How to Destroy a D&D Party

By RJ on 2 January 2023. 

Dungeons & Dragons parties are surprisingly fragile. Despite thousands of groups across the world gathering for countless weeks, months, and years to slay monsters, dazzle unsuspecting NPCs, and explore mysterious realms, many tables fall apart rather easily. How? Well, there are plenty of reasons why D&D groups fail and split. 

To avoid this happening to your table, we're going to explore each major cause for destruction in this article. Altogether, they are:

  • Poor Scheduling
  • Lack of Unity
  • No Clear Direction
  • Problem Players

Please do note, many of the catalysts for dissolving groups emerge in successful ones. As a matter of fact, my own groups are susceptible to a few of these at times, but we're still going strong. As you'll read in a moment, many of these D&D group pitfalls can be avoided or resolved with direct communication. Unfortunately, it's a skill many people lack or are frightened to wield.

Not us. Today, we're going to learn or improve on this vital skill.

Poor Scheduling and Dedication

Regardless of how good your D&D group is, it has encountered scheduling difficulties at some point in its life. We all know and understand.

Usually, the group works together to set an initial date with the DM at the helm. Let's say everyone picks a Tuesday to play a few weeks out. The DM prepares for the session: they build a few encounters, practice a wild voice, and ensure there's a good set of areas to explore. Some, if not all, of the players are excited to play and all looks good.

Alas: something arises for one of the players. Jason pipes up in the group chat and says something popped up, and he can no longer make it. Everyone else chimes in and lets him know it's alright and the DM lets everyone know they'll still play.

The group ends up meeting and playing. They have a blast. A vile hag steals away one of the party's loved ones (a fat hamster) and prepares to use the tiny beastie in a ritual. It's gripping. It's interesting. It's silly.

However, at the end of the session, no date is set. Regardless, the group bubbles in their chat.

"We're gonna save Patchie!" Yelena exclaims.

"Only if the hag plays her cards wrong. We're basically, like, done for. Maybe if Jason comes, we can do it, but I don't know..." Ronald says.

"Yeah, I should be able to! When are we playing next?" Jason responds.

"I can do next Thursday." Yelena responds.

"I can't." quickly replies both Jason and Ronald.

"How about Friday night?" says Isla.

"Nope!" Ziq finally enters the conversation.

"Well, when then?" responds Yelena.

The conversation goes silent. Quietly, Jason is upset that he missed the session and doesn't even want to play now. Everyone else cannot seem to pin down a date, as other things come up. Ronald plays board games with his friends a lot. Yelena and Ziq hit the club a few times a month. Isla really wants to play but doesn't want to force the issue.

No one makes the game a priority. No one tries to truly schedule the next session. Despite a fun first session of D&D, the group dies, destroyed by itself.

You might be cringing right now. You also might remember this happening to one of your old groups. Maybe it's happening presently.

How can you avoid your group dying due to a lack of scheduling and priority?

The answer is twofold and simple: you set up a consistent D&D schedule and make the game a priority. Simple yes, but this is revolutionary for some.

The best way to play D&D is with a consistent schedule. It doesn't matter if you're playing once a week, once a month, or every three months, you need to lock down a regular time to play. Do this at the beginning of the adventure or campaign, working with every player to come up with the best time and cadence to play D&D.

While you set up a schedule, you also communicate a key aspect of D&D and the social contract: the game is a priority, and the players should make they make it one. Everyone is gathering to play, yes, a fantasy game, but it shouldn't be trumped by other areas of life. Sure, someone might get sick or have an important event come up, but people shouldn't cancel because they want to go get drinks, go to the park, or just chill at their house that night. They committed to a time and place to play D&D: they should stick to it. If it's not a priority for them, they should not play. 

Canceling, especially the day of is reserved for situations wherein it's simply not possible to play. That's it. Those happen. That's okay.

Stress this at the beginning of the game and it shouldn't be a problem for the rest of the run. Let everyone know that this is important if not vital for the life of the D&D group.

Without a consistent schedule and the promise that D&D is a priority for everyone, the players are much more likely to destroy the game. With a set time to play and a mutual understanding that it's important, the game is more likely to flourish and finish in a strong manner.

Lack of Unity

In the real world, people drift apart if their interests differ, and they don't make an effort to communicate and come together. The same happens in a D&D group. Of course, many times this is an unintentional pursuit. However, it can quickly become sinister and a catalyst for a D&D table's destruction.

