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My players and I often have a bit of conflict or frustration in our games because one player in particular is quite controlling, and feels that they can have their character just snatch up what they want because they said they wanted to.

This isn't a form of "Instant Actioning" I feel I should be able to control. The player waits for me to finish, but interrupts the other players before they can pick up what they deserved, and often undertakes actions that weren't discussed. Since they are on the same level, I don't feel I should have the power to intervene in their play. It is their game as well and I don't believe in overruling their choices as it is their place, not mine. I'll only ever say "no" If it breaks the rules.

For example, we had this scenario where my players were in forest that was blanketed by spider webbing. They overthrew the spider inhabitants and decided to cut down one of the cocooned bodies hanging from the roof. I reward their thorough and clever searching by stating (After they cut open the webbed body) the body was that of a Dragonborn local hero in the area who wore a mask that improved his breath attack. The mask was designed for one of my Dragonborn players specifically because he is new to the game and rarely gets a chance to assert himself in battle over the other more experienced players, so I wanted him to feel like a more valuable asset. Before he or any of the others had a chance to pick it up, the controlling player snatched it up and refused to give it back (Even though she had no use for it). Nobody wants to stir things up by trying to assert themselves over it and usually just forget about it and move on. Regardless it happens quite frequently, even though there is more than enough loot to go around for everyone.

I don't want to cause meta by being this outside voice that tells her to give it to someone who deserves it. I also don't feel like I can address her personally outside of games because she doesn't take these kinds of discussions well.

The excuse is usually "My character is Chaotic, that's what they do." I have emphasized in the past that having the Chaotic alignment doesn't necessarily entail that kind of playstyle. But it fails to go heeded.

For the sake of making the game better for everyone, I'm looking for an ethical solution to ensure everyone is having a good time and that it isn't spoiled by one player trying to take control. Obviously subtle punishment that discourages snatching is an option, but is it unethical?

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16 Answers 16

up vote 78 down vote accepted

You say "Before he or any of the others had a chance to pick it up, the controlling player snatched it up and refused to give it back (Even though she had no use for it)." I feel like I can identify 2 problems from this sentence.

First of all, how are you allowing her to pick it up without anyone else being allowed an "action"? Just because a player says they want to do something does not mean you have to resolve the action right away. For example, if she says "I rush to go and pick up the mask.", you could say, "Alright, while you try to do that, what is everyone else doing?" This way, you can manage all players' actions at once, and if they conflict (such as another player also trying to grab the mask), the party or you can decide what happens next. Especially if you are concerned about quickly snatching things from the other party members, I see no reason to resolve actions in an order which benefits the fastest-speaking player most.

Second of all, a problem I identified that you didn't ask explicitly, is that you made this item specifically in mind for 1 (maybe more?) player. If your troublesome player is constantly taking items that you only want a certain player to have, it might be best to move these items as a quest reward that you can give directly. The other solution is to try and have loot that are more open-ended, so the party doesn't feel like anything they come upon just so happen to be perfect for only 1 character and no one else.

Another option (I would not recommend over-using) is to punish the player by having the item not be what they expect, eg. the bearer now is cursed and can't drop the item without outside help. As you mentioned, this can sometimes feel unethical, so I wouldn't use this too much, especially as a main solution.

Finally, although it is understandable that "she doesn't take these kinds of discussions well", if every other solution you try fails, this speech needs to happen. It is better to kick someone out and have him or her be unhappy, than have everyone else at the table unhappy.

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Sadly, none of my players want to challenge her in her actions. If she says she wants something, nobody likes standing in the way because they (as well) like to avoid personal conflicts. I give all of my players items that feel special to them. I even started the campaign off with everyone have a very subtle magic item that had sentimental value. I ensure everyone has their fair share of goodies. Because we all work in the same class, if something goes wrong we are going to be stuck with eachother for a little while. Perhaps a couple of curses might work and teach a bit of far share. – Raxs Slayer Feb 10 at 13:05
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This isn't a game problem, this is a bully/behavior problem. If your other players put up with her ... – KorvinStarmast Feb 10 at 13:15
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I think the second paragraph is most important. When a player says "I grab the mask" and you think it should go to someone else, try saying "so-and-so lunges for the mask, what do the rest of you do?". Another possibility is if you want an item for a specific champion, make it so it does harm to other champions, like a sword that harms all chaotic align creatures that touch it, or a mask that radiates fire every so often, destroying scrolls and rations, etc. unless held by a dragonborn. – gaynorvader Feb 10 at 14:31
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@RaxsSlayer I would suggest editing this new information in. People will suggest removing this player from the table, and if you clarify that this is not an option, people will be able to help you even better. – Joninean Feb 10 at 14:34
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In addition to others (This is a Player problem, give other players actionable response time, "My Guy" syndrome)... What about adding "World" consequences? Word travels about how greedy and chaotic the "that's my player" chaotic person is? "Rumor has it, you hoarded all the loot... so the cost for you to stay at my inn is 100G. Everyone else? 5g."... or word is out that player is fair game for thieves, since she has all the loot. That's how her character is? Give her character the consequences to go with those actions. – WernerCD Feb 10 at 15:26

