Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I love good, dramatic conflict in a story game. But sometimes players shy away from or downplay an established conflict or history. Our clans have decades of grievance and blood feud, but yeah, that’s not such a big deal, let’s just forget that and work together, okay? And now we’re buddies.

Sometimes the player is just trying to be nice, mistaking fictional conflict for inter-player conflict, and there are ways to deal with that.

But often they are glossing over the problem to move the story somewhere that interests them, which is frustrating because it’s ignoring the fiction we agreed upon. Players absolutely can and should push the story in the direction they want, but never at the cost of what we’ve established. You can take action that changes a situation, even drastically, but you should not ignore or sidestep what we’ve agreed is true.

That “what we’ve agreed is true” *is* the game. It’s our shared compact. When one player breaks that, they are breaking the bond between players. It’s disrespectful to everyone else at the table. It may sound like I’m being dramatic but it is honestly a big, big deal. It’s the core cause of so much misery and disconnect in gaming.

If the system has a game master, they are generally the person who decides which facts matter and which don’t. One of their big jobs is enforcing the fiction. But in games where we all have equal authority (aka every game I make), it’s every players’ job to embrace and work with what’s been established, not ignore or sidestep it.

And it can be any part of the fiction, not just feuds and strife: we agree dragons are dangerous, then someone does something that shows that, naw, dragons aren’t that dangerous at all. Compare that to the “good” case, where a player introduces a mighty dragon-slaying blade: dragons are still dangerous, the established facts are still true, but here’s a new development that changes the situation without contradicting what was already true. Totally legit.

Care and Feeding of Your Cycle of Violence

When we’re dealing with how people role-play their characters, rather than facts about the world or the other people in it, it gets even trickier.

Back to our hate-filled clans example. Ostensibly the animosity is only perpetuated because each side keeps hating the other, so if you’re role-playing one of those characters, you really could say “yeah I wake up this morning and don’t hate them anymore”. It’s a thing that could happen, even if it jettisons the themes we agreed we were going to explore.

So how do you make sure you’re making a real change that respects the existing fiction, rather than a dodge? One way is to say that anyone can introduce fiction that reiterates what we’ve agreed is true. If dragons are dangerous, you can always describe a dragon wreaking havoc. But you don’t want to overrule another player speaking for a character they control. “I don’t hate them anymore” / “Yes you do” is not fun or interesting.

Instead of trying to dictate what someone else’s character does or doesn’t think, invent and introduce facts and history that demonstrate the premise. Bring what we’ve established to life by describing specific details.

“Hey on second thought the warriors of Jakar are not so bad. Let’s make an alliance!”

“Are you forgetting that in their day, their grandfathers begged our Queen to meet and make peace, then barred the doors and set fire to the whole hall? And that they commanded their minstrels to compose songs to the screams while she and her whole retinue were roasted alive?”

“Uh, that was a long time ago..?”

If a character still embraces forgiveness and love, that’s totally cool. They can be the radical change they want to see. This way we are not downplaying what we agreed on — we are emphasizing that this is a big shift from the status quo, not glossing over it. Will others anyone else’s mind be changed? We’ll see.

I’m using blood-soaked vendettas as an example, but it could be any established dynamic or relationship. The other lesson here is that detail trumps abstraction. It’s easy to say “oh we’ve been fighting for generations, but now we get along”. But if you know exactly what betrayals and murders led up to this point, it’s a lot harder to pretend they don’t matter. And better still, if you *do* overcome the past and break that cycle, it’s solid story we can all embrace, not just one player taking the easy way out.

    Ben Robbins | June 10th, 2019 | , | leave a comment