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I've got a group that it seems no matter what I do, they always end up arguing about every single situation I put in front of them. This includes the more simplistic situations like, "Where do you want to go first in town?" to the larger, "What is the general goal for the group".

While I don't think a bit of discussion on the topic is bad — in fact, it can be very good because that means they're taking it seriously — some sessions I might sit there listening to them bicker longer than we actually play the game. This is not an exaggeration, as it isn't outside of the norm to sit there and listen to them go on for about half an hour.

Of course, this also allows players with more force of personality to dominate the leadership roles in the group. Once again, this isn't necessarily bad. Every group needs a leader, if only to keep the more passive players moving along.

My question to all of the more experienced GMs: Is there a happy medium to discussion or is the idea just a pipe dream?


Edit: By request, here is some more information. The arguments seem to be about anything and everything, but usually are about what the group should do as a whole: where they should go, what they should accomplish, what missions should they take. This has led to the more passive gamers capitulating quickly and leaving the more forceful players to do as they please, even if I know that those passive gamers wanted to stay in the local in-game area to explore. I know that at least one of my stronger players isn't aiming for that. He's simply playing his character to the hilt.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I had a group like that once. Instead of fixing the problem I exploited it.

The premise of the game was that the players were all in a thieves guild and each session was generally a heist. They put as much time as I'd give them into speculating about and planning the heists. Eventually I just stopped prepping for the game. I listened to their plans and took notes of the challenges they expected and how to solve them. Basically I spent their arguing time writing the game around their arguments.

When I did want to cut down the arguing, I made the plot time sensitive. When a guildmate is found dead and the body is still warm, there isn't time to argue.

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Try Chris Chinn's Same Page Tool and hold an OOC discussion about goals. You can parallel this in some ways with a series of one-on-one by email or away from the table discussions. Ask, "What do YOU want to do?" "If you didn't have to worry about getting everyone else on board, what type of adventures do you want (character name) to be a part of?"

Maybe, secretly, everyone loves the same type of adventures and plots, but being nice keeps sending them down the road to second best. It could also be that five players want to do the same thing, but the last is passionate about her choice, obscuring the broad agreement.

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+1 for the note on dysfunctional decision-making. When I was married, my wife and I bought a car. We had an argument over which car to buy: a green car that we both liked or a purple one that we both felt half-hearted about. Somehow, we got to arguing over it, and we each got it into our heads that the other one wanted the purple car. To settle the argument, we each agreed to compromise on the purple car, even though we both would have been happier with the green one. Oops. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 20 '13 at 4:50

Are we talking about the Players or the Heroes? While you say 'players' mostly, it's obvious that arguing in question revolves around in-game topics.

If you think it is appropriate to frame that bickering into game, do it by all means

Your game will be less about dungeoneering and more about internal struggle, but quite possible players will enjoy it (or why would they argue in the first place?).

-- Fighter wants to go whoring. How do you like that, paladin? -- Will you let them sell that artifact, sorcerer? -- Hey, dwarf, this beardless pointy-eared mongrel thinks he can sing! -- Why did you let them talk to the merchant? It's what you're good at, bard!

Ask provokative questions, play a referee, don't let the arguing go uncontrolled, never let the spotlight rest for too long. And always, always frame it into game world: street urchins will overhear about the treasure, guard will know they're considering working on Thieves Guild and after two hours of bickering it is too late to save the princess.
Quite possible you will find Apocalypse World GM section useful to setup this kind of play.

If that's the players' issue, there is nothing you can do

It is a bad situation by all means and you want to stop the game as soon as possible. If you see that player tries to compensate in this way, or reflect her real-world problems, or is psychologically incompatible with someone else in the group -- stop the game and discuss it in private. You have to be discreet and inoffensive, but it might better for your group to play without that person.

I do not believe it is your case, it would be nigh impossible to have a whole group like that. Which just means your players consider bickering fun, let them do and make that a game.

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+1 for "And always, always frame it into game world..." All this arguing doesn't take place in a vacuum. To add to Apocalypse World bit, a countdown clock can really help. "Hey, while you were busy arguing, the town guard has started scouring the block looking for you. You can hear them coming. Bert, what do you do? Tom, what do you do?" –  Erik Schmidt Jun 19 '13 at 21:23

If I understand correctly, the problem is that the group is having trouble agreeing on what to do next, and they tend to waste game time arguing on it? They argue on all levels of problems, from the petty ones, like whether they will be sleeping in a room at an inn or in the stables, to the big ones, like what is the ultimate goal the group is trying to achieve?

First things first, the big picture problems

Discussions during the game are a good thing, they show the players are active and really want to achieve their goal and they're doing their best. That is the fun of RPGs: overcoming problems and accomplishing something. The problem starts when there is no clear goal that they are striving to achieve.

If the players are forced to discuss the big plan in session, that means that not enough work was put into character and team creation before the actual game. It looks like an expectations problem to me. If you think about it, in real life the situation would look exactly the same. If you put together a group of people with no common goals ad set an arbitrary rule that they should stay together and work together, such discussions would emerge naturally. There is nothing really keeping the team together besides the players and game rules/mechanics/convention.

When looking for ways to fix this, id suggest reading through the FATE Core rulebook. It has a very interesting way of creating a team and main arc of play. You may not find it to your tastes, but it pretty much makes sure you have a team that has a reason to travel together and that every player knows and approves of the teams goals.

In short, the process of creating characters and determining the main focus of the story is collaborative, group work. Everyone discusses it and has his input, until everyone is satisfied with the results. Players must write out how their characters met and what binds them together. They also decide on two (more or less) main issues they want to solve in the campaign. The book is free to download here, so give it a try.

The little things

This is a bit harder problem and it may have several causes. Why do your players squabble over petty matters?

