Everybody Kill Each Other

I recently started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. Those familiar with BioWare’s other games in the last 5 years or so are no doubt used to their conversation system, in which sometimes “good” and “bad” choices can be made. There are in-game effects for these choices, in addition to simply making the NPC you are talking to angry or happy. In the KOTOR and Mass Effect series, you get what are effectively light side/dark side points. In the Dragon Age series, your companions’ loyalty to you is affected by whether they approve of what you do. The Old Republic uses both of these systems, and is differs from BioWare’s other games in that (in group settings) there are multiple people who may make diametrically opposed choices. It settles this at random, and the outcome it chooses is “canon” to your adventure (but you get points/loyalty based on your choice, not the one the computer picked).

And that, my friends, is how I jettisoned an engineer and his crew into space against my will, and subsequently got chewed out by his friend that had served with them for a decade. This is why you shouldn’t adventure with evil people with doilies over their eyes. This is also, purely by coincidence, why I am going to talk about intraparty combat.

Usually It Sucks

I have tried my best, but I cannot think of any instance in which I have had party members fight with each other and had a good time. Admittedly, I have experienced a couple fights between party members that we all look back on and laugh, but in the moment tempers were flaring and uncouth words were being used.

My least favorite of these are usually the “you did something evil, and I am sworn to fight evil, so now I have to fight you!” lawful stupid battles. Over the years, there have been several occasions in which I have wanted to pour chloroform into a dicebag and hold it over a player’s mouth for this.

Occasionally, you’ll get two PCs (and/or players) with two very different ideas about how a situation should be handled. Both as a DM and a player, I try everything I can to get people to roleplay this stuff out. In a real fight, people tend to change their mind when they get hurt enough. If it’s a PC, people tend to fight to the death for their beliefs. There are situations in which this could make for cool roleplaying, but (let’s be honest here) there is also a pretty high likelihood that a PC will get rolled up who is the previous PC’s brother who hates the man who killed his brother.

In my opinion, violence when the situation could be roleplayed further is boring. If orcs are charging you, axes raised, then yes — stab stab kill fireball. There’s not much chance to put your mark on a story here other than determining whether it ends because you die. If you’ve got a nonviolent way to get the job done, explore it. Roleplaying it out gives your character a chance to solve the situation in a way only your character can, whether it’s through diplomacy and relating experiences particular to the character or through the clever use of magic to cause a distraction while you signal your teammates to sneak out with the prize (avoiding the battle entirely). For me, the times our party has done something like this make far better memories than the 5% chance someone has of rolling a 20 and causing a number to be decreased by more than normal.

The Continuous Power Vacuum

I’m not sure if it’s just the people I’ve played with or if this is a more general thing, but I’ve noticed there hasn’t ever really been a party leader in any of the groups I’ve played in. If everybody is being mostly rational and cool, everything works fine — but there is room for someone to go rogue despite what anybody else thinks or wants.

I have to wonder how many times something like this might occur in a real combat situation with military units involved. The fear of court martial or imprisonment might be an effective deterrent to killing other people you’re supposed to be fighting alongside. The roleplayer in me finds a situation where you realize you’re playing for the wrong team and have to figure a way out before they make you do something you’ll regret fascinating — but, at the D&D table, this is like throwing an entire bag of monkey wrenches into the works.

If you’d like to try putting your players in a more structured environemnt, The Last Legion (DDI subscription required) is a paramilitary organization devoted to hunting monsters and other threats to civilization. I use it in my campaign, but I sort of turned them all evil and had them hunt the players. I regret this. It took a bit of the sting out of the court martial threat.

A Long, Drawn Out Battle Between Good And Evil

I’ve been smack-talking fighting with your teammates for this whole article, but I do have a secret desire — to create a situation in which PCs fight and it is somehow awesome.

I went the whole “roll up a bunch of PCs and have a tournament of champions” route back in high school. It was OK, but my dreams are a bit gnarlier.

