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I recently ran a game with several players that I knew didn't get on particularly well beforehand. I was hoping this wouldn't affect the game, but the end result was terrible.

There were 5 players. The game style that I was running included a lot of choices that impacted the remainder of the campaign. Some of the characters disagreed about many of the choices to be made, so many disputes occurred between them.

At the start it was only in-character, so I thought it was okay. But quickly, their conflicts and disagreements moved out of game, with players instead of characters arguing their points of view.

As the session continued, they became more and more aggressive and less focused on the game. Eventually I had to prematurely stop the game, as some of them were on the verge of fighting. (I'm really talking about the players, not their characters!)

I asked the player most responsible for the issue to leave the group (nobody could bear him anyway, in a game as in real life), and I have finally convinced the remaining players to have another go. I get a second chance of running the game well but I won't have a third one, so I'm coming here to ask for help.

In this kind of situation, when I see that my players are starting to become aggressive instead of their characters, how can I stop them? Or better than that, how can I make sure that any conflict between characters won't escape from the game?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've edited your question to make it a bit clearer, but if you don't like what I've done feel free to revert it to your version :) \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs May 11 '15 at 14:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would like to know for my self anyway, what HRP stands for ^^ \$\endgroup\$ – Zaibis May 11 '15 at 14:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zaibis HRP stands for a french acronym: "Hors role play", that literally means "out of role-play". But I didn't realize it while I was writing, sorry about that... \$\endgroup\$ – Aracthor May 11 '15 at 14:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Obligatory question: if "nobody could bear him anyway, in a game as in real life" why was he invited at all? \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. May 11 '15 at 15:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lohoris Kind of complicated... I don't like him, but when he insisted to join, I thought the other players could play with him, so I accepted. Terrible mistake: I learnt (during the play) that they don't like him neither. But right now, he is not part of the team anymore, so the problem is classified. \$\endgroup\$ – Aracthor May 11 '15 at 19:28
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So first, a couple of things I would do if you plan on doing something like this from scratch again in the future...

The first point I want to make is something I've learned from hard, bitter experience. Some players are incapable of separating inter-PC and inter-player conflict. It doesn't matter what their ages, experience or life skills are. This means you have to take this into account when you are planning on running a story that you anticipate will involve significant inter-PC conflict.

Also, where I am planning to run this kind of game, I always talk it over with players first. A little inter-PC conflict here and there is par for the course, but if I want it to play a bigger part then this conversation is essential. Some players simply don't like this style of play, or know that they find it difficult. Bringing it up at the start allows them to either back out gracefully or discuss possible compromises with you and the group. You can also get a lot of information about how your idea is going to work out simply by watching and listening to the way individual players react during this conversation. By the end of it you should have a good idea of whether your planned campaign is workable with this group of players, whether its a definite no-go, or whether you will need to make changes.

Now to cover your specific situation...

With this group, the first thing you need to do at the start of your next session is sit them down and outline your expectations. Players MUST be able to keep inter-character conflict in character. It is essential for the game to run smoothly for everyone's enjoyment. Don't try to lay any blame or point fingers here, just keep the discussion general and get all players agreement.

During play itself, if you or another player sense things are getting out of hand, then call a time-out. In character play immediately stops, no matter what the situation. Check whether there actually is a problem, as you might be misreading what is going on (something I've done on a number of occasions). If you still think there is an issue, take a break, allow people to get drinks etc, and talk individually to the players involved. Ask them why they were getting angry, what the problem was, and why they couldn't keep the conflict in character. Remind them of the agreement you made about this kind of thing, and if necessary bring those involved together to resolve anything outstanding away from the main group.

Assuming you've talked to the players directly involved and are happy with the responses, reconvene and carry on playing. However, this kind of thing may not resolve if players just find it hard to do this kind of roleplay without it seeping into inter-player conflict. If it happens regularly, then it will completely ruin the atmosphere in the group and rapidly lead to the breakdown of the campaign.

