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The Play's the Thing

When Players Attack

by David Goodner
May 20,2003

 

The Play's the Thing

By David Goodner

When Players Attack

Welcome back.

Last time I talked about GM generated conflict, but that's really only part of the picture. In a lot of games, it's the biggest part of the picture. In fact, it's kind of the default assumption in most games: the GM comes up with a plot, and the players interact with it.

But there are other options. In games like Amber or most social LARPs Player vs. Player conflict is assumed to play a big part. Even in more traditional games, PCs can have conflicting goals. Players can also initiate plots of their own. In fact, one of my favorite ways to GM is to give the players a setting and see what they find to do there, only stepping in with my own plot events when it seems like fun.

So let's talk about Player-generated conflict. In previous columns, I have talked about having goals for your character, and how they don't all need to be in harmony with the rest of the group. PC goals are the seeds of Player-generated conflict.

Well, they're the seeds of good Player-generated conflict. Real-life disagreements being dragged into the game in stupid, immature ways are the seeds of more than a few Player-generated conflicts.

But let's talk about the constructive ones, instead. As a Player, you have the potential to generate conflict whenever you have your character pursue his goals. That conflict can go in two basic directions. Player vs. GM, or Player vs. Player.

Player vs. GM

Player vs. GM conflict is fairly similar to the usual setup in gaming. In fact, it can be hard to tell who's generating the conflict sometimes. The PC tries to do something, and the GM puts obstacles in his way. The PC reacts, and the cycle repeats. The only real difference is in who started it, which can have one major consequence. If the Player does something the GM really didn't' expect, the GM has to improvise.

I probably don't need to mention that some GMs are better at improvising than others.

The Platonic Ideal GM would have considered every possibility and would already be prepared for that course of action. I am not, nor have I ever played with such a GM. Fortunately, there are ways to fake it.

A really good GM probably knows enough about his setting to figure out how to react on the fly. Since most of my games are only informally mapped out at best, I'm doing a lot of that anyway. I spend more time figuring out who the NPCs are and what they're likely to do than I do working out exact events, so my players can't do too much that's unexpected. I wasn't expecting anything anyway.

(They have really floored me more than once, though.)

A less flexible GM might stonewall the player temporarily, or, better yet ask the player, out of character, to hold off for a while, until he figures out what to do. I've had to do that a couple of times. I think the result was better than if I'd tried to work completely in the dark.

A really inflexible GM could just make the unexpected actions impossible or force them to end in automatic failure. This is commonly called "railroading" or "bad GMing." Bad GMs will even do it when the Players are following the "main" plot, but in an unexpected way.

As a Player, here's what you need to think about:

How open is the GM to Player-initiated plots?

I've run and played on both ends of the spectrum: games that pretty much ran on rails, and games that didn't run at all unless the players found something interesting to do. I'm happiest somewhere in between, with the GM presenting a compelling plot for the players to unravel, but with room for some pretty significant subplots that the players introduce.

In fact, I'm gearing up to play in a Witchcraft game (finally) in the next month or so, and I tacked about two pages of subplot ideas onto my character background. I told the GM what kind of things I'd like to see, and what I'd generally be doing if left to my own devices. He seemed to appreciate it. We'll have to see how it goes when the game starts (if we don't end up playing Champions instead, with a different GM)

This gets into some fundamental gaming issues. If you really, really want to be able to pursue your character's own agenda, and your GM really, really wants to run just his plot, then it might be that you should find a different game. More often, though, it's just a matter of striking a balance and smoothing out the difference between play styles. For instance, I personally love it when my players tell me what their character goals are so I can work opportunities to pursue those goals into my plans.

I guess that turns a Player-generated plot into a GM-generated one, but I'm not really sure.

How important are your character's personal goals?

Assuming the GM has a plot in mind, you might have to prioritize a little. To this day, I still don't understand what was going through the player of Jason's mind in my Now is the Winter Vampire chronicle. I'd pretty much established that one of two evil Malkavians was well on the way to completely shattering the Masquerade beyond all repair, and wanted to kill the PCs just out of spite (Jason in particular). Further, the Prince was the only guy around who could stand up to him one-on-one. Even further, Jason's own Sire wanted him to help the Prince.

But Jason thought now would be a good time to try to spark a minor Anarch revolt and seize power for Clan Brujah.

Well, in a way I guess I could see his point. Still, it was a pain to find ways to convince Jason to at least look in the direction of my plot from time to time, and he took up more of my time than was really fair to the other players.

My rule of thumb is "Saving the world" outranks "wining the heart of the fair damsel." If the GM has a strong plot, I'll usually try to follow it to as great an extent as is logical for my character, but try to get time for my personal goals whenever I can.

Back in my goal setting columns, I already discussed the idea that your character's personal goals have to be worked in as the GM has time for them. If you're one of five players, you can only really expect about a fifth of the GM's time.

Of course, if you can get several players involved, then jointly you get more time. Such was the case with a character in my Now is the Winter game by the name of Maximillian.

