When Players Attack: Tips For Encouraging PC Co-Operation

From Leslie Holm

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0163

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Contest: Interesting Combat Or Roleplaying “Scenes”

This is an “ideas” contest, my favourite kind. Unlimited entries are allowed, with each scene representing one entry.

To enter, read Varianor’s Reader Tip #2, “Making Combat Interesting,” in this issue where he provides several cool, one-two sentence combat “scenes”. Think up new scene ideas summarized in 1-2 sentences, and send them in to me. All genres are accepted. I’d also like to see the equivalent for role-playing type scenes. So, feel free to make your entries 1-2 sentence cool scenes for RP encounters as well.

Up For Grabs:

Contest ends March 15. Send your entry(s) to: [email protected]

Good luck! And feel free to email me if you have any questions.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

When Players Attack: Tips For Encouraging PC Co-Operation

Recently, the GM Mastery mail group received a letter from a beleaguered GM whose group refuses to form a cooperative adventuring party. He says that no matter what tact he takes, from alignment restrictions to common enemies, this group draws swords and begins to kill each other at every opportunity.

From the response received on the list, this problem evidently struck a familiar chord with many. I’d like to take credit for solving his problem, but my instinctive response was “Kill ’em all!” Luckily, others found more reasonable solutions. Following are some of them.

Let’Em Kill Each Other

Let those PCs who feel the need go ahead and kill each other. Then you continue playing with the rest of the group while those two/three players sit back and watch for awhile. If they can’t find a reason for their PCs to want to live rather than die, so be it. Eventually, after killing a new character at every game, they’ll get the hint.

Have A Group Chat

In these kinds of situations, consider taking it outside of the game-level. You have to deal with the players. The first question is, “WTF are you guys doing?” Do they WANT to play or not? No, the PCs don’t have to be all Boy-Scouty and trust each other. But that doesn’t mean the characters have to be blood-thirsty either.Tell the players that THEY need to find reasons and ways for their characters to get along. Your job as DM is to present them with a reasonable excuse for adventuring together. It’s up to the PCs to make it work, just like with any group (real world or in-game).

Approach the other (non-combative) PCs (via NPCs) and ask why they put up with this kind of crap unnecessarily? There are dozens of (NPC) people out there looking for an adventuring group to join.

Another GM Mastery list member advises:

Removing the racial tensions, alignment restrictions, etc. won’t have an effect because the players aren’t really role- playing why their PCs feel the need to kill each other. They are doing it because they think it’s fun. They’re probably the same people who go around in “PK” mode in one-line RPGs, randomly plugging other people.

I’m not a psychiatrist, but I get the feeling it’s about needing to always feel better than the next guy. You definitely need to ask them, out-of-game, why they behave this way and tell them that you’re not having any fun. Who was their GM before? Did they drive him to quit because of their antics? Or did he indulge them? Where did this bad habit start? Ask one of them to be the GM for a day, and when everyone starts misbehaving again, see how that guest GM feels.

Hit’Em When They’re Down

If you want an in-game, in-character solution, try having their enemies show up in full force when the PCs are in the middle of their free-for-all intra-party brawl. The enemies will just hang back and laugh. If asked, the enemy says he’s just waiting for the PC-group to do his work for him, then he’ll pick off the wounded afterward.Usually, it’s a matter of the players not taking the game seriously enough to get over the “lone-wolf” syndrome. There are MANY other personality types to roleplay that would be much more fun.

Throw Away The Books

Throw away the RPG books and get out a nice antagonist board game, like Talisman or even Monopoly, where the players are supposed to be enemies. You’ll have just as much fun (probably more) and your head won’t hurt from banging it against the wall so much.In the meantime, you can continue your search for some mature people to role-play with. And don’t be afraid to play in a group with minors, you might just be surprised at how well they can fall into character.

Create A PC Vs. PC Campaign

You might be better off running a game where the PCs are supposed to be at each other’s throats.

Build PC vs. PC conflicts into the game:

  • A gladiatorial campaign
  • The Rune RPG by Robin Laws
  • A race, rally, or treasure hunt
  • Monster vs. monster
  • Competing bounty hunters
  • The Paranoia RPG
  • In-game competitions, like gambling, jousts, pit-fighting, fantasy sports leagues, tavern competitions, medieval Olympics, etc.
  • An evil campaign
  • An espionage campaign

Another idea is to try setting the characters up as representatives of competing/hostile groups and make it clear that you expect them to betray, backstab, and take advantage of one another. If your game rules don’t lend themselves well to this style, cast your gaze on the Birthright RPG and Amber RPG.

