Managing Intraparty Conflict
Roleplaying is a group activity. One cannot enjoy roleplaying alone. Sometimes the GM’s job is made more complicated by conflict that takes place within the group, when arguments and fighting takes place between characters and players.
Consider the following situation to get an idea of what I mean:
Having defeated the evil witch, the party searches her cave for loot. Sir Gawain the Paladin comes across the source of the witch’s power – her spellbook, written in blood on dried human skin. The party crowds around. Sir Gawain says, “We shall destroy this book, for it is evil, and should not fall into the wrong hands.”
Malfeus the mage says, “You’ll do no such thing. It could contain a good spell for me.”
Sir Gawain replies philosophically, “If we use the weapons of the enemy, we shall become corrupted by them.”
Malfeus replies, “Crap! Give it to me.”
Sir Gawain says, “Hold back, little mage, I keep it from you for your own good!”
Malfeus zaps Gawain with his wand, turning him into a pile of dust.
In this scenario, a conflict developed within the party. That in itself is not a bad thing. But the handling of this conflict was poor. As a result of this poor handling, one of two things will probably happen at the next session; either Gawain’s player won’t pitch up, or (worse), he arrives with a character that aims to get revenge on Malfeus.
Conflict in Roleplaying is Handled Differently to Conflict in Real Life
Characters in roleplaying games are often too quick to resort to physical combat to resolve conflict. This is probably because opposition is generally overcome this way in most roleplaying games. In real life, where conflict develops between people, they do one of the following things:
- They put up with it
- They avoid the other person or that particular issue
- They leave altogether
- They have a loud shouting match
These options do not appeal to roleplayers. For example, characters are not likely to leave a party because in doing that, they effectively leave the game. The player would need to create a new character. Players subconsciously would prefer that it was the other guy’s character that left the party. To many people, having a character “quit the game” is the same as admitting fault or accepting defeat. To many players, the only way to “win” the conflict is to force the other guy to be the one to start a new character (i.e. to kill him).
Why Conflict Can Be Bad
- It can reduce everyone’s fun.
- It can take a long time to resolve, especially if combat between party members begins. This typically leads to hours of rules lawyering.
- It can create arguments and ill-feeling between players that lasts even when the gaming session is over.
- It can result in players leaving your game.
Why Conflict Can Be Good
- It can drive stories (some game worlds even encourage conflict, see below)
- It can be interesting (e.g. a good moral debate, between Sir Gawain and Malfeus above)
Four Root Causes of Conflict
Do you have conflict in your gaming group at the moment? Try to identify the root cause from the four listed below. This will help in easing the conflict.
One character has something that the other wants. This could be something physical (e.g. a magical item or money), or even something theoretical (e.g. experience points, fame).
This root cause relies on greed or a desire to be the best. It is the most common cause of conflict in any roleplaying group. Many players are prepared to enter conflict with their fellow players just to ensure that their character is the one with the best magical equipment.
Game World Politics
PCs are divided into factions, or have political responsibilities outside of the party. Many game worlds are designed this way deliberately in order to encourage positive conflict within the party. For example, Vampire the Masquerade, Legend of the Five Rings, and many other game worlds encourage the PCs to support an organisation outside of the party – and sometimes those priorities conflict with the priorities of the other PCs. Some example personality conflicts between characters:
- Power hungry thief + pious paladin
- Jedi Knight + Dark Jedi
- Scheming type person + Direct type person
These personality conflicts can be fun! But they can also be lethal to your game!
Personality Conflict Between Players
Jim thinks that Mark is a dweeb. Therefore Jim’s character does not get along with Mark’s character.
Some Solutions for the GM
These solutions assume that you want to do anything! If you think that the conflict is making it harder for everyone to have fun, then the odds are that the conflict is only going to escalate. Here are some solutions:
For Scarce Resources
Try to be aware of this problem early.
- Try introducing equipment or treasure that balances things out between characters.
- Try to encourage each character to have their own special niche. E.g. one of the fighters is a lightly armoured, agile fellow; the other is a heavily muscled tank. Provide equipment or resources that suit each niche (e.g. a quick rapier vs. a gigantic axe).
- Suggest the players come up with an official (written) treasure splitting policy that everyone agrees upon.
For Game World Politics
Assuming you want to prevent conflict from escalating, consider these solutions:
- Introduce political reasons for why conflict is not a good idea right now (e.g. there is news of a war, and it would be unwise for the House Tremere to make waves with Clan Brujah).
- Introduce an enemy or threat that endangers both factions, forcing them to work together for the moment. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend!”
For Personality Conflict Between Characters
- Can be tricky to deal with! Character’s egos can be easily damaged, and that can make them hostile to outside influence.
- Before starting the game, get players to discuss and brainstorm the kind of characters and personalities they want to play. That way, the power-hungry thief may never have to play alongside the pious paladin. I make a specific point of doing this carefully whenever I start a campaign. Remember that players may need to discuss more than just the race/class combinations they intend to play. Players need to announce their intention to play “an ambitious, aggressive, underhanded dwarf rogue” and not just “a dwarf rogue”. That way, everybody is clear.
- Encourage verbal confrontation between characters as an alternative to actual combat.
- Make an avenue available for characters to settle their differences. E.g. a duel to first blood, a high court to settle disputes.
- Make leaving the party an acceptable and honourable solution. Allow a character that voluntarily leaves to be replaced by an equally powerful individual.
- Get rid of one of the players. Try to do it politely.
- Point out to everyone that the reason we play is to have fun. Refocus everyone’s attention on that fact.
- Talk openly to the players! Let them know your concerns!
For Personality Conflict Between Players
Ah, the most tricky of all. This is an out-of-game root cause, and has to be dealt with out-of-game.
For All Conflicts
If you find that conflict in your game is causing everyone to have less fun, then try to identify what is causing the conflict. If you can identify that, then try one of the methods above to ease that conflict. If the conflict is a concern to you, consider speaking openly to the players about the problem. Everyone wants to have fun after all, and it needn’t be at someone else’s expense.