(This is the twenty-seventh installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
In my last post I talked about how to create characters who work well together. But sometimes, of course, that isn’t actually the goal.
Tabletop games generally, but not always, assume that the PCs are allies working toward a common goal. They may well have their disagreements, but on the whole, there’s never a question of whether they’re on the same side. This isn’t true in LARPs: when you have dozens of players, maybe more than a hundred, all of whom keep wandering around to different parts of the game site, with only a handful of GMs to wrangle the whole mess . . . yeah, external threats and challenges aren’t going to be enough to keep everybody busy. Not to mention that with that many personalities in the mix, the odds that some of them won’t get along are not so much “high” as “guaranteed.”
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. During our discussion of trust, I talked about how playing adversaries can be a cooperative enterprise — which is why the title of this post is a little bit misleading. “PvP” stands for “player versus player,” which implies the conflict is one that exists out of character. A video game can have a PvP mode, with players fighting one another via the medium of their characters. Sometimes that happens with non-video RPGs, too, though I personally don’t like it when the conflict extends past the boundaries of the story. But you can have PC-vs-PC conflicts all the time, where the characters are opposed even if the players aren’t. And that type of strife can exist even when they’re allies.
Think about, oh, nearly every buddy-cop movie ever. You’ve got the straightlaced one and the freewheeling one, the experienced one and the rookie, the stoic and the hothead, the believer and the skeptic. How much comedy, drama, suspense, and flavor gets generated by the sparks they strike off one another? Characters who get along all the time are nice, sure, but they limit your palette of narrative colors. Contrasts give you more opportunities: first because the different kinds of ideas and approaches each PC pursues will introduce some variety to the plot, and second because the disagreements they have over those ideas and approaches will generate plot all on their own.
As with any kind of situation that entails some kind of division between the players, you want to approach this with caution. I played in a D&D game where the starting premise was that we were all playing the children of each others’ PCs from the previous campaign, and all of our characters were in one fashion or another misfits with our (otherwise loving) families. I had trouble coming up with a concept at first, because my PC’s parents were so easygoing, it was difficult to think of anything that could provoke them into batting an eyelash. Since my mother was a rogue (thief), my first thought was that I would make a character who was, in the framework of D&D moral alignment, Lawful Good. But I looked at the other PCs my fellow players were putting together, and I knew that was a recipe for disaster: none of them were evil, but all of them leaned pretty heavily toward the chaotic end of the Law/Chaos spectrum. If my character was Lawful, she’d be the irritating stick in the mud always complaining about the other characters’ casual attitude toward the rules, until they started hiding what they were doing so as not to upset her — which in practical terms would mean me being left out of the plot half the time, and arguments happening in the other half. Now, you can do that, and even do it well. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do, because we weren’t really looking for a campaign that was about unpacking the moral implications of the Law/Chaos axis; our goal was hilarious family drama instead. (Which is why my Lawful Good monk concept wound up becoming my PC’s estranged brother instead.)
You generally want sparks, not a conflagration that’s going to burn the whole game down. But within that, it’s good to look for places to introduce contrasts: a rich PC and a poor one, an innocent and a lecher, an idealist who sees the best in everyone and a cynic who assumes the worst. Especially when you have players who are interested in exploring those different perspectives, the values and limitations of each, it can produce a really rich game.
There’s one type of contrast that deserves special mention, and that’s the power imbalance. This can be of a type reflected on the sheet (e.g. one character built with more points than the others) or a purely IC thing, with one high-status noble and a bunch of peasant followers, one commanding officer and a bunch of grunts. Many campaigns will resolve this tension by making the more powerful character an NPC, which has the merit of allowing the GM to use that character to steer the plot as needed. But it’s also possible to make them all PCs, if you pay attention to the imbalance and find ways to keep it from sending the game askew.
In the RPGs designed for the Buffy and Angel TV shows, characters like the eponymous protagonists have more Attribute points right out of the gate, which makes them inherently more effective when it comes time to roll. That reflects the fact that Buffy and Angel are, when you get down to it, stronger — and they’re not automatically more stupid or socially inept to counterbalance their physical gifts. But “white hats” — characters like Xander or Gunn — get more Drama points, which give their players the ability to influence the narrative in more direct ways. It’s a nice mechanical solution for a story where your PCs might be a Slayer, a vampire, a werewolf, a witch, and a construction worker.
Non-mechanical imbalances are harder to address, I think, because anything that puts some PCs in a socially subordinate position to other PCs risks putting the players in the same position: if you’re unable to countermand bad orders or intervene without permission, then your agency has been restricted, which can really screw with your enjoyment of the game. In my experience, there are only two ways for this to work — though if you have others, please do share them in the comments!. The first is where the players wind up basically ignoring the expected social dynamics of their situation, and the noble/commander/whatever has a bunch of really mouthy, disobedient underlings who never get smacked down for their misbehavior. (Which is fine, so long as nobody in the group is bothered by that approach.) The other is where everyone is very conscious of what they’ve gotten themselves in for, and they deliberately make story out of it, with the subordinate PCs’ players exploring how to be effective in constrained circumstances, while the superior’s player works diligently to be a good lord or officer — or an entertainingly bad one. That can be very rewarding, but it’s often difficult to pull off.
But as long as the IC divisions don’t translate to OOC strife, you can get away with just about any kind of conflict among the PCs. Even if they’re all literally trying to stab one another in the back, so long as the players are all having fun, rock on.