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I'm a new DM looking for advice on a potentially(?) problematic player.

One of the players in our group consistently has their character run off. She sees herself as "the wild card" and likes to break off from the focus of the rest of the party. She even seems to enjoy when the other players become exasperated or frustrated with her. Occasionally this leads to fun or interesting scenarios, but it just as often leads to other players becoming frustrated or derailing the entire party to wander through the forest for half an hour with no particular reason or goal.

An example:

The party is traveling in the back of a wagon through a forest. The player in question is playing a druid character. She likes to roleplay the druid as being feral and animalistic, so she asks if she can smell anything interesting. I told her "You mostly smell the contents of the wagon, rations, etc. Outside is the smell of moist earth, trees, and fungus/rot."

Her immediate reaction is to jump out of the cart and run into the forest towards the rotting smell. The other party members have to go into the forest after her. This is one of the main problems they have. Because this player runs off, she becomes the de facto leader of the party. The other players only have the options of either:

  • Follow along.

  • Let her run off and end up splitting up the party.

After it was clear she wasn't going to turn back, I resolved the problem, and this worked fine for this scenario, but I don't really want to have to keep hedging players in by putting monsters and ambushes to the sides of the path. I want to let players be creative and explore.

If the whole party could agree it would be fine, but it seems to be mostly one character derailing everyone else. Then I have to come up with some scenario that puts her back on track with everyone else.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Tasks for a split party \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 26 '17 at 20:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Which game are you playing? Different games have different ways to handle this scenario -- it sounds like you're playing a version of D&D, but e.g. Dungeon World would have an exactly different stance from D&D's, and my only hint you're playing D&D is you say "DM". \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 26 '17 at 22:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: What is "my guy syndrome" and how do I handle it? \$\endgroup\$ – Dennis Christian Apr 27 '17 at 8:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ "She even seems to enjoy when the other players become exasperated or frustrated with her" is it actually the players but not their characters? \$\endgroup\$ – Whinja Apr 28 '17 at 9:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EdPlunkett Please don't answer in comments. You have the core of a good, concise answer. Please put that comment into an answer. Comments eventually get removed. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 28 '17 at 17:29

11 Answers 11

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As is always the case... Step 1 would be to talk to your problem player outside of the game, express that this is a problem, and try to work out a solution between the two of you.

However, if this does not work, you have to move on to other methods.

Part of the problem you are running into is that you are actually rewarding the player for running off and derailing the group. The player ran off to go see what the smell was, and you rewarded the player for doing this by giving her something to chase, then setting off an ambush and tying it into the main plot. In all, it made it feel like her running off was something good. They got XP, they got something tied to the plot (they don't know you weren't planning that unless you told them), and nothing particularly bad happened.

Thus, the best way to discourage a player from randomly running off is to make randomly running off have the exact same outcome it would realistically have. You find nothing. You end up a few miles into the woods. Lost. Nothing exciting happens. Because you're in the middle of an ordinary forest. Now you have to find your way back out of the woods, and the wagon you were riding on didn't stick around to wait for you. And, very possibly, your provisions got left on the wagon.

In short: If you want to discourage a player from doing things...make sure nothing fun happens when they do the thing you are trying to discourage. Be realistic about it, give summaries of what they did and how long it took, then move on to dealing with realistic consequences caused by them doing something ridiculous. This works much better than making 'bad things' happen when they disobey....because 'bad things' still dispense XP and the potential of loot.

