At Origins this year I ran a lot of games. Most of them went according to plan, many of them weren’t planned until the group sat at the table (which resulted in fighting Nazi Showgirls From Las Vegas), and one of them somehow turned into PvP session but still came out well. That is a horrible moment for a Game Master – when one of the players starts saying things like “My paladin wouldn’t let you steal from that man. Prepare to die!”. There is no one size fits all rule for dealing with PCs who are going against each other but sometimes it can be great fun. No, really.
The party was hired by a law firm to investigate a death before the police got involved. The death was caused by a secret society covering up their dealings, as the players would discover with enough investigation. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the players made their character a part of that secret society. As he was handed a book written in a cypher, he leans over and says “Hey, I’m actually Aruna. The descriptionÂ you gave of these letters sounds like what I read about in the game book. If this is Aruna writing, I’m going to have to keep my people’s secrets secret…”
After telling me this, the player asked how everyone felt about PVP and said he would avoid it if it would kill the fun. I took him aside, laid out the secret of the adventure, replaced the BBEG with his character and ran through the rest of the adventure, but with the other players chasing him. He did manage to sneak kill two of the characters in a surprise attack. We resurrected them (kind of) so that they could keep playing, none of the players minded too much and his character was defeated by the group. It actually went really really well, but that’s rare. Most instances of PC combat/conflict don’t go that smoothly. The fact that this was a one-shot at a convention helped. But that brings up the question of:
Why Does It Happen?
There are a lot of reasons why PC vs PC conflict or combat happens. Most often, you hear something like: “But that’s what my character would do!”. Sometimes that is true and sometimes that is just an excuse for a player to do dickish things while hiding behind the shield ofÂ roleplaying. A good player realizes that group fun trumps things like this and will roleplay events in character without letting them interfere with the fun around the table. I’ve had a player who played the stereotypical paladin and would rant and rave at the actions of the thief, barbarian, or seductress of the party, only to “give up” and justify things to himself before it became a problem. Since the group knew each other, they knew that this in character playing wouldn’t erupt into actual combat or create tensions and that it was all in good fun.
Sometimes secret tensions are the reason that PC v PC conflict breaks out. There might be hidden (or not so hidden) tensions between players that they decide to bring to the table. A player decides to use their characters to take jabs at someone they aren’t getting along with and that’s bad for everyone. The tension level of the entire group rises and the awkward turtle comes swimming in.
Finally, some players just get their kicks by being disruptive. They like to take control of the situation, screw things over, or watch as the situationÂ goes down in chaos. Not fun. At least not always. Sometimes these players spur things on and keep the action moving. They CAN create unique elements and cause stories that get told for years to come. But, if they cause the group not to have fun it becomes a major issue.
So How Do You Deal With It?
When PC v PC conflict breaks out, it can turn bad real quick. Well, the first step to dealing with it (as in most problem solving) is to determine why it is happening. Is it really a case of the player having fun by playing their character to the hilt, and if so will the player prevent themselves from going into dangerous territory? Or is it a case of the player acting out their aggression or just being a dick? Once you figure that out, you can determine how to handle it.
- Talk It Out — The best way to deal with anything. Acknowledge the conflict and ask why it is going on. Take the people involved aside if necessary and try to work out a compromise. Stress that the game has to be fun for the whole group. If the issue really is one player going over the line because of their character, ask him to tone it down and see if he or she wants to change characters. If it really is a problem with the person that can’t be resolved, you might have to ask them to leave. Hopefully you can avoid that.
- Deny It — As the Game Master, you can always throw down the ban hammer and deny the character action. You are taking over something not normally granted to you by the players, so you have to be careful about it. If you need to though, you can say that you don’t want to see actions that kill the fun for the group. Doing this will stop the problem at the time, but it might foster a negative attitude towards you as the Game Master. If you’ve already tried to talk it out and a player that is generating PC v PC conflict is still trouble, this might be the necessary step. The other players will see that you are taking steps to stop the bad behaviors and the disruptive players might get the message.
- Punish It — If you don’t feel comfortable telling a player that their character can’t do something (I usually don’t), then you can institute a penalty for the actions, such as an EXP penalty or the like. The player is free to pursue their actions, but they might self correct in order to prevent the punishment. The downside is that they might also rail at it, feeling as if they were targeted personally.
