New on Desk #69 — Party Sportsmanship

I had something of a breakthrough week on Muster this week, and it’s generally been quite hectic, so I guess this one goes into the manic box. I’ll discuss those developments after the feature piece, which’ll be more about our adventures in practical D&Ding. A bit of a follow-up to last week’s feature, perhaps?

The intra-party honor code in old school D&D

D&D has a bit of a creative toggle — an option you can switch on or off — in that either of the following statements can be true for any given campaign or scenario:

Each player individually is trying to make their own character a success; this is more important than party success as a whole.

Characters try to succeed, but not at the expense of party unity and fairness towards team members.

The toggle is often entangled with the Alignment rules, such that Good parties are mandated to be internally loyal, while Evil parties aren’t. Not entirely unjustified, the way Alignment works in AD&D. It’s important to note that what this question is not about is sportsmanship, not directly; that just tends to come up when one player assumes one rule and the other assumes another. Only borderline players will knowingly break sportsmanship over this.

In case it’s not clear, you can break sportsmanship standards to either direction. The more obvious one is to betray the party when the group’s playing with the “no PvP” rule. The less obvious is a defamation attack on a player doing a PvP maneuver, claiming that they’re doing something wrong when they’re acting in good faith. It’s a bit like getting tackled in football and then treating that as violent assault.

Both settings are reasonably common in D&D, and it’s also possible for a campaign to not have a clear take on the matter. As always with sex games, good communication is key, so it would be best if the group talked about it in the abstract before any particular player decides that their character’s interests are best served by betraying the party. It’s not uncommon for individual players to outright assume that team betrayal is simply not an allowed move; D&D is very, very difficult even without party intrigue, so it’d be easy to assume that nobody wants the extra hassle. But then again, it’s also common to simply assume that betraying the party is allowed: it’s a logical implication of arguably higher-order structural principles of the game, and doesn’t cause any particular procedural issues aside from the ones involved in any high risk plays.

In case you’re wondering why anybody would want to play with the PvP toggle active, the basic motivation is that some types of challenges and perils basically do not work in a lifelike way if the party is meta-stable (kept together by a social meta-ruling against betrayal), which can be an annoying limitation. For example, it turns much of character background irrelevant if PCs are always categorically known to choose their party over their nation, religious authority, lover, family or talking demonic magic sword with a really good point. With some sub-forms of the party loyalty rule you can do stuff like mechanically obligate the player to betray the party (Charm Person!), but sometimes even that’s not possible because the players consider themselves obliged to the party over the scenario. For example, I remember vividly how a player I asked to pretend to normality after a doppelganger murdered their character and took their place blew the secret maneuver immediately; for them fair play towards me as the GM didn’t mean anything in comparison to protecting the party.

For the record, my own wargamey D&D play has historically been almost always with the PvP toggle on. It almost never actually leads to PvP, which does actually mean that when I’m GMing I’m in the habit of warning the players about it whenever a potential betrayal situation might come up. With betrayal technically permitted but an uncommon occurrence (which it would be with competent players), it’s easy for players to actually come to think that there’s a social rule against betrayal.

As you might guess, like last week, I’m inspired to discuss this topic because it came up in play (or after play, whatever) this week. I’ll again start with the session description and then move on to specific remarks on party loyalty.

Monday: Coup de Main #43

Last session in Coup, the party had decided to leave the Fae-Touched Artemur to camp out with dryad Luacia at the cursed Wrenwald estate while the rest of the party would return to Yggsburg to finish their milk delivery mission. As a bit of a change to the usual routines, the journey wasn’t at all eventful. We had a bit of excitement at first when it seemed like Rhennee (those gypsy scamps!) might have stolen the party’s boats while they were at the estate, but luckily Rob’s Heist Planning Thief powers allowed us to learn in flashback that he’d actually moved the boats himself earlier specifically to hide them better. Truly, a worthy use of the campaign’s most potent class feature so far.

Having their boats, the party had little difficult returning to Yggsburg over a couple of days of easy travel downstream. Back at Yggs it was quick work for Rob to exchange the mysterious zombie milk to Donmas Kaapu, the local crime chief, for 200 GP. Might not seem like much for an essentially mid-level party, but the guys haven’t been making much money recently, so it’s actually starting to get a bit tight for them.

