Most traditional Role-Playing Games assume that the Player Characters are going to be “a party,” that is to say a group of individuals working together as a team to overcome obstacles and achieve shared goals. Sure, there may be some disagreement along the way as to what the best course of action to overcome any particular obstacle might be – perhaps between stealth or maximum violence. Do we charge in swords a-flashing, or do we try to sneak past the guards? But at the end of the day, the characters – and by extension the players – are working together.
But we’ve all played in that one game, the one with that one asshole GM who allowed that one asshole player to secretly play the evil asshole assassin who at some point turns on and murders one or more of the other party members. Everyone who has played RPGs at more than a few tables will have one of these player-vs-player horror stories – I know I do.
Fortunately, this article is explicitly not about that, because that is non-consensual PvP, and usually the only player having fun in that situation is the asshole. No, today I’d like to talk about a different kind of PvP, one in which the players are putting their characters at odds with one another but are doing so in service to the wider narrative that the group is trying to create.
For a lot of traditional RPGs, this can be kind of a fraught situation, as most don’t really have any scaffolding in place to keep things “fair.” Many games even lack rules mechanics for things like lying or stealing from another PC, with betrayal almost always coming down to violence. There are some that handle it better than others (the slow descent into madness as a form of PvP is fairly common in the many iterations of Call of Cthulhu, for instance), but in the last decade or so a number of games have come out that explicitly support PvP roleplay in ways that are engaging and fun without causing you to implode your entire gaming group. I’d like to talk about two of those today, both by game author D. Vincent Baker.
First released in 2010 and with a 2nd Edition released in 2016, Apocalypse World defined a genre. With its lightweight mechanics, explicit character niche protection, and focus on narrative, it was revolutionary in many ways that are still being felt in the TTRPG industry. It also did a fantastic job of setting up mechanisms that supported players using their characters’ abilities – their “moves” in the game’s parlance – against one another. In fact in many ways, the moves are at their best and most compelling not when they are used against NPCs, but when they are used against other PCs.
And right up front in the “Setting Expectations” section of the chapter on character creation, you find the following:
Your characters don’t have to be close friends, but they do have to know each other and work together, and they should be allies. They might become enemies in play, but they shouldn’t start out enemies.
It’s actually the very first bulleted item in the list, and it is noteworthy in that it hews to the traditional RPG theme that the PCs are working together (i.e. are allies), but it explicitly doesn’t form them into a “party.” And most importantly it explicitly leaves open the idea that the PCs may well become enemies as the narrative unfolds.
From a story-telling perspective, these two sentences are great! They establish that the characters know each other (more in this in a moment) and that initially they have common cause, but that these relationships are not set in stone. This gives an openly-stated fluidity to the characters’ interactions – it is the rulebook telling you right up front that it’s OK for your characters to turn into enemies. It is explicitly giving permission for PvP content – but within a particular framework as we’ll see shortly.
One of the defining characteristics for each character in Apocalypse World is their “History” attribute (usually abbreviated to “Hx”). This attribute governs how well each character knows each of the other PCs; the better you know someone, the higher your Hx score with them will be. Crucially, you have a different Hx score with each of the other PCs, and that score is not necessarily symmetric! You might have very deep insights into what makes someone tick, but to them you might be a total enigma.
Though it is a fundamental character attribute, Hx is tied to only one of the game’s basic moves: aid or interfere. Thus, the better you know someone, the easier it is to give them a hand or to disrupt their carefully laid schemes. And because you never have Hx with NPCs, aid or interfere is a move than can only be used for/against other PCs. Even in cases where other attributes are substituted in for Hx (such as the Angel’s professional compassion: you can roll+Sharp instead of roll+Hx when you help someone who’s rolling), the GM (and by extension the NPCs) never roll dice, keeping this move firmly in the “only for other PCs” camp. Thus, there is an entire character attribute that facilitates messing with people.
Hilariously, the experience mechanism in AW involves “highlighting” two of a character’s attributes for a particular session. Whenever that character uses those stats, they gain experience regardless of whether they succeed or fail. One of the character’s stats is chosen by whomever is highest on their Hx list – whichever other character they know best – and the other is chosen by the GM. It’s a way of explicitly saying, “This is the aspect of your character I want to see in play this session.” Want to see someone wreck some shit? Highlight their Hard attribute. Want to see how someone relates to the world’s Psychic Maelstrom? Highlight their Weird. But Hx is a stat like any other, and if you want to see someone really get in there and mix it up with other PCs, highlight their Hx. It is almost always comedy gold.
