Party consensus on a tight timetable

How do you encourage a group of players to decide on how to approach a dilemma in a timely fashion?

I’m happy to give players time to debate during a session, or even across multiple sessions, so long as that’s still fun for everyone. I only have so much time to play, though, and can only meet so often … and some dilemmas are tougher to agree on than others. The game I’m running now has had one dilemma hovering over the PCs’ heads for multiple sessions, and they’re very divided on how to resolve things. For reasons related to real-world scheduling limitations, it’s time to set a deadline and make it clear this can’t be put off any longer.

Some potential ways to address this:

  • Politely remind everybody we are on a timetable and they need to make a call. (The rest of these options are presumed to just help them along or make compromise more palatable if this isn’t sufficient.)
  • Set a “front” with a “countdown” (in Powered by the Apocalypse terms) and make it clear that the game world isn’t paused while they debate.
  • Use a mini game to resolve the results of a discussion—but I don’t know which. DramaSystem conversation rules come to mind, but might be hard to bolt onto other games. Opposed persuasion rolls are easy to call for, but feel arbitrary and unfair to some players.

Very curious what others have tried and what you like best.

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I can think of a few situations like this where I’ve handled it by:

  1. Giving the players some time to talk it over (sounds like you’ve already done this).
  2. Making it clear that there’s some kind of countdown or timer with (possibly vague or unspecified) narrative consequences attached. In one case I actually used a 10 minute hourglass timer.
  3. Also making it clear that individual players are allowed to act independently of consensus. (For example you can periodically poll individual players on whether their character wants to make a move.)

I think conflict between characters is fine here but I would discourage the group from trying to use social moves to “force” consensus unless your group has already been using similar social moves on each other throughout the game. Rather, I think it’s better to let the perceived urgency of the situation either move players toward consensus or impel individual players to take action (and then to react).

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To pull up and get a more bird’s eye view, is the unresolving discussion reducing your player’s enjoyment of the game, or just your own? Obviously your enjoyment is also important, but if your player’s are playing the game with the intent to bicker amongst each other, you could probably flex some game world countdowns if explaining yourself out of the game doesn’t improve things. I would shy away from mechanical resolution of disagreements, unless your player’s are superstar rolepalyers that often feels like bullying.

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It’s hard to know what would work without knowing all the specifics of the situation, but I’d usually lean towards bringing the conflict to them if at all possible, I guess closest to your second bullet point. In PbtA terms, if the players seem to be languishing, that’s an opportunity for the MC to make moves until the PC’s take back the initiative. If they haven’t come to a consensus in and out of character, it can hopefully be a good source of drama (but not out-of-character resent) when characters are forced to take different or even opposing paths during the major action.

Slightly tangentially, there’s a rule I like in Hearts of Wulin for PvP duels-- the instigator makes one offer, the defender can accept or refuse, and there’s no further negotiation allowed. It puts a nice level of finality on an interaction that could otherwise lead to endless discussion. It seems like something similar might be useful in giving your players one chance to see if they can agree on a single course of action, and if not they need to accept that negotiations are over.

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Because the players are busy with family/work, i don’t hassle them if they forget things.

Start of each session I remind them briefly of what happened last time, and ongoing quests/goals.

Likewise I have a facebook group with dot points of what happens each session.

But if they ignore prompting/reminding more than twice then I go ahead with that plot/agenda. They can either deal with the fallout (which may be another team getting more powerful because they stepped up instead) or get out of dodge because its getting to hot.

The characters are the heroes and effect the world, but the world does not revolve around them.

Another component is over planning/analysis paralysis, this often involves metagaming. I remind them of that they should plan based on their characters, not the players. This reduces the chance of non-planners getting bored and stiring up trouble just to get something happening.

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It doesn’t bother me or ruin my fun when players debate—like I said in the original post, I’m happy to give time for that, even let it span multiple sessions. The issue for me is a practical one: If they waffle on this any longer, we will have to end the campaign with the equivalent of Sam and Frodo arguing just outside Mordor about whether they should keep the ring.

I suspect the players in the current game will buck up and make a call, and somebody will take one for the team by giving in and doing what everybody else wants to do just to be a good sport about it and let us move on. I’d like to make that easier on them if I can, though—and I’ve also been in groups that didn’t have a good sport, and needed some other guidance, despite out of character discussions. I definitely don’t want anybody to feel forced into anything, though, so that’s why I’ve come to the good people of the Gauntlet forums for good alternatives. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Are the debates happening in character or out of character?

If they’re happening in character, and the characters are at an impass, I’d suggest zooming out to player level and suggesting that y’all resolve it with some sort of roll or mechanic. The toll determines which side prevails and the group agrees to go that route—with the caveat that individuals can still do their own thing if and when a moment of truth arises.

If the players are debating, then first I’d make sure they knew what the options are, and help delineate the likely costs and benefits of each, based on what their characters know and what they suspect. Ask if anyone sees an alternative approach, and add it to the list if appropriate. Encourage them to ask questions. See if consensus emerges.

