Law #4

This has come up recently in The Great Tower of Oldechi, so I figured it was a great time to write about it.

I’ve said before how D&D is a role-playing game, but there are a lot of adjectives I could apply to that description to make it more specific. It’s also tabletop (unless you’re playing online), pen-and-paper (unless you have a subscription to 4th Edition’s monthly service and online character builder), high fantasy (unless you’re in Dark Sun, d20 Modern, or any number of homebrew non-fantasy settings), and so on. But most importantly, D&D is a group game. Solo campaigns exist, but they’re awfully rare and don’t tend to get a lot of mention in the official books, because the whole point is to get a party together and adventure as a group. Whenever you have a group, intragroup conflict is almost guaranteed, and sometimes this can reach a point that’s damaging to the game and the party dynamic. Thus:

Law #4 – Players are expected to attempt a cooperative in-game environment.

For a while, at least, the official motto of 4th Edition was “Never Split the Party”. It was heavy-handed, but it sums this up fairly well. D&D is built around having a group of people who gets together and solve problems that no one person can solve alone, and occasionally that no incomplete subset of the group could solve. This is not to say that breaking into two or three groups to approach something is wrong, but it should be a minority of the session. Combats especially are built to expect a certain number of characters, and things get a lot more lethal if the party’s cleric and fighter are exploring a different lead when the wizard and rogue are ambushed. So in general, players should make an effort to stick together unless there’s a fairly good reason, but this law is only tangentially about difficulty level.

I knew a DM once whose style didn’t mesh with mine, at all. I recall clearly him complaining about the party after one of the first sessions, because the party split up to explore a dungeon, leading them into encounters that they couldn’t survive at half-strength, and he clearly considered this to be a stupid decision on the part of the players. That is, if the group split physically, the players get what they deserve, and that’s part of the game. Some sessions later, however, the players got into a heated discussion about what to do with an artifact they had acquired and the many powerful groups of varying legitimacy that wanted it from them. At one point, the players were actually shouting over each other to fight about what to do, while the DM sat back and smiled. When questioned about it, he said that he was enjoying watching the players fight, and we realized that he had specifically chosen a problem that he knew would divide us and lead into a shouting match. That is, if the players split mentally or ideologically, this was a good and reasonable goal for the DM.

This, to be short, is asinine. Listening to six people fight about the best way to treat an imaginary shield isn’t fun. We talked about this session among ourselves in future weeks, and as far as I know, not a single player enjoyed the argument, and the more a player argued for a route the party did not eventually take, the more upset they were with the session and the campaign. Whenever players are pitted against each other, somebody loses, and losing is even less fun than arguing. So why would a DM create a situation where he or she knows that they are going to frustrate some players and irritate most of them?

Besides acting as a guide for me and how to create plots and encounters, this should also act as a guide for players. Now, conflict occurs, and is occasionally hilarious. I don’t think anybody gets too upset when one player wants to pull a lever they just found, another player objects, and the problem is solved with an initiative check. One roll later, that’s resolved, and the players can get to whatever issue is at hand. But when a player has a very strong opinion about what the party should do, they usually end up winning, because the rest of the party doesn’t have a strong enough opinion to object. When somebody does, things can get ugly fast. In general, every player has to sometimes (not always, calm down) put aside their own best judgment and run with whatever the rest of the party wants.

The biggest cause of this is usually player vs. character opinions. Traditional Lawful Good paladins are barred from prolonged adventuring with evil characters, lest they lose all of their abilities. No matter how much the player of the evil character and the player of the paladin want to get along, the characters are mechanically incompatible, and even a short-term alliance can lead to a strong issue between the two on the premise of “But this is what my character would do!” A less mechanical but no less prickly situation is the ranger adventuring with one of their favored enemies. Unless there’s a very fast “You’re an exception” understanding built into the relationship, the player of the ranger is going to have a hard time suppressing their character’s strong desire to shoot their ally in the face. In cases like this, the best option is sometime to simply avoid it; don’t play an evil character in a party that you know includes a paladin (and vice versa).

Some of the best sessions I’ve seen are ones where the party is divided on a topic and are forced to consider multiple sides, because it means their opinion as players and characters matters and shapes the campaign. They’re right, and conflict is both unavoidable and necessary in any mentally-engaged group. But any kind of sufficiently serious conflict includes the danger of a strong argument, hurt feelings, and above all an absence of fun. Occasionally, the players have to just sit back and recall that D&D is a cooperative role-playing game, not a competitive one, and come up with a solution that satisfies everyone.

Besides, my sessions are hard enough with the players united. Forcing them to fight among themselves as well is just mean.

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2 Responses to Law #4

  1. Dave Fried says:

    I think you’re spot on – if the players aren’t in it to have fun together, then there’s no point in playing, and if they’re not on the same page in terms of how to have fun, it’s not going to work. The DM should always be looking to bring the players together, give them common goals, etc. instead of dividing them.

    That’s not to say that the DM – and the players themselves – can’t set up conflicts between the characters if they’re in the mood for some drama. The important thing is to go into it with all parties understanding that the characters are going to come into conflict and there will be interesting in-game repercussions – but also that the players and DM will do their best to steer towards an enjoyable resolution.

    It’s about having foreknowledge and buy-in by the players so that they’re not blindsided when one party member decides to screw another. Note that this is the opposite of the World of Darkness player/character dynamic, which is why those games don’t work very well (or rather don’t deliver what they’re advertised to). It’s fine to put your character in conflict with the character of another willing player; it’s fine to not know ahead of time how the conflict will resolve; it’s very, very bad to not do it in good faith or go in with the intention of beating another player.

  2. Yanni says:

    There is certainly however a time and a place for this kind of thing, as mentioned. The best time being when it’s expected. Paranoia is probably the poster child for promoting this kind of behavior. Though of course Paranoia mitigates the frustration of dyeing by giving each player 6 clones. And of course you have to be able to justify it to the Computer after you kill another player, as falsely executing someone for treason is itself treason, and of course treason is punishable by death. Any time you have a game with an expected level of cooperation, if it is strongly deviated from you are going to have problems. I’ve had the fairly unique situation of a game* falling apart because the players where cooperating too much, and not trying to stab or shoot each other in the back at all, or follow up on any of the leads they had about who among them might be a commie, mutant or traitor. Ultimately it comes down to the basic tenant of the Social Contract. This is rarely written, and usually unspoken. The biggest cause of game breakdowns, besides RL Schedule Conflict, is probably miscommunication of the social contract. I’ve even heard of DMs actually writing up such a thing before the start of a campaign.

    *You guessed it, Paranoia.

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