I’ll admit the name of the last post inspired this one, but its a valid topic besides.
I have been fortunate in my DMing career in that I’ve rarely had to deal with players who cannot stand each other. It’s much more likely that I don’t like a particular player, but I’m a lot more tolerant of my own suffering than others’, and such a player can stick around in my campaign for a while. On the other hand, if two players can’t coexist, one or both of them don’t last longer than a couple of sessions in our circle.
Having two characters who can’t stand each other is something completely different. Intra-party strife is a time-tested source of drama, entertainment, and character development. It encourages the group to look at problems from different perspectives and consider options they might ignore if the party was all of like mind. It helps define the group as a collection of individuals who work together rather than a group who think in concert. It’s a good tool all around…as long as it’s done maturely, it doesn’t detract from the table experience, and there’s no actual malice behind it.
So how do you use a party squabble in a cooperative role-playing system without derailing the game and the campaign?
Get everybody’s approval: In One Piece, the crew’s cook and swordsman hate each other. They argue whenever they’re on camera together, they constantly trade insults, and they nearly come to blows regularly. They will also never come to each other’s aid, but not because of their animosity. Rather, each has tremendous respect for the other. The swordsman won’t rush to save the cook because he assumes the cook is strong enough to handle his problems on his own, and vice versa.
When we designed characters for our One Piece campaign, another player and I told the DM we specifically wanted to mimic that relationship. As such, our lookout and shipwright hated each other, argued whenever they were together, and so on. Because fights in D&D take longer than in anime, we even had plenty of time to snipe and insult during combat. But that was the point; this was what we wanted out of our characters’ relationship, and we knew which topics were fair game (combat styles, fashion sense, botched rolls) and which were not (the shipwright’s dead fiancé). It’s the buy-in that made the fighting fun. Every player knew these two characters were going to fight, but we agreed they would never express that fight physically and they would never try to turn the rest of the party against each other. And because everybody knew what was going on, they treated it as the entertainment we intended and never misinterpreted our bickering as an actual player-on-player attack.
Set limits: One-sided fights are a little harder to manage, but it’s still doable. In our Monster of the Week campaign, two characters were sister and brother. She was a moderately successful adventurer and monster hunter, he was a shut-in conspiracy theorist whose source of income was left deliberately undefined. He thought warmly of her, or as warmly as he thought of anything, but she wanted nothing to do with him. She avoided bringing him in on missions as long as possible, and whenever she was forced to accept the need for his expertise, it was always with a heavy sigh and vocal dread. While he was slow to help her because he analyzed every situation looking for the best plan of attack, she was slow to help him because she really didn’t feel like it.
But when it was absolutely necessary to help him, she always found an excuse to try. That was her limit: she could inconvenience her brother, or ignore him, or allow him to get in trouble, but she would not let him come to serious harm or die. The character didn’t like her brother, but her player wasn’t about to punish another player for that role-playing decision. Different groups might have different limits; sometimes characters might actually hurt each other but only with nonlethal damage, and others might prefer that the characters put their fight on hold in certain situations like dealing with a noble PC’s family. Every group has some measure of this. I haven’t met a party yet who wouldn’t drop a spell on an ally’s head if it meant incapacitating the entire enemy group, and almost nobody sees that as intentional belligerence.
Keep it in the background: I’m in an on-again, off-again campaign whose party includes an elf wizard, who is absolutely certain that elves are the world’s most advanced race, and a half-elf inquisitor, who hates elves and elf culture for their rampant racism. As an added bonus, the half-elf is trying to pass for human and the elf is the only character in the party who knows it. These characters obviously conflict. The elf keeps finding excuses to matter-of-factly profess his superiority, and the half-elf delights in bringing him back down to earth. The rest of the party knows the characters don’t like each other, but they don’t have the full story.
More importantly, they don’t need the full story, because it’s not a major part of the campaign. We’ve had one and only one session where the half-elf’s backstory and the relevant racial animosity mattered at all. She doesn’t refuse to work with elf allies and the elf doesn’t ruin negotiations with his constant bloviating. In combat, the elf will heal the half-elf without question, and the half-elf won’t go out of her way to defend the elf but only because she knows the elf is a skilled teleporter and he’s likely to leave a dangerous area before she can get there to help him. The actual fighting is just background to flesh out the characters, with little to no plot impact, so it doesn’t make life harder for the other players or detract from their play experience.
Break the rules in moderation: It is possible to create good party strife that ignores all of the above guidelines. In The Great Tower of Oldechi, on Floor 24 one party member split from the group, found the head of the local police, and killed him in plain view of the rest of the department. The city assumed they were under attack by a super villain, and the party got caught up in the fallout of their response. So great was the player’s sin that even the party’s team mom tried to kill him on sight, assuming he’d gone to the dark side. Actually, the PC had assumed that killing the most powerful person around was a quick ticket to completing a given floor of the tower and he just didn’t see the need to inform the rest of the group before he acted on it, but his intention was almost irrelevant once actual tanks rolled down the street.
The player didn’t get approval from the rest of the table, his actions very well could have led to a party wipe, and he single-handedly decided the plot for several sessions. At the time we (including the player) treated it as a very bad decision. But we took a minute to sort out what was going on at the table, and we came to an understanding even if the characters didn’t. Because the players talked things out instead of fighting about it, a campaign-derailing power trip turned into a pivotal moment of character development and gave the party direction when they needed it, and we turned bad fighting into good fighting. We probably wouldn’t have reacted the same way if the player had done something like that again, but a single problem wasn’t worth a real altercation.
Plot is conflict. Without conflict, you don’t have a game, and PC-on-PC conflict is just another flavor. The key is to communicate what sort of conflict you want and expect before, during, and after the game. One player’s cute nickname is another character’s too-close-to-home racial slur, and the only way to stop problems before they happen is to set ground rules and stick to them. If your ground rules include actively insulting, undermining, and killing other PCs, that’s fine as long as everybody’s aware of it. But don’t make life difficult for somebody else and expect them to praise you for it.