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Thinking Virtually

#43: Dirty Words: PK, Part One

An Alternative View to The Competition Conundrum by Travis S. Casey
February 11, 2002


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In this second Alternative View to The Competition Conundrum, I've offered up the thoughts of Travis Casey on Player Killing (PK). Travis is one of my regular reprints here at Thinking Virtually. This one is drawn from his "dirty words" series, which talked about some of the words (and concepts) that generally set RPGers on edge; it originally appeared as part of his regular series, Building Stories, Telling Games. This is part one of two pieces that Travis wrote on PK, but the second won't appear for two weeks, because next week will feature a Biting the Hand which Travis also comments on in his second article. --Shannon


PK. Mention the term around MUD veterans, and you're sure to get some reaction. Some people hate it. Some wouldn't play a game without it. People who hate it will tell you horror stories about things that have happened to their characters or other people's; people who love it will tell you exciting tales about how they've managed to outwit or outplay opponents — or sometimes, about how they've been outwitted or outplayed.

Well, I'm sure someone out there is saying, "What's PK?", so I'd better give a quick definition. Those of you who already know what I'm talking about, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. PK stands for Player Killing (a bad choice of terms, since it's characters who get killed and not players, but never mind that). Player killing is when characters in a multiuser online game are allowed to attack and kill each other's characters. Some games don't allow it at all — players can attack monsters and NPCs, but not each other's characters. Some games allow any player's character to attack any other. And some are in between, allowing some player characters to attack some other player characters.

Let's start on the side of reasons to like PK. Here's the main ones you'll hear from PK fans:

  • A real challenge. Programmed monsters and NPCs just don't have the range of responses and tactics that a real, human opponent has.

  • Rivalry. NPCs and monsters generally stay static over time, so as your character improves, you have to find new ones to fight — other player's characters, though, also improve with time, so you can develop lasting rivalries. In fact, since players aren't a part of the game, these sorts of rivalries can even cross over into other games, and outlast the life of any one particular game.

  • Uncertainty and excitement. On most games, you can predict pretty well whether or not NPCs are friend or foe — you can't generally talk to an ogre and get it to sell you something, and a shopkeeper probably isn't going to be secretly plotting to ambush you. With other players, though, such things can come in.

The interesting thing is that the reasons why others dislike PK are almost a mirror image of why PK fans like it:

  • It's too uncertain. With a little bit of care, it's easy to avoid attacks from monsters. Attacks from other players, however, can often come at any time.

  • It's too personal. When a monster or NPC kills you, you know it's just a part of the game — it's out to get anyone around, not just you. Players, though, can and do attack other player's characters for personal reasons — and not necessarily because of a specific disagreement, but even over things like not liking the other player's favorite team, etc. (Which, for many people, brings back bad school memories, but I digress.)

  • It makes the game too hard. Well-made games are designed to provide a fair level of challenge to everyone — but when a major source of challenge is an external thing like other players, establishing balance becomes much harder. This is especially true because, in most setups, monsters don't tend to come looking for players — the players have to go where the monsters are to fight them. This makes managing your risk fairly easy — if you're not prepared to fight a monster, don't go near it. Other players, however, can and will come looking for you to attack you.

We see here one of the classic rules — you can't keep all of the people happy all of the time. There are plenty of people willing to try, though, which is where the middle ground mentioned above comes in — that of allowing PK in some cases, but not in others. Some of the common restrictions are:

  • Level restrictions. An example would be a rule saying, "you can't attack anyone who's more than five levels below you, unless they attack you first." This is intended to prevent more powerful characters from easily killing weaker ones.

  • Alignment restrictions. Often, characters are only allowed to attack characters of 'opposite' alignment. In some systems, things may be broadened a bit in some directions — for example, in a good/neutral/evil alignment system, things might be set up so that anyone can attack someone who has just attacked them, good characters can attack evil characters, neutral characters can attack anyone but suffer an alignment shift towards evil for attacking someone who didn't attack them first, and evil characters can attack anyone period. (Of course, it could be set up a lot of other ways as well — that's just an example.)

  • Place restrictions. Player characters may only be allowed to attack each other in certain places, or might not be able to attack in some places. For example, some games have arenas where any player character can fight any other. Other games don't allow attacks at the default login point, or don't allow attacks in a city.

  • Signup required. In many games, players have to specifically ask to be allowed to attack other player's characters. Under this sort of setup, it's often the case where those who have signed up are allowed to attack each other, and those who have not signed up can neither attack player characters nor be attacked by them.

Methods of enforcement of rules vary. Under some setups, enforcement is by the game's admins or other players. Some have automatic enforcement, where if you try to attack someone you're not allowed to, you just get a "you can't do that" message. Still others have game-world enforcement, where you can attack someone in a situation where you're not supposed to, but something bad will happen if you do — for example, if there's a city where no attacks are allowed, a player character who attacks someone might find that several NPC police officers are sent out to capture and jail his/her character.

One thing that happens universally, though, is that someone will try to get around the rules. Depending on the game, there can be a lot of ways to do this. A popular method is to set a trap — for example, capture a vicious monster and put it where you know the victim is going to go. Using proxies can be another method — if Joe the Paladin's player wants to attack Theresa the Pure's player for some reason, he/she might get an evil character's player to do it. These sorts of tactics are used between characters who should be able to attack each other as well, of course, but that sort of use isn't as likely to incite protests.

There have been attempts to prevent this sort of thing by tracking a sort of "chain of responsibility". That is, if Character A moves a monster somewhere, then the game treats any attack the monster makes as if Character A had done it. Unfortunately, the problem is currently impossible to solve in the general case — to automatically take care of one player asking another to do something, for example, would require the game to be able to have a real understanding of everything that's said on the game. And even that wouldn't necessarily do it, since there's no way to prevent one player from contacting another outside the game and arranging something.

Most games wind up handling such working about the rules by more traditional means — namely, investigation and punishment through the game admins. This, unfortunately, can often cause problems for the admins — if accusations are true, the guilty party is likely to deny it, and hard evidence can be hard to produce. If the guilty party has a good number of friends, they can cause a groundswell of opinion against the admins. On the other hand, there can also be cases of mistaken accusations, which may cause bad feelings however they turn out, and sometimes even outright false accusations, which again can cause problems.

Well... that's described PK, and the simple reasons for and against... next time, join me for part 2 of the PK part of this series [in two weeks], where I'll mull over the pluses and minuses of PK, and talk about some ideas for alternative ways to set up PK.

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What do you think?

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