Tuesday, 21 August 2018

On PvP

Here are some observations on player vs player conflict in RPGs. This is drawn from a mixture of mushes, larps and traditional tabletop games, and should be applicable to all these forms.
Note that everything discussed here is assuming that you're playing in a game where PvP (conflict between PCs with meaningful negative consequences for the loser) is on the table. If you're playing a game where part of the social contract is that PvP just will not happen, then none of this matters to you. Well done, you are a sensible person, go and enjoy your reasonable game.

A year or so ago, I was playing a Giovanni in a vamp game who believed that one of the other local vampires (a Settite) might be conspiring against her. Now, my Giovanni had a ghostly servant who could walk through walls, locate people unnervingly, and punch them to death whilst remaining immaterial and so untouchable by physical people. This raised the question: should I send this servant to punch the Settite to death? I didn't, because I felt bad about killing off somebody's PC.
Two weeks later, the Settites burned my Giovanni's house down. She lost everything, and it was only  through sheer luck that she wasn't in the building to burn with it.

Games can function very well with no outright conflict between PCs; part of the social contract and IC conceit for the game is that the PCs cooperate. This is seen by a lot of roleplayers, myself included, as the default setup. It is possible for PCs to disagree in this sort of game without it escalating to real conflict. You discuss your options or oppinions, a disagreement arises, and then either you drop the matter (and agree to disagree) or reach a compramise (one side may be compromising more than the other). Fundamentally, though, you remain on the same side.
Once PCs are attempting to harm one another, a sort of rubicon has been crossed: now we enter into 'PvP'. It doesn't matter if you don't want to do PvP: if somebody else decides they're kicking the conflict off, it's now happening whether you want it to or not, and your attempts to wade in and end the conflict only result in you being part of the conflict.
Harm might mean all sorts of things: dealing HP damage to them, removing or reducing their assets, gaining leverage over them (Charm Person in D&D, Boons in VtM), outright removing them, or threats of the above. Once play crosses into the PvP threshold, now the other players are your enemies. They pose as great a threat to you as any wandering monster; more, because they are played by a player with intense focus on their PC's capabilities and actions and who knows intimately how your PC functions.
Furthermore, in my experience, the threat of what a PC might do to you is far higher than what NPCs might do to you. A PC is motivated to remove threats efficiently in order to preserve their PC, while the GM's characters are limited by the GM's agendas, which likely include 'giving the players a fair chance and agency' and 'not taking sides in PvP conflict' and 'maintaining the fiction of the game world'. Very few NPCs are going to slit your throat in your sleep out of nowhere and with no way to stop them, unless either you're playing on super-hard-mode or your GM is a total asshole.
The most sensible way to deal with this situation (assuming you want your PC to stay alive, to get more XP, and to succeed in their various goals) is to neutralize your PC enemies as quickly, efficiently and one-sidedly as possible. Remove their ability to do anything against you: typically this means things like hard mind-control or assassination. If you don't take them out, they'll take you out.
So we end up with the larper habit of stabbing somebody to death when they leave their camp to go to the loo, or that tabletop standby of "I wait until we camp for the night and then coup-de-grace them in their sleep". These deny the victim the chance to fight back, minimizing the risk to you. If you're not an idiot, it's pretty easy to do consequence-free PvP murders. Let's call this 'the nuclear option'.
I would add that hard mind control (dominate person, for example) is effectively a character death: the player no longer has the agency to control their own character.

