[RPG] How to deal with a group reluctant to think and discuss?


Here at RPG.SE we form a quite specific bunch. We discuss or , we use terms like "player agency" or "emergent settings". We approach the hobby at an intellectual level, analysing implications of a variety of RPG-related factors, we dissect situations and promote understanding of soft-touch interpersonal techniques. We like to think about our games, but not all folks do.

Sometimes a group has a problem (or maybe is prone to falling into a specific trap situation) and you'd like to address that using your RPG.SE-approved methods. Usually the first order scenario is to talk to your players. You think about the situation at hand, what it means, where does it come from and try to set up a fair discussion at your table, as a GM or otherwise.

And the rest shuts you down with uninspired comments and bored, blank stares.
Why do you over analyse everything? Can't we just play? It's gonna be fine this time. What do you mean, social contract? Agency? Same Page? Bollocks! It's so much work and discussion and no real benefit. Can't we fix it when it happens?

What does one do when the group bluntly refuses (or very reluctantly agrees only to oppose every motion) to any preparation or discussion about preventing likely problems in the game you're about to play?

I think I need to put some clarification here.

First "Take it or leave it" is a given. If the situation is not fun I know I can leave the game. I'm asking that question as I'm not at the decision point – but I also do not want to pretend there is no issue or that the situation cannot be improved.

Second: The group actually doesn't have anything against fixing problems when they come up. They don't want to apply preventive measures or discuss it beforehand. So, in practice, a lot of problems are addressed when they become a problem, but as you can probably notice, when something grows to be an issue, the damage it has done is already done. We might address it at that point and clear the situation, but it already costed us a sour game or two.

I'm looking for methods on how to deal with players addressing problems only post-factum and dismissing discussion about the game as unnecessary, too laborious or excessively difficult. It is, in my perception, an anti-intellectual attitude of people who want to have a game, but not a discussion about it.

Also, if you're reading this and you're in a game with me, it's not about you. Seriously. Ask me in person and I'll explain.

Best Answer

The Situation

  • A gaming group, that occasionally has problems resulting from a lack of shared expectations of what the game's about, and resolves them in the moment - pretty well, it sounds like, but definitely after some conflict.

The Problem

  • This is frustrating for you, so you suggest spending some time on proactive measures to prevent problems from happening in the first place.
  • When you do, you get blank stares and resistance.

The Cause

In my experience, these are signs you're trying to offer solutions to people who don't think they need them. Take another look at The Situation above. Can you imagine a mindset where someone would choose to accept that? You know your friends best, but some possibilities:

1) They don't see any problem. Perhaps they don't have a strong aversion to interpersonal/player conflict. Thus, to them, what you describe as "sour sessions" may register as "slightly suboptimal but still fun sessions", even if they include things like yelling that would be dealbreakers for me, and it sounds like maybe for you.

  • A particularly likely subset is if the group problems affect different people to different extents. Taylor's Barbarian interrupted your diplomat's negotiation with a beheading once again. Their character is satisfied and they're amused; your character is thwarted and you're frustrated.

2) They acknowledge it's a problem, but don't think it's a preventable one. We all know that people aren't numbers and can't be dealt with as neatly and systemically. Lacking as our society does any common education to the contrary, many people think that means there are no techniques that can be learned and applied to consistently improve social outcomes. To them, arguments are like hurricanes: something to be dealt with as best you can, not eliminated.

3) They acknowledge there may be a solvable problem, but aren't confident your solution is worth it. Mapping out expectations in advance costs time and effort for uncertain benefit. Starting the game is fun now. I don't think it's just this, because if it keeps happening most people would look for any solution, but it could go along with a less extreme #1 or #2 if they don't think there's much of a problem or it's not likely to be solved.

The Solution

It's gonna depend on the exact cause, so the numbers roughly correspond, but it'll probably take all of the below in some extent.

1) Explain the problem. This the most important step. If the other players don't already see it as a problem for them, then you'll have to share that it's a problem for you, using I-statements: "When XYZ happens, I get frustrated. Even though we always work it out, I've found that I really don't enjoy the sessions where it happens in the first place.1 Can we try to change that?" Whatever their own attitudes, it sounds like they don't realize how serious an issue this is for you.2 If, after you explain your position, people don't agree that it's not fun unless it's fun for everyone, well, at that point it's time to consider whether you want to stay under those conditions. But hopefully that won't be necessary.

2) Offer a solution. You've been doing that, but you may need to offer examples of how what you're suggesting has actually improved things for actual gamers. If you've played in other groups where what you're trying to do has worked, now would be the time to say so, but only if it's relevant to the actual problem you agreed on in step 1. Try to avoid any "inside baseball" terminology like we use around here; just make it as straightforward as possible and explain how the information you're looking for will affect your decisions. "I was thinking about playing a bookish healer this time, but if there's gonna be any PVP action, I obviously need to do a more well-rounded combat medic. Can we establish that now, so I can decide one way or the other?"

3) Limit the scope and investment. I got a group to actually go through the Same Page Tool for the second time in my life yesterday, because we're all strangers and the GM joined last so none of us knew what we were getting into. The first time, we'd been playing for a year and the campaign had kind of stalled. Otherwise, it seems to go over like a lead balloon. I've had much better luck sticking with the one or two points that are most important to me. Obviously, this is easier when you're the GM: "For this game, we're going with a strong $GENRE feel. You're expected to work together. My rulings on crazy stunts will mostly depend on whether it advances the group's goals or not." But it can also be done as a player: "Hey, let's agree to not have any player-killing or -stealing this time." "Should we run away when appropriate, or is this gonna be full speed ahead, no holds barred?" Obviously it's not that simple, but after you've done #1 and #2, it should be easier.3

1For completeness's sake, if that dialogue isn't true for you, it's possible you're trying to fix something that isn't even really a problem for you, just an artifact of how you think Good Gaming Groups operate. I don't think that's the case here, though.

2One of the things Ask a Manager frequently says is "You've asked your employee to stop doing X a few times, but have you explained to them that this is a serious issue that is putting their job [or in this case, your enjoyment of the game] in jeopardy?" Make sure there's weight behind your words.

3And whatever you do, don't use the phrase "anti-intellectual attitude" in any discussions with someone you want to improve relations with. :P