Digital Debate Wednesdays: Player Conflict and Roleplaying

Welcome back to Digital Debate Wednesdays! Every Wednesday, the staff of The Ace of Geeks will get our keyboards ready for a good, old fashioned nerd argument, and you get to hang out with us! Feel free to email us any ideas you might have for future debates, or let us know in the comments! Until then, here’s this weeks topic:

This week, we’ve been hearing a lot about different kinds of game mechanics, including the complete consent-based mechanic of New World Magischola. But we’ve got a lot of experienced GMs and players here, and I wanted to pick your brains about one specific issue that comes up in a lot of games: player conflict.
When you sit down at a table, or stand up at a LARP, to tell a story, everyone is going to come to the table with different ideas on what they want their character to experience, where they want their characters to go, and how they want the world of the game to be. As someone running a game, what’s the best way to handle this? As a player, how do you prefer it be handled? And what systems – whether codified in a game or something you found along the way – are best equipped to help make sure everyone has a good time?

RavenFrom a player’s POV, I personally prefer when a campaign goes the way of several smaller battles so that each player has the opportunity to have their characteristics showcased, and so the group as a whole can see where the team strengths and weaknesses are, and how character personalities develop. As to what system…. hm. That’s a good question. I have minimal experience with anything other than 5th edition stuff, and messageboarding. I have not really had the opportunity to develop opinions on anything else.

Alexis: Honestly, this is a pretty vast question. Most conflicts of outcome, if not adequately solved within the mechanics of the LARP or game, can be consolidated or talked through (the consent mechanic suits this pretty well I think). If both parties are personally invested in a differing outcome, however, things get a little more complicated. I believe that ultimately what creates this tension is usually a player’s personal need to triumph (against another PC, environment, or challenge). It’s always the ST’s job to rule on what is fair, but it is secondarily the ST’s job to craft the most compelling story. Not everyone can walk away a winner (as is usually the case in LARPS where stories tend to be darker, like Vampire and DR). An example I can think of as a PC where I was on the wrong side of this “personal need to triumph” was when my character was betrayed in a Vampire LARP by the character obfuscating her. In game, a player had begun a very dramatic monologue. I, and the other person who had been revealed, decided to run away from the room as fast as possible, knowing if we stayed we would die. The player never announced that he was using an action to stop us, we ran, he demanded we restart the scene and that his action would have stopped us running, and a ST ruled on his behalf (and our characters died as a result of the ruling.) While I was upset at the conflict outcome, I think in the end more people walked away feeling as if they had won, the story progressed in the way it needed to, and while I may have lost, the more compelling story won. That’s the kind of outcome I strive to achieve as an ST when I run LARP or game these days: finding the most compelling progression. (While keeping everyone happy, which if you have good and adaptable players, is possible.)

Seth: Apocalypse World, from D Vincent Baker, is the best system that I have ever seen. The player decides what they want to, and the Master of Ceremonies (MC, their version of Game Master) decides what kind of move that is. There are about 10 basic moves the character can do, and they are so general that you can fit most anything into them. The player gets to detail what they want the move to look like, but mechanically the move works the same each time. Then the player roles dice to see if it works. There are 3 possible results: failure, partial success, and complete success. The MC details what each looks like. Once you get the hang of it (two sessions, tops), it goes rapid fire, and leaves more time for creativity and player generated content without sacrificing the mechanical basics that brings everyone to the same page. Characters also have special moves that only they can do, so their character feels unique and useful. Everyone gets a bit of spotlight. All of the moves work the same (detail what it looks like, roll dice, get result) so the MC can make up new moves for new items, environments, events, etc, with very little effort.

  • Sam: I’m with Seth, I think Apocalypse World (and its various derivatives/hacks) is one of the better systems at handling player conflict.It’s worth adding, I think, that the game is designed with spontaneous conflict as a central component (replacing GM prep to some extent), so whenever two characters come into conflict the game’s rules kick in to both determine the outcome of that conflict and set up new conflicts that will continue to propel the story.Contrast this to, say, D&D, which is designed as more of a PvE (player vs environment/NPC) game with party members complementing each other as a united team. Intra-party conflict in a D&D game that ends up requiring mechanical resolution can end up feeling a bit rough since PC abilities aren’t balanced with PvP in mind.Or, on the other side of the spectrum, game systems with no mechanics whatsoever for resolving conflict can easily end up with the problem of the GM having to make a ruling by fiat, which is seldom satisfying for the player being ruled against.

