What makes a competitive, player-versus-player game work?

I'm gearing up to run an episodic, competitive game with my group. Each episode, two factions compete for a prize, and only one can win. Players have both a public declared loyalty and a secret true loyalty—and personal goals which might conflict with their faction's goals, and the liberty to switch sides. I'm, uh, hoping it'll work, rather than dissolve into... something that doesn't work.

So what makes a competitive game tick? I'm only really familiar with Shinobigami and In a Wicked Age on the RPG front... and only barely, read-through-it, familiar; not "played extensively" or even "played once" familiar. And related, but not quite in story game land, are things like Battlestar Galactica and Resistance.

Who's got experience with this sort of thing?


  • I feel like I've got a pretty solid hand on competition in rpgs; it's something that comes up in our kind of old school D&D on a semi-regular basis, and I finally succeeded in a balls-to-the-wall Gamist Paranoia campaign in 2015, too. I at least know the taste of the thing.

    A thing I'd like to remark on is that player characters acting against each other can occur in a couple of very different types of games. Specifically, there are two types of very common games which may both be described as "competitive", so we better figure out first which one you mean here:

    Blood Opera games are scenario-based drama games where the PCs are explicitly on different sides on Big Issues, and the drama of the game largely consists of the player characters bashing each other's brains out. Such a game is "competitive" in the sense that the characters are arrayed against each other, and the story basically revolves around who will win and who will lose. However, the players are not, fundamentally, in competition: they will all "win" by succeeding in creating a compelling story together. The setting up of characters against each other is just a narrative premise, a framework for drama. It's like show wrestling.

    Wargame RPGS (term coined for this presentation) are Gamist, challenge-based games where the players are actually trying to win instead of lose, by playing well and having good luck and everything else that would come up in a boardgame or such. (The main difference tends to be that "victory" in rpgs is often relative and negotiable.) It is eminently possible for such a game to posit player-vs-player action (instead of player-vs-GM), in which case we again have players "competing" against each other. However, unlike the Blood Opera, there are real losers in the game - it's not wrong to lose as some sort of a social transgression, but just like a sport or a boardgame, it's something you're trying to avoid as part of the ritual contest.

    I started by harping about this point because of how you mentioned In a Wicked Age as an example of a competitive game; as it's a classic example of a Blood Opera, rather than a Wargame RPG, I became uncertain about which type of game you're planning here. (I guess your answer could be to refute my dichotomy altogether, of course; I'm pretty confident in this being a real distinction, though.) Are you planning for a story game that uses the conceit of competition as a framework