Again, talk to them first...try to handle it in a reasonable manner. Tell them that their random derailing of the group is bothering the other players. That's always the preferred solution.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 27 '17 at 11:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding a little more advice to this, because it's not enough to be an answer on its own: Split your attention between the two groups based not on how many groups there are, but how many people are in them. The rest of the party (say, 4 out of 5 characters) should still get 80% of your attention, not 50%. A lot of players do this sort of thing because it gets them more attention, because the GM gives the one character 50% of the focus, since they are now "one of two groups". Don't do that. Most players will get bored of waiting for their turn as a result. Especially if there's nothing fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Apr 27 '17 at 15:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Airk This is great advice which should be part of an answer. It's easy for GMs to fall into the trap of accidentally "rewarding" bad behaviour. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Apr 30 '17 at 10:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the simplicity of finding nothing, and thus not rewarding behavior you as GM want to see less of. The player may have actually thought they were doing the right thing by using their in-character persona to both acquire information and then acting on it and actually experiencing plot progression. \$\endgroup\$ – smiley trashbag May 2 '17 at 17:25
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The Framework

I am hesitant to answer this as purely "Talk to your players," but this will come close and it is the almost necessarily first step.

  1. Talk to your disruptive player.

It's important to figure out why your player is doing this, and unless they are actively malicious at a game-sabotaging level, talking to them is probably the best way to find out. Be polite, be respectful, be willing to share why you think this is a problem, but find out why they do this.

At this stage, it's also worth just asking them to stop, or at least dial it back. If they comply, problem solved!

  1. Talk to your non-disruptive players.

It's also important to figure out why they tolerate or go along with this behavior, and maybe even more importantly just how hacked off they are. If you are misjudging the situation and the other players are good with this, you have one situation. If there is a rift-- half the group is indulgent (possibly for social reasons) and half the group isn't, you have a much different and potentially more volatile situation.

  1. Stop stimulating and/or rewarding the player.

Once you understand why they're doing this (if they persist) you can figure out how to reduce or remove the rewards they're getting.

  1. If necessary, remove the player.

We hope it doesn't get this far, of course.

Some Examples

That framework is, to be honest, common sense. So much so that it's almost useless. I've had more than one player like this, though, so I'll follow up with a few examples:

  1. Plot-Hook Boy

I had a player once who sounds very similar to yours-- always going off on weird tangents (action tangents) based on the slimmest of evidence. I wasn't smart enough to just ask him why at the time, but in casual conversation about gaming in general he once volunteered that that was just his play style. I still remember something close to direct quote: "I'm gonna follow up on whatever the GM puts out there-- if there's a dog by the side of the road I'm gonna play with that dog." (It was almost a rant. It went on in that vein for the length of a paragraph.) Everything was a plot hook for this guy. It also turned out he had the expectation that every rumor his character heard in a bar was meant to be followed up on, whereas I was spewing out a bunch of true and false ones as background flavor. If I had described something rotting in a forest, he would have done something similar to this, although he probably could have been restrained by the other players.

I ended up having to dial back a little on my descriptions and to be more explicit than I prefer about what is flavor text and what is not. Today, with more experience, I would probably resort to telling him that his character knowledge tells him this is not a big deal. (I.e., imply he made a knowledge check.)

That guy was easily bored, so it wasn't a perfect solution, but it worked enough.

  1. Acting Out Guy

Another notable example was a player who was fighting the structure of the whole campaign from day one. It was a relatively simple prophecy-driven game and any time the prophecy came up, this guy found something else to do.

This time I was smart enough to just ask why, and his reason was, he didn't like that style of game and really wanted to play in a sandbox game. "Prophecies are dumb," featured in his answer. So essentially he was trying to make the game into a sandbox game. (As it happens, my tastes have evolved now to be similar to his then, but that's not the point.)

The other players were there for the discussion, and they were fine with the premise of the campaign. After a few more sessions it became clear that no one was willing to change so we... basically stopped notifying him of the next game date and he basically stopped showing up. (This was quite graceless of us. We were all young.)

Back to the Framework

It's unlikely that you'll have something that exactly matches my examples, but hopefully the basic framework will help. In other situations I would consider things like:

  1. Let the character go his or her own way, but keep the spotlight time divided appropriately (i.e., do not reward them with excess spotlight time, if that is their reward.)
  2. If necessary, structure things with a deadline, to encourage the player to stay on track, but also to encourage the other players not to follow them. (If jerking the other players around is their reward.)
  3. The world is a dangerous place. Let there be warnings, let there be consequences, and let them fall where they may.
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Beyond the obvious answer to talk to your player (other answers talk about that one already), this also could be an issue with your level of zooming.

