Dungeons and Dragons and Player Versus Player Games
Sometimes Twitter captures the evenescence of TTRPG discourse and things fall into place for me. This happened today when I read the following two tweets about D&D and player versus player or "PvP" play.
The argument is that D&D is designed for monster killing and stealing of stuff, so if you want to run a game with PvP elements, e.g. players working against each other, the only tool you really get from the rules is violence and character death. So it will either give you no guidance or make it worse, e.g. lead to character deaths and acrimony between players. Normally I would write this sort of thing off to different play styles, but the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. There was something fundamental off about this take, and I think I’ve figured out what it is.
To get there, I will have to divert through my game. I run a home game for 9 players, age 16. They have been playing together for 6 years. They are all gamers, highly competitive, and there are several active rivalries between individuals within the group. They are all friends, but they love beating each other, competing against each other, in the context of the game. This means that a non-trivial amount of our play is directed towards players opposing other players goals.
Now, we’ve been playing more or less bimonthly for 6 years, as well as playing 5 one week long summer games, I’d say we’ve conservatively logged about 400 hours at the table in 6 years. That’s with the same group of players and three consecutive runs of PC parties. So my game has supported over 400 hours of group play, a significant portion of which has been PvP, certain players working directly against other players.
So I would strongly disagree that D&D doesn’t support this kind of play, or that the rules work against it. Indeed, I would argue that, with certain caveats, it supports this kind of play, and does so quite well, as it has for quite a while for us. I play 1e AD&D, so I can’t speak for 5e, but with that in mind, I want to say a few words about how this works and why it works.
AD&D is exceptionally good at facilitating non-lethal opposition between players as it creates a vibrant, open ended game world, and this provides many vectors for PvP play beyond simple direct violence between players. PvP play is defined here as play where players work against the goals or actions of other players, where players compete with each other as well as with the environment, monsters, NPCs, etc.
Importantly, if all the PvP you have seen is direct PC on PC violence, that’s on the group and their play style, not the game design.
Older edition D&D was meant to be emergent, rather than mapping out the whole world and everything in it, you are explicitly told to develop a small area of the game world and expand from there. The players were meant to explore the world and as they did so their actions would cause reactions, and so would a campaign emerge.
Over time this leads to a rich, layered history of events that informs player decision making, goals and the responses of the game world to their further actions. If you read the 1e DMG for example, Gygax makes it clear that the goal of a campaign is to create these rich, layered, historically situated experiences. Your campaign may start as a game where life is cheap and you “kill all the monsters, and take their stuff”, but if that’s where it stays that’s on you, not the game design.
So what are some of these vectors for players to work against other players that are not strictly based in violence against each other? My home campaign is rife with them. Here are my top 10 based on our experience, I'm sure other groups could add to these.
Competing for Leadership and Character Goals - if you run a railroady game where there is only one course of action possible to fulfill the adventure, then there often isn’t room for conflict outside of violence. However, an open ended game allows PCs to go wherever they want and do whatever they want. 1e is built on that sort of open ended framework. The rules call for you to design the bare minimum to start, and to expand with the PCs as they explore the world. In this context, player versus player gaming style can be satisfied as one player convinces the group to pursue their plans rather than their rivals, or holds back important resources that would allow other goals to be pursued. Sometimes one player becomes the leader of the group, often in opposition to specific players who also want that role. I’ve seen this happen many times, where the party magic-user won’t cast a spell that would help to achieve another PC’s goals, or the party fighter refuses to engage an enemy or take a risk associated with another PC’s desired goals. PC class goals can also conflict between players, one PC might be seeking to obtain a special magic item that helps out their class (e.g. a paladin’s holy sword) where another wants to secure components for powerful spells. The idea that there is always one goal that the party is working towards together is somewhat quaint but not implied by or necessitated by the rules.
Competing for Loot - D&D ascribes a significant amount of XP to loot, so if you get to the loot first, or negotiate a higher share, you can work against others in a competitive fashion. Players compete against each other to level up faster and gain new abilities, competencies, etc, faster than other players. The rules specifically state that it is best to let the players decide how to split loot, so this leaves a venue for players to negotiate and forge alliances with others to claim more of the loot. My players do this all the time, making their case as to why they should get X or Y amount of the gold based on what they did, or enlisting other players to support them in getting more loot than another player they are in competition with. I’ve had players pocket gold without telling other players as well.
