Nov 14, 2017

Abolishing Arguments

I like to play crunchy systems: Mythras, later D&D editions, Shadowrun, etc. I often play in groups where there are widely different levels of familarity and skill at using these systems. I also play in groups where individuals have widely different levels of trust and standards of politeness. Such is life as an adult roleplayer in high demand.

One of the things I try to avoid in games I run are rules arguments. One of the things I try to contain are rules disputes. A dispute is a polite, though perhaps passionate, disagreement over some factual or interpretive matter that strives for consensus or persuasion. "I thought this rule means...?" is the kind of statement you find in disputes. Arguments are the other sort of disagreement, the one where positions rapidly become intractable, where accusations fly between people, where sophistry doesn't so much creep in as kick down the door screaming, and where people are striving to explain why they are right and the other person is wrong and should be ashamed of ever having believed differently.

The lines between the two can be unclear at times, but a clear sign that one is in an argument instead of a dispute is that no one is asking questions that aren't rhetorical or sophistic. Another clear sign is the "gotcha" where the fact that someone is changing their position is treated as an indication of weakness rather than the goal of the interaction in the first place. These aren't exhaustive signs, there are a myriad of ways of indicating that you're acting in bad faith towards someone else (constant repetition of the same points but louder each time is another).

I'm sure we all try to avoid these and conduct ourselves as respectable adults fulfilling our ethical and epistemic obligations to others, but that doesn't actually mean they don't occur from time to time. Rules in particular can provoke these since they exist as an intersubjective reference that defines how things work in the shared narrative of the game, and losing a rules argument can feel like one has lost agency and some level of control over one's (fictional) life. I am certainly not a pedestal here, if anything I am particularly temperamentally prone to disputes and arguments and thus am particularly concerned with how to proactively manage and control them from dominating situations.

In games that I run, I often appoint a "rules coordinator" whose job is to resolve simple rules questions. I usually pick the player who has the most expertise with the rules, rather than simply the loudest opinion on what they should be. In games with individual experience, this person gains bonus XP whenever they resolve a rules question that another PC has. If no rule exists, I make one up, take the time to write it down on a sheet of paper we can all review, and then go forward using that, with any further review or revision taking place in between sessions based on conversations with players. These methods help nip most arguments and disputes in the bud. But not all of them, of course.

For disputes, I think the important thing is to contain the dispute and resolve it fairly and quickly, ideally with as little intervention or attention paid to it as possible. Voting by the players sometimes works, but can actually drag things out more as many people will want to share their opinion and position, or express support for someone else before you can actually tabulate the votes. As well, it can sometimes turn a dispute into an argument if one player believes everyone else is mistaken and picking on them. So a simple incentive I use instead is to hand out bonus XP to to whoever proposes a mutually agreeable solution, and if no one can, to whoever concedes first. Not a lot of bonus XP, but just enough to mollify the conceding side. In fact, I'll often start at a low number and bid it up slightly over time if both sides are being intractable. This method should not be kept secret from the players, and frequent reminders may be necessary during the early phases of implementation.

Arguments are a little trickier. If someone is a vexatious and repeated arguer, the easiest answer may be to boot them, but I find the severity and difficulty of this (as well as the frequent presence of interpersonal complications) actually produce a perverse incentive, where no specific incident can be pointed to as sufficiently severe on its own, and so actually booting the person never happens. I hear lots of people saying that they would do it, but little evidence that people actually do it all that often. So less severe, easier-to-implement, and hopefully more effective? methods seem like a good idea as a first step. I also tend to prefer giving people a chance to correct their behaviour, tho' that's a personal tendency that I don't claim anyone else need to value as much as I do.

Therefore, what I will do in a group which has one or more individuals prone to argument, is to simply offer bonus XP for each session in which no one argues. This starts as a low amount, and if people argue, it increases next session, until it reaches a level where no one argues or I dissolve the group in frustration. If anyone gets into an argument with anyone else, everyone forfeits the bonus XP. People don't have to avoid voicing their opinions or disagreeing with one another respectfully (that makes it a dispute, subject to the above resolution methods), but if the exchange is in bad faith, that XP is gone for everyone. I'll often give someone a reminder or warning if it looks like they're about to veer into an argument in these situations.

This introduces a certain shame factor into their conduct for the arguer, without operating directly through the very points and positions being debated in the argument. It won't stop people all the time, but it does provide a mild incentive that can be invoked, and that doesn't require them to "lose face" (it instead positions them as magnanimously setting aside their righteous blah blah for the good of everyone).

I mention rules arguments here because they're something that specifically comes to mind, but the same techniques are broadly applicable to disputes and arguments over the progression of the shared fiction itself outside of the rules, with perhaps a few others that are unique to the kinds of problems that occur there. Anyhow, if one has a particularly argumentative group for whatever reason, I suggest experimenting with these methods to see if they work for you.