Rob also succeeded in gaining a further entry into Donmas’s confidences: he was accepted by Donmas as an acquaintance, and invited to join his crew for “Moonday breakfast”, apparently something of a tradition with Donmas. The party was heading out again soon (apparently intent on returning to dispel the curse on the Wrenwald manor!), but a few days could be spared for equipment maintenance, rest, resupply and said social breakthrough in the criminal circles.

Rob learned a bunch of social detail about Donmas’s crew, as well as the fact that his halfling allies had apparently left town after having been badly burned by Donmas, whom they had been monitoring for a while by now on behalf of a highly-positioned Thieves’ Guild contact. Apparently the halflings had gotten frustrated with their slow progress in finding out anything, taken some risks, rolled poorly, gotten an operative caught, gotten their crew leader caught, and then decided to get while the getting was good. All not very essential for Rob, except that he feels like he might have blown a poker face check when the horridly stretched corpse of Dango Pipe, the halfling gang chief, was brought out. According to Donmas the halfling had sung like a canary before dying, but had this been the case, what did Donmas know, or think, of Rob’s involvement?

(This is all very tense in terms of the long-running crime drama subquest we’ve been running with Rob, I just don’t feel like explaining all the background here. The point is, Rob’s been arguably attempting to infiltrate Donmas’s operation in cooperation with these halflings, and Donmas may or may not have found that out in extreme interrogation.)

The breakfast with Donmas ended in pretty tense atmosphere, as I think everybody knew that if Donmas had decided that Rob would have to die, the situation could turn extremely violent in an eye-blink. However, no aggression was started. Maybe Donmas did not know? Or he did, but he didn’t care? The discussion Rob and Donmas had about Rob’s halfling relationship was extremely ambiguous, so who knows who knows and what. I imagine that the key issue is whether Rob’s working for Org Nenshen or not, and whether Donmas knows that or not.

Meanwhile, Phun the closest-thing-to-wizard that the party enjoys, discovered in his magic item investigations that the party had brought some pretty nice items from the Wrenwald manor, including a sword of fairy slaying and a ruby ring of protection, and an annoying golden staff that may or may not be a quest item, and may or may not be magical, but is pretty likely to be worth a four-figure number of gold coin.

The magic item allocation was significantly influenced by my decision to have Coup award XP for owning magic items that increase personal glory and confidence. I understand this to be a rare ruling in general, but I couldn’t attain true consistence with the treasure rules otherwise, so that’s how we swing here. In practice it means that there are specific characters to whom specific items carry great significance and commensurately higher XP values, such as that ruby ring, which was benchmarked as worth 5k XP for Phun himself, it being a high Jasidite ritual item. (Phun’s a Jasidite Cleric who before now didn’t have a real ruby at all.)

The party performed what divinations they could, resupplied and prepared to go back out, which in my mind is pretty hardcore, but these guys clearly enjoy roving, so why not spend another week or two roving upstream to have another go at the adventure location.

Session #44 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 26.4., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

The fairness issues here

A key detail that was left out of the above session description is that Teemu, the player of Artemur the Faedrin, didn’t make it to the session. Afterwards he had an amusingly simple question about the milk money to the rest of the crew: was Artemur getting a share? The amount was piddling (I think they split it five ways, so 20 GP per nose), but the question is a pretty good test case: do characters who contribute to adventures in decisive ways get shares set aside for them, or do the other characters steal the money when they can?

And, the ancillary and potentially more serious question: when the party has valuable magic items, items that may be even more valuable to party members than they would be when sold, and those magic items have variable value depending on who gets it, how the fuck do we split the loot in a fair way? The obvious way is for individual characters to buy the items they want from the loot (with rest being sold), but that only works if the party has enough money.

More fundamentally, though: is the party even supposed to be fair? And why is it the party that has to be fair, why can’t it be the GM? After all, the most serious fairness difficulties here are caused by these discrete chunk XP awards for gaining certain key magic items. Peter Pandemic the Elf-Hating Ranger values the fairy-slaying blade highly and thus gains 2.5k XP for claiming possession… why can’t he split that XP award with his companions so everybody would get a fair and equal amount of XP for it?