The best solution I think is to talk to the person that is causing the issue. She might not realise that she is causing a problem. She might think that because that is what chaotic character would/should do, therefore it is her job to do it Then ask her as one person to another to please find another action that is equally plausible for a chaotic character to do because her actions is ruining the other peoples fun. This is going to be a uncomfortable conversation, but in the long run I believe it will make things better for both of you. If no one tells her she is causing a problem, than how is she to know she is (unless she happens do read RPG.SE)

If you decide not to do the above you could instead try to use your description of the scene to control who is getting what. So instead of just listing out the loot they found and thereby giving Ms. Chaotic an opportunity to grab the best loot try something like this.

You cut open the cocoon and Ms. Chaotic, being very aware of such things, immediately spot the coin purse. (Either let Ms. Chaotic say she grabs the purse or assume she does). While Ms. Chaotic is searching the purse and counting the coins Mr. Dragonborn spots a small object hidden underneath the cocoon and picks it up. So while Mr. Dragonborn admire his new mask and Ms. Chaotic is counting the coins what do the rest of you do?

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You keep hoping for the players to push back against this behavior in-game, but that's not a fair expectation. The other players may not want to stir things up because, frankly, that's your job. You're running the show and you're responsible for the fun of the group. You set the tone. You're in a position of authority, so if you allow this behavior to happen, you're passively endorsing it.

Don't use in-game methods to address out-of-game issues. The problem player might learn a lesson, but it's unlikely that it will be the lesson you're trying to teach. She knows you have an issue with her grabbiness, and if you start twisting the game world to punish her, she'll know why, but the lesson she'll learn is that the DM is out to get me. And the issues will become personal.

Don't be mistaken, this is an out-of-game issue. You and your group of players are scared of confronting this player because she doesn't handle it well. That's a player issue. And a red flag.

I know you don't want to rock the boat, I totally get that, but part of being a DM (and really any position of authority) is that you're responsible for the welfare of those in your care. If most of your players are unhappy, you have to address it.

You can approach her and tell her that while you want her to feel free to make honest character choices, having a character that does not function well in a team does not work for a game that is team-oriented and it's not the kind of game you want to run. Suggest that she change her character's personality to be more team-oriented or to reroll a character.

That shouldn't be seen as a personal attack. The character just doesn't fit the style of game. If she does take it personally, then honestly you have two choices:

Ask her to leave and have the possibility of a great game. Or you could have a game that the players tolerate.

It's up to you.

Disclaimer:

The word "authority" may have some baggage for you, so to be clear, when I use the word "authority," I'm talking about responsibility. You're not their god, their parent, their priest, or their king. You're more like the banker in Monopoly. You are all equals.

However, you do have different responsibilities. And resolving this issue is yours.

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Starting with the second paragraph you present a lot of good points. But I feel the first paragraph is just sooo wrong: The DM is just another member of the group, sure he has a lot of influence ingame, but he is not the senior/mentor/daddy of the social group, he is not an authority figure parenting the others like children. Like in any social group it is a group decision what is acceptable and what not. Not the idea of a single member. – Falco Feb 11 at 10:59
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I think you're getting hung up on semantics and possibly projecting some bad experiences. Absolutely, DMs have a symbiotic relationship with their players: not over them, or beside them, or under them. But they absolutely do have a different role. They have different responsibilities. My suggestion does not preclude a group decision. In fact, the OP has expressed that this is how the group feels. But it's not the players' job to run the game. It's the DM's. Nothing in what I wrote was intended to give megalomaniacs free range. But I will edit my answer with a disclaimer. – TestingTesting123 Feb 11 at 14:49

Is it appropriate to punish a player [...]

No, it is most definitely not appropriate!

