The law of group development states that all gaming groups will move from the polite ‘forming’ phase to the contentious ‘storming’ phase. A few basic facilitation principles can help negotiate those early phases with minimal angst and annoyance.
People usually like to know things in advance, and it’s easier to have healthy discussions about things like rules interpretations and group expectations before problems arise. The value of the forming phase is that everyone is looking for leadership and everyone is on his best behavior. A wise dungeon master can take advantage by starting potentially sticky conversations early. When in doubt, bring it up in a conversational, ‘let’s talk about it’ style. While the DM is in the prime position to lead these conversations, anyone with concerns or ideas about the game can do it (which just might be everyone at the table).
In addition to these general conversations, another effective way to enhance a new group’s stability and to refocus a group who is experiencing some storming, is to create shared ground rules. This is a fundamental facilitative trick that has proven its worth time and time again. The steps are fairly simple:
1) Prepare a space that you (or another volunteer) can scribe the rules. Flip chart paper and smelly Mr. Sketch markers are ideal, but a white or chalk board will also work fine. If you use markers, put the light colored ones away. They are not useful in this situation (why do they even put them in there?).
2) Ground rules are shared by the group, must be created collaboratively and can be enforced by any, at any time. They can be added to or edited when needed. Explain these principles to your group.
3) Solicit your group for ideas. Write them down for all to see (also called ‘scribing’), using the exact words of the suggester as much as possible. If you aren’t sure, repeat what they suggested to check for understanding. Observe the reactions of the group and if you aren’t sure that all agree, ask: “does everyone think this is a good rule for us to follow?”
As the facilitator, you must remain neutral. While the facilitator may provide suggestions, you may not use your position to advance specific content. This is critical. If the group feels railroaded, or doesn’t have ownership of these rules, they will not be followed.
4) If the group stalls or has trouble thinking of useful rules, provide some suggestions. Common ground rules include, “begin and end on time,” “don’t interrupt other players,” “monitor your own participation,” “respect everyone’s ideas,” and, most importantly, “have fun.”
This is a good time to talk about gaming norms, such as how to behave when the party is split (can players suggest ways to overcome challenges when their characters aren’t present?). Don’t get into too much detail, however, and don’t spend too much time on this exercise. When energy wanes, move on and get to playing your game!
5) Post the rules where everyone can see them at the beginning of every game.
6) At the end of the first session, and at the beginning of every session thereafter, revisit yur rules. Ask if any need to be changed or added and how well they think the group complied with its own rules. If you observed notable violations, now is a good time to observe this aloud, in a non-blaming, yet specific way. Maybe the group doesn’t need that rule anymore, or maybe some of its members need to be reminded.
As your group moves into the norming and performing phases, the importance of ground rules wane. While it’s always a good idea to keep them posted and active, if your group is following its rules unconsciously, and resolving controversies with minimal heartache, congratulations. The group has entered the performing stage. Enjoy it while it lasts.