In other kinds of games, PvP often means pure competition. Kill, invade, outbid, defeat. The opposition is defeated and you win, or you didn’t perform at your best today and you lose. It’s straightforward either way.
But in the land of pens, papers, dungeons, and dragons, it’s not straightforward at all. Competing player against player easily becomes personal, or invites unwelcome meta conflicts. Conflicts from the real world bleeding over into the game, or vice versa, disrupting or even ruining a game entirely.
Maybe this is why many roleplayers are adamant against intraparty conflict. It’s anathema to what roleplaying is considered to be. The elf and dwarf may bicker a bit, but at the end of the day they’re still friends. They can grow in their relationship and learn to trust each other to the point where the dwarf can be reluctantly tossed. Their differences can be safely ignored in the interest of player friendship and group dynamics.
Things like class protection, combat balancing, archetypes, and skill specialisation attempts to smooth over character differences by using the system as a context. It tells you to stay within your own personal boundaries. Many, if not most, roleplayers want it this way.
But there are ways to make intraparty conflict interesting and rewarding. Ways to make it enhance your experience.
To get to what this can look like, we’ll dive into a number of different kinds of intraparty conflict. After reading about them, maybe you’ll want to try some of them out, or you may know what warning signs to look for when it’s going sour.
Player or Character?
It’s important to note that it’s very rarely player versus player we’re actually talking about. It’s character versus character. It’s actually bad form to refer to characters as players, but it’s words that are often used interchangeably to mean the same things.
The player is the person around your table. The character is their alter ego in play, or whatever setup you may have. There are games where everyone shares a single character, games where each player plays multiple characters, and a long range of other variants that break from the one character per player norm.
But anyway, remember this difference. Your character is having a conflict with the other player’s character. You shouldn’t make things personal. It’s not actually player versus player.
Talk About It
For many players, roleplaying is a safe space, and it’s extremely important that real life conflicts don’t bleed over into the game or vice versa. Characters are heroes who delve into dungeons to fight monsters and collect treasure. They don’t glance behind their back to make sure the other heroes aren’t sneaking in to stab them when they’re not looking.
For this reason, the first step in any intraparty conflict is to explain that it exists, and that it’s fine. It’s also good to establish rules that the table can accept. General things like “avoid killing other characters,” or specific things like “Player X isn’t comfortable with raised voices.”
If you establish these things beforehand, everyone can expect the unexpected in a way that make players more comfortable.
Playing to Lose
If you play boardgames or long role-playing campaigns, playing to lose may not come naturally. You may always enter scenes intent on killing the enemy and taking the treasure, whatever the metaphorical context may be.
But if you want potentially more interesting stories, it’s a good idea to think more about what your character would do. Not just as an exercise in thinking as your character, but also as a kind of director’s or author’s perspective of what would be interesting for the character to pursue. If you play the father who is betrayed by his son, would you betray the son right back, or would you let yourself be betrayed so that your legacy lives on?
Failure and losing are natural parts of good stories, and allowing yourself to fail can often push things forward in ways you’d never think of if you always succeeded. So step down sometimes and don’t make everything about winning.
This is directly related to a human (predominantly male) instinct to say “no” to other people’s suggestions, without hesitation. Don’t say no. Say yes, but; or yes, and. Extrapolate on suggestions, don’t shoot them down. Let other players have fun without having to fight you tooth and nail. It will make the role-playing a lot more interesting.
If you can adopt a mindset of playing to lose, the rest of this gibberish will make a lot more sense.
This is probably the most common form of intraparty conflict and one that tends to exist in one form or another in every group, regardless of the group’s ideas on the matter.
It’s the kind of conflict that can spring up from wanting the same rewards, or planning different routes to the next stage in the adventure. No, we can’t go through the goblin caves. Yes, I deserve the shining jewel-encrusted sword.
You may not consider some of these things rivalry, in any real sense, but they are. Small inconsequential victories for the most part, but they’re also excellent opportunities for roleplaying. But they also have the same problems that you’ll see are quite consistent between different forms of intraparty conflict.
Things will break down if the rivalry becomes petty. If you close the door in a character’s face, steal their coins, or sabotage minor actions constantly, the table will be annoyed and not entertained. Rivalry is not an excuse to behave badly or to bully one player.
