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I DM'd my first game recently, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, and most of the group were pretty lax about the quality of it all, so it all went fairly smoothly.

However, there is one thing that stuck in my head and I want to try and come up with a way to deal with the group arguing what should be done next.

In my game, the group couldn't decide whether or not to take door A or tunnel B, and it was all getting a bit out of hand, so I decided as the DM, to take the first thing someone said as an action. So when someone said "Why don't we just kick down the door and charge in?" I said "Ok, so the Paladin is charging in!"

The group discussion ended fairly quickly but not everyone was happy about the outcome.

What I'm asking is if there is a better way to move the game forward when players are constantly bickering about what they should do.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 28 '15 at 3:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ How the heck do you go from a statement that, in essence, means "My character proposes X to the group" to "My character does X without waiting for the response" ? \$\endgroup\$ – Peteris Jan 30 '15 at 2:50

10 Answers 10

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When this happens in my games, I give a very clear warning:

"Folks, the in-character lamp1 is lit. Anything you say is now considered in character. Anything you say you'll do, you'll do."

By locking down conversation to in-character conversation, this sort of rambunctious chatter can be reduced, or at least immediately given consequence.

On the other hand, what this tells you is that the players don't have enough information. The best thing, in my experience, is to conspire against the characters with your players. Either give them more information about the potential choices, or tell them, out of character, what their choices will entail, and ask them to choose while their characters remain ignorant of their fate.


1Statement derived from the announcements aboard navy vessels about "the smoking lamp is lit".

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer, but I posit that pushing the aspect that they don't have enough information, and allowing a solution being to come up with a small detail that they notice that gives them a clue as to what's beyond the door/tunnel may help a lot. It doesn't give much information, but just enough that you still don't have to worry about metagame knowledge. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Jan 28 '15 at 16:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm very confused by the phrase "conspire against the characters with your players"; 'Against'? What, why? I also think suggesting the nearly opposite actions of forcing the players to act in-character or resorting to metagaming as responses to the same problem makes little sense. Maybe with more explanation? \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Feb 2 '15 at 20:55
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You have two problems: an agency problem and a knowledge problem.

Agency

The likely reason why your players weren't all happy with the outcome of the situation you describe is because you took away their agency. Generally speaking in D&D, the players' expectations is that they control their characters, not the DM. By taking a suggestion from one player and forcibly turning it into an action, you a) took away that player's control and agency; and b) denied the other players input into the decision.

A similar way to handle future indecision without taking away players' agency is to ask leading questions, rather than making declarative statements. For example: "So the paladin wants to charge in. Who wants to go with him?" This is extremely similar to how you phrased it, but by using a "soft" phrase like "the paladin wants", combined with the leading question "who's going with", you still give the players a chance to make choices.

The reason this type of phrasing works better is because of a neat little trick of human psychology. Humans, on average, tend to go with the default option, whatever that is. When players are arguing like that, it means they don't have a default, and get stuck with decision paralysis. By using leading questions, you're giving them a default (charge in with the paladin), while also leaving room for someone who really does want to do something else, to do so ("I stay behind and watch for an ambush").

Knowledge

However, the fact that your players don't have a default likely means that they don't have enough knowledge, either about your world, the situation in general, themselves, or each other. They're afraid to make a decision because they don't understand the consequences.

Fortunately, it's fairly easy to provide more information about your world (is it a place where mercenaries run free and ambushes are common? Is it reasonable for the players to be paranoid about entering dungeons because adventurers are known to die frequently? And so on). Providing information about a specific situation can be trickier, especially if the situation relies on them not knowing what to do (such as in puzzle rooms, in social situations, or in well-fortified dungeons). However, this is where you can encourage knowledge checks to help the players get more information. For example, take the paladin's passive perception and say, "The paladin notices a holy symbol carved above the door. You can make a Knowledge(Religion) check to know more."

Getting the players to understand their own characters and each other's is much harder. However, it's a fantastic way to reduce decision paralysis without needing to tip your hand with free information. For example, in a game I currently play, my character is a monk with a reputation for charging straight into a fight. Both I as a player and she as a character know she can do that because she knows at least two of the other characters will almost certainly back her up. She doesn't have to sit there and worry about what will happen if she charges in, because she knows: she'll punch the monster in the face, then the fighter and the rogue will follow and keep the monster from killing her in return. This in turn means that I don't sit there arguing with the other players about what to do - I just do it.

TL;DR: Make sure your players have enough information to handle any given situation without getting decision paralysis. When they do get stuck, provide default options to get them moving again without undermining their agency.

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I will try my best to answer this question. I have somewhat limited experience as a DM, but I have conversed with some other DM's, whose games I usually play or watch, about a variety of hypothetical problems, solutions, and otherwise. In any event, I have here some options for you to take a look at when the game grinds to a halt.