If the suggestions I’ve written about so far seem like I’m teaching you how to deal with an unruly kindergartner, it’s because I kind of am. When behavior like this comes out in people, they stop using the rational parts of their brains and start using emotional based decision making patterns. Generally there is a behavioral or personality problem already at play, and you have to deal with that. However, if the player really is just playing their character and realizes that the group’s fun shouldn’t be affected by their playing of the character, then you might be able to:
- Roll With It — If the players realize what they are getting into and you’ve talked out the consequences, then this can be incredibly awesome. See if you can let it happen. When my player did this, I warned him it might end in his character’s death, depending on how far he took it. I would essentially be making him the BBEG and he would react how he decided to. It was a possibility that he killed other PCs, it was a possibility that they killed him, and it was possible that they somehow worked past it in game. The players had a great plot twist, they acted everything out really well and their play (not the predetermined story) decided how it would end, and people seemed overall satisfied with the resolution. The benefit was that the story became something completely malleable in the players hands with me being the referee.
So there you have it. Sometimes Pc vs PC can be really fun, but that is usually because the players are all rational and understand what is going on. When that isn’t the case, things can go south really fast, but when it is things can get quite fun. Have you ever had a PC vs PC instance that went well? What do you do to mitigate disruptive PC vs PC conflicts?
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We’ve been on the edge of this a couple of times in a Vampire the Masquerade campaign. Some issue crops up between two characters; one of them wants to use a mind-messing power to get his way. The other player declares that unacceptable and makes his character grow claws.
One time, he landed an actual blow (insta-killing) before the GM intervened. If the GM hadn’t, that would have likely ended the party right there, because we didn’t agree with the claw-dude (mind powers aren’t cool, but the claw dude was also bullying).
So the GM just flat out rolled back the scene a bit and told the players he didn’t want it to play out like that. Told them to cool down a little and restrain themselves all a bit. In the end that worked out quite well; the group is still going strong, for over 10 years now.
I think sometimes this happens because one of the players wants his character to really make a point to another PC that “what you just did wasn’t cool”. He basically wants to punch the other PC in the face. Of course, he wants his punch to land, so he picks an attack with a good to-hit chance. Now the tricky bit is that often the best-hitting attack does damage far deadlier than a mere punch, and so it quickly escalates. Alternatively: a punch has virtually no impact, so a more severe attack is selected.
I did this twice since coming to the States in ’84. Once in a D&D game in which the other guy pushed me into a conflict (in which I only did Non-lethal damage on principle) and once in a one-off Deadlands in which it was a) the last five minutes of the game, 2) I had been given a “plot” card that gave me a huge die bonus but that only worked vs another player and #) I had cause, and no clear expectation of a kill I might add.
It went like this:
ME: “That’s it, y’ low-down horny-backed sidewinder! First y’ kill-stole mah injun raider. Then y’ ran out on me when we wuz fightin’ that thur demon and done left me ter take all the damage. Then y’done shot that durned steam automaton I wuz a-climbin’ up, blowed me up an’ wounded me with scaldin’ steam into the bargain. Ah’m a-callin’ you out!”
GM: “WHAT! You’re really going for this?”
ME: “Damn straight! It’s him an’ me, face ter face at high noon. Mano y mano under the blaizin’ sun!”
Other Guy: (Rolling around laughing hysterically)
GM: “In two years of gaming I’ve never had this happen!”
ME (slipping OOC in shock): “What kind of wussies were you gaming with? There’s a whole section in the rulebook on how to duel at High Noon! Let’s get it on!”
Long story short, He shot me, I shot him. His damage was through the roof due to serial acing dice (which was how he done blowed me up, kill stole mah injun etc etc in the first place, and it allowed me much histrionic gurgling and other “realistic” death throes, “tell momma I won’t be home fer dinner” etc), my damage dropped the Other Guy – just – but he survived (goldurnit!), so another player with a grievance and a Hindrance that “forced” him to act, shot his worthless carcass deader’n’hell while he lay in the dirt.
Everyone involved was p*ssing themselves laughing. The GM was aghast. A couple of “expert” roleplayers were loudly appalled.
But the key point here was that everyone who had anything to lose was entirely happy with the result. Only the bystanders were annoyed, and they didn’t appreciate being told to but out until the lead stopped flyin’.
The secret is that this is okay when people can walk away from the table and not take any ghosts of imaginary dead people with them. Far too many ‘experienced” role-players have lost the perspective that it is all make believe and tote a grudge to the next game, the one after that etc etc.
So how do you deal with a dead character that the player really can’t live without?
Hey, it was all a dream! Dead character is not dead at all.
Hey, it was all an illusion cast by a bad guy who manipulated you for his/her/its entertainment! Dead character is not dead at all.
Hey, it was all wishful thinking in the head of the survivor. There stands his opponent, unharmed! Dead character is not dead at all.
And about 50 thousand variations on the theme. Swap out “dead” for “inconvenienced” and you can cover most bets.
If your players are as good at what they do as they say they are, and are as mature as they think they are.
“A good player realizes that group fun trumps things like this and will roleplay events in character without letting them interfere with the fun around the table.” This statement got to me a bit. Sometimes, sure, a player might simply roll up a character that is designed to be an ass. But other times, genuine disagreements will be unavoidable if all the players stay true to character, and I don’t think that dropping character to avoid a fight necessarily increases fun at the table. It might, but it also might just bother the players who had to play nice.
