Cage Match: PC v. PC Conflict

“FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” they used to yell at the playground…

Anyone who knows us knows that Joann and I fall very firmly into the camp that tabletop roleplaying games are collaborative storytelling.  Much like the cooperative board games currently on the market (which we also love), the players are working together to both accomplish a goal (hopefully one that they have agreed on and set themselves – hooray for Character Arcs), and tell a good story together.  Ideally, everyone submerges themself into the world and their character and we see emergent gameplay, something that we both feel is absolutely beautiful to behold.

While we try to ensure that a group of players has every reason to work together from the start, it is not inconceivable that as part of that character immersion, characters might come into conflict with one another.  For a very long time, I have held a firm no Player v. Player (PvP) stance in my games.  Part of it even carries over to my video gaming (I don’t like PvP heavy games there either).  The rest of it is because quite often, my experience with such things was that they shifted from PC v. PC to Player v. Player due to the attachment to one’s character.  It caused hard feelings, bitterness between players, and sucked quite a bit of fun out of the game.

I’ve talked before about the huge shift that occurred in my thinking when I first read the section on Running Numenera (and subsequently, Running the Cypher System) that Monte Cook Games published.  It completely changed how I thought about GMing.  Not necessarily all the things I did, but how I conceptualized it.  I have, very recently, run across another such passage.  Last Friday, we reviewed John Harper’s Blades in the Dark.  Tucked away inside this book, on page 41, is what is rapidly becoming my second favorite piece of game rule literature in all of tabletop roleplaying games.

Blades in the Dark, as we discussed last Friday, is about a group of scoundrels, not heroes.  While the game’s mechanics do not distinguish between PC v. PC and PC v. NPC actions, there is some really good advice here that can be applied across a lot of different types of roleplaying games.  The first thing John recommends is to pause the game.  He calls it, “a time-out in the fictional space, while the players talk things through.”  It occurs to me that such a time out can create what is effectively a wall that isolates what is happening between the characters and what is happening between the players.  It gives the players time to talk things out both from a standpoint of story and a standpoint of expectation before any dice or randomness gets thrown into the mix.  It allows the players time to reframe the situation in their minds and put emotion in its proper place.  Do not get me wrong, dramatic interaction between characters, up to and including violence, is full of energy, but BOTH players need to get on board with it and understand that what happens between their characters should not affect what happens between them as players.

The second step given is to agree to the resolution methods.  In more rules-heavy games, this might not be particularly difficult as it may very well be already spelled out.  In games like Blades in the Dark or other narrative-heavy games like Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System, often the rules, while there, leave things open for interpretation.  Take the time and discuss this in detail.  It is important to get buy in from all parties because it affects their characters that they have put time and energy into bringing to life.  It is in this section that, perhaps, my favorite advice I’ve read recently is given:

“If the players can’t agree to a method, then you’re deadlocked. You can’t proceed without everyone’s consent, so this conflict just isn’t going to happen. Maybe the PCs get in each other’s faces and act like they’re going to tangle, but then, nope… it fizzles and they back off. This happens in fiction a lot, and it’s okay if it happens in the game.”

Blades in the Dark, page 41

The last step is simply to abide by the results.  Once everyone has agreed to the methods, the conflict plays out like it plays out.  The dice do what they will.  Much of narrative storytelling games are about leaning into complications and difficulties that arise in the narrative itself.  This is no different.  Do not run from these opportunities.  Play them up.  Make the story great in spite of them.  That requires creativity and initiative and is one of the hallmarks of things I look for in my regular players.

At the end of this section, there is another piece of excellent advice.  We talked a little bit about there being a need to separate what happens between characters and what happens between players.  John Harper leans into this by saying:

“Note that this is not a ‘player vs. player’ system. When characters come into conflict, the players must still collaborate and make judgment calls together, as usual. Conflicts between players are outside the scope of the game; they can’t be resolved with the dice rolls and mechanics of Blades in the Dark. If the players—not their characters—are in conflict, you’ll have to work it out using social methods, then return to the game when it’s resolved. Don’t try to use the game as a way to dodge or replace a normal social interaction to resolve person-to-person conflict.”

Blades in the Dark, page 41

In conclusion, while I still do not think PC v. PC conflicts are ever going to feature prominently in any of the games that I run or play in, I would be lying if I said that after reading this section of Blades in the Dark that I do not have a new appreciation of the potential for such conflicts to inject drama into the story.  Obviously, they could only become central in very special cases (I’m looking at you, Paranoia), but I’m no longer sure that avoiding them completely is the best option.  The way this is presented has given me a lot to think about, and honestly, that’s one of my favorite things about picking up a new system.  I enjoy the way that I can let it challenge my assumptions about both my skills in storytelling and what a good mechanic looks like.  I really appreciate the work that went into this section and the thoughts and ideas behind it.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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