Two important aspects of the Hx attribute are worth mentioning here; the first is that the circumstances that set your initial Hx with people happen at character creation. Each playbook (the game’s term for a character archtype) has a series of question prompts that you can use to set up the beginning Hx score with another character. (like the Brainer’s distinctly unsettling “Which one of you has slept in my presence (knowingly or un-)?”). Though it was softened a little bit in 2nd Edition, 1st Edition AW was awesome in that it allowed you to straight up say stuff about other peoples’ characters, like the Skinner’s flat and unequivocal declaration of “You are my lover.” The important bit here is that some of these prompts set up situations where it becomes clear that your characters have beef with each other that might go back a long way. The Gunlugger’s “Which one of you once left me bleeding, and did nothing for me?” springs immediately to mind as does the Hardholder’s “Which one of you has betrayed or stolen from me?”
The second important aspect of Hx is that it is not immutable. It changes over the course of play, and can actually be a significant source of experience for PCs. This built-in mechanism helps to capture the changing relationships between the PCs in a way that can have mechanical teeth.
And how do those mechanical teeth work? Well, a full success on a roll+Hx to aid or interfere can apply either a +2 or -2 modifier to the target’s roll. Even a partial success can levy a +1 or -1 modifier. For many characters, a -2 modifier can all but negate their primary stat, meaning they are often rolling a straight 2D6. It can often mean the difference between success and partial success (or partial success and failure). When PCs are interacting with the environment – say leaping from a moving truck to the Datsun Cannibals’ war-buggy – this can be dangerous enough. But where aiding or interfering really comes into its own is when the PCs are using their moves against each other, say by lying and cajoling or by trying to get an accurate read on what someone else is up to.
One of the really clever things about Apocalypse World is how it allows PCs to use their moves against one another while still carefully circumscribing and preserving player agency. Nowhere is this more evident than in the seduce or manipulate move. The move’s trigger covers a whole variety of situations: “When you try to seduce, manipulate, bluff, fast-talk, or lie to someone, tell them what you want them to do, give them a reason, and roll+Hot.” The result of the roll has has different rules for NPCs versus PCs. For NPCs it’s all about geting them to do what you want, with or without some cost or reassurance. But for PCs, things get even more fun:
For PCs: on a 10+, both. On a 7–9, choose 1:
• If they go along with you, they mark experience.
• If they refuse, erase one of their stat highlights for the remainder of the session.
What they do then is up to them.
It’s that last part – “What they do then is up to them” – that’s where the magic lies. At our table we often refer to this as “the carrot and the stick.” You are either offering someone something they want (that sweet, sweet experience, another step on the road to advancement!) or something they don’t want (halving their potential experience output). Yeah, the Gunlugger’s probably still going to roll+Hard for the rest of the session even if you remove the highlight from that stat – the archtype is all about solving problems with violence after all – but crucially he or she won’t improve by doing it.
What this is explicitly doing is allowing the players to create incentives for each other to alter their characters’ behavior; “Go along with my scheme and there’s something concrete in it for you.” But ultimately, the player of the character who is getting seduced or manipulated or bluffed or otherwise lied to gets to make the choice as to whether or not to go along. This is light years different from the thing I’ve seen happen in D&D games, where one PC will cast Charm on another and then pilot the charmed character around like a meat-puppet with no input (and often over the objections of) the player to whom the charmed character belongs. And because the owning player is still the final arbiter of what their character does, it neatly avoids the other common refrain of players on the receiving end of character manipulation, which is “But my character would never do that!!!”
Maintaining player agency in this way allows the players collectively to learn things about their characters. If you really want that delicious XP and give in to the manipulation to compromise your character’s principles (perhaps leaving the gate unguarded even though the defense of the settlement is your responsibility), then as it turns out that is absolutely something your character would do. Congratulations, your character is now more complex than you thought. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for character growth and change, which is the furnace in which good narrative is forged.
One of the things that can be consistently annoying is maintaining the separation between player knowledge and character knowledge. In games that do not have any mechanism for information crossing this boundary, it can make it incredibly frustrating to play a character who gets by on social skills and manipulation. When one player is saying, “But I would never trust you! Your character is a scum-bag!” and your only reply is, “Perhaps, but your character doesn’t know that mine is a scum-bag,” it’s pretty much a guarantee for an unsatisfying character interaction. As an unrepentant player of scum-bag characters, I have experienced this first-hand.