Everyone in the party should want to adventure together, both in-game and out-of-game. They should be united in this desire: happy to play and happy to adventure. If there's nothing uniting them, the wound can fester.

This can be tackled from both a real-world and fictional point of view.

In the real world, ensure you make an effort to be a friend to each other. D&D time might be when you see each other and play D&D, but on other days, check in with each other. 

  • Send a simple text, and start a conversation.
  • Offer to hop into voice chat and discuss life, the game, and all else.
  • Play a video game together, cooperative or competitive. 
  • Venture outdoors to a restaurant or park. 

Working on your out-of-game relationship with each of your party members will ensure the group remains strong interpersonally.

In the game world, make sure every character is on the same team. Interparty conflict is always fine and encouraged if everyone is on board, but at the end of the day, each member of the party should be in pursuit of the same endgame: defeating the ancient red dragon who dominates the nearby kingdom; delving into the Abyss to save a stolen holy relic; making a quick coin off slaying bandits.

At all times, there should be a clear goal that unites the party.

While people may point at the DM as the only one who can ensure this, that's far from true. I've seen multiple groups struggle to unite in-game despite the DM throwing out plot hook after plot hook that would unite them. One character wants to delve into the dragon's lair. Another wants to go east to find a lost monastery. Someone else needs this artifact from the den of a mastermind thief. Up until this point, though, the campaign was based on taking out the red dragon.

In this case: who was in the wrong? I'm a huge proponent of players doing whatever they'd like, going wherever they'd like to go. However, if character motivations suddenly swing outside the norm and clash with the other characters in the group, that's a problem. It can lead to the game stalling out and if not addressed, the party becoming segmented and even jaded.

In-game solutions are what you should go for first. If you're a player and you notice another player's goals have shifted dramatically and suddenly, question it in-game. Make a moment out of it. Perhaps it'll lead to some interesting dialogue and reasoning from the other characters. The same goes if you're a Dungeon Master in this situation: throw a challenge the suddenly dissenting player's way immediately. Don't allow their desire to "leave" the group mount. See what's up in the world.

If in-game solutions don't lead to interesting discussions or resolve the issue, take it out-of-game and address it quickly. Talk to the player one-on-one and see what's up. Ask them why they've suddenly changed what they want to do in the game. Hear them out. If their opinion makes sense or is compelling and not "I just want to" or "it's what my character would do" then perhaps take it to the group. Maybe it warrants a change in direction for the adventure or campaign.

Together and even apart, disunity in the real world and in the game world can destroy a group. Watch out for it and address it when it happens. Don't let it fester and turn the group's motives against each other.

No Clear Style, Genre, or Theme

Some people enjoy playing in a sandbox-style D&D campaign. However, to a lot of folks, this leads to confusion, slog, and a general distaste for the game. There is a reason modules and adventures are popular products and DMs enjoy running them: it's because their players enjoy playing them.

The same is true for a variety of people who enjoy certain genres and not others. Some people adore horror games filled with terrifying monsters, blood-soaked chambers, and unholy artifacts. Other folks love comedic games rife with stupid names, impossible plots, and gag funhouse dungeons.

Themes are important to a campaign as well, though they're usually less evident than certain styles of play or game genres. Ideas like justice, chaos, order, friendship, and destruction. They aren't front and center, but they can permeate almost every piece of a campaign.

All of these relate to player expectations. If any of these things shift constantly, are areas players are not interested in or seem to dominate the campaign, it can lead to the party's destruction. For the most part, the DM is responsible for this beyond the beginning of the campaign. Before it begins, however, it's vital that everyone sits down and sets expectations.

Essentially, you want to run a consistent campaign and create something everyone is interested in. This can be done

  • Run a session zero to set expectations.
  • Adopt a clear style of play.
  • Focus on one or two genres at a time, switching up rarely.
  • Pick six or so themes and insert them into everything across the campaign; look for what your players and you enjoy.

First up: call it a session zero. Call it a conversation about D&D. Whatever its name, it should happen. It's too important not to do this to ensure the survival of the group. I've already written an article on session zeros, though it is from a while ago, I agree with nearly all I wrote then. Essentially, in this session zero, you want to establish expectations.

