Ask the gamemasters

Campaign Mastery reader D.M. asks the GMs, “I am looking for some suggestions on how to deal with players who like to disagree with game calls. I play D&D 2nd edition with a large group of seven to eleven players from 16 to 60 years old. I have trouble with two players who like to disagree with my game calls. On most game nights, one of the two has to create a disruption over some rule or another. With such a large group I like to keep it moving or I end up with bored players.

At the end of each game, I ask players to write down one like and one dislike they had about the game. The rules disagreements always come up in these notes as a dislike from the other players. I alternate DM with another group member and he has the same complaint with the same players. These disruptions are hurting the energy of the game, and with the increase of players I really need to find a way to deal with this. PLEASE HELP.”

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Hi Denise, thanks very much for writing in with your question. I am going to focus on the rules aspect of your query, because I do not think your group size is part of the problem based on what you’ve asked. Large groups do pose problems for GMs, but not necessarily with the rules, so if you feel group size is a separate problem, let us know and we can offer tips on that.

Rules, rules as written (RAW), house rules, and rules interpretation and ambiguity have been a source of millions of words for roleplayers in forums and blogs and Usenet over the years. It is the nature of the hobby and will not go away.

When I GM a new group, I work with them right away to lay down a common agreement for handling rules, rulings and rules disagreements. You want a baseline to set expectations and procedures so the group knows what to do when a situation arises. This causes far fewer interpersonal issues than having to figure out protocol in the heat of the moment.

If you have not done so, I would pause immediately and work this out with your group. Set a global set of guidelines for handling rules, without pointing fingers, and for handling various situations. When a situation comes up that is not covered by the group’s agreement, then hammer a new guideline out and append it to the agreement. The act of establishing the initial agreement should make future updates to it easier, assuming you follow the same process.

Draft up group guidelines

Start with drafting something up yourself. Let it sit for a couple days, then look at it again with fresh eyes and tweak as necessary. Unfortunately, I have not drafted up written guidelines for my groups in the past. I have always given my GM ramble covering this stuff in the first session verbally, and then have not had a big enough problem that required me to document the group’s guidelines.

In your case, you should get it all out in writing so you can refer back to it, because your group has already been gaming together and you are mid-campaign, so you already have habits, precedents and set ways of doing things. It will take a bit to change habits and expectations, and you will need written reminders to enforce the new ways. A written document also makes getting group consensus easier, when you are at that stage.

To help, I’ll summarize my spiel to new groups. I get away with a verbal-only agreement because I tend to vett new players carefully, and with new groups we approach gameplay with fresh and open minds and no baggage with each other. My guidelines:

  • As GM, I always makes the final call, even if it’s unpopular with a group member, just to keep the game moving along.
  • I am happy to redress GM calls between sessions, if players want to chat about them; and while I won’t redo gameplay to accommodate new rulings, we will carrying on gameplay with the new rulings.
  • I will get group input on any rules calls during games and facilitate discussion for a couple minutes or so. After that, I’ll call for group vote and unanimous votes come into play immediately. Failed votings are open to redress between sessions.
  • In case of contentious issues, I will exercise GM veto and GM final say, but always with an eye toward fairness for each player and their character (I do not care so much about fairness towards enemy NPCs and monsters as I can tweak things as needed to accommodate new rulings).
  • If a ruling takes up more than a few minutes, we’ll park it for group chat by email between sessions and either go with rules as written or GM’s call.
  • My main goals as GM are fun, fairness and consistency. The players will have to trust me on that, even if I make a ruling they dislike. My door is always open between sessions and I’m open to feedback, even on a personal level.

It comes off more formal in writing than how I say it at the game table, but that’s the gist of it. A couple of other guidelines have just come to mind as well:

  • In case of an important ruling (i.e. a PC’s major success or failure depends on it) we’ll call a break and give the group 15 mins or so to research, present viewpoints and vote.
  • Once we make a ruling, it’s that way for the rest of the campaign unless new evidence comes to light, or gameplay reveals an issue with it, such as an exploit, imbalance or backlash.

That last one has helped get players thinking about the bigger picture when discussing and voting on rulings. The new ruling might affect them in the future, and even PC-specific rulings have been known to bite a player who introduces a new character after a character death later in a campaign. Caveat emptor.