Jarys: I believe the answer lies in clear and honest communication of everyone’s expectations, desires, ideas…and that answer is a Social Contract. Too many problems I have seen in gaming groups occur because people do not communicate where they are coming from, they assume everyone else is coming from the same place and act accordingly. Another problem is people unknowingly pushing each other’s boundaries and making the game or the social space uncomfortable for others. A third would be gamers with different ideas of what “fun” looks like all trying to apply their ideal game play without coordinating which each other.

This is caused by what I hold to be a huge misconceptions in gaming, that even the metaconstruct of the “gaming group” constitutes a sort of escapism. Because so many wish to escape the social complications in life, they put little effort in to the balance and peace of the gaming group, taking for granted that everyone wants the same thing, knows what everyone else wants, and can work together well. But good social dynamics rarely just happen, and many people don’t know how to artificially bring this sort of Euscociality.

That is what a social contract does; lays everything each person brings to the game and wants out of the game “on the table”, as it were. Each group should have a unique contract in which social, narrative, and system conceits are agreed upon. I find the best basis for all gaming social contracts is gaming altrusism, or the Morningstar Philosophy; play to enhance and support the fun of every other person there and in kind they will take care of your fun too. Making this a clear expectation led to some amazing games for me. My favorite LARPs had heavy emotional and social mutual support., eradicating the possibility of players coming to game for the own fun at the expense of anyone else’s.

I guess what I am saying is that player conflict is an inevitability with poor communication, and an independent mindset, whereas social contracts solve those problems before they arise.

Justin: I rarely interfere with player conflict especially if it comes from two characters colliding instead of two players. If it genuinely spawned from a difference of how characters react to and see the world around them then I find it more interesting to let it run its course and have them settle it in game.

If it’s players just being dicks to one another, I tend to just call for a break and that typically gives enough cool down/thinking time.

Teresa: The biggest problems I’ve seen in gaming come from a denial of desires rather than asserting them. A classic example is playing a game with a strict hierarchy of characters (and powers) that bleeds into real life perceptions. People want to play the high level, powerful characters but are afraid to ask for them because they might be seen as desperate, shallow, or arrogant for daring to think they should be [insert rank here]. So people don’t claim high ranks, and spend their time frustrated and wishing someone would hand them a coveted storyline/rank/position so they could graciously accept without having to be so crude as to openly want something.

Lowering the idea of stigma attached to a real person because they have an ambitious character, or even because they as a person would like to have power in this /totally made up world we’re all playing in/ has been the only effective solution to this kind of problem that I’ve seen. It’s not really something one person can implement; the group culture has to shift.

  • Seth: Oh man, I have the opposite problem when I’m a player. I usually look around and see if someone else is the leader. If so, I glue my lips firmly to their ass. If not, I grab as much power and bullshit titles that I can, put the pedal to the metal and blast straight forward until the wheels fall off.

Jim: The secret to a good game is being honest with your players about the themes you’re all going to be exploring together before the game ever starts and as the game goes on.
Once you have that understanding you can be reasonably assured that the game will not go anywhere that will cause strife at the table.

Mike: Do you guys feel there are certain game systems where those expectations go without saying? Like, if you’re playing Vampire or D&D.

  • Jarys: What expectations?
  • Mike: The “what to expect out of a game.” The themes and play styles.
    I guess I’m asking if people are “off the hook,” so to speak, for not asking up front of everyone’s comfortable playing murder hobos in D&D or political Vampires. 🙂
  • Mal: I don’t think that expectation absolves a player who transgresses another player. But may absolve them of crimes against the narrative
  • Seth: Not universally, no. It depends on the environment. Certain conventions, you need to explain everything up front. Other places, you can can get away with a certain amount of, “Well what did you expect from this system.”
  • Jarys: I would say that certain games, especially Nordic LARP and Indie Press revolution games such as Fiasco and Fate are good at Fascilitating these sorts of discussions, but no one is ever off the hook for having a social contract (or equivalent effort) before play begins.I am seeing a lot of indication or assumption that the GM bears responsibility for arranging any pregame discussion or adjudication problems between players (not characters) and I wish to disagree. The GM is not a metagame conceit, the GM is a player like any other player. Their role exists as a conceit of a GM-requiring system, which not all games need, and GMs are there to facilitate use of the system. Now, if all the players together decide they want to elect a GM or other whose role it is to make sure the game happens smoothly through difficulty and player conflict, that is their choice, but this should not be a basic assumption. I believe all players are responsible for making sure game happens smoothly and that player conflicts are resolved. GMs are easily overwhelmed when players expect them to adjudicate the rules and everyone’s personality quirks. The GM is playing the game too, and should also be having fun. Besides, it is good politics to come together as a community to solve interpersonal conflicts

