Ask Angry: I Stop Him from Doing That!

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Niklas asks:

I need some advice on how to handle PC’s who wish to “stop” each other from doing something in-game.

Player A: I punch this rude baron in the face.
Player B: Whoa no, I stop him/her from doing that, I still need more information!
Player A: Wha… why… ugh, fine. How do we do this?

What follows is usually some annoyed silence and glares between the two before both direct their focus on me to see what actually happens. I’ve tried a few different ways of handling it. Contested skill checks between the players, asking player A “Does your character let him/herself be stopped?”, Ignoring Player B’s request completely etc etc.

Every time it happens it ends up feeling awkward and I just can’t figure out a good way to handle it, or at least not any good piece of reasoning to back up a solid choice between my already tested methods.

This happens in multiple groups by the way, if there were just two players who had it out for each other I’d sit them down and talk to them separately, try to work something out together with them.

Hi Niklas! Thanks for just saying: “I’m Niklas, here’s my question.”

My first piece of advice is really minor, but it’s important. Don’t refer to your players by number and definitely don’t refer to them by some sort of serial number you assign them. I know players are basically just interchangeable f$&%wits who ruin your game, but they HAVE names and they get really offended when you just assign them designations as if they are cogs in the machine. I mean, they are. Broken cogs. Just saying.

In fact, if you submit a question to Ask Angry – this goes for everyone now – you should probably use your players full first and last names. And addresses. And maybe something descriptive about them. That way, you can show them this article and show them that (A) they are now famous and (B) they are dumba$&es because I said so.

Anyhoo… the ole “wait, what, I stop him from doing that stupid thing I don’t agree with.” EVERY GM has dealt with it. Except GMs who are f$&%ing liars. Or the ones with only one player. And it’s hard to deal with.

Well, actually, that’s a lie. It’s EASY to deal with mechanically. Like, you can totally handle it in the game. There are really easy ways to handle it. But what makes it hard is that there it’s not really a game problem. There’s something else going on there.

So, let’s talk about it from a purely mechanical standpoint first. If you just want a way to handle it within the rules of the game, it’s easy.

When Alice says “I punch Baron von Dumas in the face!” and then Bob says “wait, no, I stop her,” how do you handle it? Well, you handle it by resolving one action at a time. Just like you would any other action. I mean, if Bob stabs a goblin and the goblin says “wait, he stabs me? No, I stab him,” you don’t think twice about how to handle it. You roll Initiative. Initiative represents someone’s reaction time to a sudden surprising thing.

So, Alice and Bob roll Initiative. If Alice wins, she punches the Baron and Bob is left lunging at her in slow motion. Resolve the punch, which will probably work, and then move on to Bob. Ask Bob, “you’re too slow, Alice punches the Baron. The Baron is shocked. What do you do?” Now Bob has to deal with the reality of the situation Alice created. On the other hand, if Bob wins Initiative, you ask Bob “okay, what do you mean you stop her?” And Bob will say something like “I will wrestle her and pull her away.” And it’s like, okay, cool, grapple check time. And if Bob succeeds, he can move Alice far enough away that Alice has to try to escape the grapple before she can punch the Baron. And then Alice will have to deal with that situation. And if Bob fails, Alice can rebuff him. And then you tell Alice “Bob tried to pull you back but you broke free, what do you want do?” And Alice can say “I punch the Baron now” or “well, I’ll punch Bob” or “okay, I’m calm now… I’ll back off.”

It’s as simple as that. As soon as there is a question as to what action comes first, you roll Initiative and resolve things in the shortest time units you can. You should probably roll for surprise for the Baron if there are surprise rules in your game. If the Baron has a good Insight or whatever, he might see the punch coming and he might be allowed to roll Initiative and he might be able to intervene too.

I also advise you to assume all the other PCs except the two morons fighting it out are surprised and don’t let them get involved until the NEXT round. Otherwise, you end up with people trying to travel back in time to preemptively have already chosen sides. “Bob is stopping Alice? Well, I’ll stop Bob from stopping Alice?” “Carol wants to take Bob’s side? Okay, I’ll assist Bob.” Human reaction times work on the order of fractions of a second, but they don’t work back in time.

And that’s it. That’s fair. That’s balanced. And it’s entirely within the rules. And no one can say you’re favoring anyone. Done and done and done.

But now, let’s address the non-game problem in this whole exchange. Intraparty conflict. Conflict within the party.

There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with intraparty conflict. In fact, when it comes to problem solving, one of the reasons to work with a group is to have some intraparty conflict. When people argue about how to solve problems and what approaches to take, the different viewpoints and strengths and ideals and priorities all fight against each to, in theory, help a solution emerge that everyone can get behind. In theory.

Beyond that, a little intraparty conflict makes for interesting interactions between the characters. Remember, an RPG is about two things: role-playing and winning a game. That’s why we call it a role-playing game. If you didn’t know what the letters stood for, that’s it. So, the players want to explore different characters and make decisions as their characters. But they also want to solve problems and overcome obstacles and accomplish goals. Different players prioritize those a little different, but those are the basics.