Seek Advice

Ask the players how you’d like them to be game mastered. Also ask the non-combative players for solutions and ideas based on their personal knowledge of the other players.You can also find some good advice in the Uncle Figgy RPG Guides: http://members.aol.com/dwcope/guides.htm

Find Replacements

If you have two good players who want to participate in the game and be co-operative, and you have three who just want to kill things, then you might be immensely satisfied if you politely remove the latter three. Then, ask the ones you’ve left behind to recruit some friends.

Diagnosis: Power Struggle

It’s possible that you’re witnessing a player power struggle within your group. Are there any players whom you’d consider as the primary instigators of the melees?It could be that some of your players are using these free- for-alls as a means of establishing dominance in the group (or they’re just not interested in roleplaying).In this case, try establishing one PC (preferably one the whole group can accept) as the unquestioned leader. This could be done through group vote, secret ballot, or an in- character (non-lethal) contest.

You might also consider setting up a game-within-the-game where group leadership can only be challenged under certain in-character circumstances through specific procedures or protocols. “The Rules Of Mutiny” should be agreed upon by every player before the game so that things remain consistent and fair.

Make’Em Family

Make the PCs all brothers and sisters, members of the same clan, or members of the same organization, like the police or a branch of the armed forces. Families aren’t supposed to kill each other are they?

Create In-Game Consequences

  1. Set your adventures in a city so that the law is always at hand to arrest people who kill others. If anyone steps out of bounds, then do your best as the GM to make sure that the police/guard DO catch them and that they ARE punished, executed, or exiled for their crime.
  2. What happens when a player dies? If there’s a penalty to the group, then the players might hold off a bit.
  • Deep in a dungeon, sword dripping with his comrades’ blood, the lone warrior realizes he cannot possibly get back out alive…
  • The prophecy says *four* must “ride the sun to catch the moon”.
  • EXPs at the end of the night are calculated by multiplying the number of surviving members with the base amount. i.e. 100 EXPS x 4 surviving PCs = 400 EXPs each.

Give The PCs A Tough Boss

Give the group, or perhaps just the troublesome player(s), a powerful boss or patron who threatens bad things for any party members who fight with each other.

Potential penalties are:

  • Patron sends NPCs out to kill offending PCs
  • Patron withholds the treasure/reward at the end
  • Patron becomes the PCs’ enemy or a villain
  • Patron sends the PCs into an ambush or trap
  • Patron rewards a rival group of NPCs instead

New PCs Must Start From Scratch

Players who instigate party conflicts and lose must create brand new, weak PCs. Victims of unprovoked attacks are allowed to create new PCs that are more powerful.See RPT#129 – Old Campaign, New PCs: Creating New Characters For Existing Campaigns for more tips on creating new PCs mid-campaign.

Invoke A Curse

Way back in the era of CGA monitors, there was a game called Heroes Quest. The entire village was under a protective spell cast by a friendly sorceress. The moment anyone reached for a weapon they were overcome by sudden feelings of peace, harmony and nonviolence. Make the players role-play that.

Let them kill each other but don’t have them create new characters. Instead, their corpses are found by a high-level spellcaster who raises and charms/quests them to work together for his own purposes.

In Basic/Expert D&D, a group of 5 sprites could cast a special curse together. You could have PCs be cursed so they have exceptionally bad luck in combat, unless working together against a common foe.

Re-Educate Your Players

Your players may simply be inexperienced or have been exposed to bad examples of play. Re-educate them. As to “adult gamers”, I’ve often found that maturity has little to do with age. Basically, you need to put your regular campaign on hold and take the time to train your players into being the type of people you do want to game with, assuming you can’t just find other players, that is.[Comment from Johnn: sometimes training players with the goal of changing their behaviour won’t work. You can’t force people to change.

The best you can do is to set a shining example yourself with your NPCs and encounters, expose “bad” players to “good” players who espouse the gaming qualities you value, and to maintain an open dialogue about the nuts ‘n bolts of roleplaying.]

Unroot The Motives

A couple of GMs on the GM Mastery list have mentioned talking with the players away from the game table. I vote for this too. However, players won’t often give you the real answer in a discussion (because they might not know it themselves), so pay attention for clues that might reveal their true motivations:

  • Rivals, friendly. Many relationships thrive on friendly competitiveness.
  • Rivals, antagonistic. Some people just don’t get along.
  • Alpha player. The group’s/players’ competitive spirits cause them all to play King Of The Hill.
  • Misunderstanding. The players don’t know that RPGs, especially with your style of GMing, are meant to be cooperative affairs.
  • Ignorance. The players have been taught to PK (Player Kill), don’t want to learn, or don’t know how to cooperate.