A GM is neither the player's parents, nor guardians, nor some judge and executioner. No one gets to dictate how someone else behaves. There are lots of manipulative techniques one could use to force others to do one's bidding1 but would you really use those on a friend?

Of course, anyone does have a say whether or not a player plays in their game or whether they remain one's friend. And there are way to be diplomatic and come to a happy compromise when faced with problem.

Onwards to OP's problem then.

It could be a case of the my guy syndrome. In that case, follow the link for some solutions. Sometimes, the my guy syndrome borders on bullying more by accident than default. Generally, a quiet word with the player pointing this out result in a shock and apology reaction.

Maybe some meta gaming might be appropriate here. There is nothing wrong with saying "So, there's a item coming your way just for X because they and I decided that it would be a good re-balance of their character" or some such. Another way to doing the same thing more subtly is to have the loot appear when said X is away from the party as a whole.

Finally, are you running the game the players want to play? There is something called the same page tool that helps define the expectation of the game to be played. It could be that you are running a different game than what your players want to play.

In some games, backstabbing and treachery amongst players characters is expected, in others it is frowned upon. The same players can play in both! It is all about managing expectation. Both can be fun provided that there is a clear expectation of what is happening.

I suspect, and your comment seem to point to that direction, that my last point fits best. It reads to me that you want to run a different game to what the players (especially that "problem" one) want to play. This is not bad. It is just a failure to communicate, something that happens way way too often. ^_~


(1) No, I will not link to any of them.

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My other players have approached me saying that their behaviour is frustrating and making the game hard to enjoy at times. Everyone certainly seems to be having fun most of the time. But there are those occasional situations that spoil it. I try to make sure my players are having fun before I know I am, they come first in my games. My players prefer Puzzles and Mystery to combat, so that is what we usually do. Which is going pretty well. I might try your suggestion of adding a bit of Meta. I'll make things perfectly blatant next time. – Raxs Slayer Feb 10 at 15:36
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+1 this. On first reading the question this came to mind and I'm glad you addressed it. RPGs are games for fun, not games for manipulation or control. We learn and practice social skills during. Passive aggressiveness should not be one of those skills. – LitheOhm Feb 10 at 18:46

Old-school DM here. The traditional answer would be: Yes, it's absolutely within DM prerogative to punish players for destructive behavior. From the 1E AD&D DMG by Gary Gygax (1979, p. 110), "Handling Troublesome Players":

... Strong steps short of expulsion can be an extra random monster die, obviously rolled, the attack of an ethereal mummy (which always strikes by surprise, naturally), points of damage from "blue bolts from the heavens" striking the offender's head, or the permanent loss of a point of charisma (appropriately) from the character belonging to the offender. If these have to be enacted regularly, then they are not effective and stronger measures must be taken. Again, the ultimate answer to such a problem is simply to exclude the disruptive person from further gatherings.

An in-game suggestion in this case: Any time the character declares out loud how Chaotic they are (i.e., whenever the player uses that as a defense), roll a 1-in-6 chance (or more) that a major demon appears to take the exceptional devotee away as a slave on their home plane permanently. Tell the player explicitly before the die is rolled, and roll it in the open where everyone can see.

So this is counter to the prevailing opinion today, but I wanted to give a different perspective and option, and point out this was in fact the traditional advice from the original chief inventor of game.

Is this a perfect tactic? No. Dealing with social distractors is hard. But realize that as soon as you take away the option of dis-inviting the troublesome player, you are now partly responsible for these interactions, because you weren't able to deal with it in real-life. Since the DM can't force particular actions on the players, then the only remaining (comparatively weak) option is in-world cosmic karma rulings, until the player gets so frustrated that they leave on their own.

In several decades of gaming, I have never seen a disruptive player ever suddenly "become okay". They either leave or they don't.

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Last paragraph is golden IMO. Rest is definitely "old school", and could backfire worse than simply kicking said player out of the game (of course no-one can predict the behaviour of this player from any suggestion) – Neil Slater Feb 10 at 16:56
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+1 for experience with answer (as opposed to just speculation) – Premier Bromanov Feb 10 at 17:29

In addition to tackling the "My Guy" syndrome, "same page tool" to verify everyone is playing the same game and meta-gaming solutions (The item goes to player X by fiat)...

What about in game consequences?

What happens in the real world when it becomes known that someone is a greedy jerk? Rumors spread... reputations get made... doors open/close accordingly.