Also avoid meta conflict. Someone’s rivalry against you may cause you to lose once—that doesn’t require that they lose in the future. Vendettas can escalate to absurd levels sometimes, and simply letting someone have their win causes less friction than forcing them to lose later.
Interesting rivalry should affect play when it fits and feels fair. If it goes too much against what everyone around the table believes it’ll risk becoming bad rivalry.
In a way, this goes hand in hand with the Hollywood concept of “foiling,” where you provide characters with contrasting traits to help carry each other narratively. If it fits and makes sense, everyone can enjoy it.
If a group has a natural leader, mutiny is the process of replacing that leader with yourself. This can be a sudden armed revolt or it can be a gradual remonstration of the leader’s actions culminating in a fair democratic dethroning. It doesn’t have to be violent, but since many role-playing games come packed with cool combat moves, it often is.
A mutiny risks derailing a campaign, and for the wrong reasons. It easily becomes personal since it targets a specific individual. It’s not uncommon for the sum total result of a mutiny to be that one character dies, and that the player who lost that character returns with a new character purpose-built for vengeance. This is just dumb, and doesn’t make the game more fun for anyone.
Focusing on the disruptiveness and personal enmity of mutiny is almost always bad, and has ended many otherwise excellent campaigns prematurely.
Establishing the conflict in the common space, and giving it time to reach fruition, is the only practical way to do mutiny justice. Allow it to shrink and grow to the extent required, and let players veto its existence in-character if they find it necessary. Let it take time before it culminates.
A change of leadership may even happen amicably if it’s discussed by the table and not only by the parties involved. Also avoid violence to the extent possible. Violence escalates the conflict unnecessarily and tends to limit the potential outcomes to death or survival, making it suddenly more important to shoot first (like Han) than to actually roleplay a resolution. Use the threat of violence, but avoid resorting to actual violence.
A single player’s treason against the rest of the group can be a shocking reveal that takes a campaign in an entirely new direction, or it can be an eye-roll-inducing catastrophe. It can also be any of the things in-between.
In a way, it’s the thematic opposite of mutiny.
If it’s too unexpected, treason is bad. If it’s too obvious, treason is bad. It has a poorly strung tightrope you must walk or it won’t work. Bad treason is also lethal or absolute in some other way. When the stranded team of adventurers realize that their plane has been sabotaged by another player, when it’s already obvious that the traitor has won, it merely becomes punctuation to a confused sentence. It doesn’t add anything. If the group got to play that event, they’d feel a lot more invested, and the sabotage can feel fair.
In the moment, the group needs you to push down on that red button. They also know that you have your own reasons not to. Can they trust you to do what you need to do for them, or will you side with the enemy?
These kinds of situations are hard to construct, but they’re incredibly rewarding. They shouldn’t be absolute (see Bad Treason), and they should always provide a window for the traitor’s redemption. Maybe not the fifth time it happens, but at least as a basic assumption. If you don’t press the button and a million innocents die that doesn’t leave much room, but if you don’t press the button, and someone breaks a leg, that can be redeemable.
It’s hard to balance on the edge of meaningful but redeemable, and simply criminal, and different groups will have different tolerances. But if this is hard to achieve, treason is probably not your cup of tea to begin with.
Information asymmetry is one of those staples of storytelling that work for some roleplaying groups and completely ruins the experience for others. Once it’s established that things aren’t necessarily true, or that some players may be less or more than they seem, it can cause a snowballing effect of related paranoia.
Some groups thrive on this, while other groups find the integrity of the party to be a pillar that can’t be allowed to collapse.
When death becomes the only outcome to a conspiratorial misunderstanding, it ruins the suspense. It also escalates the meaning of information asymmetry from implicative narrative tool to death sentence.
Once more, it can become grounds for a meta vendetta that spreads across characters, time, and space, and ruins the experience for everyone around the table.
Having to second-guess what other players say, dig deeper into unrelated statements, and attempt to connect dots where there may be no dots to connect—this makes for some great roleplaying opportunities.
You need to know more, but you also need to protect your own secrets. Paranoid inquiries, veiled interrogations, false flag actions against other characters, and all the fun staples of espionage thrillers are fantastic tools to use in intraparty conflicts and may alone warrant the whole idea of intraparty conflict in roleplaying games. Because if you pull these things off, they are some of the coolest things that can happen around a gaming table.