Set up which style of play the campaign will be. Is it a sandbox, or is it more on the rails? Are you playing a West Marches game or a game with a set group of players? Is it episodic or a continual story that builds week on week or month on month? Is the game going to be serious or silly?

Discuss which genres people enjoy and which they don't, so there's a set group of areas to explore when the game begins and ages. Is silliness okay? How about horror? Westerns? Classic fantasy? Heroic fantasy? Epics? Steampunk? Talk about it all and maybe implement some of the strategies discussed in my article on session zeros.

Next, skip the themes and keep those private. Pay attention to your players and what they enjoy, then insert those various themes into your game.

However, to end the session zero, establish a clear schedule, the importance of the game, and discuss what is completely off-limits. How violent can combat be? Is slavery a bad aspect to include in the world? Is romance good-to-go, or to be avoided?

With that, session zero is all set and we can move to the game itself. How can you stay in the proper style, with the right genres, and pick and play on the best themes?

It all comes down to practice and experience.

In your preparation, think about each of them as you plan. For my Bannerless campaign, it's a pure sandbox focused on building up a faction in the wilderness. The genre is low fantasy with flairs of pulp adventure. The themes? Exploration, politics, and demons (both real are imaginary). As I prepare for the campaign, I think about each.

Everything is centered around both player choice and the faction-building aspect.

The world stays low fantasy, with sparing magic and powerful monsters. The scenes are epic, though, and every encounter is memorable. Most monsters are unexpected, too, as the world is unique. For example, cyclopes are magic-hungry giants who were experimented on during ancient times. Now, they need the very few magical items and people in the world to eat and survive.

The themes sit with me, too. The characters explore different, mysterious portions of the land, from deep, tainted temples to twilight woodland realms of evil fey. They run a budding faction, so the other power players in the region are competing with or trying to work with them. It's an exciting balance. The "primary" villain is a demon alongside demons within each of the characters. That's the focus of every session, in and out. New themes may come and go, but those three are core to the Bannerless.

During the game, too, don't be afraid to reinforce these ideas with the players. They're a part of the campaign creation as well!

Problem Players

Nothing can destroy a D&D party faster than a problem player...or multiple problem players. Of course, it's usually the most difficult issue to solve for many groups and people and we've all run into it.

I've had trouble with this in the past and handled it poorly. However, as I've grown, I'm much more confident and comfortable handling problem players. It all comes down to communication and addressing the problem as soon as possible. As with everything else, don't let it fester.

Here are some examples of problem player behavior:

  • Interrupting other players during their turn.
  • Speaking for other players in the game or acting as the unelected party leader.
  • Forcing other players to follow what they want to do.
  • Taking magic items without question or throwing a fit if they don't get what they want.
  • Multitasking during the game (on their phone doing non-D&D things, leaving the table constantly, zoning out, etc).
  • Making every encounter about themself.
  • Showing up late to the session constantly.

This, though, is something to deal with out of the game. Don't try to handle it inside the game world. If you do, you essentially become a problem player yourself.

Instead, speak with the problem player about their behavior. If it happens during the session, nicely correct their behavior. If it continues, speak with them one-on-one after the session. If you're straight with them and they'd like to continue playing at the table, they should want to work on the issues erupting at the table. Truly, the hardest part is understanding you can address these problems at hand. 

You're all there to play D&D, have a great time, and build a compelling game and world. You cannot do that if someone is actively inhibiting the fun. You have the power to address it. Go for it, be the bigger person.

In Summary

Your D&D party can dissolve quickly if any of the topics discussed above are allowed to fester. Remember:

  • Play on a consistent basis and ensure D&D is a priority for all the players. Don't wait until you're deep into the campaign to set this up, make sure it's known from the beginning. Consistent D&D is the best kind of D&D.
  • Work with your fellow party members, not against them. Intraparty conflict is totally fine, but if it clearly hinders the state of the game, knock it off. Especially in cases when players debate for an extended period of time someone, usually the DM, needs to step in and move the game forward.
  • Clearly state the type of game you'd like to play or run. Discuss your likes and dislikes, as well as what is completely off-limits. You don't want Billy the Barbarian arriving to session one of your high fantasy-style campaigns.
  • Address problem players immediately. Don't allow them to fester and ruin the game for everyone.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, check out last week's post in which I discussed, satirically, how multitasking during D&D is easy and improves the experience.

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