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I'm am prepping to DM a campaign for some of my friends. Until that starts, I'm just playing in the campaign of one of those friends. A few months ago I had invited a few of them to join the campaign I'm prepping for. One of my fellow players(I'll call him John) asked to join, and I said yes. I even invited his nephew to join too. This was a few months ago.

But over the last few months of playing with John I've noticed the way he plays, and am not sure I want him in my campaign anymore. Things like changing his characters class/background/stat arrangement(we use standard array) without talking to the DM, ignoring decisions that other characters make when dealing with a problem in-game that relates personally to another character, going off on his own in-game, rolling his eyes when other people are talking.

It's gotten to the point where I don't want to have to DM for him.

Problem is he has bad depression, especially during this time of the year, and talking to him about this could make him very upset, and I want to avoid starting something. John isn't a bad person, I just don't have the emotional energy to deal with this, and this is a homebrew world of mine and I don't want to sour the experience by having a player that makes running the game unfun for me.

I'm looking for advice on how to tell him I don't want him in my campaign. I've talked with my current DM, but he's too nice for his own good and doesn't have much for advice. He's already tried talking to him about a few of the issues, to which John hid his character sheet(we use dndbeyond) which didn't matter because the DM can still see it, and he stopped using video in our game calls when talked to about the eye rolling.

Table Environment: we use a Discord server for gaming and chatting

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This might not be the answer you're asking, but maybe it's the answer you need:

Simply enforce the rules. You are the DM. You make the rules at your table.

Did he change his character without telling you? Tell him while playing that you did not approve this, and he plays with the original approved character. Too bad for him, because now he didn't have time to prepare new skills for his recently gained level.

Going off on his own? --> only touch his side track briefly and spend the majority of your time on the main story line.

Interrupting actions/decisions of his fellow players? --> ignore what he said and keep interacting with the player that was performing an interaction (e.g. let him roll, or describe the outcome).

There's two things that can happen: either he will change his behaviour to what is acceptable to you; or he will simply leave the campaign himself.

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    – V2Blast
    Nov 17 '20 at 9:29
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You need a session zero!

Instead of running the first session when people get together, let them know you want to gather them to explain the rules, the setting and the buy-in.

You can use this to explain any homebrewing or quirks you have as a DM (no talking over each other, give heads-up if you can't come to a session, and oh by the way I like rule of cool and run a high lethality campaign!), lay down the basics of the setting and plot (so nobody makes a elf ranger in an all-urban campaign in a city that hunts elves, as an example), and most importantly throw down the buy-in.

What's the buy-in?

The buy-in is an all-powerful, magical tool. Players should always have ownership of their character, but buy-in is a way to veto toxic characters before they are created. Basically, you just explain some core assumptions and requirements of the characters. This is really useful on multiple levels. It can inform the general party alignment (you can be evil, but the group is going to accomplish good things), make any character with any background fit in the story (I don't care who you are or where you come from, but you need to care about [Insert first plot-hook here]).

Whatever else I include, every game, I throw in a blurb that mostly goes like this:

You can be anybody in the group. You can be a lazy, selfish lone-wolf that compulsively steals from everyone. You can be a violent, unhinged person with temperament issues. You can be the most annoying goody-two shoes to ever exist. But whatever you make, you need to make sure they are cooperative, helpful and stick with the team. They need to respect their allies with their actions and (most of) their words. If the character in question would normally not act like this, it is up to you to figure out why your team is the exception. I don't care what it is - curiosity, history, blackmail, a bribe or even something never addressed in-game. If you want to roleplay tension within the group, clear it with everyone before it starts, and have a rough plan to resolve it within the current session, or the one that follows. This is a co-op game, and we're all investing time to have fun as a group. If you or your character don't align with it, you need to adjust until there are no conflicts, or you need to find a different game.

After the buy-in, as a buffer you can open the room to questions or discussion about the campaign or anything you just said.

In my experience, this works well

I've been playing and running TRPGs for almost two decades, with dozens and dozens of campaigns, hundreds of people and more than a few handfuls of those I considered to be bad players. What sucks is it feels like the onus is on you to be the bad guy and worse yet, sometimes these bad players are good friends, or people who are struggling.
Session Zero is a sneaky and powerful way to give them a clear opportunity to fix their behavior or back out. If they do neither and continue to cause issues, you've given yourself all the ammunition you need to fire them off into the horizon while still being reasonable. With the added bonus that a good Session Zero can also smooth over all sorts of other potential issues before they ever happen.

