D&D: How to Deal with Problem Players

Written by Bob Burne

With over 30 years experience, Bob started gaming when he was 8 and running when he was 9. He has played or run everything from D&D to homebrewed horrors that would split your psyche apart if you even glimpsed the badly done cover art. Recently he has begun writing, and surprisingly, people want to read his brain leakings. He has several short stories in anthologies for Carpathia Publishing.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

When it comes to games like D&D or any other game that requires player commitment and investment, you can come to see one glaring problem: some players are terrible people and a misery to know, let alone play with. Trust me – having run and played tabletop RPGs for 34 years now, attended many conventions, and LARPed for years, you learn to spot and deal with these sorts of people.

The solution to problem players is almost always open communication, fairness, and actively working to engage players in the game. Consistently applied ground rules are essential and helped by a session 0. Also, avoid having NPCs betray the party.

This guide will be one part warning and one part troubleshooting so that your games can run smoother, focusing exclusively on D&D.

Gird up your loins and come with me as I teach you to slay that most annoying monster of all: problem players.

1) The Lone Wolf

Warning Signs 

  • The super mysterious background that always seems to be shifting 
  • Practically never talks to the party in-character, preferring to stick to the shadows 
  • Playing either a thief, assassin, or rogue; occasionally playing a ranger

You finally have your group together, ready to tackle the plot. 

Suddenly, one player raises their hand or, more often, sends you a “secret” note to tell you they want to go off on their own. 

To be clear, this isn’t always a bad thing. If you are doing a city adventure, you should expect players to split up as your rogues hit the thief’s guilds and your magic folks go to talk to other magic folks. 

It crosses the line into problematic behavior when it happens constantly. Dungeons and Dragons is emphatically a cooperative team experience, and if you allow this behavior to continue, it can disrupt the party dynamic to the point of wrecking your game. 

Not to mention that you now have 3-5 other players waiting while the mysterious Lone Wolf hogs the spotlight.

Solutions

The nice option is to simply talk to the player and work out a compromise. 

If he could show up earlier than the others to run their side plots so as not to disrupt the game, then this could work. 

Be warned: this only works if the player simply wants to RolePlay (RP) and isn’t trying to hog the spotlight. 

The less nice option is to drop the hammer and kill their character. I am not talking assassination – unless that’s appropriate. I am simply suggesting that if someone wanders off, alone, in the middle of a dungeon, then that might not be the healthiest thing to do. 

A few “lost” characters usually cures the Lone Wolf of what ails them. Unfortunately, losing characters isn’t usually enough for…

2) The Kamikaze

Warning Signs

  • Player boredom
  • Insane risks that defy common sense

This problem usually stems from a player hating their character and deciding to get rid of the Player Character (PC) in the quickest, bloodiest way possible. That, or they just like messing with people and still need to be dealt with.

Solutions

For those currently dealing with this kind of payer, here is my suggestion: sit the player down and discuss the issue. 

Perhaps the situation can be salvaged. If it’s a lack of connection, then exploring different RolePlaying (RP) scenarios might help. Find goals that the character can work toward.

Perhaps the issue comes from game mechanics; many classes have an unstated “best way” to play them. It becomes a checklist of powers. 

It goes something like: this spell to this spell to this bonus action. This can wear on players as each combat becomes a math problem. 

If this is the issue, then only one real solution is available: switch classes

However, killing the character is not the answer. It disrupts the game immensely as the other PCs have to deal with the ramifications of this action. In worst-case scenarios, I have seen it lead to a total party wipe and the offending player being booted from the group. 

Instead, work out a graceful exit. Perhaps the fighter returns to his hometown to become the sheriff, or the wizard leaves to research a major spell. A new character is introduced as the old departs, and the door’s still open if the player changes their mind about their old character.

However, if this happens repeatedly, you don’t have a Kamikaze—you have….


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3) The Moron

Warning Signs

  • Plays incredibly low intelligence players
  • Constantly disrupts the game by picking the worst options
  • Constant character death

This isn’t a player who is bad at the game due to real-life low intelligence. No, this is a player who, usually for the lulz, plays the biggest idiot they can possibly create. 

There is no danger they won’t run toward with eyes-wide-open, no questionable magic item they won’t lick, and no obvious trap they won’t jump into. It doesn’t matter how catastrophic it is for the party as long as they are having fun. 

