Toxic Players: The Hidden Chernobyl in Every Role Playing Game

Luke Orlando
Jun 9 · 6 min read

How do you recognize and handle toxicity in play groups? It’s not easy, but taking steps early to avoid toxicity can save both in-game and out of game strife.

The D&D party don’t stop until the healer is dead and I’m all out of potions.

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At least, that’s what it says on one of my favorite shirts, but experienced players will know that’s not always the case. While it would be grand if every campaign went out in a fiery, epic TPK (Total Party Kill), this rarely happens. Rather, games slowly fall apart over weeks or months, eventually dying due to a lack of attendance. Sometimes, the slow death of a group is the natural course of a weak campaign goal, but far more often, it’s due to toxic players.

Many groups have toxic players in them and don’t even realize it. Others know they have a toxic player, but he’s playing the strong, silent, edgy Drow so he doesn’t always ruin the fun. What those players should realize, is that toxic players are radioactive. It might take days, weeks, or months for the blisters to appear, but they will. And when they begin to burst, they will always destroy the campaign. DMs must learn to recognize, identify, then manage those toxic players before they inevitabley and irreperably damage the group.

What makes a toxic player?

“Toxicity (in games or any social context) is communication and behavior that BOTH risks harm (including emotional harm or distress) to other participants AND achieves no significantly higher objective.” This functional definition for toxicity comes from, and I doubt there is a more authoritative group on the subject of toxic gaming. This definition is particularly useful, because it recognizes that there are good reasons that risk harm or distress to a player, such as telling a player they are toxic, or creating a thriller or horror scenario with the consent of the players. These may cause distress, but they serve a valuable higher purpose and should not be considered toxic.

How do you identify toxicity with this definition?

Look for the fallout.

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Just like radiation, the fallout of a toxic player will start creating small symptoms that will quickly grow to lethal levels.

What can you do about it?

Depending on the level of radioactivity you are seeing, there are three major steps you can take to avoid toxicity.

Radioactive clean up is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful process. You may not be able to salvage every player who was damaged by the fall-out of a toxic player, but you might be able to save the campaign. In the end, the best thing you can do to protect your game from toxicity is create the safety mechanisms early. Know the warning signs and set up the alarm system to stop toxicity before it affects others. Happy rolling.