The only other thing I would add is a recommendation to not stare down the bad player while explaining things you don't want them to do. Don't stare anyone down during that, nobody responds well to feeling targeted.
Hope this helps!

What if the campaign has already started?

RyanfaeScotland made an excellent point about how this doesn't address how to have a session zero with campaigns that have already started, for those who need one. So I'm adding onto this on the chance someone reading this needs that advice. I've had to insert session zero into multiple campaigns after they started, and it can still work. In fact, I think in long-term campaigns, session zero is a thing you should use every now and again, to keep the group on the same page, as the context and dynamics of the game change over time.

Time and time again, the easiest way to insert a session zero mid-campaign for me is by taking a break and skip a few sessions first. I suggest replacing them with a few cooperative board game nights, where there will subtly be virtually zero reasons to be uncooperative - sometimes TRPGs get so serious, people stop thinking of the sessions as a fun cooperative event. Combined with the time away, it's a great way to let them mentally reset, which will make it easier to suggest changes.

The process is largely the same, but instead of introducing rules, setting and buy-in, you are clarifying them. This also has the benefit of being a nice, natural point to discuss changing any character, not just problem ones. Some players might not be having fun with a level-up choice they made, or they aren't enjoying the class like they thought they would. It happens more than you think, there are often players who want to make changes but are afraid to try to bring something like that up mid-campaign. If you present this as an opportunity to adjust characters for free, players are often more accepting of you presenting new buy-in terms.

Players may still kick back against new clarifications or buy-in. This can be a challenge from player to player, but the most common argument I'm given is "It's now how my character would act". In those cases, remind them the character continuously exists as the player defines them, and that the game is supposed to be a cooperative, fun outlet. If the character doesn't contribute towards that goal, and they aren't willing to change them to achieve that goal, then they are welcome to make a new character instead.

If nothing else...

Sometimes it might come to a point where you'll need to refer to Opifex's answer, and simply resort to a more direct response. It's not my favorite option, but I think it's the right one when nothing else works. Give warnings, foster the game in a way that ignores the bad behavior, and if it comes down to it, boot them. It can be really difficult...but look at is as weighing one difficult conversation, versus dozens and dozens of hours of difficult sessions with that person. In those cases as a DM you have to take charge. Let the trouble player know that they need to find a group that is interested in playing the same game as them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for suggesting a session zero and focusing on buy-in, seems to be the clear compromise if OP is worried about the problem player's actions in past games. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16 '20 at 17:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Apart from the general likeability of the answer, I'd like to thank you for that session 0 blurb. I'm having a session 0 tonight and I will surely use it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Nov 16 '20 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Spencer I agree with Zachiel, the blurb is great! I think it should also be put in an answer to the main Session Zero question. You'd have my upvote. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rayllum
    Nov 16 '20 at 23:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just some headers and organization; nice answer. golf clap \$\endgroup\$ Nov 17 '20 at 16:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ From experience, I can say that some kind of "Hook" blurb is invaluable both as a player and as a GM. The GM side is well addressed in the answer, and as a player, these usually help give just enough of a sense of what the campaign is about to help me generate some fun character ideas that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Nov 17 '20 at 17:39
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Empathy

I think the main thing to remember is that John is suffering. This suffering is manifesting in their irritation, controlling their character, etc. As you said, they aren't a bad person.

I think the best way forward for you is to talk honestly and openly about the problem. Make sure to talk about the problem, not about John as a person. Make sure to explain that it's not that you don't want to hang out with them at all, it's just that this activity could cause both of you suffering. Because of John's attitude they have likely faced isolation or ostracization, so make sure to be clear that you are happy to hang out with them in other contexts, it's this problem you want to avoid, that's all.

An example: "I have noticed in the game with other DM you don't like to show your character sheet and you make changes to it, I don't think that kind of thing fits in my game. Other DM is very kind and understanding but I do not find it fun and it upsets me. I know you are going through a lot at the moment and you are my good friend. I think this situation would cause trouble for both of us. Lets instead do other activities together."

Good luck, it's hard to deal with mental illness from any side. You don't want to kick your friend out for their illness, and they definitely don't want to feel any more isolated either. In the end you just need to avoid this one problematic situation and find something else to do which will be positive for you both.

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    \$\begingroup\$ thank you, this is really good advice. i've been struggling to find the right words to tell him. you're response is really helpful \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16 '20 at 3:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MissMistake You're welcome, it's an extremely difficult situation for everyone involved, but you need to address it because if you don't the situation will only get worse. Good luck again!! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16 '20 at 3:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer actually adreses John's mentioned depression. While some of the other answers might work in similar situations, this one seems to be tailored to the actual problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Nov 17 '20 at 13:19
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I've had a couple of situations where I was planning a game and realized that I didn't want one of my players.

