D&D Narrative, DMs, and Player Autonomy 2: Player vs. Player Conflict

“I take a rope, tie it around Thomas, and throw him down the well.”

“Wait, he does what to me?”

“Thomas plummets down the well until the rope pulls taut.”

What?”

  1. Player Skills
  2. Player vs. Player Conflict
  3. Player vs. Narrative Conflict
  4. Player Goals

Player vs. Player Conflict in Games

It’s easy to see roleplay as being comprised of two factions: the DM and the players. Though they aren’t necessarily antagonistic to one another, they have their own objectives and goals. But many forget that there is actually a third relationship involved: the relationship between the players.

Players and player characters both frequently conflict. And when two heroes enter into a conflict, it’s easy for a DM to stay out of the conflict entirely. New DMs may see it as not being their role to get involved, as again, they may see the relationship as being “between the DM and the players.” Other DMs may simply get carried away with the story, or want to see how something plays out. After all, it’s often the most confident and assertive people who end up pushing the story along.

But so much authority and trust is vested in the DM that the DM becomes the natural arbiter of all of the game’s rules, even if the game itself is being played by everyone. The DM is the keeper of the book: they are the one who knows and understands the system, inside and out. Because of that, it’s a natural consequence that the DM becomes the enforcer for these rules, especially when it comes to player and player character conflict.

Player vs. Character Limitations

“Why didn’t you let me roll a saving throw against being thrown in a well?!”

“You didn’t ask to roll!”

In the initial example, there are three different perspectives of the exact same conflict.

  • The aggressive player believes they were simply playing their character. A conscientious and experienced player would have rolled on their own when trying something like this. But it can be argued that it’s not their responsibility to do so.

  • The defensive player believes they weren’t given a chance to respond. Though they actually could have interrupted at any time, the fact that the aggressive player didn’t roll, and that the DM didn’t intervene, actually led them to believe that they didn’t have an option.

  • The DM believes that the defensive player chose not to roll, as they did not stop the game, and they did not insist.

Therein lies the problem. Everyone is pushing the enforcement of the game’s mechanics on someone else. The aggressive player and the DM both think the defensive player should have insisted, whereas the defensive player is deferring to the acts of the others.

In this example, the fate of Thomas lies not in his own strength, dexterity, or fortitude, but in the ability of his player to quickly make decisions and be assertive. Suddenly the character is being limited by their player.

The DM’s Responsibility in Player vs. Player Conflict

“Sarah insists on staying in the town.”

“I pick Sarah up, put her in the cart, and we start heading down the road.”

“Alright. Five hours pass, when you see some villagers...”

When asked later why Thomas’ player didn’t roll, he simply said that he didn’t have enough time. He was so surprised at what was going on and the game continued on so quickly that he never got a chance to formulate a response.

This is something that continued to happen during this particular campaign. In the above example, the same character simply picked up another character, threw her in a cart, and left. Not only was she not allowed to roll, but five hours passed before she could take any action.

So what happens when players lose their autonomy? They lose interest in the game. In the game discussed so far, players first hatched a plan to kill off the offending character, as their characters had had enough. When they found they couldn’t do that, they started sabotaging the game itself. The game ultimately fell apart.

When players are stripped of their autonomy it becomes a story about one person. And that’s just as uninteresting as being railroaded by the DM -- and certainly more chaotic.

In an Ideal World

“I try to steal the mouse from Bronwyn. I roll a 16 on pickpocketing.”

“I have 17 in passive perception. I noticed you, but not before you got it in hand.”

In an ideal world, players take some of this burden onto themselves. A good player is going to roll before taking any action that impacts another player’s character. And, in general, a good player will also be able to roll in response immediately and -- though this is often up to the DM -- be able to narrate what occurs as a result of their roll.

In an ideal world, players are working together to create a story that doesn’t necessarily go their way.

But in the imperfect world in which we live, there are many players who want to tell their own story, and there are many players who want to win the game. In their pursuit of this, they can easily lose sight of the game’s mechanics… even if they really aren’t doing it intentionally.

The hesitancy for DMs to get involved in player-vs-player conflict is often driven by a feeling that it wouldn’t be fair. When two characters have a problem with each other, it’s easy to see it as two players having a problem with each other, and it’s easy to “step out of it” and let them deal with it on their own. Because, as we noted, they would be able to take care of it in an ideal world, it’s easy to think that they should.

The problem is that though DMs are not responsible for the decisions of their players, they are responsible for maintaining and enforcing the structure of the game. In an ideal world, every player would be able to advocate for their character every time. In the real world, DMs are responsible for the system, and players come in a variety of levels of both experience and assertiveness.

As is reasonable (and barring exceptional circumstance):

  • DMs should enforce the structure of the game without unfairly influencing the outcome.
  • DMs should provide an environment in which players don't need to be faster or louder than other players to succeed.  
  • DMs should avoid the temptation to follow a single player's narrative to the exclusion of other players. 

Of course, it’s up to every DM to decide where they want to intervene and when they want players to be responsible for their own mechanics. Every group is different. There are some groups where the DM is less experienced than all of the players. There are some groups where the DM is a "sink or swim" type -- and you'll learn or you'll perish. 

It’s when players feel that they have no control over their own character’s story that issues tend to arise, and the danger from there is that they will become apathetic to the game and its story.