Dealing With Conflict At The Gaming Table

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on January 26, 2011

Mr. Pink: Hey, why am I Mr. Pink?
Joe: Because…
Mr. Pink: Why can’t we pick our own colors?
Joe: No way, no way. Tried it once, doesn’t work. You got four guys all fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black, but they don’t know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way. I pick. You’re Mr. Pink. Be thankful you’re not Mr. Yellow.
Mr. Pink: Mr. Pink sounds kinda wimpy. How ’bout if I’m Mr. Purple? That sounds good to me. I’ll be Mr. Purple.
Joe: You’re not Mr. Purple. Some guy on some other job is Mr. Purple. Your Mr. PINK.
Mr. White: Who cares what your name is?
Mr. Pink: Yeah, that’s easy for your to say, you’re Mr. White. You have a cool-sounding name. Alright look, if it’s no big deal to be Mr. Pink, you wanna trade?
Joe:Hey! NOBODY’S trading with ANYBODY. This ain’t a city council meeting, you know. Now listen up, Mr. Pink. There’s two ways you can go on this job: my way or the highway. Now what’s it gonna be, Mr. Pink?

Mr. Pink: Alright, I’m Mr. Pink. Let’s move on.
Joe:I’ll move on when I feel like it… All you guys got the message?… I’m so mad, hollering at you guys I can hardly talk. Pssh. Let’s go to work.

- Reservoir Dogs

Ever have one of those nights? Two of your players keep butting heads, constantly arguing about what the party should do. Perhaps one of your players is trying to play someone else’s character, constantly telling them what to do. The player thinks they are being helpful, but really the player has become The Gaming Jerk. You can see the writing on the wall and things aren’t going to end well. What do you do?

Maybe you have another problem. A player constantly disagrees with your rulings. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong but you’re trying to keep the game moving. You’re following the Eight Rules That Will Make You A Better DM, but you aren’t having any luck with this particular player. It seems they are taking more delight in slowing down and ruining the gaming experience for everyone at the table than just moving on. How do you handle them?

The quote above from Reservoir Dogs illustrates how a simple disagreement can catapult into a discussion that could derail your game. Luckily for you, you’re Joe the DM, and that means you ultimately call the shots and your rulings are final. But how do you communicate that and maintain the peace at the table?

You Are The Authority Figure

As the DM you are the authority figure at the table. This doesn’t mean you are the oldest, wisest, smartest or even most mature. It does mean you are in charge. You don’t have to know the rules better than everyone else, though you should have a good grasp of them. Your job is to keep the game running, and to make it challenging and enjoyable. You are a facilitator. Without you, there is no game. So when a player or players develop a conflict it’s your role to maintain the peace and keep things moving. If you make a decision, even if it is the wrong one, that’s it done and settled. The details can be addressed after the gaming session and if you’re wrong I hope you would be humble enough to admit it and move on.

Often rookie DMs will get intimidated by experienced players at their table. These DMs often get pushed around and let these experienced players dictate the resolutions. This is ok to a point, just be sure to speak up. If you don’t and you disagree with a decision down the line you may find that you opinion isn’t being listened to or considered which is not the situation you want.

If You Have To Address A Conflict

As the DM other players at your table are going to look to you to handle any conflicts that occur at the table. This is especially true if you are playing in a LFR or D&D Encounters where the players may not have known each other before they sat down to play. There are multiple ways to handle any type of conflict and how you decide to address the situation will depend on your unique situation.

If the game is a one-off or convention game and you are never going to see these players again let the table know that your decision is final. The players can stop their bickering and the adventure can proceed. Be forceful and keep the game moving. You don’t need to be right, although it helps. You do need to be confident and assertive.

If the game is re-occuring such as D&D Encounters, make your ruling and then speak to the disruptive player after the game or before the next week session starts. Simply let them know you found their behaviour disruptive and ask them to tone it down or cut it out.

For groups that meet regularly the process for addressing a conflict is usually handled differently. Normally, the ruling made stands and things are worked out in between gaming sessions. If a player is being rude or offensive other players will put them in their place and things move on. The Dungeon’s Master team has been gaming with the same core group for over 10 years. When a dynamic like this exists and the players at the table are friends as opposed to just players at the table, the process for resolution again changes. A disagreement over a game isn’t worth a friendship and so things are normally resolved quickly and without difficulty.

Conflict at the gaming table is a distraction and it isn’t fun for anyone involved, which is everyone at the table. As the DM you want to be assertive and keep things moving. Address concerns as needed and remind your players why they are gathered around the table. D&D is a game and we’re there to have fun regardless of any difference we may have in how an event or encounter is interpreted.

Have you ever had a full scale confrontation at your gaming table? How did you handle it? As a DM do you tend to let other dominate players run the table or do you put your foot down and remind everyone who is in charge?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alton January 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

Great article!

