Toxic Players: The Hidden Chernobyl in Every Role Playing Game

How do you recognize and handle toxicity in play groups? It’s not easy, but taking steps early to avoid toxicity can save both in-game and out of game strife.

The D&D party don’t stop until the healer is dead and I’m all out of potions.

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At least, that’s what it says on one of my favorite shirts, but experienced players will know that’s not always the case. While it would be grand if every campaign went out in a fiery, epic TPK (Total Party Kill), this rarely happens. Rather, games slowly fall apart over weeks or months, eventually dying due to a lack of attendance. Sometimes, the slow death of a group is the natural course of a weak campaign goal, but far more often, it’s due to toxic players.

Many groups have toxic players in them and don’t even realize it. Others know they have a toxic player, but he’s playing the strong, silent, edgy Drow so he doesn’t always ruin the fun. What those players should realize, is that toxic players are radioactive. It might take days, weeks, or months for the blisters to appear, but they will. And when they begin to burst, they will always destroy the campaign. DMs must learn to recognize, identify, then manage those toxic players before they inevitabley and irreperably damage the group.

What makes a toxic player?

“Toxicity (in games or any social context) is communication and behavior that BOTH risks harm (including emotional harm or distress) to other participants AND achieves no significantly higher objective.” This functional definition for toxicity comes from, and I doubt there is a more authoritative group on the subject of toxic gaming. This definition is particularly useful, because it recognizes that there are good reasons that risk harm or distress to a player, such as telling a player they are toxic, or creating a thriller or horror scenario with the consent of the players. These may cause distress, but they serve a valuable higher purpose and should not be considered toxic.

How do you identify toxicity with this definition?

Look for the fallout.

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Just like radiation, the fallout of a toxic player will start creating small symptoms that will quickly grow to lethal levels.

  1. Back-seat DMing: if your player is making rulings or telling other players what to role, this is a warning sign. In some cases, a back-seat DM could be helpful if the DM is inexperienced, but it should always be done with intentionality, awareness, and approval from all parties.
  2. Not Accepting Outcomes: maybe they occasionally reroll something because they “dropped” a die on accident. Maybe they argue that they should have rolled Athletics instead of Acrobatics because honestly they’re basically the same thing, right? Maybe they meta-game, then argue that the DM was unfair when their out-of-game plan fails. All of these are signs that the player values their own personal success more than character development or story telling. These are signs that a player is there for wish-fulfillment, not out of goodwill and a desire to participate in a cooperative game.
  3. Rushing Scenarios: We have all seen it. The wizard is desperately trying to solve a puzzle to disarm an obviously dangerous trap. They spend ten or fifteen minutes with the other players trying to solve it, but the toxic player isn’t patient or considerate. He says, “I push the button” and lets all hell break loose. If they are playing a stupid, irrational character, then this is fine, but if their character doesn’t have an INT of two, then they are simply putting their own needs above the rest of the group.
  4. Sexist or Derogatory Behavior: This should be obvious, but it gets too-often overlooked in the nerd world. Mansplaining rules to girls or talking down to new players is a sign of toxicity. It isn’t rare and should not be tolerated.
  5. Living Out Frightening Fantasies: I recall a player years ago who we not only asked to leave the game, but leave the social circle. We were playing an apocalyptic campaign of World of Darkness, each person was playing a version of themselves in this scenario. The player, we’ll call him J, was always a little on the creepy side, but we were a tolerant bunch. This tolerance reached a limit when, during one of the games, J said his character began pressuring one of the female NPCs into sex. When she didn’t respond, he tried to force it. We reminded him that he was playing himself and that he shouldn’t make unrealistic actions. He said, “It’s the apocalypse. Nothing matters, so that’s what I would do.” Unfortunately I am not the only one with stories like this, and the only reaction to a player like that must be one of rejection.
  6. Players are Leaving: When your players are saying that they, “just can’t deal with so-and-so anymore,” this is the most obvious sign of a toxic player and it is probably too late to salvage goodwill. At this point, you must make immediate steps to remove the player at all cost to save the game.

What can you do about it?

Depending on the level of radioactivity you are seeing, there are three major steps you can take to avoid toxicity.

  1. Communicate and set expectations: If your players are exhibiting signs one, two, or three from above, you can probably solve these issues by setting hard rules and enforcing them. We have a house rule that says, “If you drop a die on the ground it’s automatically a 1”. This was enacted to stop players from using the “Schrodinger’s Roll” as I call it. Toxic players would “drop” the die on the table so it falls to the ground, then decide after seeing the roll if it was an accident or not, essentially giving them a free re-roll. Our solution has greatly decreased instances of players not accepting outcomes.
  2. Do not shrug off insulting behavior: If a toxic player is exhibiting sign four from above, you can bet everyone is getting ready to quit or leave the game. There is no acceptable reason to be misogynistic, or derogatory towards another player for any reason. Pretending, “he’s just got a dark sense of humor,” or claiming, “he doesn’t mean it,” does not fix the problem, it’s about as effective as drinking herbal tea to cure cancer.
  3. Ask the toxic player to leave: It is unfortunate and difficult, but sometimes there are no other options. If step five or six from above has been reached, and players are leaving, it’s time to make a choice. It’s hard to make that choice when that person is a friend in other areas of your life. As I said in point five, I have had to cut ties to people who were otherwise friends because their behaviors in-game showed me a side of them I could not stand by. Whether they were insulting a girlfriend of another player or demanding that their character’s immoral actions be allowed, it showed me that they are not considerate enough to maintain a healthy relationship with others.

Radioactive clean up is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful process. You may not be able to salvage every player who was damaged by the fall-out of a toxic player, but you might be able to save the campaign. In the end, the best thing you can do to protect your game from toxicity is create the safety mechanisms early. Know the warning signs and set up the alarm system to stop toxicity before it affects others. Happy rolling.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer, English Teacher, Gamer, Nerd.

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