The Golden Rule Part 1 – Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

This post is automated – Thirdwaller is taking some time away for a family emergency!

Disputes at the table can be intimidating to a game masters – rookies and veterans alike.  Many is the failed campaign that can attest that disputes can be treacherous ground – capable of tearing an entire gaming group apart.  In fact, a particular rules dispute in Thirdwaller’s very first attempt at running a Star Wars campaign in 9th grade has forever tainted the opinion of one player such that he will not game with Thirdwaller as a game master anymore.

But what is a game master to do when the rules don’t cover a topic – or a player more versed in the rules (looking at you, The Fez) has a different interpretation of the rules?  How the game master handles the interaction is almost as important as the ruling made.  Handling a dispute correctly will show the players that the game master wants and respect their feedback, that they’re open to the player’s opinions and that the game master is not “out to get” the players.  In other words, how you react to your players’ questions, problems or disputes will tell them you aren’t a d!ck game master.

In the first part of our multi-part series on The Golden Rule we’ll discuss a dispute handling philosophy we call “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick“.

Before getting started, it is important to take a moment to have a word about avoidance.  This series covers rules disputes where the rule is vague or non-extant and where there are several interpretations.  Rules disputes surrounding the core rules can often be avoided by ensuring that the game master has a clear understanding of the rules before starting the game.  Nothing is more frustrating – or kills the credibility of the game master more quickly – than not having a basic understanding of the core rules at the table.  So to avoid trouble down the road, the game master should know the system well enough to be running it before the game starts!

Speak Softly – 

Often rules disputes start with heated words. “That’s bullsh!t!” and “What the f*ck!”  are personal favorites at the Bad Batch table.  But it is crucially important to this philosophy that the game master not rise to that implied challenge.  Hopefully it goes without saying in this civilized age that engaging in a shouting match with friends over a fantasy game is not the way to a healthy game atmosphere – and a future article will discuss handling more aggressive disputes – but that does not mean that non-verbal reactions cannot be just as destructive!

When a rules issue comes up, a game master must address it calmly.  Rolling your eyes, burying your face behind a tall game screen or crossing your arms and taking a defensive tone or attitude will send subtle – possibly subconscious – cues to your players.  Instead, first apologize for the misunderstanding and ask them to clarify their opinion of the rules.  Do not get animated and be sincere – even if that player has a reputation for these types of interpretations.  It is important to be sincere and realistic and speak softly about the issue as this will help to lay the foundation for a rational and constructive discussion rather than a heated or one-sided argument.

Try to follow these guidelines when you’re making your ruling:

Before you make your ruling, look up the rule: 

Once they’ve stated their case, ask the player to show you the relevant pages in the core book (or sourcebook) and compare it with your ruling or interpretation.  Consider all sides – often re-reading the rules with the player’s opinion in mind will help you see it their way and give you a new perspective on the ruling.  Game balance is a significantly important aspect of any rule – so do not forget that if the rule is blatantly in favor of a particular character (or non-player character) or clearly against them you are probably reading it wrong.

Compromise, within reason:

Especially in cases where a rule doesn’t exist or is too vague, you should be willing to compromise with your players.  Let them know that the rules didn’t cover the topic so you were flying blind and show them your reasoning.  But be ready to meet them halfway if the issue calls for it.  That being said, don’t bend on core rules just because the players don’t like it!

One thing that I will sometimes do is quickly explain the dispute to the whole party and let them vote on the ruling.

Reward players either way: 

If they bring up a good point, players should be rewarded.  First, thank them for bringing it up rather than stewing on it and letting it sour their gaming experience.  If they are willing to compromise and roll with the punches, give them a few extra experience/character points or a bit of extra treasure on the next monster to show your appreciation.

Do not let that get abused, however.  If you see think that players are disputing the rules just to get the treasure, switch to a “Thank you” driven reward system instead!

Carry a big stick – 

Do not let the rules dispute take over the gaming session.  At the end of the day, you need to ensure that all of your players are having a good time – and arguing about the rules is not a good time.  You may make the player with the dispute happy but the other players at the table have better things to do than watch you work out the rules.  If working through the steps above is going to take more than a few minutes, defer  the discussion until later – ask the player to stay after the session or setup a time to call or email them to follow-up.  Once you’ve deferred the discussion, move on with the game quickly to avoid lingering bad feelings.  Once you have made your decision on the ruling – calmly and sincerely – it is time to get back to game.

If you do defer, be sure that you follow-up.  Failure to follow-up gives the impression that you’re shrugging off their opinion – and that’s not a good way to keep players for your game!

If a player is not satisfied with your decision, or continues to press the issue after you’ve given your ruling, ask to speak to them away from the group.  It does no good to the morale of your players to engage in a lengthy debate in front of them.  Once you’re away from the group, explain your position again and apologize that it doesn’t fit with their interpretation.  Encourage them, politely, to roll with it and promise (sincerely!) to make it worth their while if they roll with the punches on this right now – then offer to meet with them after the gaming session to go over the rules in more detail, to come to a mutually beneficial understanding.

Once you do reach a decision, record the ruling somewhere and be sure you are consistent with it later.  In a future entry in this series, we’ll talk about House Rules and how to distribute them, but this type of on-the-fly ruling should be included in those House Rules and available for all players to clarify.