A few years ago, I played in a somewhat unusual campaign – two parties (one “good”, one “bad”, two groups who didn’t know each other in real life) were in the same world and our actions affected each other. Eventually, we’d all meet, a giant battle between Good and Evil when we all got to 20th level was what we were all looking forward to. My teammates and I were trying to figure out a way to get our DM to let us create a giant Mazinger Z-style robot we could stomp around in to crush our opponents, simulating all his powers via magical effects. Also the robot’s legs would be stuffed with powerful undead creatures. It would have been metal in several senses of the word.

Sadly, it never happened. It was such a cool idea, I just wish it had all worked out better. This particular concept interests me because now we’re not talking about a bunch of random stats thrown together. We’re talking about two groups full of well-developed PCs and a story potentially full of them foiling each others plots and wrecking things important to the other. Revenge shall be served, probably ice-cold. Justice will be done. Storylines will be completed in a way nobody will know until the very end.

Of course, as we found out, this kind of thing is crazy resource-intensive for one DM, but I can see potential for two DMs to team up and compare notes after each session.

I Pity The Fool

My other crazy PC-battlin’ idea is much shorter-term, and I think it would be an interesting idea to run at a convention.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite shows was The A-Team. For those of you too young to remember the goodness of 80’s television, it was about a group of mercenaries falsely accused of a crime who ran around the country helping people from random bad guys while running from the military police. They did so in two primary ways: using military weapons in such a way that nobody ever got shot and explosions only knocked people off of balconies leaving them unharmed, and by rigging together strange contraptions that would send the bad guys packing somehow. (My particular favorite was when they made a cannon that shot heads of lettuce.)

I would like to run this idea in a couple sessions. Each team would get a session in which they are placed in a situation where they have an upcoming battle and no weapons. They’d be in a place with a bunch of resources available to them (a town, perhaps), and the resources could be anything from building materials to household items to whatever the DM decides in the moment provided it’s relatively ordinary. They’d also have access to the people around them, and (depending on how much time they have to plan) they could set these people up manning traps or give them very rudimentary training on how to use whatever weapons they’ve crafted.

The planning session would be timed, and the team would only have what they made to use in the battle. Then the other team gets their turn (at another scheduled timeslot). Then, in a third session, they fight!!! With lettuce cannons!!!! (You better believe I’d make it possible to make a lettuce cannon.)

I haven’t quite figured out why the two opposing parties would be fighting yet or why they both wouldn’t have any weapons, but I suppose this could be handwaved somewhat in the name of good fun. Upon further thought, I think this would be fun to do (and make more sense) in a situation where it’s not against other players and instead against some DM-conceived threat. The thought of fighting off a horde of invading goblins with a lettuce cannon has me kind of giddy, to be honest.

The DM, obviously, would need to play things pretty fast and loose. Weapon proficiencies might need to be fudged, and physics are kind of negotiable. I’d say if it would have flown on MacGyver or The A-Team, it should fly here. The Mythbusters didn’t exist then. They have no power here.

Just Keep It Fun

As usual, the point of the game is to keep it fun. If you’re DMing, encourage your players to work together unless it would be awesome if they don’t. If you’re a player, play along unless you’re pretty sure it would be awesome if you don’t. And by “awesome”, I mean “awesome for everyone”.

I’d be interested in hearing more fun “between PC’s” combat ideas. I think the ones I suggested would work to a certain extent simply because everyone would be on board already, but I’d very much enjoy hearing battle-tested and proven-fun ideas.

Now go forth and kill each other. Or don’t. As long as it’s fun.

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Comments

  1. I’ve had similar experiences where intra-party conflict did not work out in a cool way at all (including a fairly recent experience when I was a player, and should have not let it get under my skin the way it did.)

    However, my one story about an intra-party conflict that lead to a memorable gaming experience (with no hurt feelings) did not involve actual combat, though this may have been because it was Call of Cthulhu and doing so would have permanently injured both characters.

    Mid-adventure, triggered by some supernatural event that I cannot recall, two players who had previously decided their characters were dating decided that they were going to break up. This lead to an in-character argument lasting about a half an hour with them pointing out each other’s flaws and how things previously said (in-game!) were lies and so on, just like a real breakup conversation. The rest of us just sat back in rapt amusement while this played out, the supernatural mystery du jour fading for the time being.

