Today we’re going to try and tackle a topic that’s a bit more serious than most of the things I talk about on the blog. We’re going to talk about what to do, as a GM, when our fun and games aren’t all fun and games. Specifically, what you can – and should – do when a conflict arises at the table.
Conflict at the table can take many forms, whether it’s a player disagreeing with one of your ruling or players getting into an actual out-of-character argument. Whatever the case might be, problems that arise at a game must be dealt with or they can quickly derail your game, kill your fun, and ruin the evening for everyone.
As the GM, the conflict resolution falls to you as the default. You’ve already set yourself up an an authority figure at the table. For all that I harp on this blog about roleplaying games being collaborative efforts – of team story telling – and so forth, seriously the GM is the boss. At least, that’s the baseline assumption. And, like any good leader, the players will look to you when something goes wrong. What follows is a method of deescalation I’ve used in the past with a bit of success in both home games and PFS. Hopefully it’ll also help you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
My method is as follows: Acknowledge. Address. Advance. Assess.
First step. Acknowledge there’s a problem.
There’s a reason why so many conflict/crisis resolution methods start with some similar step. Acknowledging that there’s a problem in some sort of official or public capacity helps to frame the issue at large and underscores the situation for anyone who might not have realized there was a conflict to begin with. Furthermore, publicly acknowledging the problem – especially in your capacity as GM – can help individuals or parties involved feel validated about their voice or opinions being heard at the table.
The next step, Address the problem. The way you end up addressing a problem varies widely as per the situation. If it’s a rules discussion, simply make a ruling and move on. If a player is harassing another player, call out the inappropriate behavior. Whatever the situation, address it promptly and without delay.
Advance! Move on. Chances are that any problem that arises at the table is between only one or two individuals at most. The rest of the people at the table are just on the sidelines. And chances are those sideliners don’t have anything at all invested in the conflict on way or another. So move on! Players show up to your game to play. Ostensibly, that’s the reason why everyone’s there. Nobody wants to sit around taking sides in an argument. Advance! Move on.
Assess. Sometimes all that it takes to resolve a potential crisis is a nip in the bud. A well placed cautionary word can avert an otherwise nasty conflict from even arising. Most times, however, you’ll find that a comment or two isn’t enough to address the underlying root of the problem. In the interest of progressing with the game it’s often not practical to address a problem in the moment. If necessary it might be helpful to revisit an issue with involved participants after the game when there’s more time for discussion.
To help put all this in context, I’ve put together some examples drawn from some experiences at my own table.
Example the First:
Bob is making jokes at the table. He’s getting some laughter from players but some aren’t as into it. Sam, in particular, seems to be taking offense. The nature of Bob’s jokes for the sake of this example aren’t relevant. They could be sexist or bigoted remarks. They could be fart jokes. It doesn’t really matter. But if you notice that a player at the table is being negatively impacted by the behavior of another it’s your job to step in.
Address the problem without escalating or incriminating. The immediate goal is to end the problematic behavior without making things worse for anyone involved. This is especially the case if Sam feels uncomfortable in being singled out. Something as simple as, “Hey Bob, that’s enough of that. Let’s move on.” is usually enough. Often times any sort of disapproval – especially from a target audience – is enough to quash inappropriate comments.
Afterwards it might be prudent to talk to Bob privately about what may or may not constitute appropriate joking at the table.
Example the Second:
Sally believes a rule interaction works a particular way. You disagree. It comes up in game and an argument develops. The initial instinct for most is to look up the rule, see whether or not the wording is clear, mince over RAW vs. RAI, argue, harangue, and so on. While the ideal is for a GM to have at least passing familiarity with the rules, it’s okay for you not to have an encyclopedic knowledge. If you don’t know the exact wording of something, look it up. But then make a ruling on the spot and move on. I can’t tell you about how many hours I’ve wasted arguing with players in the past about some trivial detail in the grand scheme of things. Make a ruling and move on. Players, especially if you ruled against them, might want to continue to argue but stand firm on your ruling then and there. However do address the issue again later. Once again after the game when there are fewer time constraints.
Example the Third:
Jack and Jill are having an animated conversation during the game. They’re both really engaged and are having a great deal of fun. The problem is that their conversation has nothing to do with the game. They’re talking about sports, or the news, or whatever. The party is trying to explore a dungeon, you’re trying to run a game. Jack and Jill are proving very distracting. Acknowledge the situation. Something as simple as, “Hey can we stay on topic?” can be enough. Repeated side tracks or other player’s wandering attentions could indicate that a break from the gaming might be in order. But once again talk to the players afterwards about keeping side conversations to a minimal or how distracting they can be. The point in this situation isn’t necessarily a scolding. But a simple reminder about how player engagement can easily be side tracked by the actions of others at the table.
I hope you find my method of conflict resolution helpful in managing your games. If you have any other thoughts you can leave them in the comments section below or you can continue the discussion in our Forums.