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A frequent problem in my D&D 5E group (4-6 players plus DM) is prolonged discussion about group actions. Upon reaching a point where the group has to make a decision, players will argue about the best approach, suggest new ideas, and try to reach consensus about the party’s action. If done well, this is a great opportunity for role playing and character interaction. However, I don’t think we’re doing it well.

Many times we find ourselves arguing at cross purposes and generally going around in circles for a long time until the party’s action is decided upon. Consensus may eventually be reached, but only after more than fifteen minutes of discussion, and it’s usually a poor kind of consensus — some players simply agree because they’re tired of arguing. These discussions are not hostile, nor due to a single player, but they’re still Not Fun.

I would like to identify some strategies that could alleviate this problem and stop the game getting derailed. These may involve techniques to apply at the time the discussion happens, or something that happens outside of gaming sessions. The strategies don't necessarily have to come from the TRPG world!

Example

Here’s an example: the party has to decide how they're going to pursue some leads. They could question some merchants, or go to their criminal contacts, or find another way altogether.

P1: “I say we question the merchants. We can be diplomatic about it.”

P2: “If the merchants recognise me, I could be in a lot of trouble. I’d rather start with our known contacts.”

P1: “That’ll close a few doors to us though. Word got around last time we did that.”

P3: “I say we go straight the the head of the chamber of commerce and confront them about this corruption!”

P2: “Okay, you can’t just walk up to someone that powerful and accuse them like that.”

P3: “Why not? It’s as good a strategy as any! We do have some clout around here!”

P1: “I really think we should talk to the merchants first.”

P2: “I still think that’s a bad idea.”

P3: “I’m telling you, a direct confrontation will force the issue!”

...and repeat from start about twenty times. No new information is being introduced, no player is ceding their position; in general there is no way to resolve this except by splitting the party or holding out until everyone bar one player gets bored.

Another example: the party has just made its way through a dungeon. They met an NPC (say, Dave), had a weird magicky vision of another world, and now there’s a ladder out.

P1: “Well, I’ve had enough of this dungeon. I start up the ladder.”

P2: “Wait, I want to go back and talk to Dave.”

P3: “No, I think we should leave. It’s not safe down here.”

P4: “I’m for leaving too.”

P5: “I want to investigate the area around where we had the vision. Is it magical?”

DM: “P1, you’re climbing the ladder? P2, what are you doing then?”

P1: “Yes, I’m climbing the ladder.”

P2: “Well I’m not. I start walking back…”

P5: “I’m going to cast detect magic!”

P2: “Dave is the most interesting person we've met down here. He may not be here for long!”

P3: “You had your chance to talk to Dave! We need to get patched up!”

...and on it goes. Again, no new information enters into the discussion, and it’s resolved only by exhaustion.

Problem to be solved

The specific bad outcomes that result from this that I would like to avoid are:

  • Too much talk that doesn’t progress the game. In the game world, barely anything might happen throughout an entire session.

  • Splitting the party. Eventually, one player might decide that they’ve heard enough and will simply tell the DM that they do something. Then the rest of the party decides they'll do a different thing. If it's of little consequence, it's not so bad (“you meet up tomorrow morning”), but often it means half the group waits while the DM talks to the other half until they can get back together.

  • Unfairness. A subset of the players will never really get to drive the group’s experience, because they would rather concede than drag out discussion.

  • The DM doesn’t get to do much. Their fun often comes from getting to entertain the players with their material and portrayal, and having the players surprise them in return. Both things grind to a halt when discussion drags out.

Answers

I would like to avoid answers based only on opinion and personal experience. A good, objective answer might include (some or all of):

  • Researched or authoritative sources. Examples: a blog post by a commercially successful TRPG game designer; an article in a publication affiliated with a successful RPG; an academic article on hosting community discussions; textbook techniques for running improvised performing arts sessions.

  • Applicability to TRPGs and D&D specifically (trivial if the source is about TRPGs). While committee standing orders are designed for structured discussion and decision making, they probably wouldn’t make for an enjoyable D&D session.

  • Demonstration. Is there a podcast that shows the DM handling players with this technique? A video that shows a theatre group being run in this format?