Interaction is the primary way that we humans learn about fictional characters. All stories are about human beings, first and foremost. And most interaction is about resolving conflict. By conflict, by the way, I don’t mean fighting. I mean resolving different viewpoints and priorities and goals and desires and s$&%.

In the case of Alice and Bob, for example, they have some sort of disagreement. Bob is respectful of authority and he’s polite. He’s patient. He’s willing to spend time talking in circles to find a peaceful solution. Alice dislikes authority. She’s impatient. She wants to force the Baron to listen or, failing that, humiliate him and then move on without his help. Or whatever. That’s a conflict.

There are LOTS of ways to resolve a conflict. One way is for Alice and Bob to talk and compromise. Another is for one of them to FORCE the other to go along with their approach. That’s what Alice is doing when she throws a punch. She’s forcing her own solution on the group. And there is nothing wrong with that approach. I mean, from a human perspective, it’s a dickish way to behave. But it IS a valid approach to fictional conflict.

But remember that all choices have consequences. Alice’s choice is going to have fallout. And so is Bob’s choice to fight Alice. Alice might offend the Baron, she might get the party attacked by guards, she might get the party jailed. Or she might actually knock some sense into the Baron. You never know. Some people really do need a good swift kick in the a$& to make them see reason. As a GM, you have to decide how the world reacts. But Alice’s choice is also going to illicit a response from the party. The party might agree with Alice. Or they might agree with Bob. Or they might be split.

Likewise, Bob’s actions are going to illicit a response. If the Baron sees Bob defend him and hold his friend back and if the party can smooth over her action, the situation might be recovered. But, beyond that, Bob, Alice, and the party are going to have to deal with the conflict. Alice and Bob might have to come to an understanding. They might have to grow as people. In drama, that’s a really good thing.


Now we come to elephant in the encounter: Alice and Bob aren’t JUST characters. There are also a pair of human brains attached to Alice and Bob. And also Carol and Dave. And, here’s the thing: the conflict between Alice and Bob about how to resolve the situation might just be a conflict between players about how they want the game to play out. And Carol and Dave might also have something to say about that. It might just be characters being characters, but it might be that Alice and Bob disagree about the type of game they want to play.

Beyond that, whether it is a character conflict or a player conflict, there’s another big problem created by the medium. Let’s say Alice and Bob (their characters) keep having conflicts. They disagree every time the party has to deal with someone on an interpersonal level. And they KEEP having fistfights in front of the NPCs.

In real life, when a team has that sort of fundamental conflict and can’t resolve it, the team splits up. Alice and Bob realize they can’t work together. They get tired of each other. And they go their own ways. And Carol and Dave might go with one or the other or let them both go.

But, in an RPG, that is not ALLOWED to happen. This comes back to the metagame. The rules that govern the way the game itself is put together. One of the assumptions that underlies D&D is that the party will stay together and work together. Otherwise, the GM has to keep running two or three games simultaneously for two or three different teams who aren’t staying together.

And the players KNOW that. That means that all irreconcilable differences between the players are left unreconciled. They just sit. They just fester. And they keep ruining the game for Carol and Dave. And if Alice and Bob are honest, they probably aren’t having much fun either.

So, here’s the thing: although you can resolve the conflict between Alice and Bob easily enough in game with simple mechanics – and that’s how you SHOULD handle it because it’s fair – you have to be sure this isn’t going to be an ongoing issue. That is to say, if Alice and Bob are going to keep doing this over and over again and it isn’t going to lead to growth, you need to step in and figure out how to resolve that issue. And THAT is not something you can do in the game. Because the problem isn’t in the game. The problem is in the metagame. Alice and Bob have incompatible characters and the party is unstable.

There’s only one way to handle this. First, you pull Alice and Bob aside and talk to them about the conflict in their approaches. If they are both perfectly happy to have the conflict, that’s fine. As long as they understand you will resolve it the same way every time. If they want the opportunity to play through the character growth and eventual in-character compromise, that’s also fine. But if they have a fundamental disagreement about how the game should be played, they need to compromise, make new characters, or one or both of them needs to find a new group. And the only way to figure out the solution is to talk it out. You have to firmly mediate it.

But you also have to remember that Carol and Dave also sit at the table. And, while Alice and Bob might like playing out the ongoing conflict between Alice and Bob, Carol and Dave might hate it. So, you also need to speak to Carol and Dave. Not necessarily next to Alice and Bob. But they deserve input too. And if Alice and Bob and Carol and Dave are all choosing sides, you need to stop the game and everyone needs to figure out how to move forward with a game that won’t go into that limbo of a party that should not be together but has to be.