Max was a Setite envoy, recently come to Scarborough to see if maybe the Prince was in a forgiving mood. (See, he'd kind of kicked them out when he caught one selling heroin to a member of his Herd. And by "kicked out" I mean "staked, decapitated, or and burned to ashes.") Max was something of a ladies' man, and liked to flirt and show off his vampiric nature to those who knew the signs by giving roses to female vampires he met.

One of the male PCs came to instantly hate Max when Max gave his girlfriend, and later in the same night his new Childe, a rose. Pretty soon, he had the rest of the group convinced that Max was the living personification of evil.

So, in the interest of getting the PCs to do something, I wrote Max into the plot. It was actually really handy. I needed a way to mess with the Brujah, and having Max corrupt one of the Anarch leaders worked great.

None of that would have happened if the group had just ignored Max or casually beat him up like I thought they would.

The tricky thing about Player-generated conflict is that it's hard to know when, as a player, you're generating conflict, or when you're just rising to the GM's bait. If you declare your vendetta against the Dark Prince, is that player-generated conflict? Or did the GM just make the Dark Prince such a natural target that your vendetta was almost inevitable?

I don't know, and I don't think it matters a great deal. If the end result is fun, then the process by which you got there is probably not worth worrying about excessively. Probably, in the vast majority of games, the GM provides the seeds of most of the plot. In a smaller minority, the GM is more responsive to the Players. Some games lend themselves to this more than others. Amber leaps to mind, as does Nobilis. Games with less cosmic settings tend to be more GM controlled, but there's no reason it has to be that way, and I'm sure a lot of people play them with less GM control.

I write most of my columns under the assumption that the GM will be providing most of the direction for the game. That's the way it's been for most of the time I've been gaming, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

But, as I've said, that's not the only way to game. In a game where the GM is taking a more reactive role, PC goals and Player-generated plots become a lot more important because without them, all the PCs can do is sit around in the inn, waiting for the mysterious old man to show up.

In a game like that, you need to choose your goals carefully. Of course, there's not a lot of useful advice I can give you. The very nature of a game like that makes it hard to generalize. Almost everything I say in this column still applies, but in a slightly different way. Most of the stuff in the next session is particularly important, since a game where the players have so much freedom is likely to have more room for PCs to get in each other's ways.

Player vs. Player

Player vs. Player conflict is a lot easier to nail down. If PC #1 pulls out his sword and tries to run PC #2 through, then you've got very clear PVP conflict. Of course, not all PVP conflict is so direct, or so violent. A pacificist PC trying to convince a warlike companion to cut down on the slaughter is engaging in conflict. So is a stuffy Tremere trying to get a loopy Malkavian to SHUT UP during an audience with the Prince.

(Did you all know that "Shhh!" can be used as a Command with Dominate?)

Player vs. Player conflict can be awesome. Absolutely nothing is more personal than a fight with a friend or family member. The potential for drama is amazing.

Player vs. Player conflict can be terrible. Absolutely nothing is more personal than a fight with a friend or family member. The potential for trauma is amazing.

So, unless your ideal gaming experience is a lot different than mine, you'd rather have more of the former than the latter. The question is, how do you get it?

The answer, at least the only answer you're going to get in this column, is "I'm not sure." Player vs. Player conflict is tricky. I know that I have taken abuse from GM controlled NPCs that would have provoked a much different response if it had come from a PC. There's a strange sort of neutrality associated with the GM. Perhaps because he plays so many characters, players don't tend to associate him strongly with any one.

People have different tolerances. Someone might be fine with his PC getting into a fight with yours in one game, even if his character is seriously hurt or killed. In another game, with a different character, he might take a nearly identical situation really hard.

(Of course, if you killed his character twice in two different games, there might really be some issues you want to address)

These are the things I want to know about any conflict between PCs?

Why is this happening?

It should go without saying that PVP conflict should arise from totally In Character stimuli. A game involving five other people is not the appropriate venue for you to take out your aggressions on someone else. If you're mad at one person, deal with that one person. If you're mad at the whole group, then leave. Or suck it up and deal with your problems like an adult.

Ok, enough sermonizing for the moment.

Similarly, PVP conflicts should make sense within PC motives. In real life, and even in most fiction, most people won't pull guns and try to kill each other over trivial matters. They're more likely to argue, snub each other at parties, or insult each other a lot. When a serious mutual threat arises, all but the most casual of allies will temporarily put aside their differences.

The response should fit the circumstance. One of my little brother's friends had this habit of playing obnoxious characters who would try to attack other PCs if they offended him. He was always really surprised when the other party members killed the sociopath in their midst, and even more surprised when the GM backed them up on it.

But sometimes violence really is called for. Right now, in the IRC Buffy game I'm playing, there is a decent chance that Juri (my Slayer-in-training) will end up trying to kill Theo (a werebear - only now he seems to be a Wendigo). Theo has killed a human, and if Juri finds out about it, she will feel like it's her job to kill him, even though doing so might break her heart.