Solutions

Here you have a few options:

The Lazy Option

Let the players handle it. If you have the right set of players, then this knot ties itself. Player screws around; party takes him out. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, their teammates get tired of being subjected to reckless endangerment.

The Better Option

Calmly explain that this behavior will not be tolerated. Reject their 3-intelligence character from the jump and inform them that what they’re doing is disruptive to the game and disrespectful to the players. 

Usually, the Moron just wants attention. I have seen quite a few players play dumb characters who did it in an amusing fashion without disrupting the game. 

And because no list of problem players would be complete without…

4) The Rules Lawyer

Warning Signs

  • Has every book ever made, often with him
  • Tries to set precedence in reasonable cases, then uses them for ridiculous ones
  • Uses minute phrasings in the text or errata (post-print corrections) to avoid consequences

Some clarification is in order since false accusations of Rule Lawyering are increasingly common; a Rules Lawyer is someone who attempts to use ridiculous loopholes in the rules to avoid any and all consequences. 

This is the player who cites the newest rule or misprint that changes some small section of the rules. They approach all questions with the hope of setting a precedent. They will talk forever, trying to make ridiculous connections. 

To clarify, legitimate rules questions happen. Sometimes the rules don’t make sense or are incredibly vague, so asking for clarification is fine. 

Solutions

My general rule of thumb is that if you can’t make your point in ~30 seconds, then your point is invalid, and we’re moving on. Let them make their case, but once a decision is made, stick with it—especially if it comes back to haunt the Rule Lawyer.

Side note: changing rules in the middle of combat or a scene shouldn’t happen. Telling the fighter that he can’t swing his sword in a cave because the roof is too low is a big no-no and massively frustrating to players. Being fair works both ways.

However, sometimes following rules to their logical conclusion will result in a mistaken Total Party Kill (TPK), so it’s okay if you decide to go back on a ruling. 

Be reasonable, fair, and aim for whatever seems to be the most fun at the time. In contrast to…

5) The Murder Hobo

Warning Signs

  • Doesn’t pay attention unless combat breaks out
  • Never takes his armor off and always has one hand on a weapon 
  • Constantly kills everything around him, often before any RP happens

Where do these players come from? How does a reasonable person become a bloodthirsty monster who just kills any NPC that crosses their path? Stop and look in the mirror—that’s where. 

I haven’t met a Murder Hobo yet who wasn’t the direct result of a Dungeon Master’s (DM) actions. Every saucy bar wench is a succubus trying to suck out his soul; every Non-Player Character (NPC) betrays the players at the drop of a hat despite the fact that they just saved the freaking town ten minutes ago. 

Due to this constant theme, murder becomes a survival tactic. The best defense is a great offense!


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Solutions

Other than the obvious discussion, the best option is to put the players in a situation that relies heavily on RP instead of combat. 

A recently raided town hires the party to defend it. The players get to know the townspeople. The fighter trains a militia while the Cleric finds potential converts. 

In between the RP, the party has to figure out what to do about the villains that threaten the town. Here is the important part: Do not betray them with your NPCs! If that doesn’t work, boot the problem player. 

A Murder Hobo is one of the most absolutely disruptive players in a game, so best to avoid it before it starts. Disruptive in a different way is…

6) The Power Gamer

Warning Signs

  • Takes two hours to level up
  • Often forgets to name a character
  • Short circuits many interesting situations with amazing rolls
  • Imbalances game

The Power Gamer is another archetype that, due to overuse of the term, needs to be defined. 

They take optimization to an absurd degree and quite often end up being awful at everything except one specific thing. 

A Power Gamer can easily throw off a party’s balance, often encouraging other players to power up. Soon, you will have several characters with wildly different abilities, forcing you to respond in kind with increasingly difficult encounters. 

Solutions

This problem needs to be handled before the game begins. Keep your lines of communication open and a close eye on their sheet; if you don’t want a PC with an Armor Class (AC) of 30 at level 6, then talk to the player about their plans and goals. 

As well, a Session Zero is important to set expectations and keep everyone on the same page. I prefer to use it to coordinate the players, which leads us to… 

7) The Distracted Gamer

Warning Signs

  • Glued to their phone or laptop
  • Constantly asking you to repeat yourself

Yay—it’s game night! Everyone bellies up to the table, and combat breaks out. Turns are taken when suddenly everything crashes to a miserable halt. Why? Because of this problem player. 

You can’t remember their face, but you know every bit of the top of their head as they stare at an unrelated screen. There can be lots of reasons for the distracted gamer. Let’s break them down together and see what we can do about each.