You might consider chatting with the players individually to reduce peer pressure and bravado. If you can determine the real motivation behind the conflicts, you might be able to change things.

I’d like to emphasize once more that as GM, it is your game. It is important that you present a well thought out, balanced campaign with the elements your players will appreciate. It is equally important, though, that you enjoy what you are doing. With the amount of work involved, if your heart isn’t in it, it just becomes a chore. And that’s not what roleplaying is all about.

—Leslie Holm


Hi, my name is Dirk Collins. As part of my 30mm Fantasy Floorplan CD service, I regularly post free, full color and B&W maps, floorplans, and counters for GMs to download and instantly use. I love maps and I’m getting good at making them. Check out my favorites: the 3D Floating Castle and the Modern Series! Grab them for free here: http://www.e-roleplaying.com/Freemaps_html/

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Add 6 Cool Things To Each Combat

From John G.

For making combats fun and interesting, use the scenery. Someone on another list suggested writing at least 6 cool pieces of scenery, or props, into each combat and then USE THEM in the combat.

Bar fights are much better with flying mugs, tables overturned, etc. The same is true of any combat. Watch any swashbuckling movie if you don’t believe me. Fighters move from table tops, to swinging on ropes, etc. Great drama.

One of my favorites was a running chase/fight inside a hedge maze. The chase actually started at a ball when one of the guests bolted out the French doors and over a balcony onto a lawn and into the garden. Props included glass doors, curtains, a fountain, low hedges, and the maze with 8-foot hedges as the walls.

How about a vineyard/winery? Wine presses/vats, lots of stacked barrels and bottles, and the vineyard, which was covered in chicken wire at a height of about 4 feet. Imagine chasing a villain who’s hiding under that. What a fight.

A town square or road is loaded with potential props. Pedestrians (hostages, obstacles), hitching posts, water barrels, *mud*, little dogs running around, kids playing, vendors of any types of goods you care to put there (fruit are great missile weapons). How about a gang of street toughs who decide to aid one side or the other in a brawl just for kicks? (Combine that with the apple vendor and you have one, or both, sides being pelted by apples while trying to fight).

Look at any room in your house and try to figure what would have been there in the era you play in. Dozens of items are universal. Kitchen utensils, chairs, tables, decorations, stands, doors (I love having NPCs slam doors in PC faces–do that enough times and the PCs definitely slow down when chasing someone through a door!), armoires, stairs, glass windows, or the ash-bin from a fireplace (just for laughs).

Even in a dungeon you have stalactites, stalagmites, stone columns, rubble, mud, mineral deposits, steam, noxious fumes, gas spurts (remember the Fireswamp in Princess Bride?), and mud. (And mud makes a great missile weapon, by the way).

Maybe d20 players can consider a new feat: Improvised Weapon, so their players won’t take minuses when playing this way. (7th Sea has attack and parry knacks for improvised weapons, plus an improvised missile weapon knack).

Of course, if NPCs start using props to their advantage, players will, too. And I encourage this by letting them pretty much always find what they need or want to use. It makes for a freewheeling style of combat that’s fun. Players cut ropes holding chandeliers in place, chairs and tables fly about, it’s great.

Graphic of section divider

Making Combat Interesting

From Varianor

My theory on interesting combat is “make it fun.” At least once per adventure I like to have an unusual encounter.

Here are some examples:

  1. A fight on a mountaintop. The PCs have to climb stairs carved into it to get there and are at risk of falling off the sides.
  2. Stopping an evil priest in a poison factory full of giant medieval machinery that the PCs have to run through and dodge around.
  3. Marine gargoyles attacking when PCs are attempting to cross a river by tight-rope walking. Followed up by a water naga in the water (getting cover bonuses) that came in only if the gargoyles are beaten.
  4. A climactic battle in a cloud palace, made entirely of ice, where the PCs have to watch their footing while fighting a dragon that they have agreed to capture, not kill.
  5. Combat at a high pillar (500 ft. off the ground) that the PCs must to somehow to the top of and destroy. It’s guarded by invisible monsters in the air and stone colored oozes/slimes.
  6. A fight on a walkway between towers used by town guards. The villain sets the walkway on fire as the PCs come out onto it!
  7. A villain escapes in a rowboat. He has a flintlock to the head of a local villager to make him row. The PCs have to get in another rowboat and chase him out to his waiting ship.
  8. Enemies with a kidnapped prisoner are sailing down the opposite side of a swift river. They are heading downstream- -toward a waterfall! The PCs must try to sail cross the stream, rescue the prisoner, and not go over the edge.
  9. Combat with the PCs chasing an escaping thief through a cramped campground. Leaping over tent ropes, dodging poles, ducking under flaps, running through tents, and avoiding fires while chasing through groups of people is fun!
  10. A combination chase/fight scene in a medieval style flour mill. The flour can be explosive because it’s such fine dust (although the damage is low). And if the villains dive into the water or run through the mill wheels it’s really tricky to get them.

