Wisdom of the Masters: PvP in D&D
This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Six on 13th November 2019.
Killer DM: Mmmmm that felt almost too good.
Lennon: I don’t think I want to know
Killer DM: Of course you do, Lennon; we both know you’re constantly living vicariously through me and loving every minute of it.
Lennon: I’m really not.
Killer DM: Well keep lying to yourself then, but I just managed to get a TPK without any work at all.
Ostron: Well, you are a big fan of the random rock fall.
Killer DM: Oh no, it’s even better than that; the party killed each other! PvP combat in fifth edition is so easy and it’s great!
Lennon: That’s…one perspective
At some point, either through studying the rules, being the victim of a dominate person spell, or just noting how area effect spells work, players will invariably notice they’re fully capable of injuring their teammates in the same way they can with all the various monsters and enemies that show up. There’s nothing in the rules that prevents players from turning on each other, and they have all the same stats the creatures in the monster manual do.
The thing is, most of the time it’s only something that should be done in very specific circumstances, and those circumstances are rare. In general, targeting players with any of the game mechanics normally targeted at NPCs or monsters is a bad idea from a playing perspective, for a bunch of different reasons both mechanical and metagaming.
If you’re a wuss. But fine, let’s start with the safe, acceptable player vs player scenario. My big bad monster just gave one of the characters a kiss, spun them around, and told them they can have a cookie with their ice cream if they kill all their friends. This is incredibly useful for increasing tension because the character is no less deadly than they were a second ago but now I get to determine who they hit. The players now have to find a way to deal with an enemy who it is not in their best interests to kill, most of the time, so unless someone is willing to burn a spell slot on hold person and hope they fail the save, they have a problem.
Now, whenever this happens I make sure to have the player keep rolling all the attack and damage dice for their character’s actions. This is because occasionally the players will actually get annoyed at the one controlling the dominated character. I mean, there’s no real reason for it; the player can’t control when they’re rolling the dice, but it’s just…so fun to watch.
Unfortunately, whether you’re trying for it as the DM or if it just happens in the course of gameplay, it’s very possible that actual player animosity will spill over onto the table. Almost every experienced DM and player will agree this is not a state of affairs that should be encouraged or allowed to continue, no matter what our friend with the hat thinks. In almost all cases, anything a player does to another player’s character because they’re frustrated is going to do nothing to solve the problem; you as the DM probably need to step in and at least get the players to acknowledge it and figure out how to move forward. You don’t have to be a therapist for them, but if you just let it fester it’s going to sabotage the game.
Now, the one area where inter-party conflict like that may be appropriate is in a well-monitored and controlled roleplay situation. It is very possible to have two characters in a party that really don’t like each other at all, either due to alignment or vocation or some combination thereof. If you recall Game of Thrones, Tyrion did his level best to help out Goffrey when he was king despite wanting to throw him out a window most days, and Goffrey really didn’t like his uncle any better.
Having that kind of dynamic in a D&D party, possibly including examples where one or the other character will intentionally take a swipe or a shot at the other character, can enhance the group dynamic, but it should really only be encouraged if the two players are fully aware that they’re roleplaying and there’s no legitimate bad feelings between them. The ideal would be that the PvP incidents are seen as “pranks”, and any ongoing issues are continuations of that behavior.
The other reason my squeamish friends aren’t a big fan of PvP in 5th edition is that the mechanics don’t really support it in the way a lot of people hope. Many players and DMs get the idea that pitting two characters against each other will result in some sort of epic showdown. After all, characters have much easier access to things like healing spells and extra actions that most monsters don’t.
However, people who are hoping for a replay of the Anakin vs Obi-wan fight from Revenge of the Sith with two characters going at each other for multiple rounds of combat are much more likely to end up with the Obi-wan and Darth Vader fight from A New Hope: the characters might dance around each other for a bit, and then one of them is probably just going to annihilate the other one.
Ostron: I don’t think I have time to consult ROSTRO on this-
Killer DM: Yes, I took care of that for you; I had a feeling you’d want information from it, and I also feel oddly…stimulated after spending time with my favorite machine.
Ostron: I was in the Workshop all day, I don’t remember seeing you in there.
Killer DM: Oh you’re so cute when you’re totally out of the loop. Just look at what the Lite-bright spit out for you, and I won’t have to remove any organs.
When taken as a group with all of the other creatures in D&D, most player characters, particularly as levels get higher, could be categorized with the term “glass cannons”. Player character damage output is far ahead of most creatures of comparable CR, and their combined defensive stats tend to be weaker.
In addition, though not universal, class damage output is often inversely proportional to defensive capability. A paladin, for example, can easily achieve AC values averaging in the low 20s, but their average damage output per turn rarely rises above 15 damage or so unless they employ smites, and those are a strictly limited resource. Contrast with a sorcerer who would usually find it very difficult to achieve an AC near 20, but can easily maintain damage outputs of 30 or higher for multiple rounds with the use of spells.
What all that means is when the characters start swinging at each other, the one swinging the fireball usually wins unless other people jump in to help. They can even look over at the other character’s sheet to see what save the character just can’t do and it’s debatable whether that would even be metagaming; they’ve been traveling with this person for a while, they’ve probably seen them trip over their own feet or try to wipe themselves with poison ivy on a regular basis. And yes, of course there are exceptions like war wizards or barbarians with certain feat combinations; thank you powergamers your input is always reviled and ignored but unless you’re suddenly able to change your character’s archetype and class to counter one of your own allies it’s not likely you’ve built your character optimally for fighting your allies. I mean if you did I wouldn’t stop you, but others might ask questions.
So anyway, the practical upshot is that PvP in 5th edition, even in terms of competing skill challenges, is probably not the way you want to go. Mechanically it tends to be a very brief and one-sided fight unless it’s properly coordinated and planned out, and it very often causes or increases conflict among players at the table. Some suggestions exist for using in-game events to diffuse the fighting, but if you have genuine bad blood at the table it may be better to deal with it out of game.
Killer DM: I actually agree with you there; if players aren’t able to sit at the table anymore then they can’t fight with the other players.
Lennon: Do you…no, you know what? I’m just gonna leave that one and stop asking questions.
Killer DM: Oh come on don’t be like that, I agreed with your conclusion! We’re getting along better and better every day. I love our friendship!
Ostron (distant): Hey, scrying pool time!
Lennon: Oh thank Melora
Killer DM: Now when did Ostron take proficiency in Stealth; I never even saw him run away. Well, tell you what, since we’re getting along so well I won’t even make a fuss about the scrying pool. Run along now.