Plot Twist!

Plot Twists are a DM's very close friend. For the Nicer DM, they can enhance the funtastical flavor of the game session and create stories for your players to tell out of the game. Be it taking a silly suggestion and making it reality or simply having time move forward during out-of-character discussion, the game will go on. For a Stricter DM, they can be used to justify rules-wise why something is happening that the Players just can't understand. Why is that chunk of land flying? The Wizard who owns the tower on it had a spellcasting accident, that's why. For the Evil DM, a plot twist can really lay down the pressure. You just got that fancy new spell? Cool, let's make it super hard to use it! Fireball? Fire Elementals!

In the situation you described, perhaps there was something waiting behind Door A or beyond Tunnel B, and it happened to come out towards where the players are. If there is a fight, you can bring the fight to them oh-so-suddenly. An important stealth mission to infiltrate this Duchy? Maybe a Servant happens to be talking a walk, and the players might be spotted! There is much power to be used (or abused) with plot twists.

Take a Break.

Sometimes when you are running the game, and the Players are just talking about what to do with a certain situation, you can just take a break. Let the Players do something else while they discuss their plannage. Use the bathroom, grab some snackage, check your notes and come up with some more stuff to use if you need the time. Once everyone is done taking a chill pill and is gastronomically satisfied, and you are done with your sneaky DM preparations, the game can continue, as a solution will hopefully have been achieved by now. And if it hasn't for some reason, you can use a plot twist you may have prepared during the break. Something needs to happen, and if you weren't prepared for this beforehand, you can prepare yourself during the break.

That is all I can think of for the moment. Let me know if something needs to be fixed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. Plot twists can make the game more enjoyable for the players as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Omegacron Jan 28 '15 at 21:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Being gastronomically satisfied can add a whole lot to the D&D experience! \$\endgroup\$ – Kirk Jan 31 '15 at 1:13
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The players were discussing which route to take. While they may have been talking somewhat out-of-character (by discussing mechanics and whatnot), the players were discussing the situation. I would let them discuss what they feel the need to discuss. However I would also make a note of how long they are talking, and how loud they are talking. If they are yelling at each other for an hour, that will attract attention, maybe a wandering monster or the night's villain's henchmen.

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In addition to the suggestion of keeping the discussion in character, if the talk is taking too long ( and it's understandable that it will take a little while, but these discussions can run in circles and that's a good point to intervene ) you can take it a little further by reminding the players that while they talk time is passing in character. Maybe these tunnels are patrolled or the guards are changing. Show them evidence of a threat ( maybe they smell smoke on the air, hear footsteps, get a sound of running water, even just asking for perception checks could be enough to get them back into the world ) and if they keep talking then bring the threat into play.

This won't help if they are planning out an expedition ahead of time - that is their time to do with as they will unless you can think of a compelling reason for them to be on the clock - but when they are in the moment, you can use the fact that they are in a changeable, dynamic environment to encourage them to be decisive.

Also if you have any NPCs around, this indecisiveness taking place in character means that it can shape their judgement and the judgement of any organisations they represent.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a great way of further reinforcing that the world is in motion. It's not a static puzzle for them to sift through at their leisure. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Schmidt Jan 30 '15 at 7:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nothing gets a group refocused better than "roll a perception check with a -2 because you are distracted arguing", even if there's nothing to perceive. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Jan 30 '15 at 18:31
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Don't make their characters do things for no good reason. I would say it is almost always a mistake to rule that a player talking about the possibility of doing something, means that their character is doing that thing. thatgirldm's explanation of "agency" covers that pretty well.

I would suggest something almost opposite: Tell the players to either say what their characters are doing or saying in-character. Then at least they are role-playing, and you can add in-character feedback from NPC's and the environment, and perhaps reminders of any character traits they may be forgetting.

You said the discussion was getting out of hand. Sometimes, what the player characters are getting into by themselves can be fun and interesting. I always first look to see if what's going on is interesting, or can go in interesting directions, before I consider adding anything to "correct" the situation. Some of the most fun games I have seen have been driven by player chaos with the GM only providing logical responses from the game world.

If the group is really just wasting time and not having fun, though, then there are many other things you can do, such as:

  • Have ally NPC's react to the players appropriately. If they are dismayed by the PC chaos, they can speak up or take action. NPC actions can cause players to notice their characters' own behavior, and adjust it. Either the players may realize how silly they are by the NPC's reasonable reactions, or the PCs' actions may inspire the NPC's to be just as silly or moreso, leading to the players noticing and improving their own behavior.