There may be other ways to qualify an answer, but remember that this site requires questions and answers to be generally applicable. There must be some way for people to judge how useful it will be in general, and not just to one particular group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note about a possible duplicate: How can I avoid players spending too much time planning? — I feel like that question is mostly relevant to situations where the players have already decided to do a thing, and want to hatch elaborate and intricate plans for the honest-to-goodness action involved (combat, getaways, etc). My question is more about quickly reaching consensus for group decisions in the first place. \$\endgroup\$ – detly Aug 12 '15 at 7:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can understand not wanting theory-crafting opinion answers but you should actually want people with experience to explain what did and did not work for them. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Aug 12 '15 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't get too hung up on the "whitelist" (as @Miniman put it) in the question — the point is that it's an SE site and should conform to the usual rules re. answers being generally applicable. Hence the phrasing "might include," "some or all of," etc. It doesn't include all possible ways you could qualify an answer, just what I saw as the most viable. I would love it if people with experience talked about how well something works, but it can't be the only thing that justifies an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – detly Aug 12 '15 at 21:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast - To step back a bit: it's tricky to balance this question. The other users of this site can't vote on whether an answer helps my particular group unless they happen to be in it. But they can assess whether an answer lists techniques that come from a qualified source, and have some demonstrated success elsewhere. So, I've tried to extract what I think are clear and generic aspects of the problem and give suggestions for how answers can be qualified. I didn't think the demographic of the group is one of those aspects, but hey, it might be. \$\endgroup\$ – detly Aug 13 '15 at 2:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ A set of hourglasses. \$\endgroup\$ – xDaizu Jun 13 '17 at 8:49
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A Tool to Enable Consensus Decision Making

  • Problem: your group fails to make timely decisions due to a consistent failure to reach a consensus
  • Desired Remedy: A tool that helps alleviate this detriment to fun gaming.
  • Proposed Tool: Options Identification Process and Voting Tool (see below)
  • Requirements: Buy-in from GM and players on the particular voting tool that will be used.

A voting tool can resolve all four problems if your group and your DM agree to use a voting tool. We don't know the interpersonal dynamics in this group. (It matters). I will assume that you are all friends or at least on friendly terms.
Note about reality: Who the "alpha dog" in your group is may color your success in agreeing on a decision aid.


What you seek is an in-game usable form of Consensus Decision making

A generic process is illustrated by this flow chart and the previous link is a concise summary of the process that is subject neutral. (Not TTRPG centric, but process/tool set used in many walks of life).

Per your comment that the group is all adults, you could just stop here and look at the summary in the first link, and tailor your own tool. But we'll proceed ...

Apply the voting tool when you find yourselves in the dilemmas you described in the question.

First:

  • Identify how many different actions or choices are being proposed.
    • If you don't identify what your options are, you can't make a decision.
    • You can die roll to see who states his case first, with the DM as facilitator.
      • (Or, and better, IMO)
    • Take turns as pointed to by the DM, as that disrupts play less.

Second:

  • each player proposing an option states it, along with a brief "why" for that choice.

Third:

  • With DM facilitating, you all vote on each option.
    • Each player has 2 votes available. You cannot apply two votes to a single option.
    • Use a d6 to indicate your vote, in front of you at the table:
      • 1 pip is no, 6 pips is yes.
    • A brief "why not" for a no vote is an option here
    • Rinse and repeat for each option.

DM keeps track of votes received. (as neutral facilitator).

If there were more than two choices to start with, drop option with lowest score, vote on remaining choices per above.

Fourth: Vote To Determine the Group Decision

Voting Criteria For Success:

Unanimous agreement
Unanimity minus one vote
Unanimity minus two votes
Person-in-charge decides

Pick from one of the above criteria. Your group has to agree on the level of consensus that is acceptable to all(See Social Contract comment further down).

For the final vote, I suggest Unanimity Minus One or Unanimity Minus Two.

If you end up with a hung jury due to which protocol was chosen (like Unanimous) you have two last resort options to get a decision.

  1. "Person in Charge decides." You can roll for, or each night designate, someone as "person in charge" and accept their decision for hung juries.

  2. Roll the dice (high wins) or flip a coin to decide between the last two choices.


Your problem statement indicates that you want the group to make decisions. The above is a time tested method, adapted for your described table, that will get you decisions.

Summary of Benefits: (to address your stated problems)
- Vote on choices to keep play moving by making decisions.
- Don't split the party.
- You'll have less wasted time.
- Each player participates in making decisions for the group when the group needs a decision.
- The GM doesn't pull his hair out.

Caveat to this answer:

  1. If you are the only person at the table concerned about this, the above as a decision aid is probably doomed.
  2. If the other players care, then you have something to discuss within your group and get buy-in.
  3. Getting buy-in on collaborative processes like this is part of your Social Contract, which from your problem statement is not robust in your group -- at least in this area.

