One of the most common questions asked across the RPG community is how to deal with an interpersonal issue within the group. This is an issue that can only be resolved via communication and yet over and over again RPG players struggle to effectively do this.
These questions range in scope. They can include a Games-master wanting to know how to deal with a player who is being disruptive. Or a player wanting to know how to deal with a Games-master who is abusing their power.
They are often further complicated by the relationships between the group. There may be a problem with the person who hosts the game that others fear to bring up lest they lose the venue. There’s sometimes an issue because two of the players are in a relationship or are close friends and don’t want to disrupt any of those bonds by bringing up issues of conflict.
Why do these questions reoccur with such a frequency?
I believe this is because RPG players simply do not have the interpersonal skill set to handle the level of interpersonal skill that playing or running an RPG demands.
That’s not a jibe at the social ability of RPG players. People across our society lack a high degree of interpersonal skills because we do not teach interpersonal skills within our education system. RPG’s in particular simply stretch a person’s interpersonal ability far more than most other group activities.
To define what I mean by interpersonal skills. This is your ability to communicate what you want, the ability to stand firm by your beliefs in the face of conflict but also to be able to offer concessions. It’s your ability to listen and empathise non-judgementally whilst still being able to offer constructive criticism and say when something isn’t okay. In RPG terms it’s your IRL diplomacy skill.
On paper, it might seem obvious that you just talk to the person and resolve the issue but emotions can often get in the way as well. There’s not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, the anxiety of coming across as bossy, forceful or mean and the natural fear of conflict that many people face. Interpersonal skills therefore also encompass resolving inner emotional conflicts within yourself in order to resolve whatever the issue is.
People who do have strong interpersonal skills tend to be those with a natural aptitude, to begin with. People who had parents or relatives growing up with these skill sets who passed them on or people who went to schools, usually private, which still do value teaching interpersonal.
Everyone else is rather stuffed unless they force themselves to learn it.
I’ll explain why a role-playing game takes so much interpersonal ability for everyone involved. For your standard role-playing game to run smoothly, you need a group of at least 3-4 people, willing to cooperate together to play through a game that one person in the group is running.
The group needs to be able to defer authority to that person and that person has to use that authority in a fair manner. This means not abusing it but also utilising it to make sure the game flows smoothly and none of the players go too far to disrupt anything. The entire group needs to be aware of the unwritten ‘social contract’ that ties the game together as well as the hard rules of the game to keep everything actually working.
The ‘social contract’ means the rules between the group, unspoken or stated that the group all agree to when they sit down to play the game. A spoken rule in this respect would be ‘we start at 7.30 no matter who has arrived yet’ an unspoken rule may be ‘don’t physically assault another player.’
This can bleed into the fiction of the game-world itself. An unspoken rule could be ‘don’t attack another player’s character with your character.’ This can seem ‘obvious’ but isn’t necessarily so as there’s an awful lot of these unspoken rules that you don’t even consider as you’ve learned them organically, without even thinking over time simply by dealing with other humans in groups.
For example, you have to know not to spotlight hog. In much, the same way as in basketball you have to learn to actually pass the ball to your teammates in an RPG you have to learn the game isn’t just about you and your character and other people need to be able to speak, act and play too.
On the flip side, you also have to learn you can’t just be an entirely passive observer and must contribute and engage with the group and the Games-master. In much the same way you can’t simply stand on the sidelines in a game of basketball.
Beyond understanding the social contract the group needs to know how to maturely deal with conflict, which often arises from a misunderstanding in the social contract in the first place and people in the group simply not being able to express clearly what they want.
This conflict can arise entirely in the game between the player’s characters themselves. One character wants to kick down the door and another character wants to pick the lock instead. The players have to resolve this conflict as their characters whilst also on another level respect that the game simply can’t stall and they need to make a decision. They also have to be wary of not allowing this conflict on one level to grow to another level.
The conflict between people in the group can occur too. The above-mentioned argument between characters could turn into an argument between the players, with the other players and the Games-master becoming involved as the game grinds to a halt. Or one player could simply be having a bad day and end up being snappy and confrontational simply because which sours everyone’s experience.
Working out the line between these things is more difficult than it seems. A player who enjoys a hack and slash style of game-play may grow bored within a role-playing scene and attack one of the guards simply to make something happen. This will obviously frustrate a player who enjoys the acting and role-playing side of things more.
Is this an in-character conflict or a player conflict? How can it be resolved?
Often a Games-master will have an urge to punish their players out of game disruptive behavior, such as turning up late, arguing with other players, cheating and breaking the rules purposefully, with in-game consequences. This is an awful way to go about it as you totally fail to resolve the actual root cause of the issue and just escalate the conflict instead within the nebulous bounds of the game.
However in game consequences are a really useful tool, if you don’t want your players to be able to rob every villager they see, having the guards come after them for doing so makes sense and helps your world feel more realistic too. The GM has to be the judge of whether a conflict needs to be resolved within the game or by talking to the player, or with a mixture of both approaches and how far that consequence needs to go. Is cutting a players hand off for stealing fair? Perhaps it is in the world but it will cripple that player’s ability to actually play the game. So perhaps a gold fine is more reasonable, but that may not be enough the player to care about the consequence in the first place. It’s all a balancing act.
This all sounds really complicated because it is. You know those painful work team bonding exercises? Like building a free-standing structure out of pieces of cardboard, looking after a piglet or taking part in a scavenger hunt. Playing an RPG is more complicated than most of those and businesses actively pay to put their teams on.
So what is the solution?
The generic advice is to simply talk to the other person or people involved in whatever the conflict is but if the person asking the question doesn’t have the skill set to actually have that conversation then how can they reach any satisfying resolution?
I think it exposes a far, far wider issue about how interpersonal, communication and conflict resolution aren’t taught to people and that the steps to resolving it require far deeper societal change.
I can’t offer any easy advise because the answer isn’t easy. These are skills that anyone can learn but take time and dedication to master as well as being able to actively practice them with other people and accept this won’t always go the way you want, even if you did take all the steps you needed. Personally, I’ve had to teach myself in my early 20’s these type of skills and actively practice them on a daily basis.
I think as a community it is our responsibility to look deeper into ways of resolving these issues, providing resources to the community on how to do so, lending support where possible and also putting the responsibility back on the players to train them with the skills necessary to deal with these things. They will absolutely be skills that will help in every facet of life dealing with people.
We could devote a section of an RPG book rulebook to cover some common sense advise on conflict resolution and define some of the ‘unwritten rules’ of groups.
Simply being able to have the conversation about having conversations as it were is vastly important, if people don’t understand the fundamentals of interpersonal then it becomes difficult to give even simple advice
I, therefore, challenge you to look into how you can improve your own interpersonal skills and encourage others to do the same so that we can all have better, happier and healthier games as well as friendships.
Below are some further resources to help you if you’re having any interpersonal issues, in-game or otherwise. They primarily come from DBT therapy, which is a focussed form of CBT therapy designed for people with Borderline Personality Disorder but widely applicable to anyone with emotions who has to deal with people.