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Being a Better TTRPG Player part 4: Take People Problems Out-of-Game

December 28, 2023

RPGs are traditionally a game enjoyed by the socially awkward. For many of us, that means we don’t like interpersonal conflict.

I suspect my experience is common: in college, I thought mastering the rules of D&D 3.5 would give me the ability to make peace between killer DMs, power gamers, and other ne’er-do-wells by holding them accountable legalistically.

As a 40-something, that sure looks like conflict avoidance.

Don’t underestimate the power of pulling someone aside and diplomatically telling them they’re being a jerk. (And you don’t even have to be the gamemaster to do it!)

Furthermore, don’t underestimate the power of refusing to play with people who continue to be jerks after that.

For a lot of us, this seems unconscionable. Usually, you’re playing long-running games with your friends, after all. (And here the Five Geek Social Fallacies come into play, distorting how we think about those concepts.)

But life’s too short to play games with people you don’t or can’t trust. You can’t build strong enough mechanical guardrails to fix a lack of trust.

Limit and carefully frame your debates about rules

In TTRPGs there’s not a “winner” (and, for that matter, the “winner” doesn’t matter in most casual gaming of any sort). The correct answer to any rules debate is usually “what gameplay experience are the rules trying to invoke?”, not “what is the objectively true interpretation of the rule?”

A reading that nerfs a 20th level D&D character in an over-the-top action game is probably wrong.

A reading that provides nearly unlimited resources in a board game of complicated tradeoffs like Unfathomable is probably wrong.

Why? Because they contradict what the rest of the rules and mechanics are telling you about the gameplay experience.

Ultimately, it’s better to broker a compromise and move forward than get stuck trying to get to the “correct” answer. As a player, that decision might not benefit you, but it might be a worthwhile tradeoff if it maintains the gameplay experience the group wants.

Don’t argue semantics

There’s all kinds of reasons why people misunderstand a rule–some good faith, and some bad faith. It’s better to argue the effect of a rule in terms of gameplay experience, balance, and tradeoffs than parse words. (If you get redirected back to semantics, that’s a sniff test for a bad faith argument.)

Some problems can only be solved with people skills

Most TTRPG veterans dread the words, “but it’s what my character would do.” Usually, it’s because we’ve tried to debate that argument on its face–and found it a fool’s errand.

Safety tools like Lines and Veils during a Session Zero can eliminate the worst cases of BIWMCWD. “Hey, we agreed no (whatever) in game, period,” is a good reminder there’s a social contract everyone signed onto to play.

(Incidentally, I think offering safety tools–even if you don’t think you’ll need them for a group–helps set the tone for dealing with conflict or dissatisfaction.)

There are less obvious versions of the trope that can take the game off-track, such as:

  • Obsessing over details that take the game away from any possible resolution, against other players’ wishes
  • An in-game fight between characters that bleeds over into the real world and takes the spotlight

It’s tempting to debate the in-game representations of these issues, arguing why a player’s approach is bad in terms of the rules, setting, character motivations, or other plot points. This is usually doomed even in good faith–if there was an in-universe answer to the conflict, the character wouldn’t be digging in their heels to begin with!

Arguing from an in-game perspective might be conflict avoidance.

That seems counterintuitive: you’re clearly having a debate. But you’re not debating the actual point of conflict, which exists out-of-character at the table. You might be using the in-game debate as a proxy for the actual issue.

Instead, keep the focus on what’s really bothering everyone. That can be scary. Stating your real problem (not your character’s problem) requires some vulnerability. It implicates another person, not just a character. As a GM, it might also feel like too much of a peek behind the curtain.

But it can be clarifying to point out things like:

  • “If we split the party indefinitely, that’s going to be too complicated to manage. Can we come up with another resolution that satisfies the characters’ motivations?”
  • “Pursuing this issue would add several sessions with no real progress to the story. I’m trying to wrap up this story arc and I don’t think that’s a good use of everyone’s time.”
  • “If you don’t come up with a compromise, there’s no way for this to end other than a long fight to the death. Is there some other satisfying resolution that still stays true to your characters’ motivations?”

Notice that addressing the real problem means you can make deals. Set up a scene. Have things happen “off-camera.” Roleplay between sessions. You aren’t just asking the player to drop it, you’re asking them to be creative, with constraints.

And in the worst-case scenarios, you have to be honest about hurtful or abusive behavior between players.

You can’t get to either of those places by arguing from an in-game perspective.

And again, the GM doesn’t have to be the one playing peacemaker. Any player at the table can offer observations and make deals. And the more players get involved, the more leverage exists to force bad actors to a resolution.