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Running a Dark Fantasy Campaign – Making PvP Work in 5e
Jul 29, 2022

DnD Article by Alex Caton

In an earlier post, we delved deep into the dungeons of how to help morally grey and downright evil characters work together in a way that keeps the campaign from falling apart like a desiccated corpse. However, we are talking about dark fantasy. It’s not unimaginable that one day, a time will come when the night reaches its darkest hour and all hope seems lost, when everything that holds your ambiguous anti-heroes in fragile harmony falls apart amid spectacular betrayals and broken promises. When that happens, there may be only one thing left that moves your grim tale onward.

This will, perhaps fittingly, be our final post about running a dark fantasy TTRPG campaign.

“When all is blood, blood is all.”
Jay Kristoff – Nevernight

 

But Why?

Grim Hollow PvP Inquisition

Artist: Suzanne Helmigh

There exists a vast legion of excellent reasons to make player-vs-player (PVP) part of your dark fantasy TTRPG experience. First, villains in the dark fantasy genre are notoriously formidable, as we covered in this previous article. Grim Hollow explicitly recommends scaling encounter challenge ratings up by 3, making mundane encounters potentially deadly. In that particularly confrontational context, and depending on the rules your group settles on, PVP has the capacity to become a valuable avenue for lower stakes combat. It’s a place where you can let loose with the slapstick and embrace reconciliation in a way that might be downright impossible when engaging with the world at large.

Lower stakes though it may be, PVP enables players to explore conflict to a more impactful level when their characters come into opposition with or become obstacles to each other’s goals. Because they’re engaging with each other and not the enemy creatures, NPCs, or the world you’ve created as GM, PVP more thoroughly supports the organic discovery of backstories and motivations than other kinds of conflict. While satisfying on their own, these revelations are also knives shaped just for the GM; sharp and true and pressed into your eager hands hilt-first, ready to become part of this grim tale until such a time you see fit to return them.

Players will always be the ones most invested in their own characters and relationships with other characters. You may love them, be endlessly delighted and amused by them – generally good praxis for GMs – but player’s characters are often a part of themselves, so they’re always going to connect with their character’s triumphs and disasters more fully than anyone else. This means PVP also has the power to drive unparalleled experiences, from dramatic schisms to emotional reconciliations.

I will, however, take this opportunity to beat our poor, dead, partly-eaten horse one last time: make sure to discuss the place PVP has in your campaign before the game begins to make sure every player is comfortable with the idea. For some players, their life has a generous enough serving of interpersonal conflict in it already. As such, when it comes to slinging dice, they need their weird little band of morally grey miscreants to be more focused on rolling with the purpose of putting the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional family’ than driving knives into one another’s unsuspecting and unwilling backs.

Fret not, however; the GM sits atop what is actually a modest horde of gilded shortcuts to keep PVP fun for the whole (dysfunctional) family:

  1. Identify how PVP conflict differs from PVGM (player versus GM) conflict
  2. Outline the parameters for PVP conflict
  3. Foster positive moments for characters involved in PVP conflict

 

PVPVSPVGM

God, if that isn’t the world’s ugliest acronym. It is an important concept, though – as the GM you’re the recognised officiator and lore-keeper of how the players’ choices impact the world, narratively and mechanically. You are the world. Traps, environmental challenges, NPCs, enemies – anything with these is rolled in conflict with you as the mostly all-knowing GM. Conflict with the GM – with the world – is an expected and necessary component to any satisfying TTRPG narrative.

You hold all your campaign’s delightful little secrets in your scheming little head. Thus, you command an innate degree of faith in players that, when they do stumble into conflict with you, will enrich the way this collaborative story unfurls.

None of this holds true when entering conflict with other players. Not innately, anyway. Players aren’t in that recognised role. They don’t carve the characters’ deeds upon the world at large or have universe-spanning mechanisms ticking away in the background. Their motivations cannot be assigned purely to a commitment to a dramatic, fulfilling campaign. You have to explicitly cultivate this kind of faith between players that rolling the dice against one another will, ultimately, benefit the story, not detract from it.

By acknowledging this fundamental difference in session zero and continuing the conversation about the unique parameters PVP will require, you can build that faith into the campaign’s very beginnings and set yourself up for inter-character conflict as seamless and welcomed as it is dramatic and enriching.

 

Sample Rules for PVP in 5e TTRPGs

My favorite thing about 5e, and TTRPGs in general, is the fluidity of the medium. Everyone’s table is different, with each player bringing their own unique perspectives, talents, and histories to the table.

In most collaborative games, like board games or co-op video games, there’s not all that much you can do to celebrate these idiosyncrasies. Not so in TTRPGs.