Apocalypse World neatly handles this through the read a person basic move. Partial or full success on the move allows you to ask either one or three questions respectively, questions to the character that the player must answer truthfully. The questions come from a list, which neatly circumscribes your options for getting too much detail too easily, but crucially one of these questions is: “Is your character telling the truth?” Equally important to sussing out whether or not someone is a scum-bag, “What does your character intend to do?” is a good thing to know. By using these moves on other PCs, the game provides a mechanism for translating player knowledge – because everyone at the table knows my character is a scum-bag – to character knowledge, as now your character knows that mine is a scum-bag. Now there is a reason for your character to treat mine as distrustful, and gone are the hard feelings that can so often come up from mixing in-game and out-of-game knowledge.
Putting It All In Play
Because the game has these mechanisms (codified and circumscribed as they are), it opens up the door for some really fun interactions. Is someone trying to read a person to figure out whether you’re a scum-bag? Maybe you should interfere with them to prevent them from getting a success. The best way to do that is to get to know them well, so do things that are going to increase your Hx with them. You know, ingratiate yourself like any good scum-bag would before you screw them over!
By tying these elements of the rules together, the game really supports dynamic and nuanced relationships between characters, and the emergent game-play that results from this can be tremendously rewarding. The first time you look at another player at the table and say, “You know what would be awesome right now? You betraying my tryst with Bish to the Hardholder!” you are on a fantastic narrative path. When your individual character’s immediate best interests become secondary to the story that everyone at the table is telling collectively, the results are often both memorable and amazing – which is why I’m at the gaming table in the first place!
Story time: I once ran a 1st Edition Apocalypse World campaign where one of the players (let us call him “Gary,” because that’s his name) was playing “The Hoarder.” The Hoarder’s schtick is, unsurprisingly, their hoard. It’s always hungry, and while it’s full of useful junk that people are going to want to use, taking stuff out of the hoard makes the Hoarder distinctly uncomfortable. It’s like a lending library with an overdue policy driven by ruthless vendetta. One of the other players (let us call him “Joe” for similar reasons) was playing The Urchins, a re-skin of the multi-bodied Macaluso playbook, only one in which the player isn’t playing a single character but rather a feral pack of pre-teen children. Through a hilarious series of events that snowballed out of control (as events in AW often do), The Hoarder ends up killing one of The Urchins (don’t worry, he had more). It wasn’t even intentional – Gary is notorious for rolling terribly in our AW games. Hijinks ensued and all manner of chaos went down. At the end of the session, Gary looks at everyone at the table, chuckles, and says, “Welp, I guess I’m the villain of this story!”
That realization – that the story needed a villain and that was OK for a player to take on that role – was immensely liberating, especially with the knowledge that the game’s rules supported unfriendly or even downright hostile interactions between characters in a way that didn’t give the players bad feels. It powered the entire story and took it in directions that none of us could have foreseen. When Gary’s character was finally done in at the hands of another PC many sessions later – and it should be pointed out that while AW makes it relatively easily to inflict lasting or permanent changes on a character, actually killing a PC is exceedingly difficult and rarely happens without the controlling player’s consent – it coincided with Joe unlocking the “create a second character” advance, which in turn resulted in one of the Urchins being seduced by the allure of the Hoard and becoming the new Hoarder. It was amazing, and made for a whole new chapter in a really engaging storyline. It helps to have players that can adapt and roll with these kinds of changes (Gary and Joe are both fantastic role-players with a ton of experience), but the very structure of the game made much of this possible.
In A Wicked Age
If Apocalypse World is built to support PvP for groups who want it, In A Wicked Age is built from the ground up to revel in it in a way no other RPG I’ve ever experienced has. First published in 2007, In A Wicked Age is game built to deliver the kind of episodic, semi-connected, character-driven narratives popularized by the likes of pulp sword-and-sorcery fantasy authors like Robert E. Howard (Savage Sword of Conan) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars). It supports this genre so well that my group decided to just hew closely to the theme and run our games set in the universe of Conan, with the PCs taking on the roles of Stygian priests and Aquilonian adventurers and Hyrkanian mercenaries. Not to mention various playful or malevolent spirits and the god Set. Yeah, you read that right. Every time Set appears in a session as a PC, crazy and hilarious stuff is about to happen.
