As a DM, you wear a lot of hats: story-teller, actor, number cruncher, rules master and mediator, to name a few. Players create their characters and, for the most part, they spend every session making decisions for and acting on behalf of that character with little else to worry about. When they leave the table the game is ended; they may think about the game or their characters a bit between sessions, but not like we do. DMs think about the game constantly, how to make it better, what went wrong or right in the last session and what challenges they can present in the next one. I guess what I’m saying here is players have it easy compared to DMs; running the game is a lot of work.
Of course, when I say DMing is a lot of work, it is certainly a labor of love. We do what we do because we love doing it, and because that one session that goes perfectly makes up for all the others that don’t.
In a perfect world that’s all there would be to it. Unfortunately, there’s another job the DM must do: manage the table. Like any group of people, a table of players is inevitably comprised of varied backgrounds and personalities, not all of which gel easily. If there is to be a game at all, the DM has to ensure that each player is included and is comfortable. Specifically, it often falls to the DM to mediate between players and, in extreme cases, decide when an individual player is simply too disruptive to be part of the game. That’s the real point of this article – how do we, as DMs, tackle the job of table management?
Suppose you’ve invited four friends to play an ongoing campaign. Suppose these four friends know each other in the most minimal sense – they are each a friend of yours (perhaps one is a workmate and another is an old gaming buddy, etc.), but they are not that familiar with one another. What do you do when it becomes apparent that one of your friends/players is the only one that isn’t gelling well and is disrupting the game? It’s not an easy subject to breach, particularly because now a decision concerning the game can turn into a decision concerning your friendship with that player. People don’t like to be singled out, particularly by a friend.
The only real answer is to try to get to the root of the problem. Perhaps the disruptive player is a particularly insecure person who is intimidated by the others. Maybe they don’t know the rules as well as others or don’t feel as smart as them. Your first effort as DM and friend should be to let the player know that it takes all types at the table. Some players are experts at the rules, even more so than the DM, but their ability to think outside the box (outside the rules, even) may be lacking. Find the strong points about the disruptive player (great imagination, keeping the DM on his toes, etc.) that contribute to a great game and reassure them that these qualities are valuable. At the same time, you have to address any issues, including the disruptions at the table. It’s usually best to do this away from the game, on a personal level. With some luck, you may find common ground and restore order on gaming night.
My introduction about the many hats of the DM and all the work we do is leading somewhere. While you try to address the feelings of the disruptive player, be honest about yours as well. The fact is that a disruptive player derails a session into which you’ve poured a great deal of work and preparation. When a session fails to move the game and story forward in any meaningful way, it often feels like your work was wasted. Try to get the player to empathize and thereby realize how disruptive they’ve actually been. Be nice about it, forgiving, but make it clear that wasted sessions can’t continue. Hopefully it all has a pleasant sitcom ending where everyone understands what it takes to make a great gaming night and no one is left out. But what if it doesn’t? What if the disruptive player is clearly not going to change their behavior?
The bottom line with table management is that the game needs to satisfy everyone involved on some level. The DM needs to feel they’ve presented a great hook and interesting challenges, while the players need to feel they’ve accomplished something and impacted the gaming world with their decisions and actions. That can’t happen if there’s always a player bringing attention to their self and constantly derailing the game. That’s when you as DM have to make the tough call and tell your friend/player that they’re no longer welcome at the table. It should already be clear why, since you’ve tried to smooth it out previously. Ideally your friendship will survive.
It’s the toughest call you’ll make as a DM, deciding when enough is enough. It’s the point when a game stops being “just a game.” Everyone is dedicating their free time to it, especially you, and everyone deserves to enjoy that time. It really is as simple as that. If only the managing part was!