Solutions

Job

This happens with older gamers. They have a busy job and now don’t have time to just concentrate exclusively on the game during sessions. It comes down to whether both you and the players can put up with it or not.

Be empathetic, but take them aside and ask if it’s possible for them to finish everything ahead of time. Try to work something out, but if they can’t provide sufficient attention, at least during the session, then it may be time to say goodbye.

The Plus One

They’re only here because they got dragged into it. Often, it’s a significant other. 

Tread carefully, for this way lies drama and madness. Have them come to the session early and discuss the problem with them. Point out how it’s disruptive to the other players, then attempt to see if there is something you can do to engage the Plus One in the game. 

Often, they had no input into their character—it was probably made for them, so they don’t care. 

It’s also possible that they don’t understand the game or the rules. A little tutoring can really help a Plus One become one of the gang. 

Finally, it’s possible that they just don’t like role-playing at all, in which case they may need to go—unless you’re doing a low RP game. 

You might lose two players, but it’s better than losing the entire table.

Digital Addiction

They have their laptop out the entire session and aren’t even trying to hide that they’re playing another game. In fact, they can often interrupt the session just to comment on something that happened in their main focus.

Others may be unable to put their phone down because they’re constantly on dating apps or flirting with prospects.

Whatever the case is, you may need to require them to put away all devices and go old school—strictly pen and paper.

DMs put in hours of work to facilitate the fun; the least players can do is give attention while they play. Which is why we’re going to talk about…


Frighten Your Players

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Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

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8) The Perpetually Ignorant

Warning Signs

  • Asking the same question repeatedly
  • Rapid page-turning on their combat turn
  • A confused look when you ask them to roll certain things (e.g., a Constitution save)
  • Frequently use their spells incorrectly, often the same ones

There are two things that a player needs to do: 1) show up on time and 2) learn the lore and rules of the game. These are the basic things that show respect to both the DM and the other players. However, some people just never quite seem to do that second one. 

Solution

Again, this one breaks down into subcategories:

Learns By Doing

I am one of these people. I can learn about 20% from a book, but I won’t understand until I get into the game and start doing stuff. Then I go back and read the rules to see what clicks. 

The problem player rarely ever cracks the book in the first place. The excuses are always the same: “I don’t have time.” Yes, they do. 

Twenty minutes a day is all it takes, and everyone has that if they prioritize it. Whether it’s the bathroom, traffic, or the subway—you have twenty minutes to learn a game that you agreed to play

Sit them down and lay down the law: learn the game or leave. Otherwise, this can endanger the serenity of the table. 

Just Won’t Do It

If you have had the conversation and it’s nothing but excuses, then show them the door. There are no other options here, and the same often goes for… 

9) The Cheater

Symptoms

  • Never misses a roll
  • Sits suspiciously close to you so they can see your notes
  • Strangely informed about the Module/Campaign/Session

Metagaming is one thing—knowing the situation well enough that they maximize their character for the setting—but these players take it too far. If they seem to know things they shouldn’t, never make a misstep, and often have everything imaginable in their pack, then you know what’s going on.

Solutions

Kick them the hell out

There are no other options with this player. They know exactly what they shouldn’t do, and they do it anyway. There is no discussion to be had, but if you insist on doing so, then here is the best way to do that: 

Do it privately and be firm. Explain in no uncertain terms that this behavior will not be tolerated, and should it continue, they will no longer be welcome at your table—no multiple strikes. Cheat, and you’re gone. The disruption that this player can cause is immeasurable. You need to nip it in the bud. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, communication and respect will solve 90% of your problems. Just don’t forget that it goes both ways. 

Be consistent, open to suggestion and feedback, and realize that the rules are there to facilitate a balanced, fun game for both the DM and the player.

Success at D&D means that you look forward to playing together again.

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  1. Session 0: Establishing A Shared Reality — Make a Skill Check - […] limits apply both to in- and out-of-game behavior: TCE includes cellphone use, vulgarity, and rules-lawyering among possible […]
  2. 5e: How to Run an Evil Campaign — Make a Skill Check - […] and Matt Colville, for that matter, believe that this is about some people being problem players and not about…
  3. Session 0: Establishing A Shared Reality — Make a Skill Check - […] limits apply both to in- and out-of-game behavior: TCE includes cellphone use, vulgarity, and rules-lawyering among possible […]