If not, go around the table and ask each person to say which path they prefer and why. Ask them questions, particularly about the why. Correct any mid-assumptions they might have, based on what their characters should know. Others can ask questions, but don’t let them start arguing or making statements when it’s not their turn. See if this process winnows the options.

Try to boil it down to two options. Vote. If there’s a tie, consider going to the dice—or having the party split and pursue conflicting agendas.

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One way that can work is to flip it so instead of following the Planning -> Solution path is to start with the Solution and then work backwards to what was done to acheive this outcome. This is how I do the core resolution loop in LEDNIK.
So a practical example of doing this is to ensure that the players are aquainted with the details of the Dillemma or Challenge. Then Establish the Outcome: go around the table and everyone can add one Statement to the outcome, starting with the GM (if your game has one). Each Statement can expand on the outcome and if they choose, Players can to some extent annul or alter the prior Statements. Finally, establish the standout challenges and costs that emerged in acheiving the Outcome: go back around the circle in reverse, adding statements about the actions, events, costs, challenges, etc, ending with the GM.
This way you can disrupt the agony of choice that Players can experience during the planning phase of an endeavour by setting a group consensus about the outcome first and working backwards. The GM can use their statements to add NPC flavour, build bridges to future challenges, pull relationship levers, etc. My tests of doing this have found that Players `Game’ this less than expected and create genuine challenges for their Characters and insert the kinds of tensions that interest them about play into the Outcomes.
[Edited for weird formatting]

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My vote is for in-game pressure. Show them the impact of their tarrying. Figure out what the characters care about or situations they just can’t not react to. Apply pressure there and make sure the characters know about it directly or indirectly. In Apocalypse World descended games this would be something like the aforementioned Fronts. In a dungeon crawl it would be random encounters.

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For short-term decisions (like what direction to travel or whether to engage a threat directly) I’m happy with how Goblinville handles this. The game has a marching order, but players can act in any order they like; they describe what they are doing and if their goblin attempts a risky action, they pull their die from the marching order.

Where the order matters if for moments when the party is deliberating about what to do next. It is the next player’s (according to marching order) call. The aggregate effect of this is that players who are hesitating to jump into description (and thus have their die in marching order longer) are more likely to given the lead at these decision points. I have found that these deliberations go much more quickly when the GM addresses one player rather than asking the whole table. There is still room for consensus building, but one player is given the spotlight (and it’s not the player who is typically the first one to reach for dice).

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For big picture decisions, I liked how John Harper handled this in his first actual play Youtube series. When the gang had a big decision to make and tow characters were at odds, he asked one of the players: “Could Arcy [your character] be convinced to do this?” When that player said yes, it opened the opportunity for a roll - one player character attempting to convince the other to budge toward middle ground. Presumably if the offered compromise would be totally unacceptable to the player character, they would have shifted the terms of compromise to find a range of terms both parties could agree to. The roll would then determine who got the better half of the compromise.

The Burning Wheel has good guidance on how to frame the outcome of social conflicts like these. The loser isn’t mind controlled and their preferences or beliefs don’t disappear, but they have agreed to go along with a course of action at least until circumstances change.

This definitely requires players to have a somewhat good rapport (to be willing to be reasonable but also offer up compelling character motivations and sticking to them).

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This is what I’m a bit stuck on: The game this is coming up in now is a dungeon crawl, and interrupting with random encounters would make it even less likely we’d resolve what they’ve been working toward. I think if there’s going to be some kind of in-game pressure not just to keep moving but to wrap things up, it’s got to somehow remind them of their goal, and the risks of not completing that goal. (In this case I set it up so there’s no real urgency to finish their quest, so I’ve got to think hard on that one.)

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I’m all for a combination of in-game and out-of-game methods. Flat-out tell the players that real-world time pressures are making it hard to run the game to its proper conclusion unless they make a decision in-game. Also tell the players that indecision is going to have in-game consequences.

And in-game, use fronts or some other mechanic to advance the Impending Doom forward, such that it will reach its Terrible Conclusion unless the PCs act… and that the threat will be easier to deal with the sooner they do so.

For short-term indecision, I’ve used a technique I heard from former Paizo editor Wes Schneider: Drop a big 'ol counter d20 on the middle of the table, turned up to “20”. Every time the conversation seems to re-hash something that’s already been said, decrement it: 19 - 18 - 17… The implication is that something is going to happen when you get to “1”, and it really seems to speed things up!

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I feel like one thing you could do is introduce another team/party/monster that they realize will get the thing they’re not sure they want if they don’t get it first. Nothing focuses the attention like the sudden realization you might miss out. It’s a way of doing a timer without doing, y’know, a timer. Surely they have rivals or some other group who would want whatever this thing is. Turn it from an inflection point to the finish line of a race.

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This is a good idea that (I realize now upon reading your comment) still works even if there’s no McGuffin, but a question of “who do you ally with/against.” Maybe faction A attacks B while you’re debating what to do in camp C—or maybe A and B gang up on C. Hmm!