Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about inter-party conflict.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A fighter, a rogue, a necromancer, and a cleric of Sarenrae walk into a bar. No, wait, I’m stopping this one, because I’ve not only heard this scenario before, I’ve lived it. Twice. I’ve mentioned in the Private Sanctuary that Sarenrae is my favorite Pathfinder deity, and when you religiously-inclined characters favor a deity with a radical view (destroy all undead!) it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that situations often arise where that view is put to the test. Sure, its easy enough to resolve when you encounter necromantic NPCs; I should to the heavens, “Sarenrae! Grant my your blessing so that I might wreck these abominations!” But how do you handle it when the thing causing the ideological conflict isn’t an NPC, but another player at the table? How do you handle an ideological conflict between characters without transforming the situation into a Player-versus-Player conflict that could ultimately end up shattering the party? It’s a big question with a relatively simple answer: “Don’t fight.”
Exercises in Party Building
When character concepts clash, many GMs immediately turn to the shears as their first method of control. They don’t want to risk hard feelings between two real-world players, so they nip the problem in the bud. “Player X can’t play C because player Y is playing B.” This is a situation that works in groups, but it has two huge problems: not only does someone end up getting denied the character that they want to play, but nipping a problem between characters is very much a lazy man’s solution to what boils down to an ideological quandary.
Here’s a story for you: My mother is a cook. Someone at her work has been eying her job for a long time, and for many years that individual has been causing workplace drama for my mother and their coworkers. This individual essentially acts like an oversized two-year old, including throwing temper tantrums in order to get other workers to try and stop what they’re doing to help him. This person wants my mother’s job because they’re under the assumption that its easier, but everytime they’ve been asked to take it because my mother was out sick or off from work, they’ve complained about how difficult it is. Because of this and other health-based factors, my mother ended up taking a few weeks of medical leave from work where she ultimately came to the conclusion that letting this person control her emotional experience at work was allowing that person to get closer to what they wanted (her job) and with difficulty she started to just mentally turn that person off.
It’s a pretty interesting story, no? Lots of self-discovery and conflict for my mother, and she eventually came out of it stronger. (Despite not necessarily winning the engagement.) Now, let’s take this same scenario and change it around slightly.
My mother is a cook. Someone at her work has been eying her job for a long time, and for many years that individual has been causing workplace drama for my mother and their coworkers. After a few weeks, her boss said, “I ain’t havin’ none of this,” and he never came back to work again.
Let me assure you, this second story would have been MUCH better for my mother. She would have LOVED that outcome; would have saved her many years of stress, that’s for certain. But let me ask you this: does the second option make a better story? Because as players and GMs, our job isn’t to ensure that the PCs endure happy, healthy lives. Quite the contrary, in fact. Pathfinder assumes that you are putting your characters into life-threatening situations every few minutes, including the very real possibility that you will die and your failure will drastically change the world. Conflict is the very nature of the storytelling; a good story cannot exist without conflict. So why do we try to minimize conflict between the party?
Why? Because some people just can’t handle it, plain and simple.
Exercises in Party Building
Now, let me make it clear: I’m not talking about people who can’t happen bad stuff happening to their character. Those people certainly exist, but they’re not the subject of this article. I’m talking about the people who can’t handle conflict with another player at the table. These are the people who say, “This is what my character would do, and this can never, ever, possibly change ever.” More than anything, interparty problems happen when players can’t think flexibly with their character’s personality. Because let’s face it, there are things that everyone doesn’t like, but no one is in a position to fully avoid those things all the time.
I’ll give an example. I don’t care for heights. Not one bit. I can’t quite remember when or where it started; the earliest I can remember was having a room on the 24th floor of a hotel that only had exterior hallways with thin, metallic pipes for guard rails. I remember holding a little bauble and accidentally dropping it over the side; I think it was an arts-and-crafts bear or something. A little fuzzy thing the size of a d20. I just remember watching it slip out of my hand, watching it fall down to the ground, and being absolutely terrified. I refused to walk on the railing side of the hall after that, and heights always gave me the chills. From standing in the Empire State building and Statue of Liberty, to ziplining. If I could look down and see that I could fall, I was really, really scared. Almost petrified.
Despite this, I’m not afraid of flying in airplanes. Nor was I afraid inside the glass elevator at PaizoCon. Or the big, overpass glass dome at the Indianapolis Mall at GenCon. Turns out that I was only REALLY afraid if I wasn’t enclosed. If I could see the distance I was falling. There are weird rules and triggers for my heights-based anxiety that even I don’t fully understand. And when we stop and think about it, conflict between people really is (and should be) the same. People don’t have a binary response to things they like and don’t like; they’re always circumstantial. And when it comes to circumstantial, the PCs have one very big ball in their court: you, their players.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve said that Pathfinder is a cooperative sport, and it probably won’t be the last. When you’re at the table, cooperation should be your #1 goal. How can we get this group to work together well enough to succeed at the tasks in front of us? Because ultimately, no adventure can be won by a single PC. Not without special design or a LOT of dumb luck and time, and ultimately that’s no fun. Pathfinder is amazing when players build experiences together, and sometimes conflict can be remembered fondly when it’s handled well.
I’d like to close this article with a PFS story. A few months ago I shared my Herald Caller cleric build, and in that article I mentioned that I worship Sarenrae, a goddess who loathes the undead. My character isn’t too keen on undead either; his one domain is the Sun domain and he has a trait for smiting the undead too. So it should come as no surprise that things were a bit uneasy when in Quest for Perfection III, one of the players who joined the table was an inquisitor of Urgathoa, goddess of undeath. Also, after I started prothletyzing a bit, the inquisitor started mudslinging my goddess and using our “tower defense preparation time” to build a shrine to her deity in the town instead of help us. Now, things could have REALLY gone south between us: lots of infighting and bickering and refusing to work together. (I’ve been in groups with clerics of Abadar who’ve refused to heal or buff unless we pay them or whatnot.) However, that’s not the direction I chose to take my character. First, I knew that the inquisitor was in the Pathfinder Society, so despite my dislike of her religion she was a legitimate ally and attacking an in-house ally would be a bad idea. (I had a brain! Wowsers!) Second, attacking her would have totally be confirming several of her claims about my religion (she kept saying that I was actually in the Cult of the Dawnflower), and frankly, I as a player didn’t want the infighting. So ultimately, I chose to play my cleric on the moral high road; while she was building shrines, I trained villagers for war. While she was mudslinging, I sang my praises to Sarenrae louder. And when she and her ferocious owl bear companion were dying (just roll with it), I proved that I was morally better than her and healed her. When she asked me why I healed her, I gave her an AWESOME one-liner that I felt was a total perfect character defining moment.
“As long as you’re alive, you can find redemption. If you die, your soul will be lost to the Pale Princess for all eternity. Saving your life is the greatest mercy I can do to the person you might become and the gravest insult I can to do to the person you are.”
This is the sort of thing that makes you remember characters, both yours and those of others. Without conflict, the greatest stories can’t be told, so don’t be afraid to let a little inter-party conflict into your games. Just make sure that you as players are always able to find reasons to put the party first.
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.
Stellar article and great one liner! Nicely done.