This article was very controversial back in the day. It started a stimulating discussion on the Wizards boards, a much longer trolling match on the forum that will not be named and even got a mention in io9. Some of the criticism aimed at me was correct. For example, positive reinforcement is a more effective tool than punishment and removing XP is not effective at all. Other criticism I reject to this very day -- if you're not a trained psychologist, you shouldn't try to treat kids with mental problems, no amount of nice will cure schizophrenia.
Now, the below article has been changed to reflect the constructive feedback I received from my readers, as well as other lessons I have picked up on my own in the last two years. I'm not disowning the original article or its implied positions. Rather, I am changing my opinions upon the introduction of new facts.
So, without further ado -- the cracking of the whip!
The most traditional method of punishment is reduction of XP. Personally, I'm not fond of this method for two reasons. First -- I like keeping the real world and the game world separate to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Secondly -- if someone doesn't care about the game, they won't care about the xp either. In any case, don’t remove a lot of xp at once; you want to warn the players, not to cripple their characters.
There is another technique, developed by my esteemed colleague Nitzan Rimon. It is based on rewarding bonus XP to anyone except the troublemakers. For example, if some kids are regularly late for sessions, wait until they arrive and demonstratively reward those who did come on time while stressing that those who were late get nothing. This technique is the most effective against kids whose misbehavior stems from malice or disrespect rather than absentmindedness or immaturity. It seems the former are more worried about other succeeding than about themselves failing.
My personal approach is different and has changed much since the first version of this article was published on the Wizards website nearly three years go.
During my years of work, I have encountered several types of troublemakers which I will describe, in the best D&D tradition, as class cliches. While the below archetypes are gross generalizations, they might help you identify and solve the problem in some cases. After each title you’ll notice a number of stars. This is to show how severe the issue is. One star is a minor disturbance hardly worthy of your attention. Five stars will kill the game dead.
All the below quotes are sadly true.
The Astronaut *
“I attack with elven accuracy.”
. . . right after being explained it’s not an attack (for the fifth time)
The Crime: The kid is just plain oblivious. He has no idea what’s happening in the game right now, what are his character’s capabilities or even what the most basic gaming terms mean. Like the hapless hero of Memento, his memory seems to be restarted every few minutes.
The Verdict: Just be patient and helpful. The guy is honestly trying to participate, but ideas keep buzzing between his ears. It’s not his fault, he’s not doing it to get you mad, he just can’t concentrate. Repeat yourself firmly and clearly enough times and eventually it will trickle down. Don't be afraid to suggest courses of action such as "you can shoot him, or hide behind a tree." Yes, it will make you sound like a live action Zork, but trust me, it's better than to wait for him to go over every single word on his character sheet until he accidentally says something which could constitute a legitimate action.
The Crybaby *
“But I don’t want to play a goblin!”
. . .after being given a list of twenty races, one of which is the goblin
The Crime: For the love of Pelor, how much can one complain! This kid always looks on the verge of tears or a tantrum. Any minor mishap – a botched roll, an item which differs from his dream artifact, an encounter with an NPC who is not Orcus – and tears glitter on the child’s cheeks even as his knuckles go white with fury.
The Verdict: Nothing. Yes, he’s annoying, but unless he’s interfering with the game there is really nothing you can do to appease him. Crying is a mode of extortion and as soon as you start making concessions there will be no end to it. I usually suggest the kid goes outside and washes his face, more for civility’s sake than anything else.
The Cheater *
“18! Yes!! What? Oh, these didn’t count!”
. . .after rolling a d20 for seven times
The Crime: Dice rolling is a serious business . . . too serious to be left for chance. The mild cheater keeps coming up with creative excuses why bad rolls don’t count (“the die touched the book, it’s not fair!”). The devious cheater is just plain dishonest.
The Verdict: Kids love to tell on each other, so the chances of cheating to go unnoticed are very small. The mild cheater usually won’t go out of his way to argue his case unless he is a crybaby (see above) or an antagonist (see below), in which case his cheating is the least of your troubles. The devious cheater should be fined harshly enough to teach him that crime doesn’t pay. Say, every roll you catch him fixing counts as a double 1. Ouch.
The Serial Character Changer **
“Can I play a Yuan-Ti, I want to play a Yuan-Ti, I hate my elf. I want him to die! I kill myself! Do I keep my XP and equipment.”
. . . after opening the Monster Manual on a random page
The Crime: A shrimp in an all-you-can-eat buffet has a longer life span than this kid’s PCs. The guy wants a new character every god damn session. Every time he says it’s the last time, then he gets back home, opens the PHB or Dragon magazine or watches a film, or looks out of the window, and changes his mind again.
The Verdict: First try diplomacy to convince the kid how cool his PC is. Then explain that his magic items and experience points will be lost with this transformation. Most will give up at this point. You can also tell them that they're going to waste an entire session just generating a new character, alone, while everyone else is progressing in the adventure. If even this doesn't stop them, just play along. It's a lost cause anyhow.
