June 11, 2021

How GMs/DMs Can Better Resolve Disputes At The Table

No matter how thorough the rule book for the tabletop RPG (TTRPG) system you’re using, there are going to be times when a situation is more or less up for interpretation.

And naturally, players care about the result in these situations. After all, they’ve invested considerable time, effort, and energy into their characters, the party, and the story – it’s only natural that they would be passionate about how these types of situations get decided.

It’s therefore crucial that the GM/DM establish a consistent method for levying those judgments. And to that end, the following principles help avoid unnecessary conflict, best facilitate the pacing of the story, and don’t let small issues snowball into larger ones. Nip that conflict in the bud!

Grounded in Reason

Your decisions/judgement calls should be thoughtfully and reasonably grounded in both the system’s rules as well as the setup of the story world you’ve created. While you don’t have to be a rules expert by any means, you should be familiar how to run a game – and have a way to look up rules during times where you’re not sure how to proceed.

And when a rules-based judgement comes, it’s best to at least subtly show the players that you’ve thought this situation through, weighed the different options/sides, and come to a decision that way. That this rule’s wording – and use – leads you to conclude that’s how it should be used. And that you’ve done your research online to see how others have treated the same rule.

And further, connecting the root of that decision-making to the core elements of the story you’re playing will go a long way. Making your decisions in these circumstances consistent with how you’ve treated either similar decisions or how the internal logic of the story has extrapolated over time goes a long way to ensuring your players are on the same page with you. Again, like a judge – using precedent.

And when your rulings are based on reason and on the internal worldbuilding of the story world, you’re going to find that your players will respect your thought-process and your decisions. Conflict starts to dissipate!

A Forum For Communication

When you’ve made a judgement call, especially when you feel that there may be issues with its consequences, it’s important that as the GM/DM you provide a forum for communication at the table. You want empower the players to have their opinions heard if one or more of them disagree – maybe they have a good point or are offering evidence toward something you did not otherwise consider.

You should make sure that the players know they have a voice and have a right to speak up when the table is running into these rules gray area(s). Encourage them to be comfortable in pitching their point of view.

But this forum does have it’s limits. When you get to the “yeah, but…” back-and-forth stage of the debate, you know it’s time to move on and make your decision final. The communication forum isn’t about an elaborate discussion; it’s about allowing conflicting viewpoints to be heard and reasonably considered in front of everyone.

Be Firm

When you’ve taken the time and been thoughtful in your decision-making, it’s important to stand your decision unless you feel you’ve made an egregious error. If you waffle and cave to the pressure of the players, it’s going to incentivize them to try and push you around in the future. And that’s where being firm comes into play: once you’ve made a decision and had the reasonable time to discuss and process as needed with the players, the decision is final. It’s time to move on.

The story – and people’s time! – can’t be held up forever, even if players feel the outcome is incredibly important. It’s part of your role as the GM/DM to ensure the “show goes on;” make sure your players understand that you treat that power seriously. Even refer back to how you came to the decision if necessary – if nothing else, clearly you’re treating the situation with all due importance by virtue of the thought that went into making the judgement call.

Players with GMs/DMs who hold the line and apply these principals, even if they disagree with the decision, respect the GM for doing their job, prioritizing the story, and being fair. You’ll find that most, if not all, conflicts tend to evaporate if crucial judgement calls are handled in this manner. You won’t regret it!