Nov 022011

My, how the tables turn…

I’ve been gaming for awhile now, and I’ve seen plenty of different situations at the table: different gamers, different points of view, different likes and dislikes, and on and on. If you’ve been gaming for any decent length of time, you’ve seen it all, too. And then, of course, after we’re sure that we’ve seen it all, we get hit with something new.

Charisma had a good article, PVP is cool. …I mean, NOT cool. Here’s a quick quote:

“No, you can’t make an attack roll against another player character. We’re fighting monsters; not players. The moment we start rolling against each other, the fun ends and the unfun competition begins. There is no PVP at this table.”

I remember that as a beginning gamer, the thought of attacking another PC never even hit the radar. The thought of PVP combat simply never entered my mind as a possibility. That wasn’t part of the game – after all, it was the GM against us.

Then, as my group got more comfortable with the notion of roleplaying (and because we thought we were so smart), we ‘realized’ that there was no reason that the combat rules wouldn’t apply to our characters, and in allowing player vs. player we were actually growing and maturing as gamers.

Unfortunately, this stage of our gaming careers was fraught with problems at the table. While we allowed for inter-party actions that were… aggressive, our quality of gaming started to suffer. I began to feel the exact same way as Charisma with her aversion to PVP. It just wasn’t working, and continued to create problems at the table.

Moving on, I began gaming with a new group, and for the most part there was no PVP (in any form). It was clear that this group was really focused on campaign story and the stories that were woven around the player characters. We were all there at the table to enjoy a good game, without drumming up any negative actions or energy, and it was pretty rewarding. None of our player characters ever despised, hated, or even wanted to (god forbid) kill each other. Normally, you’ll hear that such conflict is just bad form at the gaming table. And why not? I play a game to face challenges brought on by the Game Master, right?


In a previous article, I talked about adding PC vs. PC tension to your game for everyone’s benefit. Sure, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has made such an impact on our game’s story (increasing our fun factor) that I feel it’s worth recommending. The challenges that are brought into the game when tension among the party builds add a new element to the experience. You don’t have to burden the GM with all the story-telling; players can shoulder some of that weight just as easily. I say bring on the tension! But what about inter-party conflict that ultimately leads to one PC killing another?

I’ve been playing a Priest of Sigmar, in the challenging and unforgiving world of Warhammer Fantasy. As are many young Priests of Sigmar, he has a very black and white view of the world, and will charge into any battle without fear. There is no negotiating with evil or chaos, and those even slightly tainted by it are either brought to trial or killed outright.

Enter another PC (Willhelm), one who has a very troubled past and has once been associated with Chaos. As time rolls on, the tension between these two character builds. It builds even further when Willhelm develops a Chaos mutation, furthering the conflict and tension in the group (especially with the priest). Only because the threat that our characters face requires our PCs’ continued cooperation do we not kill each other. In fact, it is suspected among the player characters that regardless of how the threat is finally dealt with, there will soon be some lethal PC vs. PC combat. The campaign’s story and conflict was eventually overshadowed by the conflict among the party members. It took a lot of work for our characters to continue to stay together, let alone not kill each other.

And you know what? It was the absolute best campaign that I’ve been a part of.

The campaign just wrapped up, and (unfortunately) I didn’t get to kill Willhelm. Unfortunately? Yeah, unfortunately. It’s all right, though, because everything ended so perfectly in quintessential Warhammer Fantasy style.

So my question is, have you ever witnessed a player vs player death, and how did your group take it?

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Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  15 Responses to “Killing a fellow PC: Bad Form? Or Bad Ass?”

  1. Quite intriguing, and I think you nailed it by using the M-word, maturing. With the wrong kind of group, you’d get characters hilariously killing each other with the slightest provocation–“You mispronounced my name! I kill him!”–and the only real victim here would be the GM who had wasted all his time putting together the silly game.

    But tension that escalates into lethal force, that’s a powerful roleplaying tool that is quite viable with the right group. Nice article!

  2. I’ve never seen it work out well. I’ve played a lot of games where it came up and it was always if not the death knell of the game, certainly a harbinger of doom. The best resolution was always one player leaving the game.

