Monday, October 31, 2011

Player vs. Player

I have been thinking lately of the old trope of players vs. players in D&D campaigns, primarily because it has emerged in a few games like an unwanted relative.  I have been playing one particular campaign in which everyone is a friend for so long, I haven't had to deal with this.

I've played in, observed and heard about campaigns where this is a common theme.  Online comics like to play it up for all its worth, particularly the trope about the thief slipping into the treasure room and pocketing the nicest stuff before the party sees it.  You see players killing one another a la Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but its there ... and of course quite a few DMs think its hilarious.

For myself, as a player, I've always found it a little difficult to stomach.  After all, I am interacting socially with a person who is either gloating or otherwise behaving like an asshole as they kill something I've worked to keep alive and healthy, and that I've grown attached to ... and I'm expected to simply consider it 'part of the game.'  I'm not to consider the action boorish, or proof of a lacking character.

When I was a boy, I had a grandfather whose favorite game in the world was cribbage, and who took great glee in being able to call 'muggins' on my 10-year-old self.  For those of you who may not know, in the game of cribbage, if you count your cards for less points than they're worth, and then peg the total you've counted incorrectly, your opponent can declare "muggins" and count those points themselves.  Thus, if you are a ten-year-old boy, and you have not played cribbage for sixty years, and have therefore not had all this time to train yourself to be a self-serving asshole, you can expect to lose a couple of points a game to a grandfather whose belief system includes taking advantage of this difference.

My grandfather used to tell me that it would "smarten me up" to the ways of the world, clearly with the expectation that someday I would be able to skin players with less skill - or commitment to winning, I suppose - than I would eventually have under my grandfather's tutelage.  It was supposed to teach me to count cards more fastidiously.  What it taught me was not to play cards with my grandfather.

If today I found myself playing cribbage with someone who called 'muggins' on me, I believe my first inclination would be to punch them in the face.  I wouldn't do that, of course.  I haven't punched anyone in the face since grade school.  But my second inclination would be to tell them what assholes they were, rise from the table, and never play cribbage with them again.  Or anything else, for that matter.  I don't associate with people like this.

My parents, incidentally, played cribbage all the time, and the house rule was that if a hand was counted improperly, other people helped to make sure the count was right and the game continued in a friendly, competitive manner.  So I guess my grandfather's influence on his children didn't go very far.

It isn't that there aren't people playing cut-throat D&D.  It's only that I would like these people to be hit by a bus or something ... if they can't learn the error of their ways, that is, and smarten up.

To discourage this behavior, I usually try to play a wide-open game ... that is, I don't often share secret information with one part of the party and intentionally keep others in the dark.  I used to do this all the time - it seemed like fun, taking people out into the back to describe something only they could see, or encouraging players not to be open about their characters, or encouraging secret messages to be sent around the table.  In the long run, however, all this really did was to create a level of distrust which eventually disrupted the game and drove off players.

Some gentle readers might react to this assertion with the sentiment that players who would quit a game over something like this weren't good enough to play.  Or 'mature' enough.  Or some other belief my grandfather would have appreciated, that 'strong' players don't crumble because their characters are killed.  That is, that 'muggins' is part of the game, and if you can't play with muggins then you don't deserve to play.

I have found, generally, that without all the running around behind other people's backs, players form a camaraderie that is much, much stronger than backstabbing and player-from-player theft will allow.  Games tend to improve with time, rather than fall apart.  Players respect one another.  Players treat each other with compassion and concern.  This doesn't seem like a bad thing to me.  It sounds a game that 'adults' would play.  Adults who can work for long-term goals and not short-term gain.

And I'm funny.  I prefer to play with adults.


SupernalClarity said...

I'm curious, Alexis: have you ever experienced, or otherwise been privy to, a player-versus-player encounter that wasn't detrimental to the game?

If you don't mind a little digression: in my experience playing D&D, I've actually managed to have some intra-party conflicts that felt apropos to the story at hand, and the drama of which left everyone in the group thoroughly entertained. Granted, these conflicts rarely resulted in irreparable harm—it might sound clich├ęd, but the idea of a hero temporarily giving in to villainous temptations yet remaining reticent to turn against his lifelong allies has worked quite well.

All that being said, I can't deny your point here. Most PVP conflicts, as I have also seen, are nothing but a major detriment to the campaign. It's unfortunate, but I suppose I would much rather have players working together than have them trying (and failing) to have worthwhile conflicts.

Alexis said...

Yes, in fact I've seen quite a few player-vs.-player interplays that were very entertaining ... I'm just not certain they were, in the long run, good for the party or the game. They tended to lead into the circumstance you suggest, Supernal - 'trying' to get that moment back again, and it going sour.

Oddbit said...

I've only been in one PvP scenario, and it was slightly convoluted. The paladin was corrupted, and the GM brought some other players in to be the villains (guest GMs basically.) The whole thing was built to be the end of the campaign in a big demon-invasion-four-horsemen scenario thing with many intended cheap shots.

I was alright with the assistant GMs, and the turned player wasn't very active anyhow. The best player left to go back to Germany so it was really down to us uncoordinated dregs.

In another game however (an evil campaign) I was in the position to murder my companions and steal their things. I didn't take it due to it being just plain stupid. Though I did take the opportunity to gloat over them in classic evil wizard fashion.

Giordanisti said...

I wonder to what extent the applicability of PvP conflicts is determined by the rule base of the game. In D&D there is the implicit structure of the "party", which adventures together and for better or worse are deemed to be allies (regardless of trials and tribulations). This means that any PvP that goes on is almost by definition detrimental to the campaign as a whole: as you said, that thief may be getting a little more loot, but dragons are much easier to slay as a tem, and by stealing from other players he is fragmenting some portion of the team.

However, there are role-playing games wherein team-based slaying of monsters is NOT the point of the system, where players are rewarded for things other than combat. The RPG I play most is The Burning Wheel, the rule system of which is designed to create character-driven story, rather than creating problem-solving situations (which I understand is your interpretation of D&D's goal--correct me if I'm wrong).

So, in a game where character-driven story is king, PvP conflicts are exceedingly useful for creating interesting stories. What's more, because the GOAL is that story, players themselves don't get angry at one another for "harmful" character interaction. PvP allows for tremendously complex and dynamic storylines that would be difficult to create with standard players vs. DM situations.