A tabletop gaming group is a weird social commitment halfway between “project” and “just hanging out.” Some groups treat things casually and players come and go all the time; some treat their regular games as a strict standing appointment, and the makeup of the group as a permanent roster. This makes it especially tricky when one player is making the others unhappy, and very tricky when you need to ask a player to leave the group.
What you don’t want to do is take out negative real-world feelings in-game. It works great as an episode of Community. But even subtly “punishing” players in-game for real problems can turn sour, or even encourage dickish behaviour. You need to approach this like a mature adult. Or, alternately, like a coward.
How to prevent conflict
“Kicking a player out of your group should be a last resort,” says Hunter Elliot, RPG coordinator at the Brooklyn Strategist game centre.
As a professional dungeon master in D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games, Hunter tells Lifehacker, he tries to keep everyone communicating their expectations and desires in a game, so conflicts can be resolved without getting rid of a player.
“Presumably, your friends are all playing together because you get along and you’re all interested in D&D and the story of the game,” he says. But players can want very different things out of a game. Hunter advises making the balance of desires more explicit to the players:
It’s quite possible that one player is interested in combat and defeating foes, and another is bored by combat and wants to get deep into character. Not everyone is comfortable getting into intense role-playing. In these cases, talking about different players’ goals together can help everyone understand what scenes are about and respect that another player is ‘getting their turn’ right now, so to speak.
How to kick out a player
But some players refuse to respect each other’s desires for play. This can range from players who take radically different approaches to a playing session, to players who disrespect their fellow players as people, even making bigoted or hostile remarks.
Depending on where on this spectrum the problem lies, you might want to pull someone out of a gaming group, but not end your friendship. That can actually cause more feelings than simply cutting ties altogether. But Hunter suggests making the break feel as mutual and non-confrontational as possible:
As the DM, you might want to talk to the player one on one, because you are the closest thing your group has to a leader. In a one on one situation, try being honest with them and explaining that their play style just isn’t working with the group. Remind them that you can be friends with someone without playing with them. Suggest, perhaps, that they check other communities for a group that fits what they want more.
A similar approach is even possible when the entire group discusses the problem together with the problem player:
They might understand the problem if it’s presented from the perspective of the entire group. Keep in mind that it’s important to make sure this discussion doesn’t turn into an aggressive dynamic where the player feels ganged up on. Traditional intervention advice (like avoiding ‘you’ statements, which sound accusatory, and speaking exclusively from one’s own perspective) are important and helpful in this situation.
Split the party
You might find solutions that don’t feel like “kicking someone out” so much as “spreading out the group.” For example, my gaming group expanded over time, until it was impossible to include everyone in every game. It was sad that we couldn’t always maintain the same weekly game, but it gave us new opportunities.
We ended up splitting into different varying game nights: a wilder one-shot with the players who prefer to play free-form, character-based sagas for some players, combat-heavy adventures for others, and sedate puzzle dungeons for those of us who, given an entire universe of possibilities, want to play a virtual escape room. (It me.)
We started scheduling sessions in shorter stints, or one at a time. We found games that didn’t require as much planning for the DM or the host. If people with inconsistent play styles still wanted to hang out together, they just had to find some other activities — usually no further afield than board games, beer and Magic: The Gathering.
A sneakier method
If you keep it discreet, you can sidestep a lot of hurt feelings by “disbanding” the group and “forming” a new one with all but one player. (I should make clear, this is my suggestion, not Hunter’s.)
Instead of changing the group, claim you have a schedule conflict, and that the group needs to “take a break.” (As in so many awkward social situations, blaming some outside force takes a lot of social pressure off, and saves face for everyone.) Then quietly reconvene the group without certain players.
This is only as devious as your motives for doing it. It’s not a healthy way to deal with low-level problems, but it might be appropriate when the problem player tends to escalate conflict — which tends to crop up in gaming groups!
But only try this if your players are not frequently spending time together outside of your games, or if you don’t intend to see the ousted player again. If there’s a decent chance someone discovers they’ve been secretly kicked out, they’re going to be furious or dejected.
There’s also the risk that the group will dissolve. If you’re in a group of adults who already have a hard time meeting regularly, even a fake disband gives other players a chance to admit they wanted to quit anyway. The stress of the whole situation might feel like too much to them. Be ready to accept this gracefully. That’s the point: You can’t force people to play games with you.