  • Give them additional details or input from the situation. As they're talking about the door, you can mention some details about it. Or maybe while they're talking, they'll hear a sound. Sometimes little details can cause a silly discussion to turn into a decision.

  • Note how much time they are spending talking, and how loud they are, and figure out what else is going on in your game world while they are doing this. In an adventure situation, often the more time a group stands around debating, the more likely they are to be detected and reacted to by whatever other nearby creatures there are, often with very detrimental results for whatever the party may be there to accomplish. The residents may get ongoing chances to notice them and then be packing up their loot and fleeing, setting traps, casting spells, raising the alarm, organizing into a large group to deal with the invading PC party, maneuvering to surround or ambush them, etc.

  • Roll dice, consult your notes, take notes, etc., without telling them what it's about. They may tend to notice something may be going on while they waste time.

  • Hand someone a private note they aren't allowed to show other people. It could give one character extra information about something they notice, suggest an idea that the character might think of, require an answer they will pass back about something. It can be relevant or not, but it will make the other players wonder and maybe realize there may be more interesting things to do than their current discussion.

  • If the players are being more foolish than their characters, or otherwise acting out of character or forgetting something, you can give them hints or just remind them or tell them things their characters would already know or ideas their characters would probably have, to help them out a bit.

  • You can add some out-of-character hints, if needed.

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Take advantage of the lull in action to prepare.

In my DM experience, if we're more than about 15 minutes into the session then we're already a mile away from what I had planned and I've been making everything up off the top of my head for the last hour. So when my players get bogged down trying to figure out what to do next, I take advantage of that to figure out what they're going to run into when they finally decide.

You can listen to their discussion to see what parts of the adventure they've taken to heart, how they've interpreted things so far, and what they might be planning on doing next. This can inform you that you've miscommunicated something, which you can try and rectify, or that they felt like some trivial thing was really important, which you can go ahead and make more important so that they feel right, or they might reveal that they're planning on going across that river, which you were not expecting at all, so now you can design an encounter across the river.

You can also take this time to perform simple tasks necessary for what you already have planned. If the party is going to be ambushed soon, then you can roll the stealth rolls now and write them down for later. If you think they're going to find that NPC soon, then you can find your notes on his conversation. You can look through your miniatures and find the minis you want to use for the fight down tunnel A.

There are many, many things you can do during this time so that things go more smoothly when your players are finally ready.

Once you're fully prepared:

If you can't think of anything else to do, and you are so ready for them to just make up their mind already, then there are plenty of good suggestions in the other answers for how to get them going again. I will often ask one of the players who hasn't said anything in a while what their character is doing while this discussion takes place. They might say that they're taking a look down the tunnel. Then we roll a Perception check and I tell them some interesting stuff to help them make their decision. The other players react, and we're off and going again without me having to get into any kind of a conflict at all.

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Table Chatter vs. in character

It is normal that if you play a role playing game you can not stay in character the entire session. Table chatter is important to role playing games as the players - not characters - give each other advice and talk about stategies. As long as table chatter does not interrupt in character performances and is not about bossing other players around it is a good thing that can enhance good roleplay.

Normally the babarian character only suggest to run into battle and kill everyone - but the barbarian's player could give a new player playing his first mage better advice by informing him about some rules.

As the characters may know each other longer than the players it is sometimes important to inform the other player how the character can be influenced. "As the traveled together your character learned that I take any risk if you tell me that something is impossiblew for me. I always try to disprove such claims."

Describe the environment - Give hints what is to come

You should think about informations that the characters in the scene would get without further investigation and pass that informations to the players with your descriptions. Give so much information that decision can be made. Even if you hint: "Both passages seem to be identical - unless you make further investigations." But if you can give away hints about what is to come and the players/characters use that information for clever decisions your description skills really shine! The sulfur smell from a lava stream, the sound of flowing water from a distant waterfall, etc.

The Caller & Leadership

Your players can come to situations where they can not find a solution accepted by everyone during table chatter - and the characters can have the same situation during in character play. And in some situations players tell the GM an in character action (" I open the chest.") without accepting the decision of other players - you gave one player that role by forcing his suggestion as in character action.

To adress both problems B/X D&D had a player named the caller. It was a changing player role. The caller act as a mediator between players and GM and inform the GM about the real actions taken after planning ahead. If the players can not decide on an action let the caller decide after some discussion - he needs players table chatter to find a solution. After the players decided what they want to do they can roleplay how the paladin calms the barbarian and convinces him to try a more subtile approach.