In your example, what is the purpose of your scene? You say they are travelling on the back of a wagon, but what is your scene?

  • Are you doing a brief travelling description? Then reward her roleplaying with a small paragraph: "Following your instincts you run off into the forest after any interesting smell as much as you can without losing contact to your friends..." Let her make an appropriate wilderness/survival check to see whether she starts into the next scene injured or maybe with a useful bundle of herbs. If it is a brief travel description, keep her interruptions also very brief, zoom out of the details.
  • Is it a travelling challenge calling for survival checks or day to day decisions to made? Keep the descriptions abstract until you resolve the checks and decisions, if she sets out on her own increase the difficulty of survival checks. Treat her impulsiveness as it is, a disadvantage for travelling. Add leadership, fast-talk or disciple checks to the challenge to keep her excuses to a minimum. But most importantly do not break the mini-game of challenges by zooming into deeper details. Give a summery of what their travels look like after they succeed (or fail) their checks. Maybe her wandering off does cost them a part of the the carts load or harms the animal pulling the cart.
  • Are you giving the players a chance to interact within the group? Give her the chance to describe her running off as her contribution to the group dynamic. "Bvsgw the druid ran off into the forest again, smelling something interesting it seems, you worry due to her continued absence." Then let the remaining players have their talks, throw in some interesting trees, a wounded animal, a pretty pond for the druid and at the end let her return and have the other players give her a relieved but stern talk about endangering their mission or a remark about her wildness. Do not give her random encounters except if you feel you got time to spare, you don't need to change the zoom level. You also can give the remaining group an encounter, declaring the druid too far from the fight to participate. Let her make athletics and perception checks instead to maybe join the fight later.
  • Are you setting them up for an encounter? This is the easiest one: you already are dishing out perception checks and if the druid were run off and fail hers, she ends up facing the encounter alone, but if she is lucky she goes stealth for a backstab once she notices.

Don't let your players break your zoom level, if they are truly disrupting, let them in on the purpose of the scene. If her running of is just roleplaying her character, depicting her personality, keep it descriptive. Though it might also mean you are using a too detailed zoom level for your scene's purpose. For example, don't ask your players to play day by day travelling routine without expecting them to break out of frame longing for action.

Of course you can also decide to zoom in into more detailed roleplaying where you see fit, or where the players really want a scene, but you really should limit such occasions if you want to move your plot along.

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guildsbounty has the essence of the solution. If I may elaborate, beyond having a talk with this "Wild Card Player", you need to have a private conversation with the rest of the table. They need to stop enabling her.

"My character runs off into the forest, teeheehee."
"See you later! Write when you find work! Bye bye."

This means they share the "blame" for being "no fun". If you as GM are always cramping the wild PC's style, it will start to send a message discouraging independent exploring and initiative with the players.

Now, you invoke the classic "equal time" method. Each player gets, say, five minutes. She gets five minutes alone in the woods. Zap. Move your focus back to the main group of 4 or 5, which adds to a cumulative 20-25 minutes. Zap. Back to her for a quick five. Hopefully this idle time will soon encourage group activity.

Her departures have to judged on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the other players might just think she's on to some fun, and will follow her. Sometimes she may have scampered off in a Bad Place. I've seen GMs, including myself, getting hard-nosed about this. There are places where a party can safely split up and places where it is tantamount to suicide. And if the player chooses to get too independent while exploring a major vampire's castle...he or she spends the rest of the session making a new character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, the OP is saying the rest of the group is following the wild card, rather unwillingly. So, this is not strictly a splitting the party problem. \$\endgroup\$ – Solanacea Apr 27 '17 at 15:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ OP did not say they were unwilling - which would mean to me that the GM or plot were forcing them to go - but merely that they didn't enjoy it. They may well be doing so because they think they have no other choice. This answer is partly about informing them that they have a choice. \$\endgroup\$ – Corrodias Apr 30 '17 at 19:58
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"Nothing Happens"

This is perhaps the single most powerful phrase you can use.

