Jun 272011

A while back, Charisma posted about Players vs. Players, and how that generally isn’t a good idea.  Her article got some good comments, and several gamers mentioned how it can be good for a bit of tension in the group.  For the most part, I agree, but there needs to be a clear distinction between party tension and player tension.

The basic idea is for a group of gamers to get together to enjoy a game.  Since the game is a community effort, our enjoyment isn’t simply dependent on the game being good.  To have a truly fun experience, we need to have a good game and have that game with people we enjoy sitting at the table with.  Ergo, not getting along with the other players can ruin even the absolute best of games.

Lots of things can contribute to players not getting along at the table.  This can sometimes include player characters not getting along.  I think for this reason many gamers shy away from inter-group conflict, or simply “party tension.”  These PCs may choose to ignore or allow certain behaviors in other PCs, many times in direct contradiction with their own beliefs (the good paladin deciding to “scout the perimeter” so as to not see his friends torture the enemy for info, comes to mind).

Sure, maybe the good paladin’s player likes to play this way.  That’s awesome, but that’s not the situation I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the good paladin who has vowed to NOT allow the use of torture, and then the player looking the other way to avoid conflict among the characters, because he feels it would create conflict among the players.  In essence, the player is “settling” for lesser game and character immersion, when they would rather play the character that they’ve envisioned to his or her fullest.

That was me for a long time.  I settled plenty of times to avoid character conflict, thus avoiding party tension, and thus avoiding player conflict, because I thought that it would be better for the game that way.  I mean, party tension leads to player conflict, which leads to anger, which leads to the dark… you get what I mean? I didn’t play the characters honestly, but that was ok, because I was making sure we were getting along at the table.  Well no more!

Please indulge me for two examples…

Because of how I’ve played my current character, and because of certain factors affecting Samuel Van Der Wall’s character, a little rift has grown between our two heroes.  This culminated into my character challenging his character’s devotion, to which Sam pretty much shot straight back at me.  For a moment, we were borderline yelling at each other.  I honestly felt anger, and I was sure I could feel the same from Sam.

It was weird for me because in all my gaming with Sam, this is the closest our character’s have come to fighting.  It felt like I was really yelling at Sam, and for a moment I felt like Sam I and weren’t getting along.  However, just as fast as that anger started, it ended, because I realized we had very distinct idiosyncrasies for our characters, and we were in-character the whole time.  I immediately realized how much fun I was having.

That moment in our game is what I’m going to remember vividly for a while, instead of many other encounters, NPCs, and monsters.  It was simply eye-opening that I could have that much fun with a little player character tension in the game.  The conflict only made for a much better memory of the game, because I find myself getting more and more enjoyment from the role-playing aspect of gaming.

What I’m getting at is that, for a moment, our characters weren’t getting along, but we managed to continue the game knowing that.  What didn’t happen is that our characters didn’t start throwing insults, they didn’t take actions to hinder or oppose each other, and they certainly didn’t come to blows.  Warhammer Fantasy utilizes a “Party Tension Meter,” and our meter went sky-high.  It was awesome, not because the conflict created penalties for us, but because it made the story of our campaign that much better.

And a completely flip-flop example…

A few months ago, we were all playing Deathwatch. There were seven of us, including me, John Lewis, and John’s son, Ian (father + son gaming, FTW BTW).  John was playing a marine that used magic – magic that if used irresponsibly, could endanger the group.   My character didn’t like the fact that John’s character was part of our team, and Ian’s character downright despised it.  This created some tension in the party, but it was fun.

Well, after John repeatedly abused his power over magic, he accidentally summoned a dangerously huge freaking chaos demon, which almost resulted in a TPK.  As the fight was winding down, I was seriously considering killing John’s character, when out of nowhere, Ian’s character unloaded his machine gun into John’s character’s back, splitting him in two.  Best kill e-v-e-r.  The fact that it was John’s son who killed his character, made it all the better.

At first you may call me a hypocrite, but I’m not, really.  In both instances, the only actions taken, whether they resulted in PC vs. PC combat or not, happened in-character.  Sure, you could say

  • that acting in-character is no excuse for pick-pocketing your fellow adventurer,
  • that acting in-character is no excuse for plotting against the party,
  • or that acting in-character is no excuse for attacking another PC.