    It is almost always the result of player conflict being expressed as character conflict. Even when it does not come from player conflict, one (or both) person is almost always unhappy with the outcome and seeks revenge. If you’re not careful, the entire game can be soured by this cycle of escalating player and character conflicts.

    Do not tread lightly into this territory.

  3. Can the characters kill one another? I think so, but I also think it should be part of the story not just because tensions escalate too far and people start swinging. The tension builds great stories, and so should the death. Just as players don’t want the DM to kill their characters in a meaningless wandering monster encounter, they don’t want their death to happen at the hands of another PC because the other guy just got too angry. If player death is going to occur, it should happen in a way that makes everyone, including the recently deceased, to think that was cool. That was meaningful. I may not be happy that my character died, but I liked that he went down that way. It’s the same thing you’d want if your character died to a monster.

    If the other player isn’t going to feel like that, then one of you needs to back off. And if you don’t think you’d feel that way if your character died, better keep that in mind, too. Keeping an open communication with the other player about where the line should be drawn is not a bad thing.

    In my early years, we had a lot of character tensions like this- we had a dark elf, a treasure stealing rogue, and a Raistlin wannabe all in the same party. There were chases, threats, fights and arguments, but it rarely came to death. It did at one point, but it was done by the player using NPCs and intrigue to cause a situation that led to the death, not a backstab in the night. Afterwards, when the other players figured it out, it was more of a mystery being revealed than someone getting betrayed. It was a neat story and they all moved on.

    On the other hand, I’ve had the “I want that magic treasure” duel to the death happen as well. Those do not end nearly as well.

  4. @Dixon –

    That’s exactly it. We all saw what was happening and discussed it occasionally as we went. It was new territory for us, and we wanted to see where it all went.

    @Matthew –

    You’re exactly right, also. The difference with our experience is that we were playing Warhammer Fantasy, a game that usually ruins your characters by the end of the campaign, regardless if your party was victorious or not. Add to that the personality differences of the characters, the nefarious events that plagued the characters, and the fact that we knew the campaign was winding down, and we all felt confident that no matter what happened, it was all going to end as a fantastic story. I wish I could outline that story for everyone, but just know it was one of those that you breathe a sigh of “Ahhhhh” afterward. Good times.

    Also, while we all very much enjoyed the campaign and conflict within, it took a lot of energy to play in that territory. In discussing our next gaming endeavor, we decided to make characters that were pretty much polar opposites with our Warhammer characters – Our new characters are all going to be very close buddies/teammates. I think that this time, even if tension starts to creep up, we (as a group) will see it and change gears, because this time around we want to play the opposite kind of game.

  5. I always have found it odd that people are happy to play characters who psychotically kill sentient creatures and take their stuff, but then have their character have a major moral prohibition against killing some other character that their character has known for five minutes.

    When other players play characters with no redeeming features or no salient connection to my character, my little psychopath has no compunction about using them as a disposable meat shield, a trap springer, or just sticking a knife in their back.

  6. The very first table-top campaign I ever played ended in PC on PC combat, but not quite in the usual way. My Mutants and Masterminds character had been emotion controlled to love the huge over-arcing villain we’d had for the entire campaign. When the rest of the party found us, my “lover” took more care to keep me as his thrall than to protect himself. Thus, it fell on me to attempt to destroy these nay-sayers who kept trying to kill my man. Fortunately, I was broken free of his spell before any death happened among us, but it was interesting for my first time.

    That experience of trying to kill all my party members was sort of fun, I guess, but not something I’d want to try again. Because of that, I won’t be doing it again.

    The reason I roleplay is to have fun. To pretend to be someone else for a while and to act in such a way that real-life ramifications won’t haunt me for the rest of my life. In my opinion, as long as a player is in character, let the game go as it will. However, with that said, when a character is made in such a way that he or she is behaving normally by killing party-members? Well, that’s just not fun to play with. At least not for me.