5 thoughts on “The Golden Rule Part 1 – Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

  1. Pingback: Game Master Tip Series #1 – The Golden Rule | Thirdwalling

  2. Pingback: The Golden Rule Part 4 – Be Consistent | Thirdwalling

  3. I have a question about managing player arguments that isn’t about rules, but about brain types. In our group there’s one person who is, probably, somewhere on the high-functioning autistic spectrum. He is really interested only in numbers, dice, maps, and making his character (always the same character no matter what the world we’re playing in is) more powerful; he is actively repelled by the concept of role-playing and relies on other people to tell him what his character should do most of the time. He’s also largely disengaged from the mechanics of the game, which frequently results in interactions such as interrupting a combat between boss monster and PC literally in mid-swing to ask the GM yet another question about map details. Chastisement in the moment has become quite heated but never results in more than a few minutes of respite.

    Frankly, half of our group is ready to kick him out. He can’t control how his brain functions, but that doesn’t mean we’re here for his benefit. The other half of the group is less sensitive to the problem, possibly because they are used to dealing with small children with behavioral issues. Attempting to eject him would thus generate another sort of conflict.

    All such situations are individual, but I’m desperate for a change and wondering how other groups have dealt with similar problems.

  4. Jon,

    Very thought-provoking question! It took some thought but LegUp, The Ginger and I put our heads together on it. LegUp is a teacher by day and The Ginger’s Uncle was severely autistic, so the two of them had some good experience for the situation. We are working on a post about handling disruptive players for the future, but we wanted to address your concerns immediately.

    In all aspects of life, from politics, to business, sports or gaming there are always those among us that struggle in social situations. It is sad when it is beyond their control, which could be the case with your player. That does not mean that we should exclude them, but instead work with them to find a way you can both have fun.

    But to address your more immediate concerns, first and foremost: Avoid directly criticizing someone else’s playing style. During the course of most games, everyone at the table has to compromise. If confrontation is making things heated, direct criticism is just going to make heated tempers flair and that is not the way to a good resolution at the game table. Especially if there is a mental or social disorder at play as you said, this is one of those situations where the GM is going to have to do more Walk Softly and less Big Stick. Heated debate is not your friend in this situation.

    You didn’t say whether you were the GM or a player in this group, so I’ll answer for both:

    As a player:

    A.) Realize that, for many people, playing tabletop role playing games is a way to pass the time with friends. The game is there to give you something to talk about, and is basically a more interactive form of Parcheesi in that way. If you can shift focus to view the game in that way instead of focusing on what one other player is doing, maybe you can find more enjoyment in the game and in spending time with friends!

    B.) If you really cannot get past the distractions to enjoy your time at the table, approach the Game Master in a neutral setting – preferably alone – and ask about the player. This is not the time to be insensitive, direct or insulting toward the player – just ask the game master what the deal is with the disruptive player and be receptive to their answer. DO NOT ask or expect the Game Master to make the player leave. Instead, really focus on his answer and let it sink in. You might find that if you take what the GM says to heart that your opinions will change.

    C.) After all that, it may just be time to find another group. Discreetly let the game master know that when the game hits a good stopping point you’ll be excusing yourself. If he asks why, don’t finger point or be disruptive – just let them know there’s some play style differences that are distracting you from having fun. Then go down to your local game shop and find a group that’s looking for another player!

    As a Game Master:

    This is a tough situation for a game master to be in. If one player is disrupting half the table it is certainly a big deal, but if there’s a mental or social disorder it would be insensitive for you to exclude a player from your group for circumstances beyond their control.

    A.) Rather than singling out the player with criticism, try working with them to address the issue by accommodating it. If they are focused on the maps, consider bringing extra copies of the map to the game for all of the players to take their own notes on. Be more thorough in your descriptions of the scene and ask for questions before the turn sequence starts and give them plenty of time to take notes and ask any questions they have before things are underway. Work with them on their character sheet – maybe even make your own to be sure that they have the information that they need at a quick glance. Highlighters are your friend!

    B.) Address the disruptions to the game by making changes that apply to everyone. Consider making a house rule that questions should be reserved for the player’s turn rather than interrupt – or ask that they be handled with a discreetly passed note rather than stopping play to shout out questions. At the Thirdwalling table, Drip Dry bought everyone Dry Erase boards (for $1 on a discount table at Target. They’ve got them at the Dollar Store too). Consider something like that, and asking that they write their questions on the board rather than shout them out. It might help them organize their thoughts, too!

    C.) If you’re really that desperate, and the above changes aren’t going to help it may be time to take a break from the game. Transition things to a good stopping point and play something different for a while. Maybe Boss Monster or Munchkin. We really like BANG! at our table but Parcheesi is fun too! Take a few weeks to settle down and let everyone enjoy each others’ company for a while without worrying about the game. Once tempers have settled down and leveler heads can prevail, decide as a group if you want to continue with the old game. As a GM, it can be hard to let go of all your hard work, but there are times you must decide which is more important; the players or the game?

    In the end, I do not envy a Game Master that has a polarized table like the one you described. Dealing with differences in playing styles and the schism it creates at the table is challenging, but common in the roleplaying community. Take a deep breth, try to be understanding to the player’s behavior and do what you feel is the right thing for yourself (and your group) in the circumstances!

    – Bob Thirdwalling

  5. Thanks, that’s good input to think about. I fear that rules enforcement is simply never going to work no matter how evenhandedly applied – any corrective action attempted to date has lasted a matter of minutes at most before the exact same disruptive behavior resumes. It is a difficult situation whether from PC or GM perspective.

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