Jarys: Ok, here is a question: is it feasible to run intercharacter conflict with no or virtually no chance of this bleeding off to create interplayer conflict? If so, how do we try and create this result?

  • Teresa: Intercharacter conflict that focuses on at least partially inorganic conflict, yes. Two players who agree on the conflict can enjoy the strife. “Wow my character is being such an ass right now, but that was a morally questionable action your character just took.””I agree that my character is treading a fine line but wow does that smart ass remark from your character deserve an in character smack down.”When conflict grows out of disagreements between the players themselves, or when they hit accidentally on actual convictions the player holds, then no. I don’t see it being easy to keep things civil.
  • Melissa: The game we put on earlier in the year was based on character conflict and the players had a great time because it also had an element of silliness to it that made all the fighting funny to everyone involved. That was a 26 person one shot larp though. I don’t think it would work as well in smaller groups and/or over a sustained period of time. I think it would stop being funny.

Melissa: My experience is limited but diverse. I would say to never base your assumption on what larping is on Vampire. It is a separate game that seems to attract highly competitive, and sometimes underhanded, play. It didn’t used to, but the modern vampire larp experience is a unique environment of play I personally want no part in.

As for my other larp experiences; I’ve only participated in three, but I’ve helped run more – and written one. They were all cooperative and friendly. Most were GM fiat (but not all). And all had an announcement at the beginning about some social expectations. My favourite introduction was by Devon Apple who created a safe space by giving us the chance to open up about triggers we would like people to avoid. And as soon as I offered one (I just happened to be first, not about me) others were able to find their voice and it seemed to make us all friends as players for a short while. I was very impressed.

Content doesn’t seem to matter. The last two games we put on were quite opposite in some ways. The one earlier in the year was deliberately written to let character conflict create the plot and was well recieved. The one Mae Linh created was entirely cooperative in character and out – the very system nessicated the characters learn to work together. And the game that resulted was truly epic.

My tabletop experience is even more limited, and has been a struggle for me on a a personal level. But I’ve played D&D when I, as the healer, used a combat spell, failed so miserably I knocked out another character, and we were all in stitches about it. But I know of people who would not have been so amused. I don’t play with them.

I’ve had someone I didn’t know well accidently trigger me by getting aggressive with my character. It short circuited my slightly malfunctioning brain and it was not good for me, but would have been fine for another. Although, thanks to that, I now know what to ask for in safe space discussions so it worked out.

I think Fate and Fiasco have more cooperative play built in. D&d does not, but the right group does. Life is too short to put up with assholes. And there are lots of other groups out there. Go to a convention, sign up at a game store, keep moving till you find people who laugh more than they fight.

As a side note. If you want to get your partner into gaming I highly recommend Fiasco. My main troubles with roleplaying are feeling like I don’t know what to do, and I feel shy pretenting to be someone else.

Fiasco can be as heavy or light on the roleplaying as each individual wants – and it can differ at the same table. And the system really helps you move forward with what to do next.

And I guess, while we are on the subjects of newbs like me. PSA to other newbs. Find the group that loves the game so much they are excited to share it with you. And ditch any group that makes you feel like a fish out of water because what’s natural to them is confusing as shit to you. Seriously people, some games are just way too fucking complicated in ways long time players forget. Find the group that lets you rewind because you only did something a certain way because you didn’t understand the arcane rules you had described to you breifly – on your first game. I guess go back to number one. Don’t play with assholes.

Stephanie Cala
Stephanie is the resident event planner, Pokémon trainer, a very shy newbie cosplayer, and a horrible amateur photographer. When she’s not playing D&D or playing with her puppy (or playing D&D with her puppy?), she’s likely to be found either behind a computer at work banging her head on the keyboard because people don’t update their Flash Players, or behind a different computer at home banging her head on a keyboard because COME THE F– ON I TOTALLY MADE THAT SHOT.

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