In addition to this information, I also ramble on about showing respect for the group and each other by doing such things as showing up for games on time, canceling with at least a couple days’ notice unless it’s unavoidable, speaking low when it’s not your turn, and giving each other positive feedback and trying to work as a team. I end by saying the GM is always open to bribes. Then I say that was a joke. Then I say not really. Then I say haha and ask everyone to roll initiative so we can finally get the game going! :)

Group input

With draft in hand, distribute it to your players for feedback and changes. I would do this in person, as you can position the purpose and process to your group better than by email where things get lost in translation. Face to face, your players can see you mean well and want the group to thrive, whereas an email might be misinterpreted in tone, such as scolding, disappointment or accusation.

Read aloud each point and ask for feedback. Take notes. Everything is under consideration at this point, so you are better off writing down comments and ideas to ponder over a night’s sleep than to pressure yourself into decisions right now. Be objective, gather input, clarify or collaborate as needed.

If you find yourself getting defensive, perhaps because one player only knows how to debate instead of collaborate, or because a player is tired and has an unusually sharp tongue this night, rather than retorting or escalating emotions by getting frustrated or defensive, put it back on the group. Ask them what they would prefer. Ask them how they would handle the situation being discussed.

“That’s an interesting point. What do you think a good group guideline for that problem should be, Johnn?” “Yeah, I created that because rules debates were costing game time and bad feelings. If you do not like the proposed guideline, that’s good feedback, thanks. How would you minimize rules debates, Johnn. You freaking rules law power gamer jerk.” Ok, take that last sentence out. It’s bad for morale. :)

Putting issues back into group discussion takes pressure off you, moves your back from against the wall to give you some objective space again, and gets you balanced and facilitating once more.

Another good facilitator role is depersonalizing negative issues. You want to take anything that gets personal and turn it into a thing that carries no fault or blame, but that the whole group becomes responsible for. This helps keeps others from getting defensive or angry. It prevents escalating confrontation. It allows people to stay rational.

For example, someone says, “Johnn is the one who complains about unfairness the most. He always starts the rules debates.” You want to remove Johnn from the picture (always good advice according to my friends) and put the issue out on the table as a thing to discuss together. So you say, “Well, I think we all have our moments, and I know I’ve done it before so it’s easy to fall victim to. What stuff do you find unfair about the game? Let’s make a list and decide what we’re going to do about it right now.”

Denial

In general, people are unaware of their own behaviour, especially the subtle stuff that peeves others, like chewing loudly. Your pair of troublesome players might have no idea how much they are disturbing the group dynamic. And when a group discussion commences, they might be oblivious that folks are actually talking about them, especially if no one calls them out specifically. Further, even if called out for some reason (not recommended, but another player might do it) and a finger points at them, they might still deny all grievances and claim everyone is mistaken. Denial is just that, even when confronted.

“You always argue when someone tries to grapple you, Johnn. You always say the rules are not clear and the DM needs to run those rules differently. It’s the same argument every time and it lasts like 10 minutes and ends up the same way. Give it up, Johnn, it’s just the way it is.” A then Johnn denies having these debates, or deflects by going into a rant about the rules so, in effect, starting the debate all over again proving the person’s point but oblivious to the irony.

You need some proof. Your first bit of proof comes from counting the number of rules complaints recorded in your session feedback. Congrats for doing those, by the way. Not just to track complaints as proof here, but for using them as a tool for ongoing improvement. Huzzah!

Anonymize the feedback and assemble it into a separate document you can reveal if you need the ammunition. How many complaints have there been about this issue? How many players have complained about this issue at one time or another? How many players, on average, complain about this issue each session? How many sessions have experienced the complaints? Those numbers could be sobering.

In addition, present verbatim feedback to the group around the rules issue. Type out what players wrote down. Change things so no one can figure out who wrote what. Seeing 25 comments on a page all regarding rules issues could sway even the worst denial. And even if the guilty players deny in their minds they are the root of the problem, you’ve got some objective stuff out there on the table everybody is now aware of. Everybody should be more attuned to the bad behaviours in the future, and hopefully, more self-aware.

Edit and redistribute

With feedback gathered, make changes as needed and send the new agreement out to everyone. Email here is fine because the tricky discussion has already taken place. Highlight what’s changed so everyone can get a quick understanding of those changes. Ask for final agreement and sign-off from everyone. If more changes are requested, iterate through those until you have a final agreement. Print the agreement out. get everyone to sign each other’s copy to make it feel official and binding. Keep the agreement handy at every session for reference.