Think of something unusual. Then make it happen! The PCs love it.

Graphic of section divider

Increasing Player Satisfaction

From Andrew

Re: RPT#146 – City Features And Flavors

In response to Issue #146, one GM enquired as to how to make the PCs pay attention in the game at the grand finale. It would seem to me that the PCs saying “Yawn..OK, next” is indicative of the fact that they can take more.

Solution: make it so that they CAN’T take more. It would seem to me that the PCs are not being challenged enough.

First, make your storylines more engrossing. Look at your storylines from a player perspective and see if they would be fun. Put unique things in. My most popular game (12 players wanting to play, 7 actually playing) involves the PCs being the players themselves being sucked into the D&D world by Boccob, and then being set loose upon the world, put at it’s mercy, to take on a quest of epic proportions that the gods themselves cannot handle. Storyline achieved.

Second, increase the challenges. A good GM always makes the players feel that there is a 50/50 chance that they will succeed, and that in every encounter (except for roleplaying), the PCs are in mortal danger. My advice to the GM who has these concerns – hurt the PCs. Badly. If you find that the challenges you are pitting the PCs against are supposed to be challenging but repeatedly fail in this role, then consider pitting them against challenges higher than they should be facing. Then grin evilly when your 8th level players scream “A MIND FLAYER?!?!?”

If this still does not hurt them enough, get the characters on a personal level. Take their most prized possession (for my campaign and my fighter, a +1 rapier of speed), and then let slip that the only way that they can get it back is to catch the culprit. Oh, and make sure that that character, as well as the other characters, does not have enough money to simply replace the item in question. Not only do they want, and NEED, the item back (especially against enemies with damage reduction), but THEY WANT VENGEANCE. This ensures that they get satisfaction out of dispatching the villain.

Graphic of section divider

Technology As Reward

From Dean Martin

I have been running a campaign for almost 6 years now and it has evolved so far beyond how it started that you can see it taking on a life of it’s own. One key to this has been the advancement of technology through the years. I have tried to keep a balanced progression as far as technological advances go, and one of those discoveries came in the form of a rare find in a treasure chest.

In my game, one can have gunpowder pistols. These weapons are quite clumsy though, prone to misfire, and very expensive. I also made a rule that gunpowder could only be used in small quantities. No one could ever get the mix to be stable enough, and if it were used in large quantities it would explode. However, one of the PCs located a diary belonging to an old engineer from 300 years ago who actually had a formula that allowed gunpowder to be used in large quantities and that was stable.

The PCs realized the value of their find as they excitedly discussed the repercussions this would have on the world. Soon, cannons would be made, which in turn would affect how castles would be defended, etc.

Anyway, it’s just a reminder that not all treasure need be gold and magic items. Sometimes, knowledge is power enough!

Graphic of section divider

Dealing With Player Freedom Of Choice

From Galen Ciscell

Whenever I end a session with my players, I ask them what their characters plan on doing next, in response to whatever options have presented themselves during the session. This way I can plan the next session’s adventure during the week based on their input and be assured that, although they may take sidetreks, the adventure I have planned will be what they want.

Graphic of section divider

Recovering From GM Error

From Heather Grove

I don’t know how helpful this is, but I’d say that “recovering well” [from a GM mistake] means not getting too wound up about it. In my experience, the less seriously you take your own mistakes, and the more calmly you handle them, the less serious your players seem to think your mistakes are.

When I make a mistake I try to calmly think about how to handle it. Would it be best to just let it slide? Back-track a bit? Come up with a new way of handling things? If the solution isn’t obvious, I talk to my players about it for a moment and see what they think. Then I make my decision and go with that.

Just handling something calmly and taking a couple of minutes to think about it, instead of trying to come up with an answer too quickly, can give your players a lot of faith in you. That way they know you’re thinking about the issue instead of being arbitrary. It can be tempting when you’re all flipped out over making a mistake to try to resolve the situation as fast as possible, which is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing, IMO.

That’s another thing, actually. If you drag your players into helping you out, then they often tend to be happier with the results. They feel like their issues were taken into account, even if you end up deciding something different than what they wanted. In fact, I find that getting your players to help you undermines most “bad” or antagonistic interactions between GM and player–it gets the players to start thinking like they’re on your side, which tends to make them much more forgiving of your mistakes.