As a final note, given you've highlighted that a number of the players don't get on all that well out of game anyway, it's going to be a real challenge for you to keep any ill feeling from that coming into the game. It simply may not be possible depending on the players involved.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Extra 'yes' to calling timeouts. It's an invaluable thing to be able to do, whether inter-player conflict is getting out of hand, or some of your players are getting uncomfortable with what's happening, in or out of game. Everyone in my groups knows they can call timeout anytime, and no one will think badly of them for it, and it's been exceedingly helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – Loiathal May 11 '15 at 14:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Like Liathal said, timeouts are crucial to having an understanding atmosphere around the table. If someone has to take a phone call, or if the tension is building too high for our more delicate players, or for any of a hundred other reasons, players must be comfortable calling a timeout. \$\endgroup\$ – Taejang May 11 '15 at 16:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ It can help to agree on a somewhat "off" term for calling a timeout. A magic word, if you will. In German, at least where I have been playing, we are calling "Zeit-Aus", a literal translation of "timeout" which is highly uncommon in everyday talk (compared to the "correct" translation, "Auszeit"). That lends additional "signal value" to the call -- especially important in LARP environments, but useful at the table as well. "This is important, I need to have everything on pause right now. \$\endgroup\$ – DevSolar May 12 '15 at 9:47
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There's three steps, that help you avoid this.

1. Play games you like, with people you like

This should apply to everyone at the table. You mention you knew the players didn't get along as people before you even started the campaign. Don't do that. You may like Player A, B, C, and D, but they may not like each other. If you really must play with all of them, run two different campaigns, or, have a subset play, then run your next campaign for the other group.

You pointed out that there was one player no one at the table liked - why were they there at all? You don't invite the guy you hate to your hangout with friends, why do it for a game?

2. Be clear on what kinds of disagreement among characters fits with this game

I wrote a tool for folks to use to set up expectations before a campaign - The Same Page Tool. Here's the relevant part:

Player characters are:

a) expected to work together; conflicts between them are mostly for show

b) expected to work together; but major conflicts might erupt but you’ll patch them up given some time

c) expected to work together; major conflicts might erupt and never see reconciliation

d) pursuing their own agendas – they might work together, they might work against each other

e) expected to work against each other, alliances are temporary at best

If I'm playing a game where I expecet us to work on a team and you're playing a game where you expect characters to work at odds, it's going to seem like you, the player, are being a jerk, when your character starts backstabbing my character. So be clear on what levels of cooperation vs. conflict between characters are expected.

For games where you expect any conflict between characters at all, it may help to play a game with a social conflict mechanic - which gives players an option to force an issue that isn't killing each other's characters.

3. "Hold on, what's going on here?"

When people start acting weird, pause the game, ask the players what they are doing and why. Sometimes players are doing something that's just being misinterpreted ("Oh, no, I meant this as a set up to do this other thing next.") and sometimes they're just sliding into old habits ("Oh, you're right, I'm used to playing this other way, let me dial that back.") Those are the easy corrections.

The hard part is if a player is being fundamentally dishonest about what they're doing. For a game that people are playing for fun, the need to lie or be defensive (as a player, to other players, not the characters) is a key sign something weird and messed up is going on. And when you do not have honest communication, you also lack the ability to fix it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the advice in many roleplaying games, and the culture at large, has been to use dishonest communication, and for folks who have ingrained those habits, you can't really get them to unlearn it at the table if they're not willing. Those players you have to let go and move on to people who can be honest about what they want from the game and if that's the same thing the rest of the group wants.