So, my advice is: use a fair, mechanical conflict resolution process when this comes up. Keep the rest of the party out until you resolve the interrupted action. And then play out the results. Be fair and objective. BUT, if you notice you have to do that a lot OR you notice there’s a lot of grumbling and festering bad feelings OR you notice Carol and Dave rolling their eyes every time that comes up, be ready to intervene.

HOWEVER, there is also one other piece of advice I’ll offer. Even if you keep things strictly mechanical, intraparty fighting should ALWAYS make things worse. That is, when Alice tries to punch the Baron and Bob tries to stop her, however the rolls play out and whatever the end result, it should make the situation worse. The party should have to scramble to recover the situation. Or the party should lose opportunities. Whatever.

Why? It’s simple: just because you have a fair way of resolving intraparty conflict doesn’t mean you want to encourage the players to use it. The players should see the pattern that collapsing into shouting matches and fist fights makes everything worse. That’s realistic anyway. But if you’ve got a party that is on the fence about whether the conflict is between characters and players, sometimes a few disasters can encourage them to work it out on their own.

If it doesn’t go away, you need to fix it. And you need to fix it OUTSIDE THE GAME! Never, ever try to fix a problem between players or in the metagame layer with the game. It NEVER works. NEVER.

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6 thoughts on “Ask Angry: I Stop Him from Doing That!

  1. “The players should see the pattern that collapsing into shouting matches and fist fights makes everything worse. That’s realistic anyway.”

    Preach. That’s the best part of this whole article, actually. We used to just gush over campaigns and discombobulated parties who were all secretly working on their own private agendas, and once upon a time we had a DM who was really good at dealing with all that. But the more I think back on it, and the more I GM myself these days, the more I realize what a waste of time that was and how little we got done in terms of actually completing the adventure. Not to mention having players (sometimes me) sitting entire sessions not playing at all due to some in-game injury waiting to be healed, or simply being pissed at the guy across the table. Totally unfun. I think the goal should always be to focus on cooperation, and to build parties who cultivate it.

  2. I’ve always thought that allowing players to nullify other players actions should not be allowed. You could point to the game rules to allow it, as Angry does, but I’ve always found that it detracts from the game.

    And usually it isn’t a problem. Most player will, at one time or an other, do something that complicates or frustrates a scene. Backhanding the Baron, kicking in the door without listening, fiddling with an obviously magical plot item. You name it. Most of the time that is an indication that said player is bored and wants some action, any action. Invalidating the action frustrates an already bored player and solves nothing. Namely, you’re game is boring. Bring some action please.

    Now if it happens often you do need to take action as GM. I think one of two things are happening. One: you run a slow game. You need to spice up the game. Maybe you let scenes run to long. Maybe you run the wrong kind of game for your players. I don’t know. Angry has written excellent articles about that. Or two: if only one player tries to nullify actions or tries to kick in the door then you need to talk to that player. As was suggested in the article above.

    Other than that, I say let it happen.

  3. All right, since I posted this article, I’ve had to deal with a dozen mouthbreathers with the same goddamned “criticism” on various social media platforms. So, I am going to repost my response to one of them here. You can figure out the context. You’re not dumb.

    “People keep saying things like this to me. “How can you interrupt an action?” “Are you a mindreader? How do you know someone is going to throw a punch?” Do people have that little experience with the real world? Are people really that dense? Holy f$&%. You TOTALLY CAN see other people’s actions coming. You TOTALLY CAN interrupt actions. You TOTALLY CAN as long as you have the PERCEPTION and the REACTION TIME. That is to say INITIATIVE.

    Example one: You are in a bar and you and your friends are talking to this asshole. And you’re kind of diffusing the situation and calming things down. And suddenly, your dumbass friends tries to get violent. But you grab him and hold him back before his swing actually connects. I KNOW this one happens in real life. Because I have been that friend. Like, in the real world. Without combat training. Well, without much combat training.

    Example two: You are in a sword fight or duel or fencing match or boxing match. And you see your opponent getting ready to attack a particular position. And, in the split second as the opponent TELEGRAPHS the action because it turns out attacks don’t happen instantaneously, you react with a block or parry. And because of your reaction time, you get there first. In fact, this is SO MUCH a part of actual fighting that FEIGNING is an actual thing. As in, making a pretend attack to force an opponent to react in such a way that you can make a real attack to an uprotected attack. Again, I KNOW this one happens in real life because of my fencing background. And because of hanging out at meets with my martial artist friend.

    Example three: You are again in a bar, outside of a combat situation. And the dumbass talking to you is getting standoffish and you’re trying to tell him to fuck off. And suddenly, he decides to start shit by throwing a punch. And you can actually dodge out of the way of the punch or at least roll with it. Again, that depends on your reaction time. But it totally can be done. Again, this is a real life situation that has happened. Well, it wasn’t technically in a bar that time. But that’s irrelevant.

    Now, either I am a goddamned spider-mutant telepath living in the Matrix, or this is just a human thing that humans can do. Read what a person is about to do and maybe react faster.”

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