Going from collaborative to confrontational (to PvP or not to PvP)

On the April 27 episode of the Gauntlet Podcast, @edige23 raises an interesting issue about player vs player dynamics. My read of the challenge is that a game with a collaborative tone might switch to a more confrontational tone. (I hope Lowell steps in to clarify if I’m summarizing incorrectly.)

In his example, from the courtly variation on Hearts of Wulin, the courtly intrigue might provoke actions in which the characters are actively trying to undermine each other. He suggested that the GM technique The Check In is crucial here. Player A suggests something that is detrimental to Player B’s character, and the GM should step in to ask Player B, “Are you OK with that?”

The segment ended without much more discussion. With experienced GMs Jammi and @RichRogers on the show I’d hoped to hear their takes on this.

So, posting here to see what others might think. I have two additional thoughts:

The Set Up
Another crucial GM technique is The Set Up, where the tone between the players should be established in the campaign’s introduction. This is especially true when playing with people new to the game. They may not realize that the game is supposed to be collaborative or confrontational or whatever. In games where it’s ambiguous or up to the table, I see an opportunity for the GM to point out the places where PvP might come up and ask players for their preference.

Resolve Tokens
My “face-to-face” game (now meeting online) is playing Good Society. This game has mechanized the PvP aspect. When you want to negatively influence the circumstances of another’s character, you must negotiate with them and give them a token (which they might use against you later). My group is very non-confrontational and very collaborative, and we frankly haven’t used the resolve tokens much. At first I thought the game was broken, and then I realized what the game was expecting (more attempts to undermine each other’s characters) is not what we were playing.

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I think you’ve presented a somewhat false dichotomy. If the game being played is collaborative, then PCs directly interacting with one another (whether cooperatively or antagonistically) is still part of the collaborative process. Now, playing a character is still a very personal thing, so it’s easy to view one PC acting against another as that player acting against you personally. But unlike in a board game, there is (probably) no win state, so regardless of what actions the characters take against one another, the interaction is what’s intended by the game.

Obviously there is a discussion to be had about player boundaries, player intent, etc. If one player is just using the game as an excuse to grief, that is unacceptable. I think your description of The Set Up is a very strong tool for establishing what amount of negative interaction is to be expected. I disagree with the use of the phrase “PvP” because it implies there is something to be won or lost, as oppose to the goal of the game being to tell an story.

In terms of resolve tokens, based on your description I view them more as a game mechanic than any sort of safety tool. To me their existence creates a tactile cost to betrayal. Physically giving a token to a player whose character you are about to flub is a very intentional transaction, and holding onto that token give you a strong reminder both of what happened to your character and what you are allowed to do in return. I can see how it would further disincentivize non-confrontational players from attacking one another as it takes a very abstract action (saying “I’m going to blackmail you”) and makes it even more confrontational (Saying “I’m going to blackmail you” and then taking a token and placing it in their hand authoritatively)

To get back to your original idea “The Check In”, I feel it’s a bit too vague as described. Does exclusively it cover character v. character actions or is it also applicable to devil’s bargains like in Trophy? Like some safety tools, I worry that it can appear too intrusive by trying to replace interpersonal dynamics that should already exist for a group to function. Even for complete strangers there should be the expectation that people are conscious of causing each other discomfort; mechanizing that could have unexpected consequences (“Actually I’m really uncomfortable with your character kidnapping mine”, “but we already did a Check In, and you said it was fine, what gives?”)

To TLDR my answer, I think “collaborative” and “confrontational” are independent values. All ttrpgs are collaborative, but not all of them are confrontational. I think it’s definitely valuable to discuss and set expectations of how much confrontation is going to occur before the game starts, but I worry that presenting them as a dichotomy limits both how players play a game and how designers design it.

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