Save My Game 11/02/2006

Character-on-Character Violence

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Character-on-Character Violence

I see nothing prohibiting this or allowing it but always played that it is possible to attack a party member (dispute, evil motives, whatever reason). Is there an official stance on this?

-- David, from AskWizards

You've hit upon the "official" stance exactly: There is nothing prohibiting or allowing party members from attacking one another (I assume you are talking about intentionally attacking one another rather than being charmed or dominated to do so). It is entirely up to the DM and the players involved as to what they want to do. This isn't a computer game where actions are limited by what the program allows. D&D is about people running characters and having them act however they choose.

That said, my 'official' position is that, as a general rule, player vs. player combat is dumb. Here's why -- Part of the fun of playing D&D is accomplishing mighty deeds and epic quests. Those are best accomplished by the party working as a team. In that regard, player vs. player combat is counter-productive. You waste your resources fighting one another.

Some will say it's 'realistic' for individual PCs to be self-interested. Sure, but self-interested to the point of endangering the mission? And self-interested to the point of endangering the self-interest of the other characters as well? If someone has shown that they put themselves ahead of both group goals and even the bare minimum of mutual respect, what is the basis for continuing to adventure together? Why would you trust that person? Adventuring is a dangerous business, and you are putting your life in the hands of others in the hope and expectation that they will prove themselves worthy of your trust. If someone attacks you, you will fight back. Even if both of you survive, the relationship is broken.

This personality does not play well with others. It works fine for James Bond, because he's the main character, a solo act. The other people around him are secondary characters who help or hinder him. It also works fine for the 'epic betrayal' in a novel -- consider Raistlin in Dragonlance. But at that point, the PC who turns on the rest of the party suddenly becomes an NPC, and now we're not playing a D&D campaign any more. We are either playing two D&D campaigns, with some of the players doing one thing and some doing another, or we retire one or more characters and start fresh.

So my answer is, there is nothing in the rules preventing PCs from attacking one another. Only common sense.

I have started DMing a game for the local college students. All of the people get along and are friends. But when they get together to adventure, they argue. The alignments are NG, CG, TN. There are no true leader types in the group. Races are human (cleric, thief, fighter), gray elf (soon to be bard), wild elf (ranger), half-minotaur (fighter), wood elf (ranger, wizard, fighter), halfling (thief), gnome (illusionist), and we just picked up a half-orc (fighter). We are going to pick up a half-elf (wizard/cleric). The half-orc and half-elf are newbies to our game but have played before. No one is a strong enough leader as a PC or player. How do I get around this or keep them from arguing so much?

-- Greg

There are no classes or races that necessarily create or solve arguments, though characters of radically different races and alignments obviously have the potential to cause problems. Players of high Charisma characters such as bards or paladins may be prone to take the lead and try to be leaders, but it sounds as if no one in your group (even the bard-to-be) is doing that.

It sounds as if your problem is not too many people with a strong personality but too few. You might think about encouraging players to be more assertive, because it sounds like no one is doing more than suggesting options, meaning you end up with analysis paralysis and just keep knocking things around the table instead of choosing one and doing it.

Of course, nothing says your group has to get along peaceably or that characters and players shouldn't argue, other than common sense and time management. Maybe that's where you should start the discussion. Point out that, in real-life terms, you only have a limited amount of time for gaming, and it would be fun to be able to actually play during the time that you have together. Speaking for yourself, you do not enjoy the constant bickering and arguing, and you would rather the game focus on other things. If you want to be methodical, you could track the amount of time spent arguing in the next game session -- don't tell the players, just measure it and see what it adds up to. Then, the next session, show them exactly how much game time was wasted on arguing.

Be prepared to get the argument that it is 'realistic' for PCs to argue all the time. Sure, people do argue, and we've all read books or watched movies where much of the fun is in the arguing and byplay between the characters. What works fine on the page or on the screen, though, doesn't necessarily translate to the tabletop. In the script or in the dialogue, arguments are self-limited, a quick diversion from the main thrust of the narrative. They come and they go, and the story moves on. In D&D, you have real people making arguments, and they can't just be swayed or satisfied after a page and a half of dialogue. Arguments take on a life of their own, and they tend to grow and involve more than just the original two people. Some arguments are legitimate, but even those get to be a drag if it seems that everything ends up in an argument -- rules questions, who should get to Spot or Listen, what information is shared, and so on.

A simple solution is to keep a three-minute egg timer at the table. When an argument crops up, announce that the timer is on, and whatever arguing needs to happen needs to be done quickly and efficiently. When the timer runs out, the argument ends, and you as the DM make a decision. People whose concerns are not addressed in that time can bring them up after the session or by phone or email between sessions.

It's not that concerns aren't important; it's that your group needs to learn some discipline about the process of resolving conflict. They need to learn to make points quickly and clearly, allow the other side to do the same, and then be willing to accept the DM's resolution. They can appeal it later, but in the middle of the game, they need to just accept it and keep the game moving. That's much better than getting bogged down in the back-and-forth of the argument.

Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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