Experience:

Small group dynamics and decision making have been in my professional life for a few decades. I'll use an informal group example of a decision process following the same steps tailored to a different situation:

  • RL example: seven men, one van, Friday night, which bar to go to? Thumbs up and thumbs down rather than dice. Same basic process, different objective, small social group dynamics.
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    \$\begingroup\$ So, while I did not use the exact technique described in the answer, it was an excellent example of what you can come up with using the resources you linked to. That was really what I wanted to come out of this question: a set of tools or components that any group could look at and apply to their own situation. Our group tried a few iterations, and settled on a stripped down version of what you described. It works very well, and actually helps remind people to snap out of "my guy" thinking when it happens. \$\endgroup\$ – detly Oct 25 '15 at 2:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ (Sorry for the delay in choosing an answer, but I wanted to give it a few sessions before deciding what worked and what didn't.) \$\endgroup\$ – detly Oct 25 '15 at 2:39
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Give the party a way to identify these situations where an argument is ongoing with no new information is being introduced, and a mechanism to decide on a particular course of action regardless of the individual members preferences. Fortunately, when all relevant arguments and points have been put forth, mature players will recognise it. Or at least, they'll recognise it if it's pointed out to them or they think about it for a moment. Once that's happened, all you need is a way to get each party member to agree to follow the same course of action even if they personally prefer one of the alternatives.

The traditional tool for this is to have a "party leader" whose job it is to step in and have the final word in discussions and thereby cut them short once no new arguments are being introduced. (The excellent game Ryuutama makes this a codified player role, but I've also seen it come up in other systems.) Leaders can be permanent or temporary, or even just whichever-player-isn't-involved-in-the-argument-and-seems-fair-minded. There are also other methods of making decisions when an argument's points have been made, such as the group agreeing to vote or to a coin flip.

The important thing is that the players agree in advance to cede the decision to the specified authority if they're unable to come to a consensus... And most players will, as long as they perceive the decision-making authority to be fair.

(That said, if your party ever gets into an argument where one or more sides adamantly refuse to abide by the decision of such an authority, there's a high chance that you've stumbled across an irreconcilable conflict between different characters' values. As far as I'm aware, no method of shortening discussions will help these situations; The party may have to escalate the conflict until one or the other sides is incapable of resisting, or agree to disagree and go their separate ways.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I would like to avoid answers based only on opinion and personal experience." Can you provide some evidence that this isn't one of those answers? \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Aug 12 '15 at 8:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman Is it not enough that it's a tried-and-true method encoded into many RPGs? The question didn't foresee "time-tested mechanical solutions" as a possible kind of answer, nor "RPGs themselves" as possible sources, but a question is unlikely to correctly predict right answers and such a whitelist should not force answers to reduce the quality of advice just to comply with an oversight in the question born of the same lack of knowledge that makes the question useful. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 12 '15 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie It'd certainly be helpful. This isn't a solution I've come across, so from my POV it looks like "This is the traditional solution, there's this one RPG which codifies it and some others that use it." I imagine it looks better if you're already familiar with the solution. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Aug 12 '15 at 22:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe It originates from the earliest days of D&D, and encoded most clearly in AD&D. It was widespread in similar games created after D&D established the hobby. That might be a thread to pull on to find more citations for the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 13 '15 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie "Caller" was the formal term used. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 16 '17 at 16:16
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If you get a chance, I'd recommend checking out the game Divinity: Original Sin.

It features a mechanic based around exactly this sort of problem. When the two players disagree on a particular approach, they can each declare how they'd go about solving the problem - this allows the two characters to build up their relative scores in various attributes. One might gain a point in Romantic while another would gain a point in Pragmatic - each of which alters your stats ever so slightly. Then, there's a rock-paper-scissors approach to determining who "wins the argument" and various points spent in social skills will improve the odds of you winning the fight - because each win in the rock paper scissors matchup is worth a certain number of points, up to the goal of ten or so, where the person who got ten rockpaperscissors points wins the argument.

This allows both players to feel like they gained something out of roleplaying their approach to the situation, while also allowing the game to progress. The most impressive feature of it is that it allows the encounter to be meaningful at the same time that it advances the story.

So, you could say something like: "okay guys, pick an option and paper rock scissors to see who wins." And after a winner is decided, award points toward some imaginary track and tell everyone that they got something cool for their roleplaying. You might be surprised at how positive their reaction is.

(If I remember correctly, "Romantic" gave a 1% bonus to critical chance or something like that, so you can safely give them something like +1 to use rope checks on the weekends or something like that - Knowing players, they'll remember. And they'll love exploiting it)

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One tool that can be used in many situations is to make the discussion happen in character. If the players want to, they can argue all they want, but their discussion can be heard by NPCs and game time advances while the players talk.

So while the players are arguing about whether to climb the ladder, mobs might hear them and attack.

This can be facilitated by fitting environment design. So, considering your first example. If the players are in a place where there are no other people and where they cannot be approached by anyone, advancing game time will not do any good. But if you don't give the players any completely empty/safe space, but instead either place NPCs nearby or let NPCs/Mobs roam the place, advancing game time now does make a difference again. So in your first example, if the players are discussing what to do in their sound-proof room in the inn, this method could not be used. But if the room in the inn has thumb-wide cracks in the floor, someone downstairs could be easily listening. Or don't give them their own room, but rather a huge room where many people sleep.

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