    Why did this work? For one, the two players were old friends who had both bought into the idea and were having a good time running with it. For another, it was something with stakes for the characters certainly but was never going to be something that wrecked the game or broke apart the adventuring group: the Ancient Old Ones certainly aren’t going to wait for you to get over a break-up, so the PCs had to keep doing what they were doing.

    It’s a combination of factors I’ve never been organically able to recreate, but it sits in my mind as a template for successful intra-party conflict.

  2. LOLZ: “I have wanted to pour chloroform into a dicebag and hold it over a player’s mouth”

    I can see this reaction to a LOT of gaming misbehavior 😉

  3. I had this come up last week with my group when they found a magic axe and two people wanted it and couldn’t work it out. There was all sorts of “All right…this has been stewing for a while…let’s do this…” They didn’t know it, but I had planned a surprise encounter with the campaign’s Big Bad and we were already running short on time to complete it.

    Under the gun, I found an elegant solution that kept things quick: opposed skill challenges

    Instead of going all “Roll for Initiative” on it, I said, “Alright, if you really want to do this, each of you roll your highest justifiable skill, tell me WHY it is justified and if I agree, whomever gets the highest number wins a success. The first person to get to three successes wins.”

    The player who won got to narrate the results as they would manifest.

    Both players were like, “What?!” and then they shrugged and did it and had about a three minute mini battle. It was amazing. And quick.

    This engages the desire for some sort of physical supremacy without slogging down into tactical combat. It may not have been as comprehensively rewarding for the players directly involved, but it kept things moving. It also had the added bonus of giving players a clearer path to how that sort of thing would be handled in the future so they could engage their roleplaying faithfully if their character was prone to forgo diplomacy.

    Lastly, the only change I might make in the future is to have each success against a character remove two healing surges from him/her. It would create a little more risk and would give a more realistic situation for a character to back down if they felt like the fight would hobble their ability to move forward. It also gives an edge to characters with more healing surges, reflecting the advantage they would probably have in one-on-one combat.

  4. One thing you mentioned, and called “lawful stupid”, I’m not so convinced of in the general case. While in a specific case, where the paladin of lawful good and the warlock of lawful evil have to work together to save the world against a bigger threat, sure, that kind of behavior wouldn’t make sense. But if YOU were a paladin of all that is good and virtuous in the world, would you willingly want to adventure with somebody who eats babies? Putting aside your sworn oaths against evil for a moment, that would make you look like a pretty terrible paladin… or person… no? I would expect at the very least, without any outside pressure to hold them together, for the good and evil counterpart to part ways if not have a fight that ended in one of them bound and gagged and delivered to their opposite’s preferred overlord like Han Solo.

    It’s bad for the game to have two PCs fighting, but it’s bad for immersion if the good guy and the bad guy tolerate each other without any good reason to.

  5. @The Hydra DM Well, there’s a big gap between “I don’t approve of what you did” and “I must kill you now”. But there’s a social contract in every group, and the paladin has a responsibility to lay out his or her rules of engagement.

    There are campaigns and groups (thieves guild, etc) where a paladin of the God of Justice just isn’t going to work. This needs to be negotiated up front.

    it’s also fun to negotiate this in-character.

    I’m playing a paladin at the moment. The other players are people I’ve played with for a long time, and everyone was ok with the paladin concept going in. (He’s got more wrinkles, too). But for the first few runs, the other two players – both more oriented toward stealth and surprise – treated him as sort of a wind-up meatshield. We had a come to Pelor moment when they took for granted that he would do the sneaky thing and he didn’t. They said, “Do what we say”, and he responded, “Well, are you prepared to respect what’s important to ME?”

    It’s set up some really good RP. They mostly respect my ethics, and sometimes they sneak around behind my back. They are really good at it, too. But even if he finds out, it isn’t automatically stabby time. He just isn’t in to killing that much.

