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Player vs. Player
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Several sessions ago, the heroes learned the true name of the Raven Queen, the god of fate. The details of how this occurred aren't important; what IS important is that the heroes have, over the course of the campaign, made enemies of Vecna and his followers. The god of secrets has been searching for clues to the Raven Queen's true name for ages, hoping this knowledge would enable him to usurp her portfolio and become the undisputed Lord of Death. Obviously, the Raven Queen doesn't want her secret to fall into Vecna's hand.

Rodney Thompson plays Vargas, a sworn servant of the Raven Queen. Recently, the Raven Queen contacted Vargas and declared that he was destined to become her eternal champion, but first he must keep her true name hidden from infidels who might use the knowledge against her. She tasked him with slaying everyone in possession of this knowledge, starting with his friends.

Last night, worshipers of the Raven Queen began to flock to Vargas's side, keen to help him complete whatever tasks the Raven Queen sets before him. Meanwhile, Vargas has been searching for a way to protect the Raven Queen's secret without turning on his fellow party members. The Vecnites are known to have rituals that can erase people's memories. Perhaps he can use such a ritual on his companions and erase the Raven Queen's true name from their minds, but that would mean confronting the servants of Vecna directly (a risky proposition, to say the least). So far, he's declined to share the details of his "mission" with the rest of the party. Will he find an end-around before the Raven Queen grows impatient, and is the party doomed to self-destruct?

W hat would drive a Dungeon Master, particularly an experienced one, to deliberately turn player characters against one another? Seems like an act of sheer madness. D&D is supposed to encourage player cooperation and teamwork, and frankly, players are quite capable of turning on one another without the DM's assistance. Why provoke inter-party discord and distrust?

Maybe I am chaotic evil. Maybe I'm just plain crazy for putting Rodney's character in the situation of choosing between his deity and his friends, but as a storyteller the predicament fascinates me on many levels. First and foremost, it's a conundrum that isn't solved by the simple casting of a spell, the spending of gold pieces, or the success of a skill check. Rodney isn't going to buy or talk his way out of this one! I also love the notion that the Raven Queen's command not only puts Vargas to the test but also puts Rodney's play skill to the test. How much information should he share with the other players? How ready and willing is he to put his character in jeopardy? Can he figure out some "out of the box" way to protect the Raven Queen's secret and still keep the party from imploding?

As a DM, I'm willing to risk party implosion for good drama. I'm enamored with the notion that good conflict doesn't always come from without; sometimes it comes from within. A lot of television series rely on internal conflict to fuel the drama. I'm thinking now of Lee "Apollo" Adama and Kara "Starbuck" Thrace from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series. Here we have two heroic characters periodically at odds with one another as well as their commanding officers. In some cases, they make choices that fracture their "adventuring party," fueling much of the show's drama. Yet somehow, they always pull it together. In my campaign, I've adopted the mentality that whether the party survives or not is totally in the players' hands. My job is to keep the campaign alive until such time as the players' choices lead to a natural or sudden conclusion. As far as I can tell, my players enjoy getting together every Wednesday night to play their characters. They're not going to let themselves become the instruments of the campaign's demise, and so they fight me at every turn to keep the party from disintegrating. How far will my players go to keep the game alive? Pretty damn far. They enable me to indulge my inner demon's storytelling shenanigans.

Lessons Learned

The title of this article is a deliberate misnomer. Despite everything I've said up to this point, I'm not really talking about "player vs. player" conflict at all. It's a silly DM who turns players against one another. What I'm really talking about is "character vs. character," and an experienced DM who knows his players well can run a game in which the heroes occasionally find themselves at cross-purposes that could, under certain conditions, escalate into all-out conflict. It's been my experience that you need three things to pull it off:

  • Players who genuinely like each other and enjoy a roleplaying challenge.
  • A little foreshadowing, so the players can steel themselves.
  • Wiggle room, so that the players can consider their alternatives.

My Wednesday night players are fond of inserting little "character vs. character" moments into the campaign that are usually played for laughs, so I felt pretty comfortable inciting a more serious inter-party conflict by testing Vargas's loyalty to the Raven Queen. I'm lucky because my players all have thick skins and a sense of humor, and they rarely let a good roleplaying opportunity go to waste. There was a nice bit of foreshadowing when the characters discovered the Raven Queen's true name. The players knew that this discovery might come back to haunt them at some point, particularly given Vargas's link to the Raven Queen, and the conflict organically stemmed from this discovery. Finally, I could've had the Raven Queen tell Vargas to turn on his friends immediately, but that paints Rodney into a corner. Allowing Vargas time to wrestle with the decision gives Rodney time to think of ways to satisfy the Raven Queen's desires and save the party.

I have no qualms about creating situations in which characters are incited to turn against each other, but when it's over I still want my players to be friends, not enemies. I might be crazy, but I'm not looking to end my campaign with a fistfight at the game table.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Your party has just slaughtered a tribe of goblins. Expecting to find the chieftain's treasury, you kick open the last door and see a room full of frightened goblin children. What do you do?
Let 'em live. Killing defenseless goblins is wrong. 881 47.0%
You gotta be kidding! 225 12.0%
Kill 'em all. The only good goblin is a dead goblin. 152 8.1%
Let the party's paladin decide. 141 7.5%
Leave 'em be. They're not worth any XP anyway. 127 6.8%
Let 'em live if they take you to the treasure. 111 5.9%
Use 'em as mules and make 'em carry all your stuff. 86 4.6%
Take 'em prisoner. They might be worth a reward. 78 4.2%
Eat 'em. Goblins are surprisingly nourishing. 58 3.1%
Let the party's barbarian decide. 17 0.9%
Total 1876 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #45A

 What do you think of inner-party conflict between characters?  
A DM should never, ever encourage character vs. character conflicts.
A DM should think twice about turning characters against one another.
Character vs. character conflict can be a great addition to almost any campaign.
The more character vs. character conflict, the better. Roll initiative!
None of the above.

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #45B

 What does your character want for Christmas?  
Phat lootz.
His two front teeth.
Orcus's two front teeth.
Santa's bag of holding.
Extra action points.
A d20 with numbers bigger than 5.
A cowboy riding an ostrich.
Just one more wish.
What's coming to him.
None of the above.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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