Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Friction: on PVP in Role-Playing Games

So, back a few years ago I was playing in a Rifts game run by ace GM Levi. I came to the game late, probably a month in, right about the time all the characters were getting comfortable with each other. The gag was that while I was travelling along with them, I wasn't as big a part of the team as everyone thought. My character was a plant. I was there to pass information to my employers. So, we get to playing and I settle in, doing my best to charm my teammates and appear to be one of the gang. The team leader, a cyborg named Hunter, was terrible at his job. His player was one of those guys, the guy who thinks that his collection of stats makes him invincible and there are no consequences for his actions. He managed to get the team nearly wiped out three or four times and finally my character, who was pretty much just in it for himself, decided to take steps to ensure that Hunter would never be able to harm the party again...

I was playing this guy. Bully was nearly 3/4 cyborg and was a "freelance troubleshooter". He was also very, very good with cybernetics and bionics (it was Rifts. What were you expecting, restraint?). Anyway, after a mission wherein we were supposed to scout out a ruined city where a CS Mk.V APC was skulking around (think a Stryker platoon made up of all variants combined into one vehicle). We know this dangerous vehicle and it's complement of something like 40 infantrymen are milling about this little ruin. We know they're loaded to the gills with various dangerous items like rocket launchers and heavy energy weapons. We also know they're looking for us. Knowing this, Hunter decides that he'll scout ahead by making a flyover with his jet pack. Before we could talk him out of this brilliant tactical maneuver, off he goes to do his flyover. He is, of course, immediately shot the hell down. We barely escape with our lives. Again. Cue Yakety Sax.

Later in the session as we're licking our wounds, Hunter goes out to buy some new implants to replace the ones that got all shot up. He comes back with his pile of new implants and asks Bully if he'll implant them for him. Bully, who has had enough of Hunter's shenanigans, sizes the cyborg up and immediately hatches a plan. We pack up for the day, and on the ride home with Levi I tell him, "Bully has had enough of Hunter's bullshit. He's convinced that Hunter is going to get him killed, and Bully isn't interested in dying with these knuckleheads. Bully's going to put together a neural cut-out and a cortex bomb and implant them while he's under Hunter's hood." Levi does a double take and says, "No way. No cortex bomb. That's not cool. The neural cut-out however is awesome, go for it." So Bully builds this thing that will essentially disconnect Hunter's brain from his body, leaving him conscious but paralyzed and unable to communicate, and syncs it to the key-fob for his truck's security system. Lock, unlock, trunk, shut-down cyborg. 

Next session comes along and the first thing Bully does is put Hunter into braindance (cyborg anesthesia) and get to work. Everything goes in great, including the neural cut-out. Keep in mind here that Steve, Hunter's player, has no idea what Bully's doing back there. So the campaign goes on, all the while Hunter is blissfully unaware that Bully now essentially controls his brain. Weeks and weeks later Hunter, through some incredibly poor decision making, is captured by one of the crews searching for us, and is tortured into turning on us. He lets them implant a tracking device and comes back to our hideout, whereupon he takes Bully into the other room and spills the beans. Bully listens, nods, takes his keys off his belt, pushes the button and Levi says, "Hunter falls to the floor. Steve, you can hear and see, but you have no control over your body at all. Your brain has been disconnected from your body". The look on Steve's face was priceless. Bully then proceded to pick Hunter up, all eight-hundred-and-some-odd pounds of him and throw him through a wall where he lands at the feet of the rest of the characters. Bully comes through the hole growling and shouting, which is impressive from a nine and a half foot tall cyborg Minotaur with known anger management issues, and hilarity ensues.

That right there is just one of the hilarious, and sometimes not so hilarious, incidents of player vs. player I've been involved in over the years. Now personally, I enjoy a little pvp action in my games. Hell, I played Eve Online for years as part of Goonswarm and love Mountain Witch, so you know I love pvp. I think it adds spice to a session and makes for great role-playing opportunities. Bully was a pvp machine, always looking out for himself and manipulating things so that it always looked like he was part of the team with only everyone's best interests in mind. My SR3 character Yuri is another pvp style character, especially now as be becomes more and more unhinged. Some of my most fulfilling role-playing moments with Yuri have been when he's butted heads with the other characters, like when we were all cooped up in a submarine for thirteen days after a really stressful run. It makes for a thrilling session when these powerful hired killers we play come to loggerheads, and talking ourselves and each other off of ledges is just as fun as whacking fish people.

