Thursday, December 20, 2012

Roleplaying and Player vs. Player Conflict

Everyone who has played a role playing game has at some point experienced sessions, or even campaigns, that contain Player vs. Player conflict.  When it comes to MMORPGs, there are some who claim that Player vs. Player is their favorite mode of play.  There are even Pen and Paper RPGs that have Player vs. Player treachery as the primary motivating factor for the game -- PARANOIA I'm looking at you.  There is definitely a time and a place for PvP play, it can be highly rewarding.  Much of the game industry is based on the assumption that the players will be playing against one another and not cooperatively.

One of the major innovations of RPGs was that they stressed player cooperation rather than competition.  A fact that many DMs didn't take enough to heart in the early days.  Which brings to mind how important it is to understand what your players expect from a game, and how to set expectations to minimize disappointment if a group has decided to embark on a PvP campaign experience.  After all, who hasn't lost a friend or two over a game of DIPLOMACY due to a breaking of that game's "magic circle" when someone used real world commitments/obligations to shape outcomes in the game.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  Player vs. Player conflict can be great in a game, but "inner party" strife can ruin a game.  If the players of a game are expecting this: 

And they get this as a part of adventure design:

You can end up with some very disappointed players.

I recently had this occur during a recent season of D&D Encounters (The Council of Spiders adventure).  The module is set up so that the characters distrust one another and have conflicting objectives.  To add to the intraparty conflict, WotC released "Treachery" cards that can be used during play.  The treachery cards cause bad things to happen to your fellow players -- or take advantage of bad things already happening to them -- and give you a benefit.  The intention is to create a sense of paranoia and drama.  It's a decent goal, but it can end with disappointed players.

This is due to a couple of reasons:

  1. Player expectations -- Many people play RPGs because they want a collaborative experience where they work with others to achieve objectives.
  2. Mary Sue Syndrome -- The descriptor might sound derogatory.  Don't take it that way.  Many players are playing romanticized versions of themselves.  This is true even when they aren't playing a character who seems remotely like themselves.  Players care about their characters and they want control over them.  When PvP erupts in an RPG it often makes a player feel threatened...and by other players no less.  This can lead "at the table" conflict to leave the magic circle of play and bleed over into real life.  This isn't good, and unless you're playing PARANOIA this is a real risk.  Let me restate this again.  Players play characters again and again because they like them.  If they perceive that character is being directly threatened, they may take it as a slight against themselves.
  3. Most Players Don't Really Suspend Disbelief -- What separates good actors from bad actors?  One trait is the ability of good actors -- even ones who aren't "transformed" in each role -- is there ability to immerse themselves in a role and completely separate themselves from the actions of the character.  Most gamers aren't good actors.  The veil of suspended belief is thin.  They are usually not roleplaying.  They often take "roleplayed" moments more seriously than they should.  As a DM, I have roleplayed NPCs who were jerks to one or more players.  I have often had to go out of my way to let players -- who thought I was beating up on them -- know that it was only the character behaving this way, that I was acting.  This surprises some players as they expect you to do something like say "so and so says" rather than for you to affect a voice and act it out straight.
  4. Metagaming -- Players will use information they don't have against their peers.  Did the Evil High Priest secretly tell player A to plant evidence that player B was a member of an evil cult?  Guess what.  If there has been time between sessions, player B will begin looking for that evidence.  This is true even if player B would have no idea the planting of evidence is occurring.  They will act on player information and be hurt when they are called on it.  Why?  See #3 and #4. Ask me about a Vampire LARP experience regarding this kind of conflict where players teamed up against a storyteller's character -- an Antediluvian Settite -- because characters were acting on player knowledge.   They had a big gathering.  Every vampire in the session knew the guy was a Settite.  Everyone.  Even though his power was to make people do stuff without knowing who told them to or why.  They were supposed to think it was their own idea.  It took some very skilled ad libbing from a co-storyteller to transform the narrative into making this "trial" the key piece of action.  The action was supposed to be around the Prince.  But people didn't want to "hurt" their friends, so they acted on player knowledge and reworked a whole narrative.  It worked.  No one's feelings were hurt, but it was still a mess. 
In my opinion, Player vs. Player conflict can be a powerful narrative tool.  After all, the source of all DRAMA is conflict.  Thing is in player vs. player conflict -- that isn't entirely pre-scripted and then acted out line by line by actors but is actually played -- things can get messy.  They often do get messy.  I would argue that setting up cases of player conflict should be rare.  I might even recommend avoiding them altogether.  You'll have a happier table, even if it is one that misses out on some "dramatic opportunities."

1 comment:

Leonardo said...

Interesting post!
First things first, I think we need to distinguish between a game that is based on player vs player conflicts and a game that is based on character vs character conflicts.
They can be pretty different things and, when done right, they might be built on entirely different expectations and principles.

A game like the upcoming Blood Red Sands for example, assumes and is designed around the idea that players will compete for victory (while still playing in a fair way) and if you don't give all you've got in order to defeat your friends you are actually making a disservice to them, the same way you would if you were playing basketball or a competitive boardgame against someone without really trying to win. In order for the game to work and be fun you have to provide meaningful opposition and to do that effectively you need to apply and exert yourself.

On the other hand there are other games - Dogs in the Vineyard, The Mountain Witch, The Riddle of Steel, Primetime Adventures, The Shadow of Yesterday just to name a few that immediately come to my mind)- that work best when character vs character conflicts are an heavy part of the game. In these kind of games each player is somewhat expected to put his own character interests in the way of other players characters interests because, like you said, character conflict is the root of good drama and these games aim at collectively telling a passionate story through the roleplaying of fictional characters in fictional situations.
When players set up their characters to clash and conflict with each other while playing such games they are actually collaborating with their friends to make the game fun for everyone.

I think that at least two basic things are required for these games to work at all:
1) The text in the manual should be crystal clear about the kind of experience that the game is supposed to support and produce, so that players may sit to the table fully conscious of what kind of game they are going to play and what roles the rules are going to assign to each of them.
2) The game need to be designed to support these kind of play style, with mechanics that are purposefully developed to deal with player vs player or character vs character conflicts in mind. By codifying the resolution of conflicts into rules the designer is able to better equip people with a tool that is meant to avoid that fictional conflicts between characters end up spilling in the real world, causing strife at the social level, between real people. Like you can't get angry at your friend when he rolls better than you and destroy a couple of your armies while playing Risk, you can't be angry at him when he just play by the rules in a competitive or character-conflict-based formalized roleplaying game.