Most GMs understand their responsibility to facilitate a fun story for their players, but there’s another side of the job that isn’t so obvious. In addition to planning a great speech for the main villain, the GM must ensure that their players do not abuse each other. As a GM, you are granted authority by the rules themselves and by social contract, which means you have a responsibility to reign in bad behaviors before they ruin someone’s day. Even those of us with the best possible groups will need to step in occasionally, so here are six of the most common behaviors you’ll have to deal with.
1. Stereotyping Other Players
Despite our best efforts to clean it up, nerd culture is still loaded down by more offensive stereotypes than we know what to do with. All too often, these stereotypes manifest around the table with one player assuming things about another based on the second player’s gender, ethnicity, race, etc.
Most women gamers can tell you stories of how they’ve been stereotyped. It’s assumed they’re only there as the GM’s girlfriend, not actually interested in the game. Worse, they’re accused of socially manipulating the group or seeking attention from all the girl-starved male players.
Of course, women are not the only people who get targeted. Players of color get compared to orcs and ogres. LGBT+ players have their sexuality mocked. Often, the stereotyping player won’t realize they’re doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t change anything. These stereotypes are harmful and have no place around the gaming table. If you want your players who aren’t straight white dudes to stick around, you’ll need to do something.
What to Do
When this happens at the table, shut it down immediately. This is hard. Most of us have been trained to avoid direct conflict like this, even more so over social justice issues. But the targeted player must know they have your support in the moment. Otherwise, they have no reason to trust you.
You don’t have to yell or get angry; just state that you don’t allow that kind of talk in your game. If possible, move on to the next scene so you won’t make the stereotyped player feel like they brought the game to a halt. Talk to them afterwards and make sure they’re okay.
Hopefully, the offending player will get the hint. If they repeatedly stereotype others despite your warnings, it’s time to remove them from the group. You can’t force someone to be a decent person.
2. Spotlight Stealing
Experienced GMs work hard to tailor storylines for each player and create content specifically so everyone has a moment to shine. That works fine until a player swoops in and snatches a plot meant for someone else. You might have planned for PC Jayla to be crowned Queen of the Realm, but at the last second PC Maiya remembers that her character is distantly related to the royal line and grabs the crown for herself. You can imagine how Jayla feels about this.
Spotlight stealing usually happens for one of two reasons. First, one PC can steal another’s spotlight just by being way more powerful. Stopping a bandit attack could be a serious undertaking for one PC, requiring time and careful planning. But then the PC who can shoot fire from their eyes burns all the bandits alive, and the problem is solved.
Second, the stealing player might just be more active. You describe how the bandits are threatening a village and how only a skilled tactician can defeat them. But the player you meant this story for isn’t fast enough, and another player sees the opportunity for their character to shine.
In either case, the spotlight stealer probably isn’t doing it on purpose. If their character is powerful, they’re just trying to apply that power in the most advantageous way. If they’re more active, they’re just trying to get involved in the story, like players are taught to do.
Despite a lack of malice, this behavior will seriously discourage the player whose spotlight is stolen. They were probably already having a difficult time because their character is underpowered or they have a hard time coming out of their shell, and now something meant specifically for them has gone to someone else. Why should they make the effort next time?
What to Do
First, if you want a story to go to a certain player, make the story as specific as possible. It should require a skill only they have, or an NPC should ask specifically for their help. If you see the spotlight being stolen in real time, you can always gently remind the offending player that this moment is for someone else. That’s usually enough, since malicious spotlight stealing is rare.
Unfortunately, this is one of those behaviors that’s often only clear in hindsight. In the moment, it might seem perfectly reasonable. You can’t go back in time and undo it, so the best solution is to reach out to the player who lost their spotlight and assure them that you’ll work in more for them to do next session, then make a special effort to engage them. If the issue is a mismatch in PC power, handing out a few upgrades can help too.
3. Playing a Stereotype
Rather than stereotyping other players, a player will make their own character into a stereotype. This usually happens when a player makes a character that’s outside of the player’s demographic. Male players with female characters, white players with black characters, etc.*
Sometimes the signs are obvious. A female character who seduces every NPC she meets is an obvious stereotype. So is a black character who steals things and speaks in pidgin, or a gay character with an exaggerated lisp. Other times, the stereotype can be more subtle. An elderly character who is nothing but a font of jokes about needing prune juice might seem harmless, but it’s still deriving comedy at the expense of a character’s age, which is a stereotype.
While there’s nothing wrong with playing outside one’s demographic, stereotyped characters are terrible for the game. For one thing, they’ll likely upset players who are actually from the demographic being stereotyped or anyone who doesn’t appreciate disrespectful mockery. It’s hard to run a good game when half the table is simmering at the antics of Racist McStereotype.
Beyond the immediate health of your session, letting this kind of behavior stand will normalize it. It gives people the idea that it’s no big deal if their friend drops the R-slur when talking about people with mental disabilities. Even if no one at the table seems to have a problem with it, we GMs have a responsibility to fight stereotyping whenever we find it.
What to Do
If a player is taking their stereotyped character to extremes and upsetting someone else at the table, you have to step in right there. The safety and well-being of your players is your primary concern here.
If this behavior is more limited, you can afford to discuss things with the player between sessions. They may not even know what they’re doing. See if there’s some story you can interest them with that won’t require playing to stereotypes. If their character is too deeply embedded, then it’s time to retire that character.
4. Story Sabotaging
Instead of stealing the spotlight, sometimes one player will just sabotage another’s story. This can happen a number of ways. One common method is to kill an NPC that’s vital to the other player’s story. They can’t romance Prince Isang if he’s dead!* Other times a player will crack jokes or otherwise fool around during another player’s important scene, destroying the mood. A sabotaging player might even argue strongly against the party following another player’s story.
