Wily Problem Players: A Reality Check

Any community organizer worth their salt knows that there are some players in the community that suck. And I don't mean just suck. They're disruptive. They're annoying. People don't wanna play with them. People complain about them. People groan when they show up in their game. Those players. There are podcasts about them, panels about them, GM panels that just turn into "fix my problem player" questions. This epidemic is ages old and getting stronger.

But who are these mysterious and profoundly horrible problem players? Why is it we don't just ban hammer them all out of our lives? Where is the line between acceptable and problematic? I've listened to enough podcasts, panels, and random rants to know that problem players are still around and people struggle in dealing with them.

Let's be clear though. I'm not going to publish this article and bam your problems will be gone. I'm not promising the sun and the moon and all the world. What I'm going to be offering you is something maybe you've heard before and maybe you haven't: an alternate perspective. That's right. I'm not going to tell you how to fix your problem players. I'm going to tell you how to change your perspective on what's happening.

All too often the same complaints come again and again. Any panelist at a con can tell you that almost all GMing panels turn into "what do I do about my problem player?" It's a universal problem in every group and community (that is, until you weed those people out) and after listening to all the complaints of people talking about what bugs them, I found myself disheartened.

So many complaints of problem players, and ultimately, how to deal with them, made me realize we're not encouraging people to reach out. We're encouraging people to shun. There are, of course, cases of people who are just shitty people, and people who are abusive. There are always going to be people who suck. But in deciding if they suck, do we actually reach out or do we just assume?

The language around problem players itself shows how we feel and deal with them. They're problems. Things to be solved, overcome, or removed. They're unwelcome or harmful. They're a problem. It isn't very often we hear people say "I'm concerned about x". Often I hear people complaining or bitching about people in their group they don't like or who have poor table etiquette and they don't want to deal with.

So let's talk about some of these people. Let's examine what I've come to find trying to forge an inclusive and safe community.

Phones In My Face: We all know these folks now-a-days. The people who play on their phone, often when it's not their turn in the spotlight. Sometimes they're browsing Twitter or Facebook or just looking up at stupid memes and sometimes they're even talking to people on messenger. What the hell?

This one time, when I was being a doula (someone who helps people have babies), I was talking to a soon to be mum about how she planned on dealing with the pain. She was a woman with severe anxiety and she said to get over anxiety, she tended to focus on external simulation. Like trashy magazines or facebook/her phone. And sure enough, when the pain became overwhelming and she became anxious, she spent a good chunk of her birth on her phone. The moral of this story? Some people use external simulation for anxiety relief.

The outside world is available to us from our phones. This can be a place where we can vent if we're struggling with a situation, or find safety if we're triggered. It's a place where we can distract ourselves if we have an attention issue, so it lets us listen without having to look. It can be a safe place to deal with social anxiety. It can be a tool that lets people stay at the table.

If you have a Phone player, ignore it. They are doing them and they're allowed to do what they need to do to feel safe and present at the table. It doesn't impact you. It has nothing to do with you. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Now, that being said, if they start showing other people the memes on their phone and distracting other players, I would deal with that. It's fine if you need to be distracted in order to stay present, but pulling other players in becomes a problem.

How do to deal with that? Talk to them after game and aside. Really practice this move because it should be your go-to move. And don't accuse people of shit. Be kind, be gentle, and make space. I would probably say something like "Hey, I totally get needing to be on your phone during game. Would it be okay though if you didn't show stuff on your phone to other players while we're playing? It can be a little distracting, which I know isn't your intention. I would find it helpful." 

It's a soft move, for sure, but it's a way to start a conversation without immediately making a person defensive. Yes, it's soft language. Yes, it's passive. And to be fair, those are all difficult things for some people and I get that. This is how I deal with it. You can deal with it your own way. I do always, ALWAYS recommend being kind and loving when you work with problem players. Love goes a long way. And it makes you a good citizen.

