Interparty conflict is a spectre that almost every Gamemaster dreads at the table. If handled badly, it can lead to hurt feelings, group break ups and in severe cases it can lead to loss of friendships. I honestly don’t blame most GM’s from banning it outright in their games.
However, I do believe it has a place, and if handled correctly it can add depth and impact to a story, that the gamemaster couldn’t have managed on their own.
As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I run different styles of games. In addition to the table top D&D game I run, I also run LARP games, and help plan and develop rules and plots for a large national LARP organization. There one of the goals we have is to encourage a certain amount of PVP (Player vs Player, as opposed to PVE or Player vs Environment) in our games. When you have 20-60 players at a local LARP game, and 4-5 x that many at a convention, you need the players help in order to make the game move along. It’s an incredibly different experience than running a game with 4-8 people for a tabletop game.
What it has taught me though is pvp can be managed for the good of the game, even in a table top setting. I realize I tend to ramble on with analogy’s from my own games, however I have to say that I’ve been fortunate enough that the group I have is fairly mature, and we’re very good friends. It’s probably fortunate, as we’ve had some heated moments whether discussing politics or religion, or playing games.
Several years ago, I ran a rather long L5R campaign. Lasted for just over two years, and the players were deeply involved in the game. The Red Sun Rising game, is one I’ve tried hard to replicate in later games and have had a hard time capturing that essence. One of the things that made that game memorable was the ending. The players had figured out the Mad Emperor’s plans, and were dashing across the empire to save his sister from him. She and her guards had been surprised and overpowered, and the PC’s had to preserve the Hantei bloodline somehow. The mad emperor had made a deal with the Shadow Dragon in order to learn a ritual that would allow him to cross over into the realm of the dragons, where he could slay the water dragon while it slept.
As the campaign had progressed, two of the characters had become corrupted by the shadow dragon, one had received shadow brands from his previous clan (The Scorpion) and the other in a moment of weakness, had reached out for anything that could save his life. The Shadow Dragon answered and saved him, but in doing so gained access to his soul.
In the final rush to prevent the ritual and save the princess’s life, the shadow dragon whispered into the characters minds, terrible things. The idea was, the players would then attempt to defy the Shadow Dragon, and have to deal with the internal struggle of duty vs honor.
Imagine my surprise when both players took the whispering at face value and dived right in to assist the dragon. One delayed the group for several critical moments while he “waited for scouting reports” or something along those lines, and the other continued in with the group. Once inside the temple, they had found the emperor had already crossed over. The party, not willing, or not thinking of using the princesses blood to cross over themselves, simply waited for the emperor to return and struck him down the very instant he stepped back across into the realm of mortals. They had stabilized the princess. At that exact point though, the emperors death caused the temple to go pitch black. And the other party member struck, striking a mortal blow upon the princess.
Needless to say, there was a bit of vein popping, and red faced cussing going on, while most of the group was equally aghast at what just happened, and terribly amused at the antics of the player of the daimyo of their small clan, who was probably contemplating murder for just half a second. His character ended up sacrificing his life (after cutting down the traitor of course) in order to prevent the princess from dying, and to heal her. It was a powerful scene, and it made for an epic story.
While emotions were running high and a bit hot, it was less about the fact that the players of the betrayers took the actions, and more that the player of the daimyo had been at the cusp of victory and watched most of his victory get snatched from their group. They still joke and talk about that game today, usually punctuated by a good natured rant about the lack of character some individuals seem to have.
We’ve had more direct pvp as well, where players actively plotted against one another, and I’ve even ran a semi-larp L5R game where all of the players had competing interests, to cause drama that put the tension between honor and duty etc.
For the most part, its all worked out well. Almost all of the pvp in tabletop games has been story related. Some of the rivalries that have developed over the years seem to lead to a bit of a heavy rivalry in game, which has had to been sorted out, but the players typically have done that on their own with little or no assistance from me when I’ve been running the game. Likewise we’ve had some younger players who weren’t quite capable of handling the separation from their characters and themselves, and we’ve had to take a break from game to explain that no, we’re not picking on them, rather that their character had been doing things that was detrimental to the party and as a result other characters had gotten mad at their character. Usually at that point the older players would back off from the conflict some, and we’d move forward.
The key I believe, is that the conflict/rivalry etc needs to be able to drive the story forward. Whether it’s because two or more pc’s have a differing take on an issue, or they just can’t get along, or they have opposing goals, the conflict absolutely has to have a root in the story. In essence the conflict needs to add, rather detract from the game. The conflict doesn’t need to result in character death. It could be that two pc’s keep going back and forth for a while, and ultimately end up having a showdown, or it could be that it’s the old, “me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, all of us against you” kind of mentality as well. Regardless of the roots of it, make sure that everyone is doing their best to ensure that it’s not for out of character reasons.
Second, know your group. If your group can’t handle that kind of story without taking it personally, focus on other ways to drive your game forward. Not all groups are created equal. I’ve played in some rather cutthroat games of cyberpunk/shadowrun (same group) where if you showed weakness the party would tear your character apart like a pack of wolves. It wasn’t the most pleasant first game, but I adapted to their style and had fun with them over time. I’ve also played in a few sessions where even the mildest disagreements would stop games to ensure no-ones feelings were hurt. I personally prefer something a little closer to the cyberpunk games mentioned above, without going full tilt dick mode.
Lastly, make sure you as a gamemaster understand where you want the game to go. If you think the group can handle some interparty conflict while maintaining character and keeping it all in game, don’t hesitate to use it as a tool in helping getting the story told. If it brings out some real emotion during play, take a few minutes, drop out of character, tell some jokes, whatever to defuse it then continue on. It’s kind of our goals in some ways for us as gamemaster to invoke real emotional responses from our players in the course of us running our games. Those will be the ones they really remember.
As usual, rambled on here. More to come.