Story sabotaging happens for a number of reasons. The most common one I’ve found is boredom. If a player isn’t engaged by what’s happening at the table, they may attempt to amuse themselves by messing with another player’s plot. Sabotaging can also be a kind of competition with the GM, a way for the player to score points by short-circuiting your plans.
Whatever the reason or method, story sabotaging always has the same effect: a player is left unfulfilled and then turns resentful. If the targeted player cares at all about their story, they won’t enjoy seeing it destroyed in front of them. They’ll have a harder time enjoying future stories as well, because they won’t want to invest in something that can be so easily taken away.
Worse, the targeted player may get angry at the saboteur and respond in kind. This’ll create a spiraling cycle of players sabotaging each other until everyone walks away from the table in frustration.
What to Do
This behavior is best handled at the table, since it’s easier to see while it’s happening than spotlight stealing. Nipping it in the bud is also more important because it’s more likely to end with players in direct conflict, and that’s terrible for the health of your game.
If a PC tries to kill an NPC you need for someone else’s story, figure out a way for that NPC to escape. Call a short timeout if you need to. If a player is being disruptive during someone else’s scene, firmly remind them that this isn’t their moment. They’ll have time to goof off when the spotlight is on them. If the player is arguing against pursuing someone else’s plotline, describe some benefit their character will receive to get them on board.
Once you’ve dealt with the immediate problem, see if there’s anything you can do to better engage the misbehaving player. Chances are good they’re just bored and will stop if given something to do.
5. Playing a Creep
We’ve all known someone who is perfectly reasonable in real life but loves to roleplay complete creeps. Their characters embrace behaviors that make a mockery of social norms, and it’s downright unpleasant to watch, even in fictional form.
Sexism is a common theme for creep characters. They’ll do things like hit on every female NPC in sight or call the villain female-specific slurs we all know not to use in real life. But it’s not just sexism. Other creep characters display a fondness for torture or other forms of cruel violence, with the player describing in detail just how they wound an enemy.
The creep character might even take a page straight from the headlines and spout abhorrent political beliefs. If that happens, expect to hear about building walls and making Mordor great again.
You’ve probably noticed I’ve been referring to a “creep character” rather than a “creep player.” That’s because a lot of players who do this don’t actually believe the stuff they’re saying; they just have the wrong idea of what makes a compelling character. They want to explore a dark character, but they confused “dark” with “awful.” Darth Vader is a dark character. A raving misogynist is just awful.
Of course, the player’s motivation doesn’t make their creep character any less destructive for the game. Even if the creep never targets another PC, watching them violate the bounds of common decency is no fun for anyone. It can easily get unpleasant enough to drive other players away from your game.
What to Do
If you think the misbehaving player is taking creepy actions because they actually want to do those things in real life but are restrained, the best course of action is to drop that player from your game. They are at best deeply unpleasant and at worst dangerous. You don’t have the magic power to fix them.
On the other hand, if you believe they’re doing it in an attempt to be edgy, you have two main options. If they’re the kind of person who responds well to direct feedback, you can explain why what they’re doing isn’t working. If they’re not, then the best option is to set a general rating limit for your game. Say that for the sake of staying in theme, you’re enforcing a PG rating.* Anything that violates your rating can then be removed from the game without it seeming like you’re targeting a specific player.
6. PVP Bullying
This last item is well known among roleplayers, and yet it never fails to raise its ugly head. You see it when one PC says they’re rolling persuasion to force another PC to do something, or when the super optimized combat-monster threatens to escalate a party disagreement to violence. No matter what kind of ability is being used, it comes down to PVP bullying.
Many players do this and never once consider themselves bullies. To them, they’re just roleplaying and using their character’s abilities to the fullest. If you pressed them, they’d probably say it was fair because they’re following the rules. Of course that’s nonsense. Most players build their character based on what they think will be fun to play, not to defeat other characters in single combat. The bully is playing a different game than everyone else and doesn’t understand why others get upset.
Players who are pushed around like this get understandably angry. They didn’t sign up to let another player dictate their choices. At best, the victims of PVP bullying will bear it silently, their enjoyment of the game irreparably damaged. Or they might escalate, building their own combat monsters and turning your game into a free-for-all where no one is happy. Not only will such an escalation destroy any story you wanted to tell, but there’s also no hope of a fair contest because roleplaying games are not set up for them. The winner of unplanned PVP will be whoever convinces you to let the battle take place on their terms, so look forward to hours of player bickering in addition to character violence.
If properly implemented, PVP can be a lot of fun, but it requires an active agreement from all sides. Everyone must know what they’re getting into, what’s on the line, and how to keep enjoying the game if they lose. Anything else is bullying, no matter how much sense it seems to make in character.
What to Do
One option is to simply declare that no rolls can be made against another PC without prior agreement. If your players follow that directive, then your problem is solved. But sometimes you have a player who will double down, dragging the game to a halt with arguments about how they should have the freedom to roll against another PC.
If that happens, and you can’t just remove the offending player from your game, a good solution is to give the bullied player some NPC backup. Find an in-character reason that a badass NPC would want to help them, then give that NPC some nasty abilities. It’s hard to bully someone when they have a squad of knights at their command. For some reason, PVP-happy players are often more willing to accept this solution than simply being told not to bully others.
Dealing with these bad behaviors will be difficult. No GM is perfect, and in the real time of a roleplaying session, some of these will slip by you. Don’t agonize over past incidents; learn from them and do better next time. Once you’ve got a handle on keeping these behaviors in check, players will learn they can trust you. Not only can they get a good story from your game, but they can also be sure no one else will ruin their fun.
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