Unlike most of the articles that I write regarding adventures, this is one of the first that I am writing that is mostly for players at the table. This isn't to say that GM's shouldn't read this, in fact there will be an important section of this article for GM's. Today I would like to cover how to play out inter-party conflicts and how to keep them at the table.
Its incredibly important to highlight the goals of the game. How you play out inter-party relationships will depend ultimately on the goals that people bring to the table. We have very different goals when walking into a game of Clue or Mafia versus a game of Legendary. While those are board games you still come in with different relationships with the other players. Its important for the group as a whole to establish what the goals of the game are before even playing.
If the GM claims that you will all be playing a murder mystery akin to Clue (if you can't tell I love Clue) then you are able to determine how you treat other members of the party. Alternatively the GM could claim that its an exploration game where the party is venturing out to discover new things about the world. In the end you have to prepare your mindset in how to interact with the party.
We all love creating characters. As a GM I've created a ton in the form of NPC's. As a group you should ALWAYS have a session zero where the GM and the players sit down and create the characters for the campaign they will be going through. This is less important for one-shots as once the game has concluded those characters are gone along with their relationships.
The session zero allows everyone to sit down to discuss the characters they are creating. While players will come to the table with ideas, sometimes that idea will have to change to fit into the party to avoid character conflict very early on. I will discuss character conflicts later, but sometimes its okay to include these conflicts. This helps smooth out issues that may come up later, especially if you have a paladin who is not particularly happy with the necromancer raising the dead. Everyone should come with some respect for what everyone wants to play and be prepared to make compromises.
Meaningful vs Harmful Conflict
To clarify these two terms meaningful conflict is conflict that builds on the character and party development. For example a member of the party has to kill an important NPC because of a deal they made or it is a part of their mission. This NPC is important to the party and possibly the party catches the player in the act. Maybe it leads to combat but ultimately leading to some kind of role playing between the players discussing the scenario. Out of character the party is openly discussing the reasons behind their characters actions during the conflict. This type of scenario brings complications to the story and triggers important role playing.
Harmful conflict is conflict that is not constructive and can create real world conflict. Often this is in the form of retaliation or spite. An example of this is stealing non-story related items from other players (i.e. currency) for purely personal reasons. The player is keeping secrets or colluding with other players. This is often targeted towards a single character or player as a result of their in-game actions.
In most cases it is easier to identify harmful conflict. The first sign of harmful conflicts is when one player is making a save or an attack against another player. When damage is being rolled or characters start to get conditions because of another players intentional actions that is harmful. Contested checks can sometimes lead to harmful conflict but is not guaranteed tell.
Meaningful conflict is harder to identify but is usually able to be done through body language or the language they use. Knowing your fellow players makes this significantly easier. Often times you can tell if all members involved are smiling or laughing. When the members involved are causing harm to their own characters knowingly that is another sign. For instance a particular gnome I GM'd for drank alchemist's fire of his own volition, but out of game he knew that it was alchemist's fire. His character created conflict with the alchemist who made it but in role play they made it non-violent and a memorable moment.
Dealing with Harmful Conflict as a GM
As a GM it is your responsibility to ensure that you and the players at the table are having an enjoyable time, your story be damned. As a GM I have only had to encounter harmful conflict once in which I failed to cut off before an out of game discussion occurred. Out of that experience I was able to identify key points that I could have intervened as a GM but failed to identify the type of conflict.
The first point of intervention was when the player presented me with the spell he was wanting to cast on another party member. This happened to be the 5th level spell Dream. Which those of you with a PHB or knowledge of the spell in 5th Edition knows that it causes you to basically lose the benefits of a long rest and take damage. I should have as a GM spoken to the player about the issues that come with the casting of the spell, that it would essentially hamper the character completely and talk out the conflict to drive it towards a more meaningful conflict.
The second point of intervention was when the player who was the target of the spell decided to retaliate. While this is a normal reaction to being targeted with a 5th level spell, as a part of the game retaliation should not have occurred to keep the game moving. Instead of not pausing the game to discuss the conflict, it spiraled out of control leading to multiple spells cast and harm being done along with annoying several players not involved in the conflict.
When harmful conflict occurs in your games it is your job as the GM to assist in eliminating the conflict. When this type of conflict occurs you should pull the players aside, both involved in the conflict to have a discussion on what occurred and work towards not walking away from the table still upset with events that occurred at the table.
Dealing with Harmful Conflict as a Player
Its not entirely up to the GM to deal with harmful conflict. They have A LOT they are working on in the background to create the immersive experience and sometimes miss opportunities to drive conflict to be meaningful. As a player you are also responsible for bringing an enjoyable experience to everyone at the table, after all these are people you are playing a game with. There is actually a word for it: sportsmanship.
The power you have as a player is paying attention to your own actions. Often you can get caught up in the moment and go with the flow of things. Retaliation is a common reaction, I can say I am guilty of this at least once. Thinking about what your actions do when targeting other characters should be your first thoughts. Anything that hampers your teammates you should immediately think twice about. If in character you want to create conflict that is more meaningful, you have the power to pause the game, pull your GM aside, and talk with them about how to do so if you don't know how.
The other power as a player you have is open communication. You don't just have to discuss with the GM when you want to create conflict. Openly talking about the reasons behind your characters actions and the intention behind them when creating conflict is a first step towards pushing it to be more meaningful. At this part you need to sincere and open to what others have to say.
Why Meaningful Conflict is Important
Conflict is in nearly all of our popular media and literature. Conflict drives story and the resolution of conflict brings members closer together. Having meaningful conflict in your party is a fantastic way to get player immersion and party bonding. Meaningful conflict can create a scenario where a character leaves the party when the player no longer chooses to continue that character's story. It brings depth to your story and creates memories at the table. No one remembers the shopping trips, but they will remember the time the rogue stole an item from a shop causing the city guard to chase the party down.
Playing an A%$hole
Sometimes you want to play that guy but you don't want to upset everyone at the table. The first part to playing such a character needs to have instilled in its creation a reason why he can be liked and why he can interact with the party without just being abandoned. You can play the guy that treats everyone like s&$% except his friends, who coincidentally are members of the party. Meanwhile the party knows that's how he operates and tolerate that because he is the most skilled fighter they know.
You can also play the character who is not intentionally being a d&%$. He works with the party but on occasion says things that may upset other members, but more out of ignorance. As long as the party knows this is how he works they can resolve the conflicts without retaliation, or retaliation that is understood and accepted.
With work with your GM, its possible to run a bad guy within the party! You can be a minion of the big bad, understanding that you would have to give up the character once "the gig is up". To manage this the player has to understand the best way to create meaningful conflict without instigating retaliation, or dealing with retaliation with the big reveal and making it into a story moment. Coming up with your Big Bad monologue is important for establishing this moment.
The important part of playing the a%$hole in the party is understanding this difference of meaningful and harmful conflict and always driving it to be meaningful. Its about picking your battles and your responses. Make sure to learn all the players in your game and come up with a mutual understanding of how the character is played. Without this spoken agreement you will only cause problems and create a more toxic environment.
Inter-party conflict is a difficult beast to master. It requires you to be attentive of your fellow players and a general understanding of the social contract you agree to when you sit at the table. As the solution with most problems that occur at the table, inter-party conflicts can be resolved without issues with open communication.
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