That could be way fun to play. Before it happens (if it happens at all), I'm going to have a long talk with the GM and Theo's player. As fun as the subplot could be, I don't want to screw up the whole game over it.

What will the results be?

You can never really know what the results will be, but you can make a good guess. If the conflict will make the game better, I go ahead full-steam. Back when I was LARPing, I actively sought out chances to screw with other PCs, because that's what made the game go 'round. The best one (stillborn because the game ended early) was my Tremere, Sir Cynan, playing out a long, slow con-job on the city's Giovanni that would have culminated in him convincing them to teach him Necromancy - at which point he would have killed them all because he didn't need them anymore. The mysterious Tremere/Giovanni alliance threw most of the group for a loop, and was loads of fun. After the game broke up, I told some of the Gio Players what I was up to, and they said they would have loved it - even if they died.

If it's something that I might enjoy, but that won't have a big effect on the game, I'll go ahead for as long as it's fun. For instance, in the aforementioned Buffy game, there's a love-triangle between Juri, Theo, and Travis (the token normal guy). It happened pretty much spontaneously, but it's loads of fun. The bickering between Theo and Travis is entertaining, and the whole mess produces a great group dynamic. Theo and Travis haven't tried to seriously hurt each other or anything, and whenever the Big Bad rears his ugly head, everybody focuses on the task at hand. For as long as it makes sense (not much longer, if Juri decides to kill Theo, obviously)

I want to keep that dynamic. I'm not going to force it, though.

If I can't see a way for this particular conflict to make the game better, then I have to ask myself what it's worth. I, personally, would rather metagame to avoid a conflict, rather than play my character "accurately" and spoil the game. If the conflict becomes so obvious that I have to resolve it in order to have fun, then I'll try to resolve it with as little disruption to the game as possible. The conflict between Juri and Theo might reach that level. (Since John reads my columns, you might find out, too)

"I was just playing in character" is not a defense that frees you from responsibility for your actions.

What do the other players think?

I've mentioned this already, but it bears repeating. You are not playing the game alone. Your decisions affect the other players. Play nice.

If your character is about to severely harm another PC, you should really talk to that player first. Killing another PC without any warning is particularly vile. Even if you have a really good reason, you should probably discuss it with the other player first. Sure, you know that because of your obscure Code of Honor, you're honor bound to kill him, but does he know that? If he did, he might not have done whatever he did to offend you.

Consent is kind of implied in a game like Amber, or in most LARPs that I've seen, but even in those situations it's a good idea to at least try to discuss what's going on out of character. That can get pretty hard, though. Not all players are of the same caliber. Some people have trouble keeping IC and OOC knowledge separate.

In a case like that, you have to make a judgment call. With some people, I wouldn't hesitate to discuss my secret evil plans. With others, I wouldn't reveal what I had in mind unless I absolutely had to. I'd still be trying to feel the situation out, though. My goal in most RPGs is to have fun, and to make sure the rest of the group is having fun. Winning good, but only if it's fun.

The VLARP I just used as an example ended when a bunch of new people joined the game and threw their combined weight around to wipe out the Giovanni utterly without warning (and with a healthy disregard for a few inconvenient rules). They managed to sow enough hard feelings that about half the players quit, and the ones of us who were left had to start a new campaign because they'd damaged the old one beyond repair.

Sure, they "won" but what good did it do them?

(And of course, if they'd waited one more session to do it, I would have been ready to help them, but I'm not bitter.)

Now that we've figured out when and why to have PVP conflict, the question is, what do you do with it?

I don't really have any answers to that, either. Every case will be different. The primary goal is to make the game more fun. There can be lots of secondary goals. Most often, I find myself in a PVP conflict for roleplaying reasons, rather than because I have a personal goal. For instance, Juri's potential conflict with Theo arises from the fact that she's a monster-hunter, and he might be a monster. "To see if Juri could beat up Theo" isn't really my goal.

(Besides, I know she'd toast him.)

(I'm kidding, John)

Summing Up

This is the part where I condense everything I just said into a couple of pithy paragraphs and provide some incredible insight that will forever alter your gaming experience.

Unfortunately, I (a) don't feel like trying to boil the article down to two paragraphs, because if I could have done that, I would have only written two paragraphs, and (b) I don't really have any profound insights to offer.

But let's see what I can come up with:

Player-generated conflict is the most dynamic way to blur the line between Player and GM. If you really embrace it, it will change the way your games play out. The GM's job will be different. Rather than just throwing events at you, he'll have to be able to react to events you throw at him.

Taking the reins that way gives you, the Player, more responsibility than you would otherwise have. You have to balance what you want with what's good for the rest of the group.

Your ability to deal with that responsibility will, in large part, determine how entertaining the conflicts you generate are.

Which is kind of the point, isn't it?

That's all I've got for now. See you next time.

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What do you think?

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg