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Hey DM? Your Table Is Toxic

Okay, DM. This is it. You’ve figured out the puzzle situation and your BBEG isn’t a sad pile of emo poetry and memes from r/nihilismhottakes. Now, at long last, you’re ready to play some D&D and oh. Wow, uh…Has the table always felt this poisonous?

DM: "Oh, darn it! The canary in the corner died! That's the fifth one this campaign!"
Because I can’t think of a caption funny enough to capture the vibe of this situation, here’s a video of two lynxes arguing.

Toxic player environments can sneak up on anyone, even DM’s who have been playing with a group for years. (Actually, especially groups who have been together for years, but we’ll get to that.) However, it’s hard to see the problems with something when you’re too close to it.

But…what are some gaps to mind? What are warning signs that you could be seeing, but also not seeing? While these aren’t marks of toxicity (and I’m not certainly speaking for every group out there), these are definitely warning signs that sneak up on even the most diligent DM.

Also, I know I harped on Hero Forge’s new facial customization interface, but I’ll be damned if I can’t make funny pictures with it.

Your Group’s Been Together For A While/Is Pretty Close

“What?” I assume you ask, because I’m disgustingly presumptuous like that. “But if my group’s been together forever, wouldn’t that mean that we have a strong bond of friendship or whatever? How can that be bad?”

Well, ironically, close bonds can actually be a breeding ground for toxic behavior. You had the Salem Witch Trails. The Red Scare. College football fans.

Tiamat called. She said she can't compete with THIS level of chaos...
“Bow before me and weep. My followers shall park in front of your houses and trash your yards. Scream at televisions in wing places. And ravage the meat, chip, and beer sections of your supermarket faster than you can say ‘Cut the funding to the art programs.'”

According to psychological studies, groups that spend a bunch of time together have a higher chance of developing a nasty little ailment called groupthink. This mental malady has close-knit groups take on a more oppressive tightness. It squashes the expression of honest feelings. Demonizes outsiders. Has the group turning on “traitors” of the group. And, worst of all, turning friendship into a competition to conform.

So, yeah, DM. Sadly, not even your close gaming group might be immune to this condition. And given that the effects of this include squashing creativity and deterring cooperation, this should be treated like someone who walks into a petting zoo with a meat cleaver.

So the sooner you recognize symptoms of groupthink (i.e. stereotyping outsiders, pressure within the group), the sooner it can addressed and dealt with.

Of course, it’s really hard when-

Your Players Are Related/In A Relationship

Okay, right out the gate. No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t include multiple members of the same family in your game. Yes, it’s possible that related players can be impartial towards each other…

But it also helps to keep an eye on the gnome barbarian that happens to be the druid’s dad in real life. Just to make sure he’s not going to snipe water bottles across the table when someone hurts his little girl in-game.

DM: "Wait, hold on! I- ha- forgot to mention. She has SUPER advantage on her roll! AND a horn to summon a dragon! Oh god no not the-"
Hell hath no fury like a man whose daughter just got her annoying pet squirrel eaten.

D&D is far from a stranger to favoritism or toxic behavior, and they in themselves can issue that every DM needs to deal with. However, it goes without saying that familial/romantic loyalty can increase the chances of this happening, and can make for some caustic behavior to those who get in between. And the resentment that can stem from this is harder to get out than taco sauce on a wedding dress. Not including the airplane’s worth of baggage that comes with dealing with familial/couple issues. Again, no need to ready the ban hammer when a player’s relative/partner joins, but it pays to keep an eye on them as much as you do your other players. (Specifically, to keep an eye out for signs of favoritism.)

And don’t think you’re immune to this, DM. Roll for Perception with as much advantage as possible.

You Take It Very Seriously

Passion is an absolutely beautiful thing. It’s what separates living from mere existence. It drives humanity to take parts of a seemingly uncaring world and mold them into something defiantly beautiful.

But it’s also like coffee. Drink too much, and you’re disturbingly intense and generally overbearing.

This is an issue that actually comes in a variety of flavors. Enforcing a strict cosplay dress code. Treating an absence as an invitation to murder the offending player’s character. Going on a twenty-minute long rant about how Matt Mercer is so great and how your table is one lapse in judgement away from sacrificing the nearest goat to his name.

"And if you bring up Brennan Lee Mulligan and his charming, robust theatricality, thou will be un-Crittered!"
“And if your neighbor should tell you ‘Hey, you probably won’t be the next Critical Roll,’ tell them- with great enthusiasm- that thou art totally only streaming your games for fun.