  7. My first long term RPG Game was a Vampire LARP. Player vs. Player is pretty much the norm though a lot of that is on the social side of things. Dominating and Blood Bonding is par for the course but actual killing or diablerie tend to be rare unless you’ve gotten it really really well planned out. I’m still a bit embarrassed for flying off the handle when my then gf broke down crying over the death of her character. On the other hand, some of my favorite games were the ones where my characters died… especially the acid filled water balloons. That was a good death.

  8. As the GM of the aforementioned Warhammer campaign I can say that I really enjoyed how it wrapped up. I’ve always frowned upon PvP because it has only ever come up in a campaign I was running for completely stupid reasons. And yes, it usually did signal the beginning of the end (at least for a player or two).

    However in this campaign the conflict developed very organically and contributed to the story in a significant way. This wasn’t really a moral conflict over good or evil, or an ethical conflict over right and wrong, nor even a material conflict over items, money, or what the group should do. This conflict originated in the psyche of the two characters; a devout priest who dedicated his soul to his god’s teachings, and a honorable man that suffered from a lifetime of mental and emotional scars inflicted by the hand of Chaos.

    What made this campaign work, and allowed the conflict to add flavor, was a strong connection between the characters and the campaign. These weren’t “adventurers” wandering the world. These were skilled individuals in the employ of a witch-hunter tasked with a mission for both State and Church. Personal goals and ambitions had to be set aside to accomplish the mission while the members of the party were held accountable for their actions by a higher authority. What also allowed the situation to work was the dialogue between the players in between game sessions. This gave them the time to explain their character’s thoughts to each other (away from the heat of the moment) and for the two of them to discuss and plan how this conflict could play out as a plot device instead of as an argument.

    It was these elements and more that allowed character conflict to really add some interesting tension to the campaign without ever becoming a problem.

  9. As the other player (of Wilhelm), I have to say that a lot of factors where in play here, but they are definitely wrapped up in the M-word: Maturity. As mentioned already, communication was key as was the willingness for me to acknowledge that my choices were pushing my fellow player towards his only realistic choice, killing me.

    Tourq’s dissatisfaction (“The campaign just wrapped up, and (unfortunately) I didn’t get to kill Willhelm. Unfortunately? Yeah, unfortunately.”) subtly points to what may have been happening in Klaus’ psyche. “Wilhelm is a necessary evil that is still furthering Sigmar’s work in his own way. Unfortunately, his long suffering and current afflictions show him to be a lost cause, irredeemably corrupt. Only with Sigmar’s blessing can I give him a purifying execution and save his soul.” Then again, Tourq could just be a bloodthirsty jackass longing to kill a fellow player’s character. Read the following and then you decide:

    Tourq was playing a cleric who was very far outside his comfort zone with the black and white puritanical view reflecting the dogma of his creed. This atmosphere of tension between Klaus and Wilhelm added a bit of grey to Klaus’s worldview that gave his character a goal to strive for and a way to save a once great man from his demons. The fact that Wilhelm died at the hands of the evil this group had been facing denied him a clean death, cost him his soul, and cost Klaus the opportunity to do his god’s work.

    I never thought I would look favorably on my PC dying at the hands of another at the table. However, Klaus would have given Wilhelm a clean death. Now, this poor character I have come to cherish has become a vampiric chaos spawn (with inside knowledge of how the Inquistion functions) due to plague the next group of players fortunate enough to play Warhammer Fantasy at John’s table. I pity those PC’s…”

  10. It’s all about social contract. I’ve seen more or less three versions in my gaming career –

    1. No PvP, ever (or only just-for-fun sparring)
    2. You can plot and scheme all you want, but there is going to be a serious OOC talk before you start actually trying to kill each other
    3. Anything goes

    As long as everyone knows (and agrees) which one of those three you’re in, there shouldn’t be hurt feelings.

    Most games I’m in lean towards #2. The PCs might have vastly different goals, and might put each other into lethal situations, but no one is dealing the deathblow against a fellow party member. Either they have some strong reason to work together (eg, I hate the cleric but if I kill him we’ll have no healing and quickly perish) or are generally just schemier individuals who’d rather not take action directly (eg my entire Mage party).