Sometimes PVP is a good thing: It can allow PCs to air their grievances, and allow the players to run the PCs the way they intended. As I read this article, I started thinking of all the great TV and movie moments in which fights break out among the main characters. There’s a heated argument, one guy punches out the other, then helps him to his feet and they’re back in business.
This is probably a situation that most games can handle, so long as the group’s social contract includes a “No lethal PVP” clause, perhaps along with, “Avoid PVP when reasonable.” D&D, for instance, allows PCs to turn any attack into a knock out rather than a kill. World of Darkness has bashing damage. It’s easy for PCs to duke it out so they can blow off some steam.
And now, the anecdotes!
My first encounter with this was in my long-running Planescape game. I was probably a sophomore. Two mages in the group had split from the party to track a villain, knowing he’d be in a certain area at a certain time to use a portal. Hearing a scream from an alley, they followed it, only to see the villain dash through a portal as a woman dropped to the ground near it, dead. They studied the portal and learned that it could only be opened by the death of an innocent person.
It was very important to catch this guy, and both mages thought that this was there only lead – but only one mage thought that the portal key’s price was too great. The other proceeded to dominate a person nearby and attempted to … activate the portal, but swift action from the other mage put an end both to the attempt and the first mage.
Things had been very hot between the players (not just the PCs), and this crossed a line – it seemed like we might lose a player over it. Having never dealt with this kind of thing before, I just said, “Let’s take a break,” and talked to everyone (not just the involved players) on their on. I then got everyone back together and said, “I’m saying that this never happened. Instead, we’re rewinding to right when you analyze the portal, and you learn that it can only be activated by the scream of an innocent person.” New outcome: the evil PC proceeds to lead a stranger into the ally and terrifies her with an illusion, and the other mage paid her for her trouble.
It was not a subtle decision, but I think it worked, and everyone managed to avoid those kinds of fights in the future, but it also opened the door to more cinematic PVP action. Later in the same campaign, I ran the Faction War adventure. (In Planescape, factions like philosophical groups that are also political parties, and a major component of the setting.) The PCs belonged to various factions that put them on opposite sides. When they learned that two sides were about to battle in the city, the PCs agreed that they had to defend their factions, but that they’d been through too much as a team to attack each other. Result: the PCs spent the evening on opposite sides of a tremendous battle, obliterating their enemies, but never striking one another. It was easily one of everyone’s favorite sessions.
@DireBadger – I’ve seen PC vs PC crop up a lot in vampire games, but not like you describe. The whole clan structure and intrigue aspect of the world make those kinds of actions almost expected. I don’t think my group (some of the hardcore old WOD fans) ever starts a vampire game without expecting some inter party conflict. I’m glad to see that your GM didn’t let an insta kill stand like that without his intervention and that the group stayed strong.
@Roxysteve – Sounds like an excellent and mature handling of the situation. I would have loved to have seen that. It’s a pity that the “experienced” roleplayers were giving you attitude. There are many different play styles and many different ways to resolve any situation. At the end of the day it’s all just a game with little to really lose except your time. Losing a character can suck, but it isn’t the end of the world. Plus, that standoff ending seems like it would make the perfect ending to any wild west themed game.
As a GM, I’ve intentionally orchestrated PvP interactions as a surprise for my gaming group (as in, we didn’t discuss it ahead of time). As a caveat, I know my group fairly well and this wasn’t a pickup game with strangers.
To make it work, though, I took, what I consider to be an important step, by seperating the players from their primary characters. In our case, we were playing an off day Shadowrun game; not all of the players were able to attend so we agreed to hold the main missions for the time and explore one of the character’s personal stories. The character we explored came and played himself as normal, but for all the other characters, they played pre-gens I provided for them (they got to keep kharma and nuyen accrued in game for their main character though).
Since only one person was playing their main character, no one was particularly invested in keeping their character alive. I was also careful to setup the PvP interaction for the end of the session.
Basically, one player, the group ringleader, was putting together a team to go after his nemesis but was told his character tended to play things close to the chest. Another character was hired by the nemesis, who believed the job might be related to him. That character was to infiltrate the group and gather intelligence. At the begginning, he didn’t know what was going on, but if the job was related to his boss, then he was to interfere as he could.
The final scene ended up in a shootout with the nemesis and his undercover agent flipping on the team mid gunfight after several instances of subtly undermining the team. A couple characters went down or died, but everyone had fun and got to go back to their regular characters the following session.