Among the guys I play with, a little pvp is expected. Our characters have strong personalities, as do we, and some inter party friction is inevitable. We understand how it works, that it's a game and that, say, friction between Yuri and Cleric doesn't translate into friction between me and Gary, who is probably the most likable guy in the world. As with anything though, pvp needs to be done in moderation. I've played with dudes who just wanted to pvp, mostly playing thieves/rogues, and their idea of pvp was going off alone or trying to knife us in our sleep because, "I'm a rogue/it's my alignment/some other asinine reason". This isn't legitimate role-playing. It's disruptive, juvenile and eventually leads to the dissolution of gaming groups. Pvp needs to be entered into like a contract. Everyone in the group needs to be on the same page with it. Does your group largely want to play collaborative puzzle solving? If that's the case, as it is with probably most groups, then pvp probably won't be appreciated very much, if at all, by your players.

I know gamers tend to shy away from pvp in any form. There seems to be difficulty separating in game friction with out of game friction as I mentioned earlier. I've seen too many groups explode, mainly WoD Vampire games come to think of it, because the players couldn't differentiate between, "Your character hates my character" and "You hate me!" We recently finished up our BSG/Solar System game, which sadly turned into a case of pvp gone wrong. Half the group was on board with the pvp that GM Zorak wanted, and half wanted nothing to do with it. It got to the point where Jacko, playing the battlestar commander, finally said, "I don't like spending four hours trying to outsmart Namaimo and Yuri and Munin and Bela*, it's not fun anymore". The pvp made the game un-fun, and eventually killed our interest in it. What it didn't do was ruin any friendships. When Munin's LSO schemed to destroy Bela's hot-shit Viper pilot, that was beef between Commander Moriana and Blackbird, not Munin and Bela. 

I guess what I'm saying is, you all should totally try a little pvp in your games. Remember though, keep everyone on the same page, agree on your general threshold of pvp shenanigans, and don't let it bleed into meatspace. Friendships are too precious to screw up just because your feelings got hurt when someone's wizard set your cart on fire in a fit of pique.

*When I refer to my friends/players/colleagues, I tend to refer to them by their gamer handles. For example, Yuri is, of course, me and Bela is my wife. We all tend to do this in real life, and it was years before I knew Jacko's real name. 


Federico Figueredo said...

Agreed. I've tried to think of something to add to what you've said but I also think you got the point across. I will, however, try to summarize:

1- Play around with the idea of Player Characters antagonizing each other (not just on a physical level)
2- Make sure that everyone agrees on what is kosher and what is not in the game (at large) and in what can result from this clashing relationships.
3- Firewall: Remember that (most) roleplaying games are a co-op effort. Even if they're not, there's no reason to get angry at your friend/brother/girlfriend because she just ruined your character's day.
4- Have fun.


Anonymous said...

Ultimately, it's up to the GM to make sure that the party stays together. He or she has to be able to recognise when the player vs player part of the story has reached some kind of conclusion, and then they must say so.... usually before thing go too far and someone gets killed.

Having said that, PvP can be an interesting and quite believable way to bring a party of characters together. I, personally, am a big fan of having characters initially be at each others throats, only to be forced to ally together against some second, greater threat.


Levi said...

Ah that was a fun game. And the Bully vs. Hunter PVP was great.

I like at least some PVP in my games as a player or GM. I do as a GM try to make sure everyone is comfortable with the level of PVP.

I don't come out ask about it usually, I just watch how the player interact and react and try to encourage the level that everyone seems to have fun with.

In the Fantasy game I am running right now the players are sort of split into two groups. Both groups have withheld info and money from the other group. I have supported it so far, but one of the groups players did seem to take personally so I am going watch this aspect closely.