Maybe thats just the personaity of some of them - you cant really help it, if they go by the rule "its either my way or the highway" and at the same time tend to pay close attention to details.

Maybe youve got some players with a "gotcha" trauma. If someone played with a "gotcha!" GM, the decision whether he enters one tavern or another and whether he uses wet wood for the campfire actually becomes important! Last time he made campfire, he got attacked by bandidnts, just so, out of the blue, "cause they saw the smoke on the clear sky". If so, you have to talk with them about it, explain that such details dont really matter in your campaign and youre not going to shout "you didnt say that you got dressed/ took a knife with you!".

Everything in between

All the discussions in between the two extremes are a good thing. They show that the players are engaged in what they are doing, they have fun looking for a solution of the problems they face. But if reaching a conclusion about the course of action takes way too long each time, you may want to designate a team leader. This may be a chaging role, passing from one player to the other every session/story turn. Tell your players that its like in the military: Its all ok to lay down your arguments and try to convince others why youre right, but in tight situations, in combat, or when there is something that needs to be done, there has to be one decisive person. Like in the special forces - everyone can say what he thinks (if time allows), but once the leader decides, everyone follows, no matter if they agree with the decision or not. And it is the leader held responsible for his decisions.

If you try to implement the method mentioned above, the players will all lay out their ideas, discuss them, but if it starts to turn into an argument, youll just say the leader feels its time to make a decision and use his authority. "Martial law" you may call it. Just make sure that the players understand why does it make sense for the game and in the game world as well, so that they wont feel bad about it.

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If this is a situation so harsh it prevents some of you from having fun with the game, changing game shouldn't be a big problem to you. You're not playing the game you intend to anyways.

So, instead of suggesting you any particular game system I'll sort out the things you need. Those can be native to a system or can be imported into yours (but beware of balance).

An effective solution is to sort decisions by using the game's mechanics. If they argue over something and there's no accord, let luck decide. Trow some dice, the winner is the one who, in-game, has the last word because he manages to convince the others out of diplomacy, bluff, intimidation, whatever.

Some system have this in their mechanics. When somebody is in disaccord you just call for a conflict (following that game's mechanics for conflicts.)

Some resource expense (You get to partecipate in the conflict only if you spend some of your resources) will make your players think twice before bickering over things they don't really care for.

Be sure not to punish the charaters for following the winning course of action. That would mean the method is not helping them "winning the game" and they'll hate you for putting them into a trap.

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I've GMed a few groups who have fallen afoul of excessive kibitzing or arguing, because of group size or strong personalities. Here's what's worked for me.

Determine whether it's actually a problem for the group

When you feel like there's a problem in your game, always start with a player-to-player dialogue. Some groups simply enjoy this kind of banter. If all of the other players are cool with it, and you can tolerate it, then you can carry on with the status quo. If it really bothers you, or if it's bugging other players too, then figure out what folks would prefer and work toward it.

Defuse the factors that aggravate the problem

It sounds like part of your problem stems from a common issue in role-playing games: The most aggressive, outspoken players have PCs with character traits that give them an excuse to push social boundaries. Socially aggressive PCs have an enabling effect. You can do things that people might not tolerate otherwise, because it's all “in character.” It's similar to the Online Disinhibition Effect in online gaming (popularly known as the Greater Internet F—wad Theory).

To defuse this, encourage players to describe what their PCs want out of a decision rather than donning the in-character mantle and acting out. By putting a little more distance between the player and PC, it encourages them to honor social norms rather than amplifying undesirable behavior. It also helps the group to reach consensus on what's good for the group and not just for their individual characters.

Establish rules of order

If necessary, moderate discussions with rules of order. Whenever the group gets chaotic, sort things out by taking turns, just like you take turns in RPG combat. Give each player a minute or two to concisely state their opinions on the best course of action (in character, out of character, or both). Mix up the order from argument to argument – for example, go around the room clockwise one time, then counter-clockwise the next – so that the same people aren't always speaking first or last. Only allow one player to speak at a time. If a player isn't ready to speak in turn, skip them and come back later. You can allow polite interruptions for clarifying questions, but players should never talk over each other or get into a back-and forth debate.

Once the group gets used to having more productive discussions, you can loosen up the moderation and see how it goes. And it's possible that the players may simply prefer the more chaotic argument style. If the players feel stifled by rules of order, have another high-level discussion about what the players want as a game group.

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I have two proposals for you

Clear basic concepts

Are following concepts clear to everyone, you and the team alike?

  1. Game - what kind of games they want, what elements should appear in the story, who among players should pick up which threads as "his", when team cooperation is required by you because otherwise the opponents will be too strong?
  2. Team - who leads, who follows, why they stay together, what as a team they are doing (mercenary band, company operatives, rescue team, policemen from same precinct, suspects in a case), why their characters could value each other.

If not - discuss till they are clear. Ask more active players to find a way to play their characters (even to the hilt!) while allowing passive players to enjoy their parts.

Make it clear outside of the game, why they stick together.

Make NPC a leader

If the leaders cannot lead in such a way that passive characters can play the game, impose a leader, a client, feudal lord, police chief, CEO of the company they work for etc. Someone who they all answer to. And play that character.

This strategy sometimes work for a long time, sometimes is enough short-term because it allows others to see where the problem was.

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Providing an NPC leader can great in a number of ways, including making it very simple to hand out quests in the beginning and giving plot hooks later. But it needs to be handled carefully. A distant feudal lord that hands out quests and rewards can be a great plot device and information font. A close in field commander that watches them all the time can squash the players autonomy and freedom. –  TimothyAWiseman Jun 19 '13 at 16:44
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Making an NPC the party leader usually leads to GMPC syndrome... which is usually bad. –  aramis Jun 20 '13 at 8:50

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