I Wanna Make A Thing!: Crafters. Crafters everywhere! You know these ones too, I bet. They come to your game and then they knit or crochet or paint their minis. They draw. They colour. They do creative artistic things instead of looking at you while you're talking. Sometimes they stop when it's their turn in the spotlight and sometimes the don't. Sometimes they take up a fair bit of space and other times this isn't the case.

This is pretty much the same as the phone issue. It's often people who struggle with staying present and having something to do with their hands help. It could be they get overstimulated at game and having something micro to focus on allows them to stay present and listen without feeling like they've become overwhelmed. It allows them to listen while they can look at something else. It allows them to better cope with anxiety or attention disorders or other mental health concerns. There are many reasons to utilize keeping ones hands busy.

I don't recommend telling these people to stop. I recommend thinking about how it's helping them, and valuing their comfort and safety over your personal annoyance that someone is knitting. I've run many many games with people painting, colouring, drawing, knitting, quilting, or crocheting. It's fine. It works just fine. There's no need to take away someone's coping technique because you are mildly annoyed.

Late! I'm Late! For a Very Important Date!: Every group has at least one white rabbit who's routinely late for all the things. They show up rushed, disheveled, and often out of breath. You've held the game for them. Or you haven't. Maybe you've just pushed on because you said x time and you're gonna start on x time and they're always late.

This used to really bug me. I had one player who would complain we didn't end when they needed us to end, but would routinely show up 45 minutes late. Which I called them on and got the answer: "I struggle to leave the house. My anxiety is bad whenever I have to." And I felt instantly bad I had been angry with them. This has happened to me several times. Some people do genuinely suffer when they have to leave the house, and I do believe in acting compassionately towards those people.

That being said, boundaries are necessary. I also have anxiety, and so to curb this I leave very early for things. I leave two hours early for work when it takes me an hour to get there. I leave an hour early for game when it takes me 20 - 30 minutes. People who struggle with anxiety and other mental illnesses are in charge of moderating their own symptoms and living their life. While I understand, deeply understand, the struggle, there does need to be some respect paid to other people's time.

As a GM, I have chosen to wait for those people who are late. I would rather be kind and loving to them than make them feel unwelcome because of their disability or mental illness. Some people are just chronically late because of poor time management skills. I will wait 30 minutes. I use this time to catch up with my gamers, talk to them, and prep a little or ask what they want to see. I begin about five minutes after the 30 minute mark because I will only wait that long. That's my boundary.

With folks who are my late kids, I talk with them online or after game to tell them I get it. That I'm sorry and it sucks. And that I will start thirty minutes late but not later and that's my boundary. So if they come after that, we don't stop for them. They can totally join in, but we won't pause, see how they're doing, and catch up them up much. I don't want their lateness to disrupt a game I've started thirty minutes late already. But always try to remember to do so lovingly. I will often not say hi until they're settled and at the table ready. I will engage with them once they're present and ready, and be kind and loving, but I try to show that we have begun and beyond thirty minutes is disruptive.

Offensive Jokes Aren't Offensive!: Oh boy. I don't think I need to explain that person. The one who sits there, making gross jokes, be they rape jokes or sex jokes or racist jokes. Everyone at the table gets uncomfortable and no one says anything and the person continues on just thinking they're fine. But everyone's not okay. Everyone's cringing. Man, it's bad.

This one is complicated. Offensive jokes are harmful to people. They hurt. They're abusive. And sometimes, that person was raised in an environment where racism was a-okay. Which is upsetting but it happens. Now there are two paths to take with this one. The first path is X-carding or calling out that shit right at the table and saying "Nope". The other one is waiting until after the game and calling in, reaching out to that player and saying 'Hey, hum, that joke you made was kinda racist and it made me uncomfortable. Could you refrain from that in the future?' or something to that effect.

Pathway One will be an instant shut down. Most people back off from this but some people will start the argument of sense of humour or being too sensitive or it was just a joke. Pathway Two will usually result in people asking questions or maybe not realizing they were being offensive or yes, sometimes still the problem with pathway one. I tend to combo them now-a-days. I will x-card the content at the table to send a clear message that the behaviour is not okay. And then afterwards I will usually message or email them or talk in face. After they've had time to cool down incase they're upset or feel hurt or are angry.