The discussion over these issues remained perfectly sporting to my senses, but it was clearly more tense over principle than usual. Part of the fault (for lack of better word) rests clearly on me for taking a relatively neutral stance on the matter: I refused to really entertain the idea that XP could be allocated separately from diegetic success, and didn’t want to make some kind of viking hat GM judgement about whether characters “must” fairly set aside treasure shares for other characters. I was (and am) open to the group as a whole setting standards over how they want to play, but that requires really talking it out.

Here’s a summary of the opinions the regulars had on the matter:

“Out of domain”: My stance was that I value discovering events in play, including social institution-building that adventurers might engage in to achieve fairness, and wouldn’t be trying to force it by GM-fiat, but at the same time I would accept it if the players collectively decided on a social expectation towards non-betrayal. The group is stronger than GM after all, if they decide on a standard we would have to follow it. Nobody wants the social opprobrium from going against group consensus.

“Fairness is a crucial issue”: One of the players had pretty strong opinions on this, to the extent that they don’t really want to keep playing in the campaign if they can’t trust that the party has their back. Another two stated that it actively curtails their desire to commit serious effort in the campaign if it’s not fair. Both are rather significant statements in a world where player participation is basically the only coin I care about. I mean, I’m actually very easy to manipulate, just tell me you won’t play if you don’t get your demands satisfied and I’ll fold like a stack of cards.

“I hadn’t really thought of that”: The rest of the core group were not opposed to fairness decisions. The real play practice so far has generally been fairness-upholding (no major betrayals here, unlike the Sunndi group), although not in a principled way, merely as a practical default. Whether for or against, the opinions were mild and accomodating.

Because this is my newsletter, I’ll also open my own opinions a bit more: were I participating in the campaign as a character player, I would prefer it if the party had diegetic reasons to be loyal to each other, with the players working to establish those where necessary. An out of game collusion agreement feels vaguely like cheating; NPC organizations certainly don’t get to benefit from such extra-diegetic social glue. I do realize that there are arguments the other way as well (this can easily be a practically ungameable aspect better left out of the game), and this isn’t a major issue for me, so I’d be happy to play with party-loyalty toggle on, too. Fortunately I don’t really feel a need to have an opinion here at all as the GM: let the actual adventuring party choose the loyalty rules, I’m fine either way.

The group doesn’t really have “betrayal for giggles” players (the campaign would be too slow and boring for such anyway, I’d expect), which means that the standard so far (technically open to betrayal maneuvers) hasn’t really been that different from principled fairness. No truly beneficial opportunities to really screw somebody over. Mainly the openness to betrayal shows up in small things like how the party decided to split the milk money, ignoring the weird fairy-man out in the woods, whom nobody even knew that well. An expected thing in a free-betrayal environment, one that the characters can hash out when they meet; clearly unsportsmanlike behavior in a no-betrayal game.

What was decided on the matter

Do let me know if I misunderstood the outcome of the discussion, but to my understanding this is what we concluded:

The group agreed to attempt party fairness within the constraints of what the dumb GM allows us to do. The specific means would be developed later, but the goal is to generally make sure everybody gets even or otherwise fair treasure and XP shares. Probably means that valuable treasures will be allocated to characters who benefit from them the most, with the expectation that they’ll cover the value later from treasure shares; essentially go into debt towards the party. Probably means some kind of standards for what degree of participation qualifies for treasure shares. The important thing for now is the agreement towards some kind of reasoned fairness instead of party betrayal.

I hope that I’m not wrong in understanding that scenarios like the bear cave insanity episode are still kosher. That is, it’s OK for play to go into places where characters have concrete mechanical pressures upon them to betray the party, and then they do (rather than e.g. dying). A simpler example might be a decision to run away from a losing fight; sportsmanship fail or merely tactical cowardice (which can of course have negative consequences, the issue is whether it’s a legitimate play to make in the first place).

I also understand that explicitly designed PvP scenarios like the astral adventure are acceptable. Not that any individual player needs to participate in that sort of thing, or that we absolutely gotta run them on some schedule, but just that planning for scenarios with players on different sides is itself not unsportsmanlike of us, we can decide to play those or not as mood strikes. (I do understand that the emotional pressures are very different here compared to the betrayal worries, as the players know from the start of the scenario what the parameters are instead of having to live in constant uncertainty about their party members.)