When it’s NOT planned, however, I tend to discourage PvP between my players. Outside the one session, I did have a few instances of players getting frustrated at another player who was “just doing what his character would do”. In my opinion, pulling that card, when its obviously frustrating other players at the table, is always a dick move. I ended up having to players on both sides of the table aside at different points, one to tell them that the fun of the group trumps an action here or there. He disagreed and we eventually agreed to retire his character at the end of the campaign to exchange it for another who he felt he could play less confrontationally. The others I had to pull aside and flat out tell them I was not willing to tolerate blatent PvP in the game when they started asking me between sessions about poisons, knockout gasses and other items that, I guessed (correctly), they were intending to use on the other character if he became a problem again.
Ironically, as a player, I’ve actively encouraged PvP, at least against my characters. In one session, my character was participating in a ritual that involved making a sacrafice and another player was torn about trying to interfere in the ritual (both in character and out). Not only did I tell him he should, I started drawing out my parts in the ritual with the intention of egging him on.
He eventually did make an attempt on my character’s life (which failed) from the shadows and fled before his identity could be discovered. It made for some great follow up roleplaying with the awkward tension between his character (who knew) and my character (who had no idea).
A friend and I once ran a game for about ten people that was essentially two adventuring groups racing towards the same goal. We worked it out so they’d each reach the final room at the same time. The plan was that they’d have a couple rounds to fight one another/race for the treasure and then they’d have to join together to face a dragon (whose hoard they were unwittingly raiding).
The thing that killed me was that once the dragon appeared… they kept fighting each other. The two groups combined should have easily been able to take the dragon, but because they were ignoring the dragon in favor of attacking each other, the dragon was pretty much able to take out half the PCs.
Not exactly the same thing you were describing, but because the scenario had been set up for PVP (the characters had intertwining back-stories, so there were rivalries already set up) they wouldn’t put that aside for the greater evil. It was a very interesting experience as a GM.
I had a near PvP incident in a Deadlands game once. The group (assembled only by the fact they were all in the same train car) consisted of a Texas Ranger and Pinkerton each of which had the same general goal. There could’ve been a gunfight, but it wound up being more of a cold war where they sabotaged each other from time to time to further their own goals while still working with the rest of the party.
Just yesterday in my serenity game one player almost got lynched by half the party until the other half threatened to intercede on his behalf.
Admitedly the player who was going to have his character killed was insulting his would be killers making the situation very hard to diffuse without taking away everyones control of thier characters.
It only ended when I told the crew they recieved a broadcast from niska… that shut them up quickly.
In Shadowrun, our already slightly dodgy mage made a deal with a devil. It was done in private (in context) but our physad was already suspicious of him. In character it was more or less business as usual, but out of character the players agreed to hold off outright hostilities until we finished our job abroad and got back to Seattle. The agreement leeched into play to some extent, but there was still plenty of IC mistrust and paranoia brewing. It added good flavour to the game, but I was particularly glad that the players involved took the initiative to determine the timing of the inevitable showdown in a way that didn’t seriously impact on the A plot (the mission) that the other three players were invested in.
The same deal applied in my games too–if planned, like two groups of PCs racing toward a goal or a one-shot with the conflict as the theme, it’s great. For long term play, I really dissuade people from having their PCs fight, particularly engaging their lethal tools. After all, how much is everyone else going to have to metagame to justify continuing to allow the loose cannon to continue adventuring with them after that?
PvP in games I have run usually come about through irritation – one player or another feels totally justified (or drunk) and the other acts out of irritation, more than any roleplaying motive. I’ve also seen a lot of rogues try to steal party loot and equipment, apparently forgetting that “fun” means “fun for everyone”, and that, if the theft is discovered in game there are not many ways forward. Even if it’s not discovered in game, the victim player is resentful.
I’m still a relative newcomer to the hobby, but I have dealt with my share of PvP and have developed methods of making sure it’s kept in reasonable bounds.
Firstly, it depends on the player. I need to know if a player can be trusted not to carry things too far if they want to initiate PvP, as it can very quickly spiral out of control.
Secondly, it depends on the game itself as some games don’t lend themselved well to PvP. The best example of this is D&D 4e, players are far too powerful to fight each other and monsters are based on different rules to players. So, after a disastrous first and only attempt, serious PvP in 4e always gets a no from me, though I have had people try and convince me to change their mind.
You can work with the player, but they need to remember that they will be an antagonist and will likely lose.
The main thing I have against PvP is that the people who usually request it are rather selfish in their outlook. Their focus is on their character and conveniently forget that the GM is trying to manage the entire group and keep things happy between players. I’ve had to remind a player once that the game was NOT just about him. Fortunately, he has left the group and there was much rejoicing.
It can be a very fine line between fun PVP and aggravating PVP. In my current game there is some PVP conflict, but no direct attacks. Its Shadowrun so a bit of conflict feels appropriate, but that switch can flip on a moments notice.
In the right convention game PVP can make the game. A little paranoia can go a long long way.