Summary of the process

Whew. That sounds like a lot of effort. It boils down to, get group consensus on how to handle the problems you’ve identified. It can’t be you, as the DM, laying down the hammer. It’s a group game of shared responsibility, and everybody must own their part.

In the past, with similar tricky issues, I’ve spoken to the guilty player(s) in private, one on one. Getting on top of it and addressing it is the only way to make this go away.

I’ve heard of groups doing various acrobatics to avoid dealing with the issue head-on, but that’s a terrible way to handle things. It causes more hurt feelings, lost friendships, social backstabbing and stress than handling things directly. For example, a friend recently told me about his group doing a fake shut down just to get rid of a player. A couple weeks later, the group re-formed without telling the player. That’s not good. The player is going to hear about that. How will he react? If oblivious to the tactic, he’ll ask for an invite or just show up. Then you’re back where you started. If he’s aware of the sneaky stunt, he could act out in a number of ways. Best to hold the difficult conversation or process and handle things head-on.

In-game tactics

The things sorted out in the agreement are just theory right now. You need to put them into practice next. First, be sure everybody has the latest group agreement. Keep your copy in your GM binder for reference during the game. Read the agreement before the game to refresh your memory.

Once play starts, enforce the agreement. Put on your referee hat. Stop play or correct play as per the agreement. Do this in a neutral fashion, from the perspective that you are just enforcing what everybody agreed to. Old behaviours will happen. Do not blame players when this happens, because it’s human nature to revert to old patterns until new ones take hold. Interrupt gently, shift things in the correct manner and resume.

Pocket points

My group uses pocket points, thanks to Dave S. who asked they be implemented several years ago. Each player gets a number of poker chips equal to the number of players in attendance for that session. Each is worth +1 to any d20 roll when bequeathed. Players give them to each other as a game and social reward for good play.

You could offer the same to reinforce positive behaviours. A game should be less about what bad stuff to avoid and more about what good stuff to strive toward. The pocket points let players feel rewarded for good play.

You might consider penalty points for a little while. Any time a player breaks a part of the group agreement, you hand out a penalty point. This gives them a -1 to a roll of your choice. When you apply the -1 you take the point back, the player having paid for their crime.

Apply penalty points for minor rolls at first. The points are more of a group and player reminder when bequeathed, and less about the penalty. There should be a wee bit of short embarrassment when receiving a penalty point, and this should be enough to change behaviour. That’s the true benefit of the penalty points – the social penalty is experienced right at the time of the bad behaviour. That’s the best way to change bad habits.

The penalty points only work if you have universal understanding of expected behaviours and gameplay. That is the benefit of all the work generating a group agreement. You cannot apply penalty points or remonstrations out of the blue. Players need to know what’s expected of them up front so they have a chance for giving feedback and then complying once group agreement has been reached.

Timeouts

When things get heated, call a timeout. Give the emotional player(s) a short break. Ask them to walk away from the table, go outside and take a couple of deep breaths. It is important they leave the table, else they could get sullen and destroy game atmosphere.

Use the break time yourself, if desired, or use it to handle things for which the player on break can miss, such as accounting, a quick character audit or cleaning up the game area in preparation for the next encounter.

DO NOT talk about the player or his character while the player is away gathering himself. It’s insidious to gossip, the player is not there to defend himself, and if the player should overhear you will ruin the relationship. If someone starts – “Johnn sure was being a jerk.” – intervene immediately. “Let’s stay on task here, people. Nobody talks about anyone while they’re away from the table.”

If things get tricky for you, call a timeout on yourself. Not only can you use the fresh air and healthy deep breaths to collect yourself, but you show everyone in the group these little breaks are ok and not personal. You lead by example.

As a subtle measure, put a sign in the break area: Remember games are about having fun. You are hanging out with friends. Enjoy. :)

Kick them out

Worst case, you ask the player to quit the group. Life is too short to have your regular fun ruined. With between seven and eleven players, the group will not suffer if a player leaves, in general. You might have mitigating circumstances, such as a disruptive player being a close relative or spouse or someone you just can’t kick out. In that case, a one-on-one is best, with regular follow-ups until the problem’s fixed.

Otherwise, at your call, kick the offending player out between sessions, or issue them a warning. There are seven to eleven others who play, including yourself, and one or two players cannot ruin the fun for all.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

I have to admit that I have nothing to add to Johnn’s excellent answer!

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