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Heated Disagreements at a D&D Table

It’s Saturday afternoon. The members of my Eldar II Campaign have just successfully defended a monk monastery against a small horde of red dragonborn, thri-kreen, and yuan-ti. In doing so, they discovered a dark, ancient secret of what is buried beneath the monastery. It complicates things. The party as a whole has a clear path forward. This defense was merely a pit stop, a side quest. But now, one of its members, a blue dragonborn barbarian named Rovan, is against traveling onward to Imixia, a realm of burning rivers and charred wastes. This secret, the battle, and its fallout have changed Rovan’s perspective on two of his party members. Thus, the once clear path is muddled and murky. Rovan doesn’t think his party has his best interests in mind anymore. Unfortunately for the rest of the party, this disagreement stalls the party in the peaceful monastery. So, what happens when a once unified force is no longer of the same state of mind?

Last Saturday, I experienced the most heated player versus player and character versus character disagreement in my time as a Dungeon Master. The two/three players involved brushed it off, but I didn’t. I saw how it affected the flow of the game and others’ enjoyment of it. I’m keen on not letting it happen again, at least not for that extensive period of time.

I think I learned from the conflict and others might find what I learned useful; so let’s talk about it. What do you do when your party begins to argue over what to do next, to the point where the game slams to a halt? In the moment, I tried all of the following strategies. However, I could have used them better if I’d been prepared for a fight like this. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m ready.

Introduce Something New

The entire party argues over who should get a magical ring. The barbarian and paladin disagree about whether the goblin captors should die or be given a second chance for redemption. One rogue thinks the group should travel down the left hall and the other is insistent on going right. No one is budging on their opinion. Nothing is changing their mind. Seconds turn to minutes...minutes to hours...ugh.

So, as the Dungeon Master, introduce something new to the situation. For my particular party, I had one of their trusted NPC allies approach the conversation and try to add his perspective. It didn’t work. I tried again, with a different approach; it helped the situation but didn’t solve it. You need to be careful with this strategy because you don’t necessarily want to clearly favor one side (unless one party is being completely asinine). Perhaps the goblin tries to flee, bite through his binds, or recite the lines he heard the paladin shout during battle. Try to give a little credence to one side, or introduce new stuff that completely nullifies the question. You don’t want your entire party to become stuck for an hour or more talking about something that’s not dramatic, not fun, and just interesting to a few party members. I made that mistake and I regret it.

This is the best approach to disagreements: The Dungeon Master introduces a new element into play that pacifies the party or switches the party's attention to it. Introducing something new can nullify the issue and keep the game going, in the game. The options that follow don't do quite the same thing.

Call for a Vote

A different quick and easy solution that completely nullifies the question at hand is calling for a vote. The party votes on the next course, and the majority wins. Majority rules. The wizard gets the Ring of Invisibility because the wizard, rogue, and cleric think he should. The majority agrees that the goblin gets a second chance, so he does.

The problem with this approach is that it takes away player agency. It intervenes in the story and turns something that could have been dramatic and fun into a vote. So, only use it in circumstances such as the ones described above, circumstances that won't end well. Unluckily for me, this still didn’t work with my group. They were adamant that if the other character remained in the party, they couldn’t. So...

Someone Leaves

If the characters cannot come to terms and won’t move forward, one of them must leave the group. Some groups allow player versus player, I usually don’t, but it happened in my situation for a brief moment. I hated it. D&D is meant to be collaborative. The party works together. Sure, some disagreement and drama between members makes the campaign more interesting but it should never come to blows. When it did, I flat out said: “Okay, if neither of you can travel with the other, one must leave. Decide who.”

If a standoff comes to this, you’re having a bad session. The other approaches should have definitely worked, but if they didn’t and this doesn’t...or maybe before you try all the rest...

Zoom Out of Character

Stop playing D&D. At this point, over an hour of arguing had drained the rest of the table and I was done. I told the players directly that they needed to solve this, right now. I wasn’t going to run two different campaigns. I wasn’t going to kill one of their characters. I didn’t want to decide their course for them. However, their argument needed to stop. No one was having fun at the table and the game was completely stalled. Their characters can adventure together and dislike each other. Their goals and motives may differ, but at least a single, common goal unites them and the rest of the party. That’s enough for D&D. If you don’t think your character would continue with them, then leave. It’s as simple as that.

That solved it. Maybe I should have skipped to this approach sooner. Overall, I probably could have done much better if I’d encountered this before - and now I have. My DUNGEONS & DRAGONS games will never be stalled because of a simple disagreement again. I hope the same goes for yours.

In Summary

If your game becomes a stalemate, try to end it using the following techniques:
  1. Introduce something new. Enemies attack! New information is discovered. An NPC offers their advice. Help the characters come to a conclusion in the game world.
  2. Call for a vote. If the PCs can’t decide, have them take a vote in or out of character. Majority rules.
  3. Someone leaves. If the disagreement is so great that two characters can no longer party together, then someone leaves.
  4. Zoom out of character. The most effective and most serious way to approach a disagreement. This approach takes you out of the game and communicates the severity of this issue to your players.
That’s all for this week; a short one, I know. Next week, I think we’ll be returning to the Worldforge.

Until then, farewell!

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  1. Orcs Attack!

    Distract the players with a "random" encounter, and it may shake them out of their deadlock.

    1. Oh my, I should have linked to that under "Introduce Something New." It doesn't work in all situations but it should work in most!


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