In my experience, once a group has crossed the rubicon and started outright hostile PvP, it's very hard to end that pattern of behavior. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, once it is clear that PvP is on the cards, it remains a possibility. Now, even if you are cooperating, you know that PvP conflict might emerge in future.
Secondly, there are few consequences for attacking your team mates that de-escalate the PvP:
  • If your victims agree to your demands, now you know that the threat of PvP conflict gets you what you want, which results in more of it down the line. As mentioned above, the PvP genie doesn't go back in the bottle, so all giving in will achieve (once the knives are out) is rewarding the aggressor. 
  • If your victims respond in kind, you are now motivated to remove them as a threat as efficiently as possible. Knowing this, they are likewise motivated to remove the threat you pose before they can do it to you. Thus, the nuclear option becomes a desirable course of action, perhaps the most desirable.
  • If uninvolved PCs push back against your use of PvP, now they are also part of the PvP conflict: the conflict has only escalated.
  • If the GM has NPCs push back against those who use PvP, it is easy for players to see this as GM favouritism in a conflict that's only between PCs, leading to resentment. Of course, PCs who try to use NPC responses to PvP (threatening to call the police, maybe) as a defense are basically indirectly getting involved with the conflict themselves.
The targets of PvP conflict immediately submitting in the hope that the aggressor will be nice is the only response that might de-escalate things, but it also really fucking sucks to have to do: you are, effectively, letting somebody else hijack your agency through their willingness to play chicken with everybody's PCs.

I've seen enough larps where once you kick of PvP, everybody knows that you now revert to a sort of hobbesian state of nature where the only social rules in character are 'do unto others before they do unto you' and authority is derived from violence and the willingness to use it to remove other people's PCs. This is shit. It's no fun to play in (unless you are a particular sort of bastard who just wants to win against the other players, but if you are I have no sympathy for you: that is what wargames etc are for). It sucks for the GM who has gone from telling a story or presenting a sandbox, to managing player egos and trying to remain unbiased as players try to kill each other off. It kills games.

Why does this happen?
It happens because frequently, going for the nuclear option (death or total domination) is the best option once the knives are out, and once that dynamic has started it's hard for those involved to de-escalate.
Let's look at the likely positive and negative consequences of taking/not taking the nuclear option in PvP.
Positives to taking the nuclear option: Your PC enemy goes away, meaning you win the conflict and they can't go nuclear on you.
Negatives to taking the nuclear option: NPCs will probably react negatively to you for acting like a bastard.
Positives to not taking the nuclear option: NPCs don't react badly because you aren't being a murderous asshole yet.
Negatives to taking the nuclear option: your enemies might take the nuclear option, and even if they don't, you still haven't won the conflict yet.

The solution, therefore, is pretty simple. The negative consequences of going nuclear (the pushback from NPCs) needs to be sufficient to dissuade you from going nuclear.
I've played in large larps where all the conflict was between PCs. Some of them had a set-up where if you did a murder, you would most likely be caught by (the gods/the police/your bosses) and punished... which probably means execution. In these games, the murder rate is very low. In games where no external force punished you for doing murders, murder abounded. (I have 'fond' memories of a larp event where I created five characters in a row in an effort to get from the side of the field with my tent in to the side of the field with the bar in, without being robbed and murdered on the way over; the first four died.)
If you set it up so that Going Nuclear - IE attempts to remove rival PCs through force, typically murder - doesn't result in immediate, devestating pushback from NPCs, your PCs will resort to it once PvP kicks off in ernest, and once that's happened your game will not recover.
If you make it clear that the Nuclear Option is more trouble than it's worth, then you can have healthy PvP with political maneuvering and shenanigans.
You need this to be clear from the outset. You need your players to know that they will get caught and they will suffer when they do. You need to establish The Will Of The Gods or The Police or whatever as being potent enough to stomp on a PC who goes nuclear on their rivals.
If this is not an option (perhaps your PCs are in the wilderness), then you still need to enforce immediate, disastrous consequences for PvP. Have something powerful attack while the PCs are in their post-nuclear-war weakened state. Have monsters use their divisions against them. Punish them.

This, incidentally, is the route cause of all shitty behavior in RPGs. If your players are running about being lol-so-random idiots, stabbing kings and widdling on things, it's because you are not enforcing appropriate consequences from the world for that. If your PCs murder every monster and NPC they encounter, it's because you are not showing them the downsides of violence; they encounter no grudges, no law enforcement, no orphans, no vengeful ghosts...
Toxic behaviors in the game are, mostly, behaviors people don't exhibit in real life because there are consequences. Enforce consequences, and the behavior stops.

Or, alternatively, talk to your players like a grownup so everybody can agree ahead of time where the limits are with conflict between PCs. That too.

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