You could say all of those things (and they might be true), but not if everyone knows the expectations of the game and the characters in it.  John knew what he was getting into when he (1) chose that character, and (2) continued to act recklessly with two PCs already not liking him.   He knew what he was getting into, and he loved every minute of it.  To be honest, we all did.

My character and Sam’s character may one day come to blows.  It might happen, and one of us might end up killing the other.  That will most likely not happen, though, because our characters have similar goals, and a general desire to work together.  Only if our conflict progresses because it seems to improve the campaign’s story will a battle like that ever happen.  Ultimately, that would be up to Sam and me, and only if it seemed like it would be the most fun.

* * *

The real problem happens when players take in-character conflicts personally.  A lot of times this happens when a player feels his character is getting mistreated by the other player characters.  I think this manifests most often when one PC makes demands of another – trying to take control away from another player.  This could happen by way of the Intimidate skill, lying to the character, withholding information, hiding money or treasure, or even physical restraint of a PC.  These aren’t inherently bad things, as they could make for some great role-playing, but it can just as easily create problems at the table…

Many players are not interested in taking part in this type of character interaction.  A group of players may either recognize this and adjust, or not.  Sometimes the reasons behind these aggressive in-character actions are for the sake of role-playing, and sometimes those reasons are due to immaturity, selfishness, greed, and/or a need for dominance.  It doesn’t take much to see that a player isn’t very receptive to certain kinds of character conflict, and isn’t interested in developing that story.   If that’s the case, then players need to back off, because (at that point) party tension and character conflict are only going to cause player conflict, making the game worse.

Of course, player conflict can happen when certain players simply don’t get along, don’t appreciate each others’ play styles, manipulate the group against a certain player, or even simply belittle or insult each other.  This most certainly makes it’s way from the table to the game.  And sure, some instances of player conflict are more extreme than others, but at some point you just have to ask, “Is this something we can fix, or do I need to change groups?”

* * *

To wrap this up, there is a huge difference between party tension and player tension, but there is often only a thin line separating the two.  Player tension is a huge beast that isn’t really the focus of this article.  Party tension, on the other hand, can be a great tool to enhance your role-playing, your story, and your game.  All it takes is a little maturity, and a desire to share a cooperative, fun experience.  Add a little party tension to your game, and you just might end up shooting your dad in the back – and it’s all in the name of fun.

Image from Manarama

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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.

  7 Responses to “Managing Party Tension: Sometimes More is Better”

  1. Since it came out, I’ve been rather fascinated with the idea of how the Smallville RPG is set up where it seems as though the entire set of mechanics is based on interparty conflict and that from the perspective of someone who hasn’t played it, it looks like the mechanics actually start to break down when the party starts to have conflicts outside of themselves.

  2. I’ll definitely have to check out that game. Bah! There are so many!

  3. I just have to say that that picture up there made me laugh so hard.

    Great article.

  4. This is such a huge topic that you could split it into multiple articles. Here are a few thoughts:

    1) New or inexperienced groups should generally make characters that are built to work together, in my opinion. It is just one less thing to deal with when learning to roleplay or starting with a new group.

    2) For experienced players, playing characters that are somewhat at odds can be challenging and fun.

    3) There is a fine line between player character tension and player tension. The deeper you get into roleplaying, the more you can consider yourself a hybrid actor of sorts. Don’t get too much into your role lest you feel the joy (and PAIN) it could bring.

    4) If our characters do come to blows, you better one-shot me sir…

  5. @ onedtwelve – Thanks bud, I had fun writing it. Also, I spent forever looking for a picture to go with it, and then all of the sudden BAM! I saw the Spidey/Hulk combo and knew that was the one.

    @ Sam – Archers are so broken!!!.

  6. Tourq – Go for the knee!

    (Party tension hits 5 – every one take a stress and a fatigue)

  7. My group recently disbanded because one player (lets call him Fred) couldn’t handle the smallest amount of party tension and developed a negative personal reaction which he then used his character as a vehicle for. In game and out of game Fred was being disdainful, him and his character would insult and belittle another players character.
    His reaction to party tension resulted in personal anger, which fed back into and created far more pronounced party tension, and that resulted in player tension as the recipient of Fred’s behaviour could tell his character was being mistreated because of Fred being mean spirited in and out of game.
    That player got fed up and chewed out Fred. The environment turned toxic and the group disbanded. This article addressed how, like in this example, party tension and player tension can make feedback loops and spiral out of control.
    I miss my game 🙁

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