As a DM, you control the world. If you don't want someone to do something, stop rewarding them for doing it. And remember that any interaction is a reward at some level.

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This is a common problem

Actually, I had a player you was doing the exact same thing with a druid. The interesting thing was that he was an experienced player and did not play this way normally. He just couldn't shake off the impression that druids, as explained in the lore (DnD), would not go on mundane adventures. This problem stems from telling players that they can make any character they like. That is almost never a good idea. I always start campaigns by sending the players character creation guidelines. My first two rules are the same in every campaign:

  1. You must create a character willing to go on adventures.
  2. You must create a character willing to cooperate with the other PCs.

    I explain to the players, especially new players, that characters that do not satisfy these requirements may work in computer games or specialty campaigns that we may try in the future but would simply not work in the campaign I am going to run now.

    In my situation, I explained to the character that while most druids would not go on mundane adventures, PC druids are a special kind of druid. Most barbarians and monks in the world do not go on adventures, either. He accepted this logic and moved on.

There are many ways to deal with this

  • Of course, you can talk to the player. Ask her how she feels about the situation. Validate her feelings. Explain why her characters behavior is not conducive to having fun sessions for everyone. Give her options: She can decide that the druid slowly adapts to a more civilized life, the druid's wild forays can be played out via email between sessions, or she can make a new character at the same level. Emphasize that this does not need to be an all-or-none issue. The druid can be feral and wild and go on wild forays once in a while, but not every session.
  • Other players can take action in-character: The druid is harming the party more than she is helping. They can tell her that they will not be travelling with her anymore. The druid can, in-character, change her ways, or, if the druid's player wishes, she can make a new character that hopefully has some hooks in her background to make her want to be a part of this party.
  • You can make her forays less interesting. When she wanders off to the forest, you can say "You do not notice anything out of the ordinary". If they say "we look harder" I would ask them how much time they want to spend in the forest and what exactly they are looking for. Then I say, "8 hours pass, you do not find X nor do you notice anything out of the ordinary". If they are more insistent, you can break character and say "Guys, I haven't prepared the forest in any detail. We have two options: We can stop for today and I can try to prepare something for our next session, or you can go back to the wagon and we can continue to play the areas I have prepared for today".
  • Make some of her forays more interesting. Maybe the Crypt they wanted to visit at the wagon's destination is actually in the forest. ;)
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This is “color” in the adventure; treat it that way

When my kids were younger, I got a lot of this sort of thing. It’s not too hard to handle creative disruptions in a way that’s fun for everyone. Since you want to encourage creative play, your goal is to keep the story moving along without “bringing down the hammer” on the quirkiness.

  1. Keep the party moving towards their goal or quest
  2. Keep the detours brief (in real time)
  3. Let the colorful behavior have an impact on the game

Guide the players that will be guided

If your other player characters are responsible sorts — they sound like it — encourage them to stay on-track (in your example, quite literally, as in "wagon tracks") by reminding them of their responsibilities to their quest or to the innocent NPCs around them (like the wagon driver who was kind enough to take them through the forest).

Avoid relying on your other players to keep the party together. Don’t ask, “Well, do you follow her?” Your assumption should be that the other PC’s remain focused on their mission.

Abbreviate the detours, aka the “Fast Forward Button”

The next time the druid runs off into the woods, say something like:

We’re just going to assume whenever the druid smells something when she’s bored, she runs off to investigate. She runs too fast through the woods for the rest of you to keep up. Druid, I’ll let you know when you find something interesting. You’ll catch up to your friends in the wagon after you’ve had your excursion, right?

