At Origins this year I ran a lot of games. Most of them went according to plan, many of them weren’t planned until the group sat at the table  (which resulted in fighting Nazi Showgirls From Las Vegas), and one of them somehow turned into PvP session but still came out well. That is a horrible moment for a Game Master – when one of the players starts saying things like “My paladin wouldn’t let you steal from that man. Prepare to die!”. There is no one size fits all rule for dealing with PCs who are going against each other but sometimes it can be great fun. No, really.
The party was hired by a law firm to investigate a death before the police got involved. The death was caused by a secret society covering up their dealings, as the players would discover with enough investigation. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the players made their character a part of that secret society. As he was handed a book written in a cypher, he leans over and says “Hey, I’m actually Aruna. The description you gave of these letters sounds like what I read about in the game book. If this is Aruna writing, I’m going to have to keep my people’s secrets secret…”
After telling me this, the player asked how everyone felt about PVP and said he would avoid it if it would kill the fun. I took him aside, laid out the secret of the adventure, replaced the BBEG with his character and ran through the rest of the adventure, but with the other players chasing him. He did manage to sneak kill two of the characters in a surprise attack. We resurrected them (kind of) so that they could keep playing, none of the players minded too much and his character was defeated by the group. It actually went really really well, but that’s rare. Most instances of PC combat/conflict don’t go that smoothly. The fact that this was a one-shot at a convention helped. But that brings up the question of:
Why Does It Happen?
There are a lot of reasons why PC vs PC conflict or combat happens. Most often, you hear something like: “But that’s what my character would do!”. Sometimes that is true and sometimes that is just an excuse for a player to do dickish things while hiding behind the shield of roleplaying. A good player realizes that group fun trumps things like this and will roleplay events in character without letting them interfere with the fun around the table. I’ve had a player who played the stereotypical paladin and would rant and rave at the actions of the thief, barbarian, or seductress of the party, only to “give up” and justify things to himself before it became a problem. Since the group knew each other, they knew that this in character playing wouldn’t erupt into actual combat or create tensions and that it was all in good fun.
Sometimes secret tensions are the reason that PC v PC conflict breaks out. There might be hidden (or not so hidden) tensions between players that they decide to bring to the table. A player decides to use their characters to take jabs at someone they aren’t getting along with and that’s bad for everyone. The tension level of the entire group rises and the awkward turtle  comes swimming in.
Finally, some players just get their kicks by being disruptive. They like to take control of the situation, screw things over, or watch as the situation goes down in chaos. Not fun. At least not always. Sometimes these players spur things on and keep the action moving. They CAN create unique elements and cause stories that get told for years to come. But, if they cause the group not to have fun it becomes a major issue.
So How Do You Deal With It?
When PC v PC conflict breaks out, it can turn bad real quick. Well, the first step to dealing with it (as in most problem solving) is to determine why it is happening. Is it really a case of the player having fun by playing their character to the hilt, and if so will the player prevent themselves from going into dangerous territory? Or is it a case of the player acting out their aggression or just being a dick? Once you figure that out, you can determine how to handle it.
- Talk It Out – The best way to deal with anything. Acknowledge the conflict and ask why it is going on. Take the people involved aside if necessary and try to work out a compromise. Stress that the game has to be fun for the whole group. If the issue really is one player going over the line because of their character, ask him to tone it down and see if he or she wants to change characters. If it really is a problem with the person that can’t be resolved, you might have to ask them to leave. Hopefully you can avoid that.
- Deny It – As the Game Master, you can always throw down the ban hammer and deny the character action. You are taking over something not normally granted to you by the players, so you have to be careful about it. If you need to though, you can say that you don’t want to see actions that kill the fun for the group. Doing this will stop the problem at the time, but it might foster a negative attitude towards you as the Game Master. If you’ve already tried to talk it out and a player that is generating PC v PC conflict is still trouble, this might be the necessary step. The other players will see that you are taking steps to stop the bad behaviors and the disruptive players might get the message.
- Punish It – If you don’t feel comfortable telling a player that their character can’t do something (I usually don’t), then you can institute a penalty for the actions, such as an EXP penalty or the like. The player is free to pursue their actions, but they might self correct in order to prevent the punishment. The downside is that they might also rail at it, feeling as if they were targeted personally.
If the suggestions I’ve written about so far seem like I’m teaching you how to deal with an unruly kindergartner, it’s because I kind of am. When behavior like this comes out in people, they stop using the rational parts of their brains and start using emotional based decision making patterns. Generally there is a behavioral or personality problem already at play, and you have to deal with that. However, if the player really is just playing their character and realizes that the group’s fun shouldn’t be affected by their playing of the character, then you might be able to:
- Roll With It – If the players realize what they are getting into and you’ve talked out the consequences, then this can be incredibly awesome. See if you can let it happen. When my player did this, I warned him it might end in his character’s death, depending on how far he took it. I would essentially be making him the BBEG and he would react how he decided to. It was a possibility that he killed other PCs, it was a possibility that they killed him, and it was possible that they somehow worked past it in game. The players had a great plot twist, they acted everything out really well and their play (not the predetermined story) decided how it would end, and people seemed overall satisfied with the resolution. The benefit was that the story became something completely malleable in the players hands with me being the referee.
So there you have it. Sometimes Pc vs PC can be really fun, but that is usually because the players are all rational and understand what is going on. When that isn’t the case, things can go south really fast, but when it is things can get quite fun. Have you ever had a PC vs PC instance that went well? What do you do to mitigate disruptive PC vs PC conflicts?
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