Competing over Achievements - solving puzzles, defeating traps, etc. This is another aspect of OSR style play that is lost to a degree on newer players. The focus on RP and character backgrounds is part of the “challenge the character, not the player” aspect of the current approach. 1e challenges the player, and this means that being the PC to solve a puzzle, determine the BBG’s plan or beat a trap (or disarm it), get’s to have it’s own cachet for competitive purposes. My players will often make decisions that are harmful to their PC to get the chance to be the one to beat a trap/puzzle, etc Competing through Tactics - yes, the game suggests you divide the XP equally amongst every PC that contributes for monsters defeated, but competitive players work against each other to be the one to deal the “decisive blow” or cast the “key spell” that ends an encounter. Sometimes they all contribute more or less equally, but they often take great personal risk to be the one to do something decisive in a fight, or to figure out something that gives the group a significant tactical advantage. Competition through Class Expression - 1e encourages Thieves to join guilds, for Magic-users to seek out patrons, for clerics to find temples, that sort of thing. Players work to secure more resources and connections so they can achieve goals that other players cannot. Sometimes the reward is being the one with the connection that allows the party to achieve a goal it otherwise could not. Competition through Alliances - 1e is an explicitly unbalanced game, you are expected to encounter things beyond your weight class. If you use the random encounter tables and the suggested dungeon denizens you will regularly face things that are hard to beat. As a result, parties frequently have to form alliances to get access to the resources or power needed to survive. PCs can compete to be the ones to access those resources. The PC who negotiates with the local mage to get the crucial spell components, the PC that gains the trust of the sergeant at arms to gain them access to the mayor’s home, etc. 1e charisma rules also support this, a PC with a high charisma can gain advantage in negotiations through parley for example. Competition through Resources - 1e AD&D has explicit rules for henchmen loyalty and upper level followers, my players compete using these as well. Henchmen mean that you are more likely to survive encounters, and to be decisive within them. Magic-users and thieves hire henchmen, fighters subdue dragons, priests gain acolytes. There is often direct competition between individual players over who can get the “best” henchmen/animal companions, etc. Competition through high level Domain Play - baked into the rules of 1e are mechanisms for high level players to gain followers and construct keeps, create guilds, start temples, etc. I’ve played in several games where the players competed with respect to these goals, and sometimes directly against each other. In one particular case on PC who was a thief forming his guild would send out agents to stir up the monsters in the forests around the party fighter’s keep, just to keep him on his toes
Competition for NPC Favor/enmity - D&D also assumes the game world is populated by powerful NPCs that the party can either work for or against. Modules often have this sort of thing baked into them. I’ve watched my group work against each other to be the one “favored” by the party’s NPC Patron, or to be the one that tweaks the nose of the party’s NPC antagonist the most. The party can have a reputation, but individuals often compete to be the one with the most badass reputation. Competition for Magic Items - this is one of the biggest sources of player versus player competition, and the one I have most often seen lead to PvP play in a more direct fashion. My players are very competitive and will work against each other to gain special magic items, the prestige of having a powerful item, and the advantages it brings, is often a source of competition between players.
All of these are examples of places where PvP play can and has been explored within our AD&D game, and none of these has led to direct player on player violence. They are vectors for players to work against each other’s interests, sometimes to the party’s benefit, sometimes to their detriment.
One of the reasons I think they work as well as they do is that the rules are so lethal that actual combat between players is short lived and deadly, which acts as a deterrent against the more egregious kinds of PvP. In many cases PvP that degenerates into gross physical conflict ends a campaign for this reason. This is why people often avoid it, because they have had this sort of experience or heard of it.
That can happen. But equally what can happen is that individual groups compete with each other over party direction or goals, XP, loot, achievements, tactics, class goals, alliances, resources, domain play, NPC favor/enmity and magic items. D&D sustains and supports all of these forms of player versus player competitive play elements.
I see these all as “within the rules”, as the competitive behavior is directed towards in-game goals that are supported mechanically in the rules. Yes, there are no explicit social negotiation rules between PCs, nor are there explicit rules for how to handle non-violent conflict other than encounter reaction rules, but the goals of that conflict are encoded in the rules, leaving the players and DM to work it out.
The fact that my players have been competing against each other for 6 years worth of regular play without any direct player on player violence suggests that the game can support PvP play without it.
The last objection to consider is whether or not the lack of rules for “social disputes” in the game means that this is all irrelevant, e.g. two players competing to be the one to outsmart the dragon doesn’t count as PvP play as there is no objective, neutral way to evaluate who made the biggest contribution to its defeat or who “won” the social challenge between them for prestige or renknown.
This tendency, to want explicit rules to quantify the competition to make it possible to “support” PvP play is the root of the claims above, the idea that D&D doesn’t give you any guidance for how to support PvP play in your game. However, this is a mistaken view. The play group itself sorts out the “winners” and “losers” in PvP play. In the case of direct player on player violence the evaluation is obvious, one player dies, the other lives.
In the examples I have outlined above, sometimes the players themselves set up the criteria for deciding who has “won” the competition, e.g. who has set the goals for the party, who has the “coolest” magic item, that sort of thing. In other cases like loot or leveling, the “victor” is obvious based on levels achieved or amount of loot secured.
It is my suspicion that people who view competitive PvP play as inherently violent in D&D do so as they are running a D&D game, or have only played in a D&D game, where violence is the primary vehicle to achieve in-game goals. 1e as written is designed to reward mechanisms other than direct violence, in fact the XP structure and unbalanced nature of the opponents in the game necessitate non-violent solutions.
The other big factor I think is the party level that has been achieved, for a few reasons. First, the longer your campaign lasts the more relationships, commitments, alliances, and enmities are formed, and thus the more possible vectors for competition between individual players with respect to these relationships and goals.
Second, the higher level D&D players get, the more options are available to them as characters. A low level party may not have many options other than direct violence for PvP play. However, a mid-level spell caster or thief has a lot of options for non-violent yet competitive play between players, more opportunities to leave a competitor in the lurch during combat, and generally to wreak havoc without death.
I’m assuming here that there are other groups who play competitively, and who do so without various members of the party slaughtering each other. 1e AD&D has supported this play style for us for years, so I’m sure it’s compatible with it, and I am curious to see if it is a common way to play.