    I definitely prefer that to the “I won’t even let you roll dice against another player” version of #1, which I’ve seen a couple times. You mean I want to lie to our paladin but I’m not even allowed to make a Bluff check? Screw that.

    The big problem with #3 is that it can quickly turn into vengeful chaos. It’s also where most people’s minds go when they think PvP. “If I don’t like him, why don’t I just stab him in the face RIGHT NOW?” And pretty soon the party implodes.

  11. I’m with SwordGleam on this, I think as long as everyone knows what they’re getting into at the beginning, it shouldn’t be a problem. A group that knows each other well, is far more likely to be able to separate the game table from personal conflicts. That being said, the Heroes of Shadow preview being run at Cons was a run shot, often with a party of near strangers, that clearly openly invited eventual conflict.

    I got to DM this and while people were surprised, they all had a blast trying to unravel the sudden shifting alliances that occured. It’s a combat dynamic that cannot be replicated with NPCs.

    I have two campaigns right now with the same group. In one its a harsh world, inspired by shoot em ups and heist movies. Combat is known to be a possible means to each weeks “mission”. In the other, the PCs are heroes but are far from Lawful Good. The world is sandbox and they end up with very different goals and backgrounds. In both there has been PvP. Some of it very light hearted, and some of it ending with player frustration. It has always ended with people returning next week and having fun. If it ever happened for no good reason, that’s a clear trigger for the rest of the group to step in and take out the new “rogue/madman”. Not a good way to keep your character. It always happens with clear character and story motivations.

    its made for a wild ride.

  12. Another thing that can keep this from becoming a problem is running a game where consequences for actions are relevant and there is real cause-and-effect for the characters. In a campaign where the PC’s can kill “strangers” without fear of legal repercussions, revenge killings, or any other sort of negative impact they are already a couple steps closer to killing a fellow party member.

  13. One the first time that I really roleplayed a character, was when I killed a fellwo PC. Relatively green as I was, I didn’t know that it was a taboo – I just knew I was arguing with a guy who had just revealed himself to be a former mass murderer and that I was playing a wannabe sherriff with an-eye-for-an-eye mentality. When he handed me his gun and shouted “Why don’t you just shoot me?” I saw no reason not to. And so I killed him.

    The thing is, it all depends on the setting and the group. And most of all on the reason. If PvP grows out of a clear, reasonable conflict or dilemma and everyone at the table knows what they’re getting into, there’s no reason do forbid PCs to kill each other.

    As a GM I do quite enjoy inter-party conflict – if it is handled reasonably and maturely and completely in character. I have yet to experience inter-party conflict that stems from conflict between players – if so, some OOC talk would be higly necessary. And there are more ways to handle such conflict than death or even physical conflict. But if it has to come that far – so be it. I would only step in, if a player started killing characters for fun and profit. But I guess, the rest of the party would be even quicker to deal with the killer.

  14. I’ve witnessed quite a few player vs player situations, often revolving around the same guy picking fights. For example, in one of my campaigns, the very first one I GM’d one of the players, a rouge tried to pickpocket a late joiner who the party met in the tavern of the first village they came across. The elf of course noticed this and challenged the rouge to a duel, and all of a sudden two other players joined in as well. The rouge quickly died to the gretchin in the party. Of course, the gamers I play with are used to far more freedom in choices, we rarely do have any fixed stories, and using a homebrew system too.

    Another situation comes to mind, where each player was a lord sent to the southlands to settle down, and expand the kingdoms borders. Two of the players, the same elf player, also playing an elf this time and another character, playing an exiled lord. Due to some events the elf made the desicion to attack the exile players village. There were some skirmishes and then another player, a leader of a mercenary band, arrived in the area and this led to both parties trying to convince the mercenary captain to their cause. In the end the elf lord was killed by the mercenary captain.

  15. It’s interesting. I put a lot of effort into designing my player characters. If they’re going to die at the hands of another player character, I’ll be totally cool with that ONLY if it serves the story in a beneficial way. But that’s something we need to discuss at the table with civility.

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