Anyone who has gamed for any amount of time has run into this situation I would think. I currently, actively game with two groups. I play with a group online from Toronto using MapTools. I used to live in Toronto and have been gaming with these guys since 2000. My group has a couple of strick rule followers. We deal with our problems in a few ways. 1. We have a discussion site that we use to talk about gaming in general and problems we had during our gaming session. We also take a few minutes before gaming to talk about unresolved issues. It is always civil and we are all good friends. If that does not work we use a majority vote, and then it is settled.

My other group is a local gaming group in Elliot Lake. I have been gaming with some of these guys for 3-4 years. We are a core group of three and try to incorporate other people. Unfortunately, this story is a little sad. We have probably gone through 8-9 people in the last 3 year. Now some of them moved away. The others, left because of the two core players left in the group. Artistic differences so they say. I tried everything from threats to diplomacy, through trying to satisfy both sides. Unfortunately, my two remaining members are Hack and Slashers and the others were roleplayers. No one wanted to bend. The two remaining are the originals and so loyalty comes into play. So the others kept leaving. We observed a hiatus of three months. During that time we searched for other group members to start again, but I set the rule. I told my two other guys that they WILL be flexible and come to compromise with new members. They agreed. We have since found two new members and I told them up front this is a mixed group and we all have to compromise. 2 months later and the group is still going strong.

I think knowing your players is extremely important as well as setting ground rules from day one.

2 4649matt January 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm

As a DM I use standard conflict resolution tools first. Make a ruling and investigate / revise after the session if needed. Remind players that it is just a game. Talk to players individually after the session. Etc.
One element that has gained traction at our games is the simple +/- die, a six-sided die with 3 pluses and 3 minuses. When players can’t decide between two options, it is like flipping a coin, but a die is more thematically appropriate. A player brought the die to the table originally, and now we all have at least one. The impartial die has resolved a potential conflict or two.

3 Wimwick January 27, 2011 at 7:26 am

@ Alton
A discussion site, blog or forums for a gaming group is a great way to deal with any issues and also assist with keeping the campaign organized. I’m a big fan of this, but it does require that everyone particpate.

@4649matt
If the issue allows it letting the dice decide is a great way to resolve disputes at the game table. If we are honest most players love rolling dice and an exscuse to make another role is seldom passed on.

4 SeaMan January 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm

In my gaming group we had a player who would argue every week for the sakes of arguing. We would come up with a plan he would not like it and argue for hours. This happened with rules also he would argue with the dm and when the dm said enough he did not feel that he had to stop. Well ultimately we decided that we could still be friend with this individual but we don’t need to play dnd with him and the game has been better ever sense Its hard to kick players out but at some point you need to understand that dnd is not for everyone and you dont have to play dnd with all your friends.

5 T'zonarin July 21, 2014 at 11:19 pm

I’m currently working a situation now where I have a husband-wife combo basically breaking several rules, such as the verisimilitude rule, breaking the fourth wall, using out of character knowledge to get ahead, and the most egregious rule, flat arguing with the GM with each call with which they disagree.

The issue stems from how the game’s RP side has developed. The module is from D&D Next and it’s a dungeon crawl. But they always go back to town and sell stuff, so there is some freestyle non-combat RP going on. And what turned started as a simple pickpocket by the thief turned into assaulting the city guards, resisting arrest, more assault (with weapons), more resisting arrest, aiding in the escape of a fugitive – from a party of out-of-towners in a town, who’s magistrate is a retired paladin with a very low tolerance for crime. Very low. He has put a 300GP fine on the thief and now an 800GP bounty to have her brought in.

And these two players think I’m being unfair.

One of the other PC’s felt compelled to cooperate with law enforcement while the rest of the party was trying to escape. Then, the one player threatened the cooperating character’s player that he would “kill her f-ing character if she did”. That player has since left the gaming table in disgust and stress.

I insist my players solve all of their in-game problems in-game. I refuse to argue with any Player who wants to argue OOC to gain an advantage in-character. I don’t “rewind the tape” and redo the story because the development has gone in a direction that’s upsetting the players. And I don’t pull punches and balance every encounter.

I guess the big thing I want overall is to find that balance between saying “yes” sometimes to my players and saying, “sorry folks, but you play the hand you’re dealt”.

Personally, I think the balance is when people want to “win the game” rather than “hear the story”. Competitive types are often behind the rule lawyering and arguing. True RP’ers and storytellers realize that death is part of the game and if a player character dies, their part in the story is over – roll up a new character.

One of my other players said this and I think it’s so true – too many people now in the world are into the hack-and-slash that comes out of video games, not the true RP necessary to solve puzzles and finish quests. It’s a sad development in the world – a world of lost creativity.

Cheers

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