Suggestions

  • Describe a real environemt that helps the players find a solution! Give hints what the decisons they take will influence. If you take route A you need to cross a wide chasm, but if you tabe route B you need to find out a way to pass the guarded bridge about the chasm.
  • Allow table chatter! It is the only way for the players to find a way of playing the game that is fun for everyone.
  • Be prepared that your group agrees to disagree. Find a way to make this hard decision. Maybe introduce a leader/caller. And if you as GM hear that the group is unable to find an accepted solution think about informations that you did not pass to the group that could help to decide the situation.
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A small tool

This is where a game might do well with social mechanics to back things up. "Ok, we're now arguing in circles. You can either agree to a course of action or roll to persuade each other."

Bikeshedding

There's a social behavior sometimes called "The Bikeshed Effect" where people get fixated on unimportant choices and it becomes a source of what people argue about, rather than meaningful issues. If there's heavy meaningful stakes on the path A/path B, then it might make sense ("We take A we get to Mount Doom 3 months sooner, we take B we're less likely to get discovered on the way."), but in most cases of play, the arguments and consequences aren't so heavy as to be worth a giant argument over.

Play expectations, social issues

It might be worth considering other context:

  • Have you thrown any "gotcha" moments, traps, or encounters at the players? If so, then it becomes impossible to determine trivial from life threatening situations.

  • Have the players had to deal with that in the past from other campaigns? Players will often project forward to assume all campaigns are like that. If that is the case, pause play, tell them outright, "I don't do deathtrap dungeons so whichever way you go there will be interesting, but not overwhelming challenge" or whatever clarifies the actual game you are running.

  • Have the players already sunk in several sessions of play and are afraid of losing their character growth? Is that their expectation of future play? Small bumps on that road become mountains in their eyes when they're worried about losing everything.

  • Are any of the players socially controlling and the type of person who has to have their way, all the time?

  • Are two players caught in the tendency to challenge each other, socially, and always arguing/undermining or trying to one-up each other?

There's a lot of reasons you get into arguments in play, unfortunately most of them tend to deal with the group's social dynamics, which people are rarely self-aware and mature enough to adjust and change on their own.

Things like social mechanics can help push things along by breaking those deadlocks, but if the underlying problem is social issues, then you will keep finding it bump up against it repeatedly. If you have an overcontrolling player who wants to boss everyone around? That's what they'll keep trying to do. If you have a contrary player who likes to argue? They'll do that, too.

Make sure everyone knows what kind of game they're playing, and try to bring them back to that point. If game play keeps getting bogged down, it's time to have a conversation and remind people how their actions do or don't support your group getting the game you agree to.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer is mostly good, however it is kinda of general consensus that using dice rolls to influence other PCs is a Bad Thing. That cuts the player's agency and can cause a really bitter taste on the mouths of everyone. Please, don't do that. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Jan 29 '15 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Games with good social mechanics set up limits and agreements ahead of dice rolling. Such as "I could be convinced THIS far" "Well, I might be convinced THIS far" and you end up with reasonable results, not "I am now forever enslaved" kind of badness. Unfortunately, D&D doesn't have good social mechanics. (Much in the same way getting hit by a sword cuts into your agency but you understand it going into play and have means to deal with it). \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 Jan 29 '15 at 16:45
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In situations like this, I often ask the players to roll initiative and to start describing their actions in rounds. It focuses the mind - they suddenly wonder what's attacking them. When in rounds, I also prompt them to act quickly, so if they haven't told me what they're doing within a minute, they get to stand still.

In order to avoid them calling your bluff, ensure that something does roll up behind them and attack them if they don't act quickly enough even in rounds.

Nothing like being chased to encourage the PC's through a door.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do this as well, tho honestly there is one person who I gave with who this cheeses off and says it's against the rules stated in the DMG. We've had many discussions about it at length, so I'm warning if you end up doing this, be prepared for people who are either into rules discussions or affected by that decision. \$\endgroup\$ – joedragons Jan 28 '15 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yep, no one size fits all solution, and roleplaying is supposed to be collaborative, so you always need to find solutions and styles that work as well as possible for most people. \$\endgroup\$ – EightBitTony Jan 28 '15 at 17:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @joedragons ...*it's against the rules stated in the DMG*... that person probably needs Rule 0 explained to them, again. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 25 '17 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Is that "The GM is always right" or "D&D is just a game"?;) \$\endgroup\$ – joedragons Jan 25 '17 at 18:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @joedragons That's Rule 0. I think there's a really good Rule Zero answer or two here on RPG.SE that covers how Rule 0 has moved about over the years. The DMG's title says "guide." I'll leave it at that. And D&D is just a game is very true. Given what a DM has to do to build a world, a player telling a DM 'you can't do that' is inane. If a player offers why a DM shouldn't do that, it can become an actual conversation. (Sometimes, player feedback will persuade a DM to adjust). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 25 '17 at 19:08

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