Many of the moments I most cherish in tabletop gaming are those of all-out roleplay. I would consider roleplay and narrative to be two of the elements I most highly value in tabletop RPGs. Despite being somewhat of a rules encyclopaedia among my friends where 5th edition D&D is concerned, it’s the collaborative storytelling that really keeps me engaged with the game. I am fortunate, then, to be joined by other players who also revel in writing detailed backstories and committing to actions that their character would take, even when it’s to their disadvantage.
Being surrounded by this type of gamer means that our sessions often lead down interesting and unexpected paths, and as a dungeon master myself, this type of player keeps me on my toes and pushes me to improvise. The story unfolds in strange and often hilarious ways when players set aside their handbooks and immerse themselves in their character. There are challenges to this kind of gaming, though. High among them is conflict arising between two characters, and ensuring that the conflict stays as just that: between characters.
When it’s Good
With a table full of roleplayers who have a strong idea of their character’s personalities, it’s highly likely that at some point, two players will have created characters whose values, actions or personalities clash. If allowed to play out, this intra-party character conflict can be a boon to the game. It can create tension, drive the plot, forge character development and make for a lot of fun.
As an example, in one of my campaigns, I play a deeply optimistic and moral character alongside one or two somewhat shady and pessimistic individuals. Not only do our in-character exchanges reap much fun from this- with my character scrambling to find a positive outlook on the bleak remarks of her companions- but it also drives character change. She holds a steadfast belief that everyone has something of value to contribute to their community, and when one other character constantly challenges that belief, it puts her worldview in a precarious position ripe for character growth.
When done well, even outright deception or fighting between player characters can be fun for all involved. In the past, I played a character who, while loyal in the end to her friends, had a bit of a mischievous streak, and would use illusion magic to deceive and prank them. Given that the other players on the receiving end were okay with it and took the opportunity to play out their character’s oblivion and eventual realisation, it never negatively impacted the game. In fact, this kind of character conflict led to some of our more memorable moments and in-jokes. In particular, I recall the day her deceptions came back to bite her when another character decided to take revenge.
In situations like these, when our characters lash out at each other, we as players are often laughing and congratulating each other on a trick well played or unexpected turn of events. This is conflict between two player characters gone well: every player at the table is enjoying it and the characters feel more real and grounded for it.
When it’s Bad
In-character conflict can turn sour when the line between character and player is unclear. In my experience, there are a few situations in which this can happen:
- Players who are new to roleplay
- Players whose characters are too much like themselves
- Players crossing boundaries or striking a nerve
- Players who are particularly nervous or anxious about roleplay
The first and last are factors that have influenced me in the past, but as time went on and I became more experienced in roleplay and more comfortable among the other players, I was more and more willing to follow through with in-character conflict.
For new and anxious players, it can feel unclear or uncertain whether annoyance expressed from one character to yours is a reflection of annoyance directed towards you as the player. Let’s say, for example, that Alice’s rogue was angry at Liam’s barbarian for charging into a fight without letting her sneak up and assess the situation first. If Liam is a new player or doesn’t know Alice well, he might feel that it’s Alice, not her rogue, who is mad, or that Alice thinks he did something wrong.
Similarly, when a player makes a character too close to their own personality, character conflict can hit a little too close to home. If someone is playing a character who boils down to “me, but an elf,” another character’s criticism, indifference or teasing might feel like a direct judgment of the player themselves. This, too, is at its worst when players don’t speak up and talk about their concerns.
The final problem arises when the conflict stems from a character action that crosses a line for other players. As just one example, playing a bigoted character can easily get out of hand and cause a serious upset in players who find themselves on the receiving end of bigotry in real life. I recommend steering clear of playing a bigoted character in general, but there are other boundaries that players might not be aware of within their gaming group. It’s important to know what those boundaries are in order to avoid causing hurt to another player.
These kinds of situations can do a lot of damage to a party. It can make a player feel as though their gaming group dislikes them or that they’re playing the game wrong. The less the players talk about their concerns, the more these feelings of being ostracised fester. Eventually it might drive a player to leave the campaign or damage friendships. The key factor in these cases is communication, which leads me to the solution.
Character Conflict, Done Right
So, how do you reap the rewards of conflict between characters without being saddled with the side-effects? It might sound like a platitude, but communication really is key, and features heavily in my tips for managing character conflict:
If you’re worried that another player’s in-character words or actions reflect how they feel about you as a player, ask them about it after the session or during a break
If you’re on the receiving end of such a question, be understanding, explain that you were acting purely in-character, and reaffirm your friendship with the player
Compliment other players on great moments of roleplay. The dungeon master can award inspiration for good roleplay, but support from the rest of your party is just as valuable
A diverse party of characters is a great thing to have, but the party needs some cohesion too: playing a chaotic evil character in a party of good aligned ones is likely to create too much conflict and stunt the narrative
Certain in-character behaviours will cross the line no matter what the situation. Talk about these limits as a group and respect those boundaries in your characterisation
With these principles and the time I’ve spent getting to know the people I play with, I’ve been able to enjoy stepping into my character and arguing with a that of a friend, only to step back out afterwards and congratulate them on a well-slung insult. I’d love to hear from all of you about your experiences with intra-party conflict. And if you’re just getting started, talk to your party, get into character and enjoy that heated debate or argument over the right course of action. Play it out. Just make sure that everyone knows where player ends and character begins, and respect people’s boundaries.