This is a repository of quotes from conversations I’ve had with gamers, designers, and artists. Links to various conversations are organized on my Social and Emotional D&D Resource Page.

J Zoshak

J Zoshak: 

I have long said that D&D’s greatest tragedy is that it is most attractive to those poor souls least able to participate capably in it.

We really ought to be a place where we can all relax and improve in shared company, but too often we indulge in making ourselves feel momentarily powerful at the expense of those even weaker than ourselves. Social awkwardness is a hell of a double-edged sword.

Think before you speak, folks. The fun you save may be your own.

Darren Steele: 

I think D&D often attracts people who benefit most from its structured environment for socialization.

The structure can be made safe and supportive, or super toxic. I’ve been in the latter many times.

Have you ever worked through a “bad” group and seen it improve?

J Zoshak:

That depends on what you mean. I’ve begun with wallflower players and successfully helped them to participate freely. I’ve never been able to work the abuser out of someone who has been abused and needs that rush of control.

I’ve seen progress be made. Gamers are smart, rational people, generally speaking, and they are good at seeing their mistakes when they are called out. But I don’t think there’s a cure.

I’ve got one player I’ve been playing with for 25 years and I still need to take him aside from time to time. He tries, and he has gotten better, but his own anxiety is deeply ingrained.

Hell, I still catch myself instinctively ganging up on the buttmonkey from time to time. It’s hard.

Darren Steele:

For taking this one player aside (25 years, awesome BTW! ) how would you describe your approach? Has it changed since the first years? Have you developed a shorthand for bringing up his unacceptable behavior? Do you include the rest of the group in any way, even informing them the behavior has been addressed?
What’s your relationship like? Does he value your interventions?

How do you address it when you feel you’ve stepped over the line?

Like you, I feel I’ve been effective at nudging shy players out of their shells.
I’ve never managed to keep a player with many cruel tendencies at the table for a long period, I’ve found their effect on other players too toxic. I’d love to know more about your experiences.

J Zoshak:

This player in particular is an old, old friend. Our tableside relationship is textbook “Oh that’s just John, he’s just like that, he’s always played with us.” That is not acceptable, but his improvement has been such that I haven’t felt the need to remove him, which is more than I can say for some players.

I don’t know if he “values” my interventions, but he responds to them constructively, which again is more than I can say for some players.

When I overstep the line, as I said it is generally because the group has designated a buttmonkey and I slip into old, terrible habits. When I notice it happening I usually address it with the group in a neutral way (and without the buttmonkey present), not accusing anyone, acknowledging complicity, but pointing out that it should stop. Response is usually indirect (lots of shuffling feet) but positive.

Whenever I intervene with any specific player, for any reason, I do it away from the table. The underlying causes of most bad player behavior, whether it is abuse of other players, their own spotlight time, or the rules, are perceived acceptance and an absence of criticism. I can readily dispel both without embarrassing the player.

I don’t even provide details when I’m forced to remove a player from a game. I find that the reason is explicitly understood without me explaining it, in most cases.

I’ve had moments of weakness where I’ve confronted players in group, but I consider that counterproductive. It casts me as the villain (all these people want is to be the hero), and even in the best case scenario it can turn the tables and make the abuser into a buttmonkey, which is not a long term solution.

In general, my experience as a dungeon master has been that players don’t address abuse between themselves — it starts out as a joke, which I’d defend as an important part of any /good/ table dynamic, and by the time it becomes a habit, either everyone is convinced they’re the only person at the table who is made uncomfortable by it and is reluctant to speak up, or mob mentality kicks in and they convince themselves the buttmonkey deserves it.

I think the number of truly cruel players is vanishingly small, just like I think the number of truly cruel /people/ is vanishingly small. But most D&D players I have known have been escapists, and there is no more pure or more visceral form of escapism than establishing dominance over someone weaker than you.

I should probably write my own blog post