Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Which The Warlock TKs With the Best of Them...

As I've said many a time, the wisest words I'd ever heard came while I was in Liverpool.  There, my professor for "Chaucer's Narrative Verse" told us straight-up that, "Conflict is the most important thing in literature.  After all, what would King Lear be like if everyone just sat around saying, 'Pass the cornflakes,'?"  I've adopted that philosophy into my own writing and game design, trying to focus on building conflicts within them.

However, there's always been one conflict that's been somewhat taboo at the table--the idea of the Player vs. Player conflict.  In a party-based game like Dungeons and Dragons, there's something of an unwritten rule that "the party must work together towards a greater aim".  Social contract, perhaps?  But, it's definitely unwritten...and not entirely pratical at all times...

When I wrote up the background for Actorios, I should have anticipated that his attitude would make some enemies, but I was unsuspecting that said conflicts would come to a head within the party.  However, with our recent sessions, Actorios quickly found that his worst enemy was not the crimson sun or the sorcerer-kings of Athas, but rather his party-mate, M'Raj.

Another in-party conflict?
Chris II created M'Raj--a wizard/psion--as a potential Veiled Alliance member, eager to seek out and destroy the defilers that had ruined Athas.  At the very outset, M'Raj and Actorios became rivals, as Actorios was unwilling to share the arcane secrets behind a mysterious spellshard that House Wavir asked to have taken to Balic.  The tensions deepened as the pair traveled, with the conflict reaching its climax in Balic.

Tasked by a High Praetor of Andropinis, the group was asked to seek out a Veiled Alliance sect that was causing problems for the sorcerer-king.  Actorios, wanting to get into Andropinis' good graces, naturally accepted the mission.  M'Raj, naturally, had some reservations.  However, after the group tracked the Veiled Alliance to a bar nearby, Actorios leapt into action, slaying three of the members before the others could react.  M'Raj didn't take kindly to this and broadcast to the other group members to "get him!"  Jack--CincinAdam's mul fighter--drew his axe...and promptly planted it in the back of M'Raj's skull.  After a short combat, the group was reduced by half, with only Actorios, Velona and Jack surviving.

Actorios endures...
I guess what really shocked me was the brutality of the whole scenario, but the conflict stretched beyond the in-game action, and left some hard feelings out of game.  The whole situation led, in fact, to a long e-mail chain discussing the situation.  Actorios was more interested in his own goals than working as a 'team player'.  Jack looked at the situation as one of "who's completing the job?"  With Actorios doing so, while M'Raj less so, Jack acted against M'Raj.  M'Raj, meanwhile, sought to negotiate with the Veiled Alliance, hoping to find a scapegoat to report to the Praetor.  The others?  Caught in the middle...

While things have been resolved, by and large, I can't help but begin to question:  how invested do we really become in our characters?  I feel like, while I've put a lot of time and effort into my own creations, they're just that...creations.  In the end, if they live or die doesn't really matter--they're paper.  What matters to me is the experience around the table.  While I'm not sure where this leaves us entirely--we're planning on staying in Dark Sun, but with a few new characters--I find it interesting how this type of conflict left so many people disilliusioned.

Could it be that, as a group, we're just not ready for the most dangerous adversaries--each other?


  1. Thunderforge1:41 PM

    I think investment in their character is one of the big reasons why people generally don't like PvP. That and I think some people attack their party members for their own amusement, rather than because it really furthers the story. And in game systems that emphasize teamwork, it can be a bit jarring when the team falls apart.

    Although I've never had players in games I've GMed want to attack each other, I've thought about instituting a "non-lethal damage only" rule unless both players agree at the start that they're fighting to the death. This allows the satisfaction of attacking another player to prove a point, if necessary, without going all the way. I'd argue that in most cases, they don't actually want to kill the character, just hurt them a little bit, so this would be sufficient.

    Besides, there are lots of examples in fiction where this happens. The Fantastic Four in the comics resorted to blows fairly often, but the worst that ever happened was one of them got knocked out. They never killed each other. I think only allowing a character to die if it's a fight to the death is a fair compromise. It allows someone to push another character around for story reasons, but doesn't allow a player to lose their character out of malice for the other player unless they both agree. And of course, if they weaken their ally, then they're not going to be as helpful against the big bad...

    It's probably worth saying too that if a character doesn't fit in the party and can't act like a team player, they probably don't belong in the party. There's a reason that none of the Uruk-hai joined the Fellowship of the Ring (but Boromir did try to forcefully take the Ring once not trying to kill Frodo, just trying to bully him into doing what he thought was the best thing).

  2. Thunderforge2:04 PM

    It just occurred to me that the example you provided of an inter-party conflict with Jack Sparrow vs. Will Turner is a great example of what I was suggesting. Will sure wanted to kill Jack, but Jack wasn't too interested in killing Will and just wanted to get on his merry way. Of course, Jack lost in the end (either by GM fiat or another player coming to the session late) but didn't die, just got put in jail for the next half hour of the movie.

    Then even though Will still didn't trust Jack, he figured that they should work together in the party to fulfill the quest the GM had created. They still had an uneasy relationship, but it still allowed for combat without killing a character.

  3. I think this situation was not necessarily the best, in many respects.

    Firstly, our characters were destined to clash from the very start. I chose an amoral, magic-using anti-hero...he chose an idealistic, hard-line Veiled Alliance revolutionary. Conflict was inevitable, and would have eventually either come to blows or had one of us leave.

    Secondly, I think we're forgetting something regarding the PotC example. At the end of the third movie, Will was fully prepared to consign Jack back to the Dutchman's crew--a fate equivalent to death. Jack, concurrently, was fully willing to ally with the East India Company simply to remain alive/avoid imprisonment.

    Overall, I'm still not happy that things came to blows, but I'm really astounded at the amount of emotion invested in the characters during the whole scenario. I understand some amount of frustration or the like, but the reactions across the board were really strong. To be honest, I actually think that this might be a dealbreaking thing for one or two of the players--they didn't show last week, with no advance notice.

    I guess we'll see how things pan out, all told!

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