‘Dear D&D’ Dungeon Masters, You Can’t Afford to Be Non-Confrontational

Hey, fellow Dungeon Masters.

We need to have a little chat about a concerning trend I’ve noticed in a lot of my D&D groups that is definitely not a good look for our hobby: DMs who don’t seem to want to directly deal with toxic behavior at their tables. Now I’m a newer DM myself, but I’ve sat in the player’s seat for over 20 years and had a firsthand view of what toxic players can do to a gaming group. I even wrote about what behaviors I don’t allow at my table because of those experiences. Lately, though, I’ve seen a lot of players reaching out to online groups asking for help/advice about a problematic player, and, time and time again, I see a lot of questions about what their DM is doing answered with, “Our DM is kind of non-confrontational…”

Nope. That is not going to fly. Look, DMs, I get that it’s a lot of work to DM. Honestly, I see a lot of parallels between DMing and my years as a classroom teacher. There’s a saying in teaching that you end up spending 90% of your time dealing with 10% of the students. As a DM, if you allow a toxic player to run amok at your table, you will spend 90% of your time dealing with that one player’s drama. However, a teacher doesn’t get to hand-pick students, but a DM gets to choose who sits at their table and they absolutely have the power and ability to shut down toxic behavior or tell a player they can no longer play. As a DM, I believe you have two basic responsibilities: to keep toxic behavior off the table and to make a fun experience for your players. If you fail at the first, you will quickly fail at the second.

“But, we’re all grown-ups, the players should settle it on their own!”

I wish it was that simple. In a good group, players can discuss things as they come up and solve those issues. My group is that way now. It’s that way because, after a few toxic player experiences, we got cautious about who we added to the table and more or less pre-screened for good behavior. A truly toxic player probably has steamrolled over any attempts to work things out. Remember, the group looks to the DM as the authority of the group, and a toxic player unchecked has basically been given permission to act that way by the DM. A lot of players also get nervous that if the DM, the authority figure, doesn’t see a problem, they are causing problems by raising the issue. You’re the leader, you have to lead by either shutting down bad behaviors or at least letting your players feel like they can come to you to discuss things and get help. If your players are in an online group asking for help because they don’t feel you have their backs if they’re being harassed or if a toxic player is running the show, you’ve failed your players. 

“They can just choose to set aside their issues with each other, right?”

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Yeah, no. In a very large social group, you might have a buffer if there’s one person who just hits a nerve on you. You don’t sit next to that person at a restaurant, you gravitate towards others on a hike, and you can possibly reduce your direct interactions with them. A gaming table is a smaller environment that requires the players to work together as a team. If a situation with at least one toxic player has been created, it can’t really be buffered in the same way. No one wants to spend several hours a week trapped in a cooperative exercise with a toxic person for recreational fun. Players need to want to play with each other on purpose. When the bad behavior runs rampant, you will eventually reach a breaking point, possibly occurring very dramatically at the table, and someone will leave the group. Unfortunately, the toxic players often don’t leave in these situations, it’s the other players who get fed up with toxic players running unchecked who leave. Remember, even Matt Mercer, one of the most esteemed professional DMs out there, ended up with a player who had to leave Critical Role during the first season due to their behavior. 

“But the toxic player is my best friend/sibling/romantic partner!”

Oh, these are often the worst cases of all. Ideally, your group is friends with each other and there may be couples at the table or someone involved with the DM. When you are making a new group, think carefully. If your sibling is the sort of person who never respects your decisions and undermines you, they won’t make a good player at your table. If your best friend always has to have their way and can’t admit to being wrong, they will be an awful player. Does your romantic partner always use “it’s just a joke” when people get offended at what they say? A toxic player that has a pre-existing connection to you will weaponize their relationship with you like they have immunity from table removal. Don’t put players who are like this at your table, to begin with, and you will save yourself a lot of drama. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: if someone has toxic behaviors and you put them at a gaming table, you just give them a stage to show off those behaviors.

So, yes, make your adventures, design your homebrews, and create fun terrain and minis, but don’t forget that your job is also to make the table a safe and fun place to play. Toxic behavior doesn’t have to thrive at your table, and you have the power to stop it. Your game will be a much better experience when you keep toxic players out, and being willing to do that will absolutely help you attract the sort of players that you want so that you can focus on the fun parts of gaming and not be stuck in a storm of out-of-character drama.

I know you can make your table awesome!


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This post was last modified on September 21, 2023 6:47 pm

Elizabeth MacAndrew

Elizabeth MacAndrew didn't choose the geek life, it kicked down her front door and told her she was a Jedi. She lives in Arizona with her husband, two boys, two spoiled rescue dogs, and a ridiculous amount of Pop! Vinyls. Her favorite geeky hobbies include watching sci-fi/fantasy shows, tabletop gaming, and convincing herself that some day her reading pile won't be an entire bookcase.

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