The answer will probably be “Yes.” If it’s a smarmy “No” or "Maybe," then feel free to have the druid miss out on parts of the adventure — conversations with NPC's or minor encounters. The player will come back to the fun sooner or later.

Indulge, just a little

Let the druid make a Survival check to forage occasionally while traveling, and let her find something: anything from a rotten animal corpse to fresh ripe berries. A successful Survival check might turn up something useful, like a day’s worth of food. Don’t spend more than a minute on this.

Going forward, include the excursions in your narrative descriptions: “The wagon enters a beautiful forest of ancient trees. There are so many piquant aromas wafting through the air the druid is nearly running herself ragged following them.” Create players are generally happy when their ideas become part of the story.

Incorporate the color into the action

If the party is attacked while in the wilderness, the druid might be away, only to fortuitously return on the second round of combat, still some distance away. (The druid missing a round of combat “pays back” play time to the players who stayed in the wagon.)

This isn’t a punishment though — you are acknowledging the character’s peccadillo and incorporating it into the game, without letting it disrupt or hijack the adventure.

Also, there can be times when scouting around turns up something worth investigating. Feel free to give heavy-handed advice that these places should not be investigated alone: “You get a powerful feeling that it would be better to have your party with you when you go into that cave.” If she ignores your fair warning, go ahead and let her be ogre chow — or at least, incapacitated and out-of-play while her party tracks her down and rescues her.

Don’t lay problems onto your players unless you have to

As the all-powerful GM, you can control the pace of your narrative with techniques like those above, without squelching creative play. Make sure you give them a shot before resorting to wagging your finger at your players and telling them they’re doing it wrong.

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Make the world continue while they are gone ;)

Let me explain, the world does not stop when the players are not there. For your example, I have more than one idea popping in my mind:

  1. Unless the cart was theirs, it should not stop for few adventurers running off. If it was theirs, it is left unsupervised. An unsupervised cart with provisions could be stolen, or ravaged by few wild animals looking for easy food.
  2. If they left a sentinel, the cart could be attacked by bandit and the sentinel held for a ransom.
  3. If the cart belongs to an NPC and continues without the players, it could be attacked by bandits :)
  4. You may also reward the player with negative consequences by setting an ambush, or missing an opportunity due to the wasted time, such as having been able to help a wounded man if they stayed on cart.
  5. The player could chase the smell to discover a dead bird fallen from a nest, a dog digging up a corpse (and the locals discover the players digging up the grave and accuse them of desecrating a grave or causing the death of the poor guy).

You may also hint to the players that the next safe resting point, like the inn is a long way away and unless they want to camp or drive the cart by night, they should stay on road.

In short don't reward the lunatic. If someone sees a shadow disappearing in a dark alley without reason, they could walk in bigger trouble than they can handle. But don't kill them for just one bad decision, make it clear that the villain is way too powerful, and they have to flee, and then hide for weeks, putting some spice in the intended scenario :)

Don't be an ass and punish them every time the stray from the path, try to be logical. Reward them sometimes, and make some situation where their decision is important (they have unburied half of the corpse when they hear 2 voices closing in. Do they hide? flee? try to explain?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I suggested a somewhat aggressive edit with regards to improving the overall flow of this answer. Hopefully it doesn't change any of your intentions with your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Will M. Apr 27 '17 at 20:43
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I think your answer lies in your question:

I told her "You mostly smell the contents of the wagon, rations, etc. Outside is the smell of moist earth, trees, and fungus/rot."

Her immediate reaction is to jump out of the cart and run into the forest towards the rotting smell.

If she's done this on multiple occasions then you should have a good idea of what will tantalize your player and use this to your advantage.

Know which direction you want to go and give your player hints in that direction. In the previously mentioned scenario, you could have simply placed a dead animal ahead of the wagon in the middle of the road; the player finds practically nothing, the party catches up, and they move on with the story as planned.