I've met a surprising number of people who didn't know they were being offensive. It often comes from their childhood or background and what was normalized where they grew up. When I tell them why it's not okay and how it can hurt people and why it's against what we value, they usually seem to get it. This means doing a lot of emotional labour and you may not be up for it and that's okay. I do think it's important this work is done though. I think it's important we reach out and try to bring people with us rather than shun the people we deem as unacceptable.

Now if the person make the gross jokes continues being gross and says you're wrong for being offended, ban hammer the fuck out of them. We ain't got time for no douche bags. But please please please try to reach out first. Try to make our community better rather than splintered.

Power Fantasies, Rules Lawyers, and My Character Wouldn't Do Thats: All these things are not problem players. They are examples of poor gaming etiquette and conversations that haven't happened. Some of them are bad role players. Some of them are just unaware of how much space they take up at the table. All of them are usually one to twenty conversations away from becoming a better gamer.

In small communities that can foster specific growth and style, this is less of a problem. When you have people of mixed backgrounds (as in trad vs story game) coming to one table, this can be more problematic if only because what is acceptable in one circle may not be acceptable in another. You know what solves these things? Communications and Boundaries. Often, communications of boundaries.

Like all my other examples, this is another one I recommend talking to the problem player about. Often times no one has spoken to them about these behaviours and why they're not welcome. I have a couple of rules lawyers that I play with. My initial solution to this was to play games they didn't own and thus couldn't read and rules lawyer. Now a days, I simply say "I appreciate how much you know the rules, but I'm running the game and I am choosing how to run it. If you want to play a more rules tight game, this may not be the game for you. If I need something clarified, I will totally ask you about it."

Then I give a warning when they do it but I try to make it more joke-like and gentle rather than harshly coming down on them. I want my table to feel like a safe space, and that also means making fucking up safe as much as you can.

As for power fantasies, I'm okay with them. As long as they don't try to make the game all about them. Power fantasies give us a chance to feel empowered and special, and if that's what is fun to that player, then great. As long as it doesn't break tone or ruin other people's fun. If it does, I talk to the player about how their constant need to be the hero is not giving room to other people, and how maybe they could work around that by actively listening to what other people are doing, and making sure there's space for other people to do things.

Then there's the "my character wouldn't..." types. We've all ranted about them. This is just another check in and conversation. I've done this one a lot and sometimes it's hard to really knock this one home because trad players just don't get it. So what I've done now is I do the talk, and after each game I will say something complimentary. Like... "I really liked how you totally did this thing." Which is vague. But it's complimenting them on generating story and going for it rather than playing safe or removing their character from the fiction. I always try to say "good job" when it comes to driving the fiction. Positive reinforcement gets you places.

My basic breakdown of all the things problem players do (and we're not referring here to the missing stairs or bad people), is that a conversation is often the beginning of making the situation better. It's my basic goal to make our community a better place. That doesn't begin with me flipping the table and stomping out. It begins with me fostering a better and safer space for communication. And I do that with... communication.

Act with kindness and love. Try to see things from another angle. Don't look at it from purely your stand point. Make space for experiences you haven't had and may never had. Be thoughtful. Start conversations. Mean what you say and be kind when you say it. All great advice, and all hard to keep in mind when we are irritated, annoyed, or feel like we're not being respected. Take a breath. And move forward with open love.

Yes. Problem players exist. But we can't kid ourselves that they're the problem and not the way we fail to communicate our needs, our social expectations and contracts, and what our boundaries are. That's the problem, right there. Unspoken words and expectations. We can't function off of guaranteed social ideas. We need to make the space we want to see and shaming and shunning people isn't going to get that done.

So next time you have a problem player, check in, call in, have a conversation, and treat that person like a person, not an annoyance. Because just maybe there's more to it than how annoyed you are.

Be vulnerable. Stay fierce.