The Hyperactive **
. . . While running around, occasionally bumping into objects and people.
The Crime: Like a man possessed, the hyperactive kid is all over the place jumping, dancing, singing, talking on unrelated subjects, drawing on the table or chewing the carpet. When it’s not his turn, he insures it’s nobody’s turn.
The Verdict: It is important to distinguish between attention grabbers and genuinely hyperactive children. The attention grabber will relax if ignored for enough time and occasionally kicked out of the game for ten minutes or so. The kid who is genuinely hyperactive needs stuff to do or he goes bananas. Just give him missions (collect dropped dice, draw stuff on the board, help arrange chairs) and it should pacify him.
The Joker ****
“Want to hear me singing while balancing six dice on my nose?”
. . . in the middle of a villain’s dramatic monologue
The Crime: The same as the hyperactive kid’s, only with malice. The joker doesn’t do what he does because he’s restless, but because he wants to get cheap laughs out of the group and feel in the center of attention. Chances are, he's in your game because it's a room with people, not because he cares about the game.
The Verdict: Deprive him of this attention. Explain to the other kids that he’s ruining everybody’s game and that by playing along, they’re only encouraging him and ruining the adventure for themselves. Kick him out of the class often and allow him to return only if he returns to the class in a somber and serious manner. If this doesn’t help, apply Batman’s method of dealing with Jokers.
The Chaotic-Stupid ****
“So… this is the great God-Emperor everyone’s talking about? I pee on his shoes and fart in his nose.”
. . . while the party is negotiating with a 30th level demigod
The Crime: Possibly the most problematic of the archetypes, the chaotic-stupid player doesn’t misbehave in the classroom. Instead, he plays in a manner which, if DMed realistically, would result in him getting killed every session, along with the entire group.
The Verdict: Divine intervention. While I'm usually mortally opposed to removing player agency, in this case, it's perfectly legitimate to demand a dramatic explanation from the player. "You're setting the queen on fire: why? Why is a proud and serious paladin willing to die in infamy for one lame joke? Give me an explanation that makes sense from the character's perspective, or do something less stupid."
Usually the player will give up at this point. A stupid joke frankly isn't worth the effort of going into character motivation and background story. However, if the player is willing to come up with a reasonable explanation, don't hesitate to kill his PC. Forget everything I said earlier about young children and character death. Obviously, it doesn't apply to this player.
The Antagonist *****
“Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!”
. . . after being told to stop tearing tiles of the wall
The Crime: Antagonist meet DM. DM meet suffering. The antagonist is your enemy, plain and simple. He came to destroy the gaming experience for everyone via whatever means possible. Mild disciplinary measures such as kicking him out of the class for a short time or taking away xp and gold are useless. Taking him outside for a talk is also unlikely to cool his battle spirit. Some kids just want to watch the world burn.
The Verdict: In rare instances, the antagonist’s energy can be redirected into wanting to be the best PC in the game. He’ll still be a douche, a colossal douche actually, but at least he’ll be the douche who shushes everyone, helps you with the chairs (in return for XP) and screams at anyone standing in his way to more XP and treasure. Don't expect him to play nice though -- after all, adventurers are called murder hobos for a reason.
Sadly, few antagonists can be saved, so for them I recommend the harshest verdict of all – banishment from the realm!
Kicking someone out of your game for good is a radical action and should not be taken lightly. However, a quote from the Boondock Saints comes to mind when musing on this subject, namely “destroy that which is evil so that which is good may flourish.” Some kids have real issues and need help, but not at the expense of those kids who came to play and have fun. The worst offenders are often the most charismatic kids and their presence is not good for the group as they turn otherwise good kids into their evil minions.
I’m not talking here about minor disturbances. You can’t expect 9 year olds to have the Queen’s manners, besides, I’m sure even the Queen also sometimes interrupts her DM in the heat of combat. I’m talking about true troublemakers. I’m talking about the kids who harass or bully others, who disrupt the campaign, who treat the game like their sister’s Barbie doll, who ruin the mood with juvenile pranks or scream obscenities, who listen to music or play loud games on their smartphones, who spew blatant racism or hate speech that makes others uncomfortable, who consciously challenge your authority for the hell of it and go berserk when replied in kind.
These are all cases I had to deal with in the past. In some instances I won, in some instances I lost. But this is my job. You’re doing it for fun. You don’t have to take it. Perhaps through supreme effort you could make a decent player out of the bully or the rebel without a cause, but by then you would have lost your game.
Lastly, expecting a child suffering from mental illness to behave normally makes about as much sense as expecting a child with a broken foot to run. It's objectively beyond his control and no amount of yelling or sweet talking will change this. My personal policy is to refer him to a proper specialist, not to play doctor with potentially disastrous consequences.