In WISH 97, Ginger asked (Internet Archive):
What’s your take on player bitching/venting: complaints intended to relieve player stress and not to actually change things in the game? When and where and to whom is it appropriate? How should players and GMs handle it?
Most of the player bitching I see in my game has centered around problem people in the campaign, and as such, almost always happens away from the table, in private. In such cases, what usually happens is that the players and GM end up discussing the problems they’re having with a person outside of the game, then come up with a plan for dealing with it (either trying to help the person work through their problems or, in extreme cases, asking them to leave).
The other kind of bitching has to do with the campaign itself, and is usually encountered when things aren’t going well — an adventures veering of course, people aren’t enjoying the storyline, etc. In these cases I’ve found that my group usually ends up being fairly passive aggressive at the table, with eye rolling, the occasional snide comment, and exasperated sighs.
As a DM, when I see these sorts of flags, I know I’m in trouble, and I try to start directing the adventure back on course, perhaps throwing in a combat to liven things up (or removing one if the battles are slowing down the game). When a game goes south, I think the players usually end up bitching about it amongst themselves away from the table and then come to a sort of informal consensus. Usually that’ll find its way back to the DM when one of the players raises the subject away from the table.
Like Ginger, I think that venting is a good thing for a campaign — it’s part of the human condition, and to expect it to be suppressed for a game is unnatural and ultimately, unhealthy. One way to ensure that such bitching doesn’t end up spilling out into the game is to provide outlets for it, specifically more informal settings where people can sit back, eat pizza and bitch until their hearts content, usually while playing some sort of casual game. A round or two of Settlers of Catan or Munchkin does wonders for relieving group stress.