You got our best romance-in-gaming story a few weeks ago, so let’s take a moment to talk about that other thing going on between Thief and Wizard, namely PVP. In a game predicated on tactical cooperation, teamwork, and overcoming adversity through the power of friendship, stabbing your buddy in the back might seem like a bad idea. On the other hand, in a dramatic adventure predicated on intrigue, dramatic plot twists, and the chaotic neutral alignment, screwing with your fellow PCs is essential. The problem comes up when these two different sets of priorities sit down at the table together.

Before we dive in, let’s get the “talk to your fellow players like an adult” thing out of the way.  It’s good advice, but we don’t need to rehash a perfectly serviceable flowchart. Setting expectations up front is obviously a good idea, but what’s more interesting in the great PVP debate is implementation. Here’s a pair of paradigms for your consideration:

  1. Cloak & Dagger PVP: This version of PVP is characterized by secret machinations, clandestine note passing, and dramatic reveals. You’re actively working against you fellow players, trying to out-guess them in the name of getting what your character wants.

  2. Metagame PVP: This version of PVP doesn’t care about secrets. You’re telling a story as a group, and if your fellow players happen to know that you’re secretly a werewolf, their characters don’t act upon that knowledge in game. The goal is to utilize the power of dramatic irony to craft a more powerful story as a group.

The cloak and dagger method offers victory as its reward, and players can truly feel like they outmaneuvered a rival. It also does surprise in a way that the metagame method simply can’t: You fools! I was working with Thelazar the whole time! And you never saw it coming! In my experience however, that dramatic reveal is a lot less fun for the other players, simply because there’s no opportunity for foreshadowing. This isn’t a book or a movie. This a game. And if you’re a clever spymaster, making sure to play it straight and not tip your hand, there’s no opportunity to elicit that vital I-should-have-known reaction from the other players.  So when you do finally kill the goodly king or sell out your buddies for fun and profit, it comes off as arbitrary rather than truly dramatic. And that’s where the butthurt comes in.

The metagame method, on the other hand, gives up surprise and victory in favor of collaboration and drama. When the party splits up and you wind up getting paired with the secretly-a-vampire PC, there’s a thrill of tension that the cloak and dagger method can’t match. And if you do get bitten, it’s more dramatically satisfying because you knew it might be coming. Even better, you avoid the PVP angst of “how the hell was I supposed to know?” The downside here is the difficulty of separating player knowledge from character knowledge, not to mention the fact that it’s hard to feel like you’ve beaten anyone in a game of wits if you were both playing on the same side.

If you’ve only tried one method (and especially if you’re the type who doesn’t like PVP) I suggest giving the other paradigm a shot. There’s a lot of fun and drama to be had when characters have conflicting goals. Just…for all our sakes, try not to steal from your buddies too often. Betray them to the dark lord or assassinate their liegelord or whatever, but the petty high school style of PVP that intra-party theft represents is just unfun. It’s the kind of PVP that results in hurled dice, slammed doors, and trolling the local game shop for a new group.