This decision is, of course, something that we can revisit in the future if it seems like it needs to be discussed more.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #19

Meanwhile in our face-to-face Coup, the stakes were rather more serious: we had two different adventures frozen at the brink of success or failure, and we had two new players gracing the game as well. Fortunately the players found it as imperative to resolve these outlying issues as I did, so we quickly got into resolving. Or at least as soon as I had explained to the group why Lokki the Warlock was alive after all, if not immediately continuing in the scenario.

First on the chopping block was the Temple of Doom adventure from last week. The party had managed to wrest the fetish from Grandee the Silent, but their way out was rather dramatically blocked by angry nihilists. I offered a quick single-roll resolution for expediency, but the players didn’t like the odds, so a full combat sequence was executed right at session start. Ten angry cultists (half even armed) versus the scraps of an adventurer party equaled some blind escapes, some lucky survival and some being beaten to death and shat upon by wildmen. Typical day at the Temple of Doom. At least most got away unscathed.

Next in our resolution queue was finally finishing the potentially-lucrative delve into the goblin dens under Habavaara. A few weeks back we’d managed to drive the party to the utter brink of destruction, with sacks full of loot but most of the party incapacitated. The situation had some charm as a strategic bind, admittedly, but we also had new players and I wanted to get into actual new adventures, so I again offered a one-roll resolution (relatively generous), which the players took me up on this time. One roll later, and we could conclude that smart risk-aversion from the party managed to avoid catastrophe, allowing the party to return home with their riches.

After that point the future was open, and the players admittedly were tackling the premise of sandbox campaigning with vigour: the party was full of crazy visionary plans like training for a month, or buying a tavern and renovating it into a headquarters, or traveling to Pitchfield, the capital of Sunndi. (Yes, these go in random directions.) As often happens, though, a random opportunity intervened in the form of new adventurers: the new player characters brought with them a NPC adventurer with an attractive offer. Namely, the party could join him in a bold attempt at finding Dark Master Melchert, our favourite villain. The Prince (long live he!) has promised some pretty extravagant rewards (ownership of an entire village, for one) for Melchert’s capture, him being the greatest terrorist of the age and all. A very heroic endeavour, even if the same players also happen to run another party who outright work for Melchert.

The rest of the session was spent in some rather measured, careful hexcrawling in accordance with the plans of this pseudo-reliable NPC companion: his plan involved advancing deep into the Meno Wood to consult with scary fairy witches whom he believed, for reasons unknown, to be able to divine the location of Melkert’s dreaded Black Mill and thence the man himself. The journey actually went rather well, particularly when the party decided to not go on a side quest into a village cursed by the Vapours of Wastri the Hopping Prophet. Only one character had to die mysteriously poisoned for the rest to decide that this should be an adventure for somebody else.

(Really, I question the continuing stability of Sunndian civil society. Problems seem to follow from one another.)

Adroitly dodging other perils, the party was successful in escorting their NPC companion, who was then successful in summoning the faerie witches and consulting with them. Apparently Melchert, alongside his pupil Nold (also some sort of outlaw, apparently, aside from being the longest-living player character in the campaign at this point), was not at this mill of his at all right now; for the next three days or so he could be found at a dark elf cult site somewhere in the Meno Woods!

So next session we’ll see an assault on an elven retreat of some kind in an attempt to apprehend a wanted terrorist. Should be a pretty solid location-based adventure, I should think. I have no idea why the party is so confident about being able to force a 4th level Cleric to go along quietly, but perhaps they’ll surprise me.

State of the Productive Facilities

I had some kind of breakthrough in my concentration and writing flow this week, so I leveraged the opportunity and typed up like 5500 words for the manuscript, more than doubling the progress so far. This is more like the kind of pace I want for this project, it shouldn’t be that hard to write about a topic I literally know forwards and backwards!





We also did some technical martial arts development and such for Coup, so quite productive over all, particularly considering how I had the time to have some kind of flu attack later in the week, too. (Not Covid as per the lab test.) All in all, a superb week!

2 thoughts on “New on Desk #69 — Party Sportsmanship”

  1. Tommi Horttana

    “It’s a bit like getting tackled in football and then treating that as violent assault.”
    Are you pandering to a broader, international audience by using a football (American?) reference when an ice hockey reference would do?

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