What I did was I cancelled the whole game. I said, "sorry, guys, I actually don't think I can run this right now. I might try again later." I figured it was better to do that than to deal with drama.

Then, I started a different game, some time later, inviting only players that I wanted.

In your case it's a little bit trickier. If you've told everyone a lot of details about what your game will be like, and then you cancel the game and restart it, your players might recognize that it's the same game, and word might get back to your annoying player through the game you all share.

On the other hand, maybe you genuinely would like to make some tweaks to your game. Maybe you can cancel the game and run a new actually-somewhat-different game a few weeks later.

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    \$\begingroup\$ thank you for the advice! i think i'll try that approach. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15 '20 at 15:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ If John were hear about this new campaign (maybe from his nephew if he's still part of the game), how would you suggest OP respond to his asking to join? \$\endgroup\$
    – Llewellyn
    Nov 15 '20 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would say: "sorry, this game is full right now and can't take more players. But if we get an opening I'll be sure to let you know!" \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    Nov 15 '20 at 22:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Beware this solution, it kicks the problem down the line because it doesn't address the issue. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16 '20 at 2:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this method is a great idea because it's pretty transparent and passive aggressive. There are other options for being more direct with John that are more respectful and less likely to cause greater issues in the future. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Nov 16 '20 at 18:46
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Hey John, you’re dumped

Look, breakups suck. That’s just the plain fact. John’s going to be upset, you’re going to be upset. You can try to be nice but you have to get John to understand that he won’t be part of your campaign - try to be too nice and you lose that central message. Blunt and bloody avoids that problem. So John hates you, remember, you didn’t like what he does to start with.

It's unfortunate that John has a medical condition which will likely make this harder on him than it would be on people who are not clinically depressed. However, John's illness is John's illness. It's appropriate to be sympathetic; it's not appropriate for you to treat John differently than you would treat anyone else. John's behaviour remains John's behaviour irrespective of if it is a result of a medical condition or not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Essentially this, not going to write an answer, but I have had a similar experience. It ruined planning one campaign of which we played a session 0 and 1 until we became painfully aware of it not working out, despite his insurance that he is going to put in the effort. A big plus of this approach is that you aren't going to suck out all of the enthusiasm that you have for the campaign and all of the energy that you can spend having fun with John in circumstances where his behaviour doesn't impact the enjoyment of everyone. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Nov 15 '20 at 12:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Like this answer for the general message of being clear. But I'd have like to see some comment on how to approach it. Litterally saying "John, you're out. I don't like how you play" is probably not going to be easy for the OP to say to a friend. It will probably be more painful for John than it needs to be (in a grim time). And it assumes John is irrecuperable as a player (and probably a friend if the OP uses your quote directly. I would dump a friend for saying that without warnin) \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Nov 15 '20 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I did mention talking to him about this, in that another friend of ours is DM for us, and has tried talking to him about some of these issues. So far his response has been to make his character sheet private so we cant see it, and turn off his camera during games. I've considered just being direct with him as the person above has suggested. It's just not easy telling a friend that they're out. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15 '20 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would not ordinarily downvote this, but this seems like a particularly insensitive approach when the player, as noted in the question, is depressive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Nov 15 '20 at 23:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, you need to talk to them directly about the specific problems. But this answer is way too lean and doesn't explain how to do that and how to take into account OP and the player's mental state. I do not think it's a good idea to go in to this kind of conversation with the idea that "if I'm nice my message will be lost", John is a friend who is suffering, they need empathy and compassion. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16 '20 at 2:43
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Session Zero is highly recommended. Here are some other tools to put in your toolbox.

Solicit Feedback

At the end of every session go around the table and get a quick temperature of the room. Asking each player what they liked the most from the session and what, if they were forced to, would they have cut from the session is a non-threatening way to get feedback. Doing it in public also helps get the players on the same page or at least helps them understand what the other players are enjoying. A fighting junky might be less antsy if they understand the rest of the table is really enjoying the role-playing scenes.

Ask for help

Many times when players are being problematic it's because they aren't engaged with certain aspects of the game. There are different jobs you can ask people to do, try to find something that engages them when they would be zoning out and something they enjoy. Some jobs are

  • All jobs start with "Please help me make the game more fun for everyone." You aren't calling the player out, you are asking for a favor.