It's known that "Chaotic Jerk" gets more than her share of loot? Merchants charge her more. Thieves target her above others (She has the loot after all). Guards rough her up. Priests refuse to heal her. The King refuses to give a quest while she's in the party or taxes her more.

What are the real "in game" repercussions of her actions, attitude, play style, reputation?

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I would advise attempting to have a private word with the problem-player to resolve this matter, if they still insist on this behaviour after a discussion then it may be worth considering removing this player from your campaign if their presence is impacting other players enjoyment.

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As an alternative or modification to the "screw the player with a cursed item" suggestions...

Create an item well suited to the player's character; useful, cool, and with a bit of "umph!".

Make this item intelligent with high mental stats and (especially) a large ego. Have its only real downside be that it is extremely jealous and will attempt to force the character to discard other magic items, especially those that are mostly useless to the character. Even if it is unsuccessful in forcing the player to do so, have it still be very vocal about its opinions.

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Even better if the item points out what a selfish person the PC is, suggests the other PCs grow a spine and object, and possibly refuses to do its thing for such a selfish person until they mend their ways. – Dronz Feb 12 at 19:50

It looks like this player (and the rest of the group) needs a lesson.

You can talk with her. But if that does not help, you can try an in game solution:

Next time, include a cursed artifact in the loot. Make it look like something valuable so the player really wants it. But when she has the item, one or two of her key abilities drop to almost useless. She can still play the character but she really needs help of the other heroes to get rid of the curse.

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Here is what I do (in 3.5e): I handle loot distribution myself.

If someone finds a +2 longsword, I'll let anyone pick it up, but after the game I send them out an email. For each item they found, I say something like: "You guys found a +2 longsword, which has sell value 4000gp. Split five ways that's 800gp each; everybody gain 800gp. If one of you would like to buy the longsword from the group, you have to pay 4000gp for it. Otherwise it gets sold."

This is the loot distribution method that is suggested in the 3.5e PHB. If I left my players to their own devices, they would never do this -- they'd just sort of allocate loot to whoever wants it. But I think this is fairer, so I do the bookkeeping and make sure it happens.

It sounds like you're playing in 4e, so it's not quite as viable to implement a loot division system based on selling magic items. I guess you could implement some sort of queue, where the first shot at the item goes to whoever's gone longest without getting an item.


Just checking: is it possible that your problem player is annoyed because you haven't designed a custom item for her? Is she snatching others' custom items as a form of protest?

Sometimes people feel that the "in a funny coincidence you find a magic item that is perfect for your character" aspect of 4e causes problems. One way to fix it is to say something like: "you find a bar of platinum which can be used to enchant one 6th-level magic item of your choice". Or, better: "you find four bars of platinum which can each be used to enchant one 3rd-level magic item of your choice. That's one for each of you." If you do that, it's harder for your problem player to justify loot-hogging.


In any case you do need to do something about this. Every time she does this and gets away with it, she learns that the rest of you are pushovers and she doesn't have to treat you with respect. Ignoring the problem will make it worse.

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Get everyone on the same page

You've stated in some comments that the other players aren't cool with this behavior. That's a good start. What you need to do now is discuss this issue as a group. You as DM are a natural mediator because of your position in the group, so it is up to you to control the tone of this discussion. She needs to understand that no one appreciates this behavior, but she also shouldn't feel attacked. Stealing is obviously the way she has fun and she's not alone in that. The real issue is that once the other characters start noticing it, there's little reason for them to hang around with her and the group is at risk of breaking up. Also, never forget that your players can solve this issue themselves. If stuff gets stolen, role play it! The reason she steals may very well be to get good role playing out of the group. Encourage your new player and your other not-so-new players to role play. If this doesn't work out, then you need to have a talk.

So, next time this happens, stop the session to discuss this issue. It's the perfect timing, you're not ambushing her or calling her over specifically to talk about it, you're responding in context to something she did and it's a reasonable time to talk to her about it. Let her know how your players feel and that they don't appreciate the stealing because it's not fun for them. Then, you need to try and reach a compromise. Find out what everyone agrees on as "fun" and work towards that moving forward.

Should I assert my infallible will as DM?

I'd be hesitant to do so. It sounds like you've got a handle on when to and when not to say "no" to a given action. That's good, you want to protect player agency. However, you do have the right as DM to ensure every player gets to respond to a given action. You've stated she interrupts other players. This is annoying, maybe even rude, but you need to control these situations in real life. She interrupts a player to do something, before you confirm that she accomplishes it ask the other players if they'd like to respond. if you run into conflict, roll initiative or have player contests (ie: roll ability checks).