Characters in IAWA have six key attributes that describe their level of ability when acting according to certain driving motivations. These are: Directly, Covertly, For Yourself, For Others, With Love, and With Violence. Anything the character is going to attempt that requires a die roll is going to draw from two of these motivations. Swordplay might be acting Directly and With Violence, whereas trying to purloin the Duke’s signet ring is more likely to be Covertly and For Yourself. Players assign dice of different sizes to their various “forms” (as these attributes are known), with bigger dice reflecting things that the characters are generally better at.
At the beginning of each session, several story elements are drawn from a series of random lists (referred to as “The Oracles”). These serve to not only set out the situation but give some insight into which characters are going to participating, both PCs and NPCs. As an example, a story beat that came up in one of our recent sessions was “The sorcerously animate homunculus of a wizard, more clever than wise.” This implies that either or both the wizard and the homunculus could be present, and either might be a PC or NPC. Once all the story beats are known, the GM broadly sketches out the setting and situation, and the players collectively decide which characters they will play as PCs, with the GM taking the rest as NPCs. The PCs then have dice assigned to their various forms and then the real magic starts – each player generates two “best interests” for each character. These are the goals your character is trying to achieve in this session’s situation.
And lest anyone think you’re all members of the same party, the rulebook gives the following helpful bit of advice: “You can cast your character’s best interests against your fellow players’ characters, or against the GM’s characters, freely, without any distinction between the two.” For GMs the advice is even more clear: “Start with one of your strongest NPCs, and name two best interests for her. Each should represent a direct attack on at least one player’s character.” What all this means is that before the session even starts, we are setting up situations that are going to bring the characters into direct conflict with each other.
During the course of the session, the characters will butt heads and conflicts will be resolved, with each character driving to achieve one or both of their best interests. If your character ever enters into a conflict with someone (PC or NPC) who is rolling bigger dice, and if you make through the first round of conflict resolution (which is a max of three rounds for any given conflict), your character’s name goes on the “Owe List,” which is one of the most absolutely magical aspects of IAWA. You see, whoever’s name is at the top of the Owe List is guaranteed to appear in the next session. This is how you make a character – who may have originally entered the situation as a minor supporting cast member or even a bad guy – into a recurring hero or villain.
Further, from session to session, the game places no limitations on chronology. Your character could have died at the end of the last session, but if you’re at the top of the Owe List, you’re in the action this session. It’s up to us as a table to decide how that works. Maybe this session is a prequel? Maybe this session is part of your journey to the afterlife. Maybe someone brought you back – who might have done that and why? And how might your character have changed since the last time he or she appeared? I mean, even Conan the Barbarian dies in the film, and only re-enters the narrative as a result of fell and dangerous sorcery.
This mechanism, which creates an expanding list of recurring heroes and villains is fantastic, and leads to some really engaging narratives. Part of the fun of the session is deciding which of the characters suggested by The Oracles you want to play. Sometimes you want to be the hero, but sometimes it’s really really fun to play the villain. And since any given situation generally only lasts a single session (sometimes two), you’re not locked into playing a single character all the time. So while you are opposing some (perhaps even all) of the other players’ characters, that is the goal and everyone understands it going in. You never have that moment where the asshole assassin turns on the party because sudden-but-inevitable betrayal is baked into the game from the ground up. “Losing” a beloved character isn’t even really a thing, because as long as that character’s name is on the Owe List, they’re going to be back in a later episode. Nevermind the fact that if an Oracle story beat for a session seems to fit one of your characters who doesn’t appear on the Owe List, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to just slot that character in and run with it. Collectively come up with an entertaining reason for why that character is in this situation in this place at this time and go nuts!
Fair warning: some people will not like an IAWA style of game. It yields a very different kind of “campaign” experience than your traditional, party-based RPG – but sometimes that’s a good thing! Crowd-sourcing villainy is an absolute blast and we’ve had some really, really good sessions with IAWA. It allows everyone the chance to stretch their role-playing muscles and tackle challenges they might not otherwise have thought to try.
Similarly, Apocalypse World (or any of its many successors) may not be your cup of tea. But I think it’s good to know that if you are looking for something a little extra, something that opens up your toolbox and gives you more subtle or nuanced options for PvP beyond “I roll for initiative,” there are games out there that are intentionally designed to support that kind of play.
So don’t be afraid to give them a try – you never know when getting stabbed in the back is going to be the absolute coolest thing that can happen at that point in the story!