Honor Among Thieves

“A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true to one another.”
—William Shakespeare, Henry IV (Act 2, Scene 2)

What about Player versus Player (PvP) options? What happens when players turn against each other in Dark?

To talk about that, I want to tell you this, first:

Too many years ago, back around the turn of the century, I was the game master for an RPG campaign that informed a lot of Project: Dark’s eventual design and development. The players’ characters were thieves in a quasi-medieval city. And they were brothers—all save one, who was their brother-in-law. The affair was a big, soapy, operatic saga with villainous inquisitors, magical treasures, nefarious intrigues, a last-minute rescue at the gallows, and some features that I loved (and love) so much they appear in forthcoming adventures for Dark.

It was also a damned mess. The characters eventually divided into little, scheming coalitions and turned against each other. Which was suitable enough, as the city’s factions and the lure of loot pulled their loyalties apart. The real problem was how the players turned against each other, too.

They wrote me notes and emails in which they looked to undermine and outright combat their fellow players’ goals for their characters. At one point, some of the thief-brothers arranged an ambush for one of their kin—a player’s character!—to prevent him from making a deal that would betray the rest of them. It was an actual surprise for the player being ambushed—a ferocious drama.

The campaign became a crime tragedy worthy of two seasons of television—and a thrilling disaster that took a toll on our friendships. It might’ve been fun to watch, maybe, but living with it, I was fraught and anxious. I feel guilty for letting things play out as they did.

I do not wish that experience upon you.

Still, I learned a lot from that campaign and I’ve learned more since. The question of betrayals and in-fighting came up a few times during play testing and development for Dark and the most effective solution to managing it in play surprised me. The PvP solution I found was to accept that the game simply doesn’t support it.

That means Dark has no PvP options.

One-on-one play is a feature of the game and supporting PvP play detracted from that. PvP options put focus on the wrong parts of play. Part of the one-on-one feature is the ability to keep a campaign going even when you don’t have quorum from everyone at once. If only one or two non-House players can make it to the table this week, play a side mission with them. This option is easier to implement when players aren’t worried about PvP schemes against them.

In many tabletop RPGs, PvP options are nebulous edge-case scenarios anyway. Co-op play is a welcome default mode of play. In Dark, if you play against your fellow players, you’re not playing the game with them. It’s a coop game. As a tabletop RPG, it depends on all of us players to respect and maintain that style of play.

If you want to hack or house-rule PvP elements into your campaign, that’s your option. That’s where those elements work best, I think, and it’s frankly where I prefer those elements to live. They can work great in specific instances but you’re outside the sanctioned play space at that point.

Also? Specific hacks and house-rules probably suit the job better, anyway. Your PvP hack, based on your players and your collective goals for play, has a different target destination and different means of reaching it than a centralized PvP mechanism would. When you design for your players and the kind of PvP they want, you’re traveling toward a destination I cannot reach (and don’t exactly recommend). I don’t know your players. You can address their specific needs—and you must. Unsafe or even discomforting PvP isn’t play; the risks to people’s feelings and friendships is real. I don’t endorse it.

A change in circumstances that could explode or destroy the very shape of a television show is sometimes called a “premise threat.” In an RPG campaign, a premise threat can seem thrilling, like it’ll spark a rejuvenation or renovation of things, but it can accidentally end a campaign by moving it into a mode or onto subject matter that doesn’t serve all the players. “What if our characters turn against each other?” That sounds like a premise threat to your campaign.

Your thieves can be a treacherous lot without their players turning against each other. Your characters can lead compellingly dysfunctional lives of minor betrayals and serial pardoning while all the players do right by each other. Play right for each other.

Better still, avoid creating casts of thieves that pull away from each other to define themselves or fulfill their character concepts.

Making our thieves into a family, all those years ago, was the smartest thing we did. It kept the characters together, gave them built-in reasons to forgive and rescue each other. It kept the campaign together while it could.

The mistake we made was designing characters that wanted very different things—they had incompatible goals—and then letting those characters threaten each other. We should've put our feet down for the sake of protecting our fun.

Our characters work for us. If they tell us they want to betray another character or threaten the premise of the campaign? Talk them down. Or talk with your fellow players about having a scene in play in which everyone’s thieves help to talk to your thief down. That way we all get to keep playing. Together.

(Essay by Will Hindmarch)