This way the player can wander off without interrupting the story. Drop descriptive but vague hints that will most likely trigger your player and easily be manipulated to keep from derailing your story.

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One way to solve this problem is to make sure that every player has reason to stay with the party even before the campaign starts. Some perks, backgrounds etc. You could also set up rules that what happen if players play against their perks or backstory.

For example, they first become stressed that gives some penalties, but if the player starts to play better along with the perks they have this stressed penalty go away. If they keep playing against their perks them player becomes depressed and have more serious penalties.

I personally like to have rules about everything as it helps me as DM be fairer to my players. Also, if you make any house rules they good practice is to make them in line with other penalties and rules in RPG system you are using. I personally use GURPS system and I admit it is a very flexible system and not all RPG systems are as flexible what comes to tuning rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Would be nice if -1 votes left a comment. We should be helping new users adapt to the conventions of SE. I agree that this answer is not great: It introduces a mechanic that OP's game system likely doesn't support. It is also a little short. \$\endgroup\$ – Solanacea Apr 27 '17 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think there is a valid suggestion here. The game system may not have such a mechanic built in, but that doesn't prohibit the DM for devising one of their own. There have been several flavors of this mechanic in different editions/settings of D&D and other systems over the years, finding something that is adaptable to the purpose should not be too hard. \$\endgroup\$ – Rozwel Apr 27 '17 at 16:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wasn’t my down-vote, but this answer could be improved by: fixing the spelling and grammar, providing specific advice instead of general (e.g., "some penalties"). It also doesn't help the OP’s situation to suggest doing something at character creation, when that’s in the past. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Apr 28 '17 at 1:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Solanacea It is not typical or guaranteed for downvoters to leave comments. Usually if they have not left one, there is nothing constructive to leave as one. "I don't think this is a good idea" is, for example, a legitimate downvote reason but when expressed in a comment just tends to create arguments which then get flagged and deleted because we don't want them on the site. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 28 '17 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not native english speaker so I cannot write perfect English grammar and spelling. Most of RPG system have tables about penalties. Some system are maybe more robust in this like GURPS than others. But it is not impossible to make own penalties that are in line with rules of the game. It impossible to say more spesific without knowing what rules are used. \$\endgroup\$ – Jake Apr 28 '17 at 18:20
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There's already a lot of good advice here, so I'll try to avoid repeating what's already said.

Though I haven't been a DM, I remember seeing this situation from both ends. My first character was so self-sufficient that my DM had to take me aside and talk to me about my choices. As a problem character, I really valued his opinion since it was less of a "you're creativity is stupid" and more of a discussion on what I wanted from the game as well as understanding the difference between a hero versus a party member. (honestly, I was misunderstanding self-sufficiency.)

So my suggestion here would be ask her what she's looking for from the campaign rather than only expressing your wants. Might help.

On the other hand, I remember a few players who were pulling the game off-script.

Though our DM used different methods for different problem players, he seemed always to put the other players before himself (making sure the fun of the many outweigh the whims of the few) and wasn't afraid to alter terrain to teach lessons.

Again, I am not a DM and I don't like wishing harm to other players, but using what I know and examples I have, if a player would rush into the unknown woods, there are chances that they can lose their footing and fall down a cliff, breaking a leg... Or you could impose a cautious outlook on the character as a permanent scar after experiencing a vision where her whims cost the death of her party. She might not like it and might be upset, but as far as I know, those are actual outcomes that can happen if you go too far.

As an example of our party going too far as a whole, I remember we were being very cautious and avoiding the clear boss battle, looking for alternate methods. Unfortunately, we found a path that led to an elevator to lower levels where our characters were too weak to fight. However, because of our curiosity, we nearly died twice, before I said the magic words that brought us back to the safe area. That experience both affected our characters and us as players, having witnessed how powerless we were and how important it was to watch our footing.

Hope something in this helps.

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