When fights break out at the game table

You may have thought (like I did) that my last article was the final volume in my series on online gaming.  Clearly, you and I were both wrong, for it appears that this comment of mine stirred some questions:

I’ve found it hard for players and GMs to fight fairly online.  I’m not sure what it is about the medium, but it tends to go poorly. … Reconciliation — fighting well — makes a game group better, but it’s hard work.  And if we want our groups to last, we need to be able to fight well.

In response to this sentiment, a thoughtful reader asked some challenging questions that made me think more deeply about this idea.  It will take at least two articles to respond, so I’ll only deal with his first question today: “In what circumstance would players actually fight at the gaming table?”  I can identify four types of fights that can (and frequently do) emerge at the gaming table.  If you haven’t seen these before, I can almost guarantee you will:

Character Conflict becomes Player Conflict

As our heroes enter the village of Shadowdale, Grumblebump the Wizard takes the Mighty Magical Item of MacGuffin and begins to head toward the School of Wizardry.  Only moments later, he realizes that he is walking alone.  Numbskull the Bard and Headstrong the Fighter have decided to stop and chat with the local townsfolk.  Grumblebump stomps back to Numbskull and Headstrong complaining, “Come on, guys.  We have to get this Magical Item identified immediately!”  To which his compatriots reply, “But maybe these peasants have some knowledge that we can’t glean from your school of wizardry!”

Here we have a character conflict.  No problem!  As the characters play their various roles, we can expect disagreements as to how to overcome challenges.  But here’s where it gets complicated.

Suddenly, out of play:

 “Why do we always have to stand around and talk to villagers, when the solution is clearly right in front of us?  Come on guys!  This is a waste of our time!”  It might seem like a minor issue, but a character conflict has become a player conflict.  And if it isn’t resolved and dealt with, it can become a much greater problem in the future.  Players start to expect other players to frustrate them at the table.  And as tension grows,  people start to get really and very personally angry with one another.  All because the characters wanted to do different things.

Outside Conflict becomes Table Conflict

As a GM, I hesitate to allow significant others to play together in our gaming group.  It’s not that I have something against romance or mixed gender gaming groups.  I’m cool with both of those!  However, I have found from experience that romantically involved players more easily bring outside conflicts to the gaming table.  One partner is already frustrated with the other and then…strangely…their characters start arguing in ways that they wouldn’t normally.  Or you start hearing table talk like, “Why in the world would you go into that room without rolling an Insight check first?  Well, I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised that you would do something like that!”

But it’s not only the romantically attached player that can have these sorts of problems.  Any time players associate with one another outside the gaming table, there is the possibility that someone might show up angry or frustrated with another player.  And then those feelings get transferred to their character or generally to the table, thus causing conflict.

Internal Conflict becomes Interpersonal Conflict

This kind of conflict is probably the one that I’ve seen most frequently at the gaming table.  And it’s really hard to spot in the moment.  This is when someone has some internal struggle or personal problem, which gets triggered unexpectedly at the gaming table.  Maybe a player had a bad day at work—maybe there are problems in their family—maybe they’ve been struggling with physical or emotional difficulties of late.  But they decide to try to escape for a bit by gaming with some friends.

And then, wouldn’t you know it?  That same problem that’s been bothering them in real life comes up again in this world where they’re supposed to be a hero!  That moment can very easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  They wanted to relax and have fun, but instead it’s just the same crap they’ve been dealing with all week.  It’s in that moment that players can say some very hurtful things to other players or to their GM.  And players are left looking at one another with blank stares and gaping mouths as the player stomps out of the room.  “Well, what’s wrong with him?” they ask.  And that’s the problem.  We just didn’t know.

Player-GM Conflict

While the other conflicts above could erupt between players and GMs, the kind of conflict I’m talking about here is “arguing with the referee.”  Here’s a real life scenario from an online game, in which I was a player a while back.  The GM is my brother, so there’s added history too (though we get along great in gaming scenarios).  The other night, another player asked, “Do I have line of sight to shoot that enemy?”  My brother responded that she did not.  But then I (the player) added, “Well, rules as written, she does have line of sight.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that I was being the well-known, much-hated, rules-lawyering, older-brother, a-hole player.  So I managed to quickly add on to my comment, “But you’re the GM and your word is the law.”  When players and GMs challenge one another, egos can get in the way.  Not to mention one can often have the sense of “But I know the rules!  And the rules are always right!”  These conflicts happen often and can eventually lead to people leaving your gaming table or exchanging unpleasant words.

Why does it matter?

Why is it important to recognize the different kinds of fights that can happen at the gaming table?  Because you have to respond to each kind differently.  And we’ll talk about that in our next article: when the fight happens, how do we respond to it as GMs?  In the end, we want our players to have fun—and we want to have fun too!  But when fights happen—and they will—we have to know how to respond.  So until next time, enjoy your gaming and do yourself a favor–try not to start any fights!

Are there other categories that I didn’t mention?  Do you agree with me?  Disagree?  Wanna fight about it?!  Comment below or start a fight over on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “When fights break out at the game table

  1. Kaihaku says:

    There are two adults with Aspergers in my current gaming group (or low grade Autism Spectrum Disorder if we’re going by DSM5) and I’ve seen them both grow a lot when it comes to conflict management. One of them, my brother, really has a problem with Internal Conflict becoming Interpersonal and it’s been rewarding to see him learn some self-regulation skills that he’s then started using in real life.

    I should also add that the only time that I’ve been in a total party wipe that wasn’t pre-planned by the Game Master it was because of Internal Conflict becoming Interpersonal. The Game Master and one of the players were having really bad days, which ended up bleeding into the game and caused some very out of character antisocial behavior which got all of us… Oh right. Not all of us. The Gargoyle ran away and survived. All but one of us were killed. The Game Master later apologized and gave us a free redo on the sitting.

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