In most written campaigns, big plot reveals and central developments are the GM’s to hand out. Players are the main cast, but they don’t drive the story. This is not always the case, however, and sometimes it can be great to parcel out information to the group without turning it into a conspiracy.
It can be as simple as a piece of knowledge that’s unique to a character’s background, or as complex as you want to make it. One player may be the only one who knows, same as their character, or the secret can be public knowledge among the players even before the characters are supposed to know.
“What?! Have you known this whole time, and said nothing? I’ll kill you…”
You don’t want that. You also don’t want a reveal to change known facts, at least not too much. If the archvillain of archvillainy turns out to be a nice chap who likes flowered tea, this is maybe something that should’ve been established earlier.
The timing is also important. Just as the group stands on the threshold of the new dungeon maybe isn’t the time to reveal that you’ve always known that this dungeon is home to a red dragon, when the rest of the group thinks it’s just a goblin cave. It could be an excellent opportunity for roleplaying however.
Information that is allowed to be secret until it matters the most can make for powerful reveals. Of course, the danger here is that it becomes a deus ex machina; something a bit all too convenient.
A revelation can also be a good way for a player to get some more space. Especially for players who may have a hard time getting attention in a group full of very vocal players.
I need to eat and you need to eat, but there’s just the one Snickers bar. Do we share it, fight over it, or hand it to the person bleeding out in the corner?
Survival scenarios step way back down Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs into the personal demand for food and security. Lofty goals like saving the world seem less relevant when you’re freezing to death or being chased by the livid dead.
Like few other things, survival can become truly tedious. If you need to bicker over every single thing you come across, or one character becomes too dominant or too dominated, the fun is quickly bled out of the experience.
Decisions should be important, but not all decisions can be life or death, or invite group argumentation. If you resolve one “who should get to eat today?” argument, then maybe avoid having them for a while. Let players reinforce the mood through conflicts, but don’t make it a chore. Especially not if you have the very same arguments over and over and over and over, and for several hours. Campaigns have ended under such circumstances.
Conflicts around survival are interesting if there are relevant choices to make. If you come across some batteries, plugging them into the flashlight or the radio provides very different options. One player is likely to represent each choice, and the conflict that grows out of it will feel natural and manageable.
Encourage players to come up with their own conflicts like this. What they need and why they need it more than someone else, then let them all take some space as it fits.
Roleplaying tends to be an activity where there is no winner. This is deeply ingrained in the whole hobby. It’s something we often write in forewords and how-to-plays. But even if the activity doesn’t generally have winners, the story may, and it can sometimes be quite interesting to explore outright competition.
We can’t all get the cool new title, or score the same in the archery competition, after all. Besides, there are games who are completely written with competition in mind. For example the excellent old Dallas role-playing game, and the ninja-powered Shinobigami.
Gloating opportunities are bad. Unfair advantages are bad. All of the game design adages concerning victory apply the same to adventures or roleplaying games featuring victory.
It’s also bad if a victory is final and doesn’t leave any opportunities for continued competition. Maybe not under the very same circumstances, but in a roleplaying context it’s perfectly fine to hand out consolation prizes.
At the same time, it can be bad to devalue a prize too much. If it matters too little it can make the competition uninteresting.
Let everyone feel like they could’ve won, even when they didn’t. A sense of fairness goes a long way. You rarely want an outright winner-takes-all situation, but a few more layers of nuance that allows the roleplaying to take the front seat rather than the will to win. Give players some space to leave themselves out and keep the character in control.
In Dallas, the setup is strictly defined when a scenario starts. Each player wants to take control over a certain number of assets. Which assets a specific player needs to collect is only known to that player. What this setup means is that multiple players can win at the same time, and may even figure out ways to cooperate to win mutually. This makes for good roleplaying opportunities.
Intraparty conflict can be fun. Maybe not fun in the tickly giggly sense, but definitely fun in an entertainment sense. Some players will never like it and shouldn’t have to endure it. Other players can accept some forms, not others.
The last kind of player, where yours truly is coming from, enjoys it maybe more than any other conflicts around the table. By moving the central dilemmas of the group and their story to the players and their characters, and not to external threats presented by a GM, you open up for very different kinds of experiences.
No matter what kind of player or GM you are, there should be something for you to explore in the space of intraparty conflict.
Please, do so; and in doing so, explore more ways to have fun with roleplaying as a hobby.