    He’s not all that much of a stick in the mud. Battlefield justice is a familiar concept to him. And the other characters know that, as much as they might dislike what he stands for (there’s a class conflict, he’s noble, they aren’t), they know that if he says, “I’ve got your back” he will die before he steps away.

  6. The alignment wars are something that has plagued many gaming groups I’ve been in over the years and I’ve had hours long, deep philosophical conversations with people about alignment and ultimately come to this somewhat simple conclusion.

    Alignment is in and of itself … bad. It is a remnant of a bygone era where everyone was a RPG noob and had no idea how to role play, etc. and it was a necessary evil, a way to mechanize something to sort of instruct people and/or guide them along certain paths. Like the initial example of Bioware games … oh oh … pick A or B … hmmm .. A or B … hmm. Oh what choice I have A or B!! Wow!! This is amazing!! A or B you mean I get two choices!! I feel so emersed!!

    In most of the groups I’ve played in over the past several years we’ve entirely dispensed with alignment, no matter the game or version of D&D if that is what we are playing. We are adults, intelligent and capable of remaining true to our characters concepts. If your with a group of people who are very new to gaming, or prone to childish power gaming … well then alignment might be worth using. It is very good at straight jacketing people into certain behaviors. If the game is a railroad and divergence from the preordained path is undesired, alignment is also great. It makes for far more predictable player behavior.

    At any rate I think alignment is just one of many reasons D&D has soured in our gaming group, though 4e seems to have alot less emphasis on it, though its still there. Many other things such as over reliance on grid based miniatures based combats, has caused many in my gaming group to become totally bored with D&D in general. Anymore things like Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel, several of the FATE based games all just seem infinitely more interesting than venerable ole D&D and other more standard “core” systems.

    Just my two cents, to which I’m sure many people will vehemently disagree 🙂 Ah the internet …

  7. I actually instigated one of these inter-party conflict moments once when another player was planning on smuggling in some contraband into the city. My character wasn’t ready to get associated with someone who was dealing with contraband and not because he was a paladin but because they just got accosted by the local Paladins of a Justice and Vengeance god that just threatened all of them. As such, my character wasn’t ready to take any chances and so demanded the player not only put the item back but that they were going to turn in all the contraband to show good faith with the religious order. That didn’t sit well with the other player AT all and things got heated between us the players.

    The DM ate this up. Me, it left a mildly bitter taste in my mouth, I felt it was RP appropriate but it didn’t need to devolve into such a long argument. I didn’t exactly have fun with the situation but it was very memorable. It’s still recalled to this today as one of the big moments in the game (This was a 2nd edition game) but I’m not sure I can call it one of my best moments.

  8. Agree totally. Intraparty battles usually suck.

  9. Funny this topic.

    My best friend and I played PCs who were cousins, one a gladiator-merc and the other a bountyhunter-merc. They did all sorts of dirty actions together, but after a run-in with the townguard in the capital town, that left 2 guards dead, we were wanted all over the duchy. So, I went to my bountyhunter guild, telling them I was tired of killing young start-up bountyhunters that were after my head. The response was : Bring us the head of your cousin and you go free. I did. I saw him hang in the middle of the market square. DM burned the character sheet on the balcony in-session. My pal had a back-up char ready, so the session continued…but three sessions later, the guy returned as some undead thing, hunting my poor bountyhunter ever since…

  10. Passing by says:

    Hi everyone.

    Well, it was not exactly intra-party fight, but it reminds me one of my funniest RPG session, during a Vampire, the mascarade campaign. We were playing a Sabbat Pack and the tension was rising with other packs. The Bishop then organised a big soccer match (with a human head of course) between rival packs, and it was awesome, with tentacle feet, illusion ball, telekinesis, obfuscated players, shotgun ball deviation and more, with the Malkav anti-tribu referee distributing red cards with obfuscated flamethrower (my PC). Great fight, great fun.

    All of this to say that in-game sports can be a great derivative, like in real life after all. Of course, it obviously helps the fair-play attitude when the referee can easily destroy you….