There’s hardly any type of gaming any more that doesn’t play host to griefers, and tabletop is no exception.
For those who haven’t heard the term before, a “griefer” is someone whose goal, simply put, is to cause as much grief as possible, typically to both the GM and the other players in the game. The details of the game itself are irrelevant to a griefer – they aim to harass, disrupt and annoy everyone else playing like it were a full-time job.
If you’ve never encountered a griefer at the gaming table, say a grateful prayer to the gaming gods. While not nearly as prevalent in tabletop as they are in video games, griefers definitely show up in con games as well as campaigns, and it’s best to be prepared for the day you run across one, if you haven’t already. Nothing can drown a game so fast as a griefer you aren’t ready for, and it only takes one to bring the whole game down.
Griefers take a number of forms, but the end result is always the same – they target the fun of other people at the table.
Some do it overtly through PVP, randomly attacking their neighbor PC with only a hackneyed excuse to explain their actions. Some do it to the plot, deliberately going sideways purely to try to disrupt what the GM has planned, even when all the other players are on board and there’s no ready reason for the sudden diversion. Others disrupt their fellow players more subtly, working to deliberately out-shine them or prevent them from completing whatever task they hoped would be uniquely theirs.
The first trick to wrangling with griefers is to understand what drives them. Understand that they aren’t playing the same game as everyone else. That means nothing you can do as a GM in-character is likely to satisfy them. No rewards, no deterrents, no clear warning not to push the big red button. They don’t care about their character or their character’s goals, and anything you reward them with only becomes a tool against the others around the table.
If you’re going to try to pie a griefer off, stick to the out-of-character cues. If they’re the PVP sort, the solution is often as simple as setting up a constrained, arena environment within the game. It’s a brief diversion, a chance for all the players to test their builds against one another and a chance for at least some griefers to illustrate their superiority at a time and place of your choosing.
To avoid stomping on the fun of the other players, put a failsafe in play to avert player death or other game-ending elements – some kind of safety catch so that the match is exhibition only, and the results don’t have long-lasting impacts on the PC’s play the rest of the game. The trick is to hide the failsafe, at least from the griefer, so that they believe their actions will actually mess with the other players. It can functionally scratch the itch for them without stomping on the fun of the other players in the process.
When you find yourself with the plot griefer, build similar failsafes into your plot. If they hit the big red button, have it trigger a long countdown that gives the other PCs a chance to undo the self-destruct command (just be ready for the griefer to double down and smash the console). It still lets them have an impact (eating half an hour of session time), without completely destroying the plot for everyone else. It also makes it look like the other PCs earned it, rather than you as the GM swooping in with a deus ex machina to negate their button pushing in the first place.
When your griefer is the type who just wants to outshine others, the best you can do is create too many opportunities for them to fill them all. If they try to take out the whole enemy regiment alone, let them rush in, and then reveal the second regiment of riflemen on the ridge lining up a shot that only the other PCs notice in time to stop.
If they play the tech expert or the overeager decker whose hack-the-planet mantra tries to negate everyone else’s contributions, create too many tasks for them to do in a round. Force them to rely on other tech people within the party, or lock down systems so that they need the physical entry specialists to get to a workable port before they can do anything at all.
First and foremost, when it comes to griefers, be absolutely ready to pull the eject button. The above methods are there for the lighter form of griefer, the ones who have an occasional itch and are otherwise willing to play along and let everyone else have a bit of fun, too, once they’ve had theirs. There are plenty of griefers you’ll encounter who have no “off” switch for their antics, and who will engage you in an arms race of bigger and greater disruptions until they bring the game down one way or another.
Those are the griefers you can’t waste your energy on, or you’ll be feeding them everything they want – the cost of everyone else’s fun while they get to enjoy sparring with the GM. If you try one of the options above to scratch the itch and your griefer comes back with something even more overt or disruptive, it’s safer to assume they can’t be pied off, and you should instead focus on showing them the door.
If it’s someone in your regular gaming group, promise them the occasional all-griefer one-shot (like a game of Paranoia) or a new format (like board gaming) that more openly encourages contests between players instead of a cooperative environment they can disrupt.
Don’t feel obligated to make a griefer happy if it’s at the cost of the fun of everyone else, including yourself. The simple truth is that they can’t always be made happy in a way that doesn’t ruin everyone else’s day, because that may be precisely what they’re after from the start.
Some people just want to watch the game burn.