When you do these three things, together, you quickly stop having player vs. player issues.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One of my favorite summer D&D campaigns I was in in college, one of the players got permission from the DM to be secretly evil. Wouldn't have been nearly as epic if we'd known in advance that this was a possibility. \$\endgroup\$ – neminem May 11 '15 at 20:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Most of the stories I have heard of that don't turn out quite as well. While that's great, the fact is that you can hear many tales of the paladin vs. the thief conflict taking over the actual experience of play when no one wanted to play that game. Given OP's situation, functional social relationships and honest play has to come before anything else can happen at all. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 May 11 '15 at 21:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ One last choice for the Players Characters question: The characters accept being highly railroaded like its tunnel and one end is a rapidly spreading fire and so character conflict/cooperation doesn't matter much- keep ahead and live or fall behind and die. \$\endgroup\$ – user2617804 May 12 '15 at 5:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Read the link - the issue of railroading is addressed elsewhere in the Same Page Tool. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 May 12 '15 at 5:16
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You would solve this problem in the same way as you solve all conflicts: take a deep breath and a a break, analyse what is going on, then address the problem in a mature way.

Taking a break is essential. No one acts like the adult in the room if they are emotional and upset. A few minutes, hours, or even days are probably needed to cool the fires. Allow this to happen, while making clear that there is an issue to be addressed.

Them try to talk to each player individually and ask them what actions (note: actions not person) that angered them. Let them talk, just ask questions to make sure you understand what is happening. Do not allow yourself to validate anything: you are gathering information at this point.

Finally, you should have a good picture of what is going on. Get all the players together and ask them this: is the game worth playing or not If, it is then what can be done to address X, Y, and Z -- where X, Y, and Z are the main problems you gathered. Make sure everyone can speak, and do take a break if things get heated. Make sure everyone knows that they can criticise actions but not players. Some tool like the same page tool night be useful in framing what everyone wants out of the game.

Be prepare for there not being a resolution. Sometimes, people just do not get on...

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Well, the very first rule for enjoying any kind of game (imho) is that the players get along well.

So first of all I'd recommend you to ask the players to solve, at least up to certain point, their differences. Of course, it falls way beyond the duty of a GM, so if they're not your friends but only people with whom you play role, I'd recommend to change the group of people.

Even when trying so, some problems betwen the players may arise during the gameplay. For avoiding that, try to remind them that we are roleplaying. You could even incentivize it by rewarding with a small amount of xp when somebody does something that clearly falls upon the personality of the character, not the player.

On the other hand, when some ingame problems escape from the game, the solution is usually pretty similar: Remind them it's a game. Even though, you should remember that always, as a GM, and we are playing role to have fun. So if some kind of attitudes or events ingame are not enjoyable for a player, you might reconsider having them.

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Good job on ending the session early (but sadly not early enough).

Your best bet is to talk with both of them and try to find a solution to their problem. (Yes, as a GM you have to babysit, sadly.) If the problem can not be solved easily, just kick them out (one of both). Role-playing is a group activity, and if they can't lower their ego... well, there are many other people who can.

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Take a break.

I will keep it short, since several other very good answers have already been given.

Here is some very general advice I believe every (new) GM should keep in mind while running their sessions: As soon as the players can't concentrate on the game for whatever reason, take a break.

It may seem game-breaking at first, but I can ensure you that as soon as the players have had a short break, their new-found concentration and interest will instantly pull them back in the game.
Taking a break is a great way to relieve any kind of stress that had build up during the game, and in your situation, during this short break you can resolve problems or conflicts that have occurred during the game.

Good call on stopping the game a bit earlier. Next time, stop as soon as conflicts rise, stall it until the break or tell your players to keep personal conflicts personal. Your entire group is here to have fun and those two are currently ruining it. If necessary, you might have to tell them they can't play unless they resolve their problems. This may sound harsh, but hopefully they'll get the message.

If, however, these conflicts arise because people can't separate OOC and IC, you might want to talk this bit over with them. Clarify to both of them that whatever their characters do or say to eachother has absolutely nothing to do with their personal opinions. Hopefully, they'll understand. If not, you should treat this like any other problem: Gather around and solve it.

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