Again, passion is what helps relieve the terminal condition that we’ve decided to call “life.” If you want to make amazing gaming rooms, give that Lowe’s credit card hell! Want to actually use that theater arts degree? Make that costume! And, personally, anyone who doesn’t even try the bare-minimum of roleplaying in a roleplaying game probably would be better off playing Call of Duty or something.

But even then, you must remember that every non-toxic table is a welcoming one. Make sure people aren’t put off by the intensity or that you/your table aren’t driving people away. From there on, it might be a matter of “This player might not be the best fit for this table” verses “Maybe we are being a bunch of irritating tryhards.”

Oh! And speaking of driving away new players and potentially ruining D&D as a whole for them-

You’ve Got No Luck With New Players

In a world where a man is struck by lightning seven times and a woman loses five houses in five separate hurricanes, astoundingly bad luck is very much a possibility. And this might be your group with new players. How many newcomers suddenly had work schedules change on them after one session? Or turned out to be total jerks? How many Facebook calls for new players have gone unnoticed?

Okay, you’re smart. You know that I’m about to say that it’s possibly all your fault.

Not gonna lie. I spent a huge chunk of time trying to get the rogue's look of horror just right. STILL far from happy, and might be getting back into Blender...
DM: “Wait! Don’t let the creepy story themes scare you! They’re just Freudian, I tell ya! Freudian!

Again, astoundingly bad luck is still very much a thing. (Ask the woman who got beaned by a meteor.) However, as it turns out, it’s also really easy to drive people away without realizing it. Assuming that you haven’t ejected a player for something like an unspoken house rule that you neglected to mention. Or that your group isn’t so toxic, that they actually have a reputation in your local gaming sphere. In fact, the worst case scenario could see a player being so turned away by toxicity, they give up gaming entirely

Which is where introspection once again must play a part. If you’re losing players left and right, ask yourself why you lost them. (You know, without hounding the fleeing player down and interrogating them.) If you really look at the why, maybe you can see just what’s bad luck and what’s actually within your control.

You Dedicate Much Of Your Time Dealing With THAT One Player

Oh yes, reader. This is a problem all of us know like a loved one’s face. That one guy who tries to inject all the irritating anime tropes into his character. Or who gets too into roleplaying a cat person for this side of the internet. Or whose character is such an edgelord, that a psychoanalyst’s head would explode if they so much as looked at their character sheet.

DM: "You literally just had to go to the store to pick up some supplies!"
Plot Twist: He thought he was at the 40k table this entire time.

Okay, so, quick question– why are they still at your table?

Again, I’m not speaking for every single DM on the planet. But often the same three issues tend to come up.

First, a DM isn’t seeing the problem player as a problem. Maybe you’ve got a big table and can’t catch every conversation. Or maybe, like any retail worker, you’re just numb to the psychic damage inflicted by the public and your don’t notice mental pain anymore. Which is where at least keeping an open door policy with your players and encouraging voicing their problems is very helpful.

Second, you think you can handle the problem. Yes, it’s very possible that a DM can actually change a problem player for the better. However, while these intentions are well and good, you still need to recognize human limits. Sometimes you can’t save a gangrene limb and have to amputate it to save the rest of the body. Sometimes you can’t dedicate a small portion of your brain to form a mental task force to deal with Kyle and his tragic emo metal warrior.

And third, and most immense of all, the problem player is someone’s friend. This is hands-down the hardest problem to deal with as a player, and can cost you other players who are friends with said problem player. But this is where discussing why said friend is a problem to these other friends can be beneficial. Because here’s a shocking truth: not all genuine friends are good in every single situation. Maybe Kyle is a good guy outside of D&D, but the idea of playing a power fantasy flips a switch in his head. It’s like that friend who’s the kindest, most loving soul you know, but can’t help but get into a philosophical slap fight if you take them to a religious gathering.

But this of course begs another question– what if all the players are toxic?

Unfortunately DM, if that’s the case and the toxic spill might be too big to clean up, it might be one radiation zone best left to its devices. Because D&D is supposed to be an escape from life, not a gathering to put on a smile and fake it like it’s Thanksgiving with your family.

Hey DM? is a series of articles meant to help DMs both new and old. Maybe your puzzles are about as exciting as a box of rubber bands. Maybe your main villain is as compelling as someone’s OC on DeviantArt. Either way, there’s something your table’s been meaning to talk to you about…

About the Author
Went to film school instead of real college. Writes stuff, animates things, and programs whatchacallits. Currently playing a rogue/cleric (trickery) warforged that's basically a life-sized Victorian porcelain horror doll. You can find more of her stuff at kerahildebrandt.com, including D&D modules/such!

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