Player Conflict


We had an interesting dilemma in our game recently.  A lawful good paladin was playing “bad cop” in an interrogation and threatened (a bluff) to execute a stranger (by all appearances, a peasant hunter) who was being less than wholly truthful.  The stranger’s companion was subdued after pulling a knife while sharing camp and stabbing the Paladin (inflicting a surprising amount of damage for a peasant).  As the party approached the second hunter, who had backed away from the scene, with clear intentions of detaining him, the second hunter drew his knife as to attack.  In response, the Paladin’s comrade (the one to whom he gave the bluff “execute” order earlier, attacked and killed the second hunter.

This escalation of violence caused a sudden tension between the party members. Some felt the order for violence, and the execution of the order, should be considered an evil act, and require atonement or loss of divine powers for the Paladin.  After all, the peasant was surrounded by high-level heroes whom he had little to no real ability to mortally threaten.  Others viewed the situation through a lens that did not include the game system’s relative immunity of heroes to people as weak as peasants (even if the peasant is holding a knife).  They were acting as though their friend really had been stabbed in the chest, and the possible threat of death that could accompany it.  They would not allow a second possible assailant to draw a weapon and attack before acting.

The result of this was a party where the players were suddenly not so sure how their characters would react to each other.  The party priest was initially inclined to immediately leave the party, return to civilization, and to potentially raise an investigation into the Paladin’s actions with the church and authorities for the act of ordering the death of another man (or associating with a man that killed him) when that man didn’t offer any real risk to the party.

Some people like these moral inter-party conflicts, and others hate them.  It started to look like sides were being drawn up among the party, and it seemed in that moment as though the night of gaming would be derailed by players trying to figure out what their characters would do, if they would be willing to be led by the Paladin anymore, and whether they would retire their characters, etc.

Why have I described all of this in detail?  The point is that we reached a pivotal moment where not only might the game have been derailed, but where character conflict might start to boil over into personal player conflict.  I actually ran another game once that dissolved due to player conflict when two players disagreed on a pivotal decision.  One player ended up having his character use force against the other.  To make matters worse, the player using force seemed to really enjoy the inter-party conflict, while the other felt as though the whole thing was a betrayal of a social contract of the game.  The session turned awkward and the game never really got rolling again.

Personally, I like the idea that players are immersing in their characters and for their decisions to be the decisions they think their character would make in the situation they are in.  This means that character conflict is not only possible, but likely, in an ongoing game.  But, if everyone is immersing on that level with their characters, then they’re going to feel hurt when another player starts a conflict with them, because the more players are in the minds of their characters, the more personal that conflict is going to become.

In the end, the Paladin essentially agreed to atone for his actions and raise the killed peasant from death, and the Cleric agreed to accept the gesture and continue adventuring with the party.  I doubt either of them felt those actions were in character, but they both realized that enjoying the game is more important.

We don’t have a defined social contract at the gaming table, but look – more than any other game, an RPG is a cooperative experience where we work together to create a fun experience.  No single player can be responsible for this, and neither can the GM.  I do think we have a social obligation at the table to make decisions that might be best for our relationships as people, more so than to make the right game decision.  This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be character conflict.  Some of the most memorable moments in our game have had some significant character conflict – the key is that everyone at the table needs to understand that conflict isn’t necessary bad, or directed at them, or an indictment of you personally when clearly we’re acting through characters and those actions may only reflect us, the players, on a superficial level.  At the same time, as friends, we have to understand what each others threshold for conflict is in a given situation and work to resolve it, by whatever means.  This may result in your character making an absurd decision or judgement, or it may result in the game going in a different direction that you the player wanted.  But, didn’t we already make such a concession up front when we started adventuring?  Your character just decided to go out into the dangerous world, with a group of mostly strangers, and put his or her life in these strangers’ hands?  Would your character ever really do that?  We often start the game by making some absurd concessions because of the same social contract – we’re gathering to play a game and to have fun spending time together – which we can’t do without this hand-waving of origins and hand-waving of character trust in one another.

What I’m saying is that while one of the goals of the game is to role-play a relatively consistent character, we can’t let that trump the reason we play the game in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Player Conflict

  1. connorbros

    Well said! I know Dust has at least one or two stories of derailed campaigns along these lines. Perhaps he will share. I know for me, I am (in and outside of RPGs) someone who generally tries to appease people, so I rarely get overly bothered with characters doing something my character wouldn’t be fine with… but it has definitely weaved it’s way into our play sessions.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      So how do you handle it when you think your character would be strongly opposed to the party’s decision? Do you come up with a reason why it’s okay with the character? Do you hand wave it?

      1. connorbros

        Of the characters I have had, many have kind of shadowed my wishes for appeasement character trait wise. But yeah, I try to come up with reasons why it is okay with my character. Nothing super game stopping has come up in any of the campaigns I have played in but I guess in the situation that something is game stopping I try to avoid confrontation. Like, just sorta leave the area the person wants to do whatever they want to do and let them go it alone. I know Dust had a campaign though where they came to a room of baby orc’s and one person was steadfast that their character would kill them and the other was steadfast that their character would protect them if he tried… and it just ended there.


  2. connorbros

    Well, Dyl has already told my major story here, but in a broader sense, I deal with this constantly in my sessions. While we’re all friends at the table, I have some very *cough* willful players, and it is a very consistent trend for every single character at the table to be something of a self-sufficient willing-to-go-off-on-their-own loner (even when I attempt to set campaign boundaries for such things). It’s rare we go a single session without someone thinking aloud ‘My character might just leave the team at this point’.

    Actually, I’m starting a new campaign this Saturday. After a couple months of consistent work and build up, I’m really looking forward to kicking it off. Yesterday, I sent off two emails regarding player conflict. One was about how I plan to handle hidden information, and that’s easily a completely separate topic (and I’d be happy to discuss it another time).

    The other, however, was how I plan to handle player character conflict. The rule is simple – it will pretty much always be a contest. A single opposed roll of the most appropriate ability modifier. I made it clear that I do not frown upon conflicting with each other as long as I agree it’s in character, but that roll is the deciding factor. It’s quick, and when it’s done, we move on to other things, react as appropriate, whatever. My main goal was to address, from the beginning, what is ‘okay’ within the social contract so everyone’s on the same page. There will be no attacks against AC, or actual HP damage, those mechanics are for life or death struggles only (and if two player characters end up in that situation, then we have other issues).

    I don’t know how well this will work in practice, but my players have responded favourably. It’s straight forward, and we’ll probably hit hiccups during the campaign, but I’m hopeful.



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