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NO! It is not appropriate. Let the players deal with it!

If they are doing this to the point where it's ruining the fun for the other players then maybe they should not be in your group but that's an out of game question. In game you are the world. Don't be unfair to punish players for immoral action (either PVE or PVP). PVP will solve itself and PVE...well eventually they'll go overboard and busted.

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When my group has a situation where there is an opportunity for loot, we usually resolve it like this:

If there is only one person by the loot, they obviously get to pick it up first, as nobody else can physically contest it. They then roll competitive stealth/sleight of hand vs everyone's perception to see if anyone else spotted them taking it. If they did, we resolve it diplomatically with players roleplaying it.

If there are multiple people near it that want to have it, they roll competitive slight of hand against each other. The highest gets the loot. From there, players can resolve whether they disagree with them or are fine giving the loot up.

In both situations, we usually end up evenly distributing gold and giving items to the people that need it most.

In your situation, it's an issue that needs to be resolved amongst the players, not in an out of character way. If the players are fine with them doing this, I see nothing wrong with letting them do it. If the players are against the person taking the loot, then it's up to them to disagree and 'fight it out'.

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This doesn't need to be complicated. When the problematic player says what they are going to do, just openly ask the other players what actions they are taking, and remind them that there's nothing stopping then from trying to interfere.

If the problematic player says he was first, roll initiative. That's the fair way to let everyone act on their turn. It should not be a matter of who speaks first, unless it's agreed that it is a game of fastest mouth. This is because when actions are described, two people can't be speaking at the same time, even if the actions are going to happen simultaneously.

Note that different people have different personality, and even if their character was brave, the player might not have the initiative or social courage to step up and say their character does what their character would do. This is "bad roleplaying" in a way, and others, especially the GM, in the table should help such player to become better. So feel free to remind/encourage timid players, if their character is fast or strong or charismatic, but it appears the player is playing a weakling. You can do this in private, or just speak generally in the table.

After this, if other players just allow the problematic player to do what they want, even with your prodding, then it's really out of your hands. As suggested in other answer, do not put character-special items in the loot, find other ways to give them. And throw a few perfectly normal cursed items or just traps in there every now and then, not as counter-measure really, but as a normal element in the game: loot isn't necessarily supposed to be safe!

And about the the mask you talk about in the question: if the problematic player's character actually did get it legitimately, and not because the player was louder or faster with their mouth or more socially assertive, then I'd say it was fair, stupid and sad but fair. Other answers discuss how to get the problematic player to start being nicer to play with in the future.

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You could take a page from most MMOs. Explain a 'NEED before GREED' system to your players before the next game, and after announcing what loot the players find, ask them to show a 'thumbs up' if they NEED the item, a 'thumbs to the side' if they want (GREED) the item and a 'thumbs down' if they're not bothered.

The highest level (NEED > GREED > not bothered) vote gets the item, if there are multiple votes in the same level you have a number of options.

  1. Randomly decide (by straight dice roll, highest wins)
  2. Character's decide (an opposed ability check (probably Charisma?))
  3. Player's decide (players who voted that level decide who get it (not advised for your group))
  4. Group decides (players make a case of why they should have the item, players who didn't vote in the same level decide)
  5. DM decides (you choose who gets the item).

I'm guessing your problem player will keep indicating NEED to begin with. You can either have player's explain why they NEED an item (degrading a NEED vote to a GREED vote if they don't offer a good enough explanation for the NEED ("I'm chaotic" isn't a valid reason)), or apply an accumulating penalty to their rolls (for 1 & 2) each time they NEED in a session.

The problem player should realise quickly that their character is greedy, so voting greed for each item is playing in character. If you go with applying the penalty for multiple NEEDs, they may still try to save their NEEDs for the best item in a session to ninja it.

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have you done this at the table and, if so, can you report how successful/well-received it has been? – nitsua60 Feb 11 at 13:42
    
I've never needed to, every group I've played in gives an item to the person who can use it most effectively, or sells it and splits the cash. I have heard it (or similar) being used at conventions and such where you play with a group you don't know. – FunkTheMonk Feb 11 at 15:23

Kill the character. They wanna be a greedy jerk? Make em feel the consequences. You said there is a new character with your group and this character is taking all of the loot designed for this new character and refusing to give it back, even though they have no use for it? That isn't greed, that's cold toxicity. Like I said, Kill the character. Don't tolerate that kind of behavior.

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