he’s still walking, or that there’s nothing to do there.  Nothing interesting is happening anywhere except where the good PCs are, and he’s not there.  End of story.  If he keeps walking, tell him he’s left the party and have him make a new character if he wants to keep playing.

Whatever you do, don’t reward the disruptive character by giving him an adventure, even one where he gets his ass handed to him.  You’ve given him the same thing your three-year-old bratty cousin wants: attention.  And that attention is better spent on the players who want to be part of a team.

4. Tell Him to Can It/Then Kick Him to the Curb

This is, as the title suggests, a two-part solution.  When all else fails, remind the player bent on wrecking your game that if he doesn’t want to play the game you’ve planned, he doesn’t have to play at all.  Let him know that everyone is playing together and wants to be a part of the story, and that he’s making that hard.  Tell him that he’s making the game less fun for everyone and it’s not fun to play with him.  Tell him he’s being a douchetard.

The few times I’ve had to do this, it worked.  Sometimes the embarrassment of a direct talking-to is embarrassing enough to do the trick.  If it’s not, tell him he’s out of the game.  If you’re unlucky enough to be at his house, then tell him you’re done for the night and clean up the game.  And next time, don’t invite him.

Some of these tactics are tough to pull off socially, I know, particularly those falling under Rule 4.  But if your Disruptor problem is as bad as some of mine have been, then you’re doing nobody any favors by mollifying the snake in your midst.  Remember that by doing so, you are punishing the rest of the players, the ones who aren’t being flying buttholes.  You’ll distance them and make them resent not just the annoying player in their midst, but you, as the failed guardian of fun.

And if you keep doing that, pretty soon you’ll have no game left to play.

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