  • Monitoring the GM (you) and giving feedback if you forget something or can be doing something better. Agree on something specific beforehand and set some rules of engagement. I would ask a spotlight hog to monitor everyone's spotlight time (maybe even with a stopwatch) and alert me if anyone is getting a lot less time than others. If you can put the player in charge of policing their own bad behavior it's a big win. Make sure they are only ever monitoring you and never, ever criticize the players.

  • Secretly support the other players. I had a player in a game who was an actor and he just hated not being in the spotlight. I asked him to help the others with their role-playing by going for the "best supporting actor" role. I wanted him to secretly give opportunities to shine to the other players by giving them something solid to work with and time to shine. They took this as a next-level acting challenge and really helped some hesitant players get into the game.

  • Take notes. Being a GM can consume all of your attention and prevent you from remembering important things or taking notes on certain events or characters. I asked the player who was craving more fighting to help me keep the NPC's strait by taking notes of their impressions and key points of conversations. They still weren't interested in doing much role-playing during NPC interaction scenes, but they were very engaged and would jump in with clarifying questions.

  • Help with prep. Being a GM sometimes feels like being an administrative assistant to a bunch of kittens. Ask a player who seems to fiddle too much with their character outside the game to help with things like scheduling sessions, setting up and help test online meetings, posting game notes to electronic systems, etc.

  • Be creative. Ask the player what they like and what kind of job they could help you with. Give lavish praise for doing the job.

Use safety tools

Use something like "The X card" at your table. If players are uncomfortable with something give them the ability to make it stop right away. Then lead by example and invoke the safety tools from time to time. The player in your example probably doesn't need this, but a player who seems to check-out at random might need you to "fade to black" during certain scenes because it's reminding them of real life in a bad way.

Criticize in private, praise in public

Just make this a rule at your table. Nothing crushes me as a player more than getting called out for something in front of the table. I once had a GM say to me "That's just bad role-playing." in the moment at the table. They weren't wrong, but it felt so bad I quit the game. Getting called out by other players can also feel really bad.

Make a rule that any player can call for a five minute break at any time, for any reason and they don't have to say why. They can take a quick bio-break, or have a private conference with the GM. Tell the players if they have a problem with another player, any feedback must go through you. You don't want someone to call a break and go berate another player in the corner.

Give lavish praise in public. Award bonus experience as a surprise for excellence sometimes (don't make it predictable or you will gamify the wrong stuff). Mix up what you are praising, be genuine but don't overlook the small stuff that adds up.

Take players aside in complete privacy if you have to ask them to stop doing something. When possible couch your criticism as a request for help. "I know you are enjoying the thing, but I am feeling a lot of time pressure, could you help me wrap it up? Can you help me keep this kind of thing on track in the future? I seem to be struggling with it." is much better than "You are bulldozing the other players and you need to stop it. You keep doing this **** and we are all sick of it."

Invite them to leave

This is a bit different from "kicking them out." Your goal is to give them an out so they can leave while keeping their pride intact. Have a meeting with them away from the game and share that you are concerned for them. Let them know you see they don't seem to be having as much fun as the other players. Let them know it's OK to quit and they shouldn't keep going if they aren't really having fun. Offer to let them have a final session focused on how their character leaves the group. I usually suggest a heroic death scene.

They may resist and say they are having fun, so ask for some feedback on how things can improve and be firm about things that can't really change. Let them know that having fun in the game is on them, and they also have a responsibility to ensure all the other players are having fun too. If they want to try changing how they are playing to keep the fun let them. If nothing really changes meet again and point out that things didn't really change and it's best if they quit at this point.

Your goal is to let them quit on their own terms to the extent possible. In the end, you may need to be firm and kick them out if it's best for the game and that's your right.

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It's possible that John doesn't really want to be playing the game at all. This may seem inconsistent with the fact that he asked to be included, but I've seen this before. For whatever reason, his idea of what the game was supposed to be like may be clashing with the actual experience. So rather than simply saying he wants to leave, this behavior is coming out.

You could ask him if he's actually enjoying the game, and let him know that you don't want anyone to have to feel compelled to play if they're not enjoying themselves. If he asks why you are saying this, you could then talk about how some of the behavior you're seeing makes you think he may not be enjoying the game.

I was actually once That Guy, and the GM confronted me about it. I realized that I hadn't clearly articulated what I wanted from the campaign, we had a fruitful discussion, and I stayed in the campaign. I also have been part of a campaign in which the GM had to ask one of the players if he really wanted to be there, and upon reflection the player realized that in fact he didn't want to be at the table. These two work in the same team at work, and have been friends for a long time. It was a difficult discussion, but they got past it. The campaign was better without him and I think he was happier in the end as well.

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