Help! My RPG Group is Falling Apart! | Handling Conflict at the Table
You’ve done it! You finally have a few sessions of tabletop roleplaying games under your belt and everyone had a good time. Sure, there were hiccups along the way but you did it! You actually got through the first major arc of the campaign you wrote and everything is going swimmingly. Then, it happens. It’s not your fault. It might not be anybody’s fault. Or worse yet: maybe it is someone’s fault. Sooner or later every gaming group will fall into conflict. Whether it’s an argument about the rules, a character’s actions or any number of other things, players are human and conflict is bound to happen both at the table and away from it. Dungeons & Dragons is fundamentally a social activity. This means there will be growing pains like there are with any other social group. If you’re the Dungeon Master, your players may even look to you to referee their bout. Stay calm. Breathe. Let’s talk about this.
Does the conflict stem from characters or players?
When conflict happens within a gaming group probably the first question to ask is, did this conflict arise from characters or players? Now, this might sound like a dumb question but the fact is characters and players are different.
True, every player makes their own character and portrays them as they will, but player characters have their own goals, motivations and values, many of which are codified on the character sheet. While a player and character may have similar values or moral codes this isn’t always the case and many conflicts at the gaming table can arise from players confusing character motivations, words or actions with players’ motivations, words or actions.
Many times a player may unintentionally offend another player because they say or do something in character, but the other player perceives it as coming directly from the player themselves. Sometimes, a slight between characters is taken personally instead.
Party conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can be great! Conflict fuels narrative, because it’s fundamental to human interaction. As such D&D is bound to hit conflict on multiple fronts — as a social activity, a storytelling device, a game and many other ways.
When conflict erupts between players a good first step is to clarify why people are upset. Using statements beginning with “I feel…” can be invaluable. If you really need a template for starting conversation here, I would offer something like, “I feel/felt _____ when ______, and I think it would help if ______.” This simple wording conveys a nonconfrontational approach to problem solving and mitigates any offense, because it’s all about owing how a person feels. There’s no room for argument, only validation and response.
I think you’ll find many conflicts, even those outside the gaming table, can be helped tremendously by approaching problems in this way.
While dealing with this problem it’s important for you as the DM to validate each player’s feelings as well as the motivations of the characters as best you understand them. By referring to the players with their own names and separating the characters by the characters’ names, a degree of separation can be achieved. This helps emphasize to everyone that players and characters are not the same people, and even if a character does something offensive or even outright wrong it doesn’t mean the player controlling that character’s action was necessarily in the wrong.
Honestly, some of the best stories I’ve ever told at a table with friends have stemmed from interparty conflict. Exploring where characters differ not only makes for a better narrative but it also allows for reconciliation between characters, resulting in growth. This experience can also be therapeutic as it allows for players to experiment with different actions or social encounters in a safe space where the stakes aren’t nearly so high as in real life.
Interpersonal conflict is going to happen to every group at some point. It’s part of the growing process as a gaming group and as friends. Own it. Address it. Move on.
It’s entirely possible some conflicts will result in compromise, with some bruised feelings along the way. If this happens, remember not to blame yourself as the DM, and don’t let your players blame themselves either. Everyone has feelings and those are valid. Sometimes certain people simply won’t find common ground or get along and that’s okay as long as everyone can part ways cordially.
Player or character conflict is one of the most common initial spats many groups face. It’s totally normal. Just remember to be respectful and expect respect in turn. If everyone strives for this, resolution may even be a pleasant affair and your friendships may grow stronger than they ever could without this conflict.
Does the conflict stem from the rules of the game?
Sometimes conflict stems from the rules of the game. When this happens, look up the rule. You don’t have to do it right away or even at the table at all but once the session is over, look it up.
If you’re wrong, own up to it. If the player is wrong, don’t rub it in their face. Mention it casually or in passing, then drop it. If you like how you rule something better than the way a rule is meant to be, communicate to your players before your next session you intend to use a homebrew rule that lines up with your previous call.
As long as you leave communication open and allow for discussion, you’ll find rules arbitration much easier.
Does the conflict stem from the narrative?
Sometimes a conflict stems from the narrative itself. Maybe one or more players feel uncomfortable with certain themes or plotlines that have been introduced or alluded in the campaign.
As a DM it’s your job to be accessible and listen to players’ concerns. At Nerdarchy, whenever we game together, we have a session zero. During that time, our DM asks if we have any triggers or off limits topics and everyone safely expresses their concerns. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: In our current campaign one of the players shared they did not like situations with violence directed at dogs and this grew into an important part of the story.]
It’s possible a player might not know they have a trigger until it presents itself. In this case listen to your player’s concerns and then adjust the story to accommodate them. If that’s impossible maybe starting a new story is what’s needed.
Sometimes the only way to solve a problem with the narrative is to change it. This can mean dropping the narrative altogether, changing the direction of the campaign or changing the setting. There are any number of narrative ways to accomplish any of these and while some of them might depend on general plot taboos like deus ex machina, it’s usually a better alternative to playing in a game where people aren’t having fun.
Also, there’s nothing against the rules with outright stopping a particular campaign and beginning a new one, or even transitioning to simple one shots. Plus, with the wealth of materials available online, supplementing a few sessions with premade adventures could be just what the DM ordered.
As mentioned earlier, conflict is going to happen, both in game and out of it. The important thing to remember is not to panic. Ask a few simple questions to learn the root of the problem then tackle it as best you can. You may just find yourself and your friends blazing new trails of understanding in the process.
What do you think?
Do you have a story about your own gaming group overcoming conflict? Have you ever been involved in misunderstanding or in game tension? How do you handle conflicts at your table? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or over on our Discord server, and until next time, stay nerdy!