This is your kingdom in entirety, wretched though it may be, and you have the power as high sovereign to be flexible in regard to adjusting the game to best suit every player. For that reason, I’m inclined to specify these are all just sample PVP rule variations, designed to celebrate common strengths and accommodate the recurring needs I’ve encountered in my own campaigns.

If these work for you, that’s fabulous! If not, still fabulous because you’ve got a head-start on workshopping with your party, providing input as learned advisors to the world you create together.

Lets, as I’ve heard them say, get ready to rumble.

Drakkenheim pvp back stab

Artist: Marius Bota

Bookends are one of my favorite PVP rules because they indicate when the party can and cannot roll in conflict with one another. Like on your bookshelf, clinging valiantly to its structural integrity beneath the weight of all your eldritch tomes, bookends best hold conflict in their rightful place when deployed at the beginning and end of the exercise. Phrases work well as simple bookends, like “If (player) agrees I’d like to enter PVP here” and “I think this has gone as far as it can, I’d like to stop PVP now”, but you can also use physical items like cards or, for the dramatic out there, prop daggers. Or real ones, I’m not your Mom.

Three-pillar rules are another way to make PVP sustainable and narratively fulfilling. This just means creating situational associations between PVP and the three pillars of 5e – exploration, social, and combat. For example, you might want to restrict PVP to exploration (setting traps for other players to roll against) and combat (stabbing) and forbid social PVP (rolling to intimidate or charm).

Unique situation PVP is similar. In this case, player versus player conflict only receives the GM’s high sovereign approval when you believe it would drive the campaign forward in a way that simply wouldn’t happen without it.

Party schism is a great way to restrict PVP to conflicts where players always feel like they have backup. Within the party schism framework, PVP is only permissible if it’s not 1 on 1. Grim Hollow suggests using factional conflict as an instigator for narrative tension, and there’s no reason that should be limited to NPCs and enemies played by the GM. Perhaps the party is split down the middle on where their alliances truly lie, or internal politicking drives a party row.

Grievous wounds are a Grim Hollow feature I’ve mentioned previously, but I love them so much I’ll absolutely wax lyrical about them all over again. Consider this my own persona big-bad manifesto monologue: give characters grievous wounds! That keeps the conflict dramatic, while keeping actual death off the table during PVP. Characters may not be able to kill each other, but they sure can lose an eye!

Queen of Thieves Drakkenheim

Artist: Mike Daarken

What To Do When the Dust Settles

Here’s the twist: the most important part of PVP has nothing to do with what occurs when your party are at each other’s throats in the most literal sense. The most important part, the campaign’s make or break part, comes after.

Fostering positive moments after PVP will make sure the bad feelings conflict with people you like inevitably stirs up helps ensure negativity doesn’t linger for the rest of the session or beyond. That’s vital, because party members who carry anger or hurt away from the table are less likely to come back, causing your campaign to fall by the long, desolate wayside and decay amongst so many others.

As an aside, I can probably guess where some of your gorgeous little minds are going here and look – that Venn Diagram is very nearly a circle so you’re honestly right to venture in that direction.

Ambling along the same broad path, make sure characters involved in PVP reap their rewards for patching up rather than the conflict itself. Whatever the players were seeking from PVP, whether it was an item, information, or just satisfaction, their ability to acquire it should not hinge on how well they hurt each other but how effectively they bring the party back to a state where everyone can work together to drive the campaign forward. And if they don’t have a specific reward in mind, create one that identifies the resolution stage of conflict as the avenue for success. Inspiration works well, if your party remembers to use it (my last group rarely did!), but so too does environmental discovery, information discovery, and mechanical benefits. To explore those a little further:

  • Environmental discovery might include stumbling upon the entrance to the very cave the party were seeking when the characters involved in PVP step away to talk about what just happened.
  • Information discovery could happen after the characters roll against each other socially, intimidating their party member to give up a secret part of their history that fits in just right with something the other character knows, revealed by the GM after the dust settles.
  • Mechanical benefits are perfect if you can’t figure out a believable narrative way to weave a discovery into the resolution of their conflict; resolving conflict might heal long-term conditions or provide a temporary boost to AC, HP, or a stat used during PVP.


Drakkenheim Magic 5e Pvp

Artist: Toni Munteanu

Your lines and veils have a role here, too. You may want to create an entirely separate document for PVP, or add a column to your general game one, because as we’ve already covered the GM role is a recognized one involving what could be considered “game-sanctioned” conflict.

Players may be okay with roleplaying and engaging in situations with the GM that they’re not okay approaching with other players. Yes, there’s a power imbalance between the GM and the players, but in this case it’s the role as game caretaker that makes you a safe person with whom to explore cruelty, brutality, underhandedness, and violence. (Again, I know what some of you are thinking and you’re not wrong.) Players may not know where they stand with each other in that regard.

Show your players where their characters stand and look on in delight as they crush each other into the dust before helping each other back up again.

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