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#AsktheGM: Dealing with The One Who Breaks Games

In partnership with our local community, #AsktheGM answers questions about tabletop gaming and GMing. Have a question? Let us know! Details at the bottom of the post.

Often when I am teaching the GM/DM side of RPGs (D&D in this case), I’m asked the question: How do I deal with people who just want to break my game? This is an attempt to give you, the budding GM/DM, a set of reflections/tools to help you answer that question.


Take advantage of Session Zero.

What game does everyone want to play? Is it going to be MurderTeam takes on HomicideLand using nothing but the power of murder and stabbing? Or is it going to be team McGyver Batman with no killing?

These questions are raised during what some GMs call “session zero”. Session 0 is a safe space where concerns and goals can be discussed, so expectations can be set. It might sound a little corporate – but team-building is one of those real-world marketable skills that you can 100% learn from GMing.

Even if you’re just doing a one-shot, take 5-10 minutes to ask everyone at the table what they are expecting. More often than not, you will find that the One Who Breaks Games is just looking for a challenge.

At least you know at the start.

TL;DR: No one can read minds. Be honest with your players, and you will be rewarded in return.


Everyone’s here to have fun.

Like it or not, you and your players signed up for an implicit social contract. At its core, tabletop RPing is improv, give and take.

Even in the world of Mindjammer – where humans have transcended the paltry limitations of mortality, energy conversion and the five senses – there are still rules; and everyone plays by them.

In case the One Who Breaks Games needs it spelled out: This is a game. A roleplaying game. The goal is not to beat the system, but to have fun.

This is not combatplaying. Your relationship with other players is cooperative (even if your secret agenda is to murder the cleric because he bore witness to the horse and cart that ran over your familiar and did not lift a finger), NOT competitive.

The goal is to have fun.

Dungeons & Dragons is improv comedy/drama with a bit of math thrown in. If you find a player who has fun at the expense of others (there are other behavioural problems at work here) you should ask that person to check themselves or risk wrecking the dynamic. That might sound harsh – but D&D requires a bit of time, and a bit of vulnerability.

The One Who Breaks Games may say: But this is how I have fun!

That’s when you apply a little bit of DM judo by asking: “Ok, but how do you turn that into everyone having fun?”

This puts players who break games in a position where:
  1. They realize that if you build a castle of sand and knock down everyone else’s castles, you will end up in a very lonely sandbox.
  2. They’re forced to gain a little empathy. And maybe – just maybe – they can refocus their goals to be more constructive. For example: Maybe help the new player consume a spell slot to cast maximized-empowered-disintegrate, instead of a fireball.

TL;DR: Play to have fun. All other concerns are secondary.

players who break games

Show, don’t tell.

Before you roll in D&D, your character asks the question WHY. When you pick up your dice, you are now asking the question HOW. When you interpret the dice, you get to ask WHAT.

The HOW appeals to the part of The One Who Breaks Games that loves to ask that question. They might say: My character would never do that, and so I will instead choose to ignore your improv and install my own version of the truth.

Right. But how would your character do it, though? Can you walk me through what you intended to do?

Whenever you encounter My Character Wouldn’t Do That spiel as a way of doing, ask: “How would your character go about doing that?”

Remember that your job is not to motivate the characters. Your job is to motivate players. Open the infinite doors for the players to see what could be, or what could not be. Ultimately, they are the ones that must walk their characters through those doors.

The WHY is not nearly as important to The One Who Breaks Games. Appealing to WHY feeds the non-consensus-building behaviour. Asking HOW breaks that cycle and allows you and this particular player to start from a constructive place.

Put another way, if you let them break glass, and you make them feel like they broke it, the feeling is the same. You learned something about your game, and you let them show you how they broke something. You both win.

TL;DR: Show your players HOW. Never tell them WHY.


Instead of rolling for Fortitude, roll for Wisdom.

Resist the urge to create ever more complicated barriers or traps. Don’t have the game solve your problem.

Firstly, this is not a consensus building approach. And this will just incur further cognitive load on your end as a GM. You risk turning the game into a battle between you and the One Who Breaks Games. Secondly, the player in question will see this as another chance to break something.

Empathy will build the bridges that will lead to solutions. Remember that the first rule of RPing is to get everyone to have fun. Turn that into a reflective question.

While you are potentially up against someone with years of Break the Game Behaviors, believe in the power of empathy. This is a concern with the player, not their character. The root cause may be entirely different.

Perhaps this person’s day job requires them to find loopholes and solve problems creatively. Maybe their ego is stoked by tearing the things that other people make down (in which case, if you can’t get someone to help you build the sandcastle, you may need more drastic next steps). Or perhaps this person’s life is full of structure, schedule, and rigor – and this is the only outlet.

Nevertheless, you’re not going to bridge that gap unless you ask. And remember to be receptive to the answer.

Understand that you cannot control people. Attempting to do so is just going to make things more complicated. You can’t teach empathy. (I mean you could take Animal Empathy as a skill…)

TL;DR: The game will not solve your problem. Engage the player in an honest conversation.


Zerumi is a Pinoy comic book lover who has one foot in Manila, and one foot in Canada. Support main. Quotes from fiction, movies, graphic novels, and comics, as if they were scripture. A Star Trek fanatic who likes lightsabers. A Doctor Strange fan who doesn’t like Doctor Who. Lives for brightest days, darkest nights, science fiction, loud laughter, and silent moments.

Have a question for #AsktheGM? Tag @PWOACom on Twitter, message us via our Facebook page, or drop us a line at [email protected].

#AsktheGM is a collaboration between Play Without Apology and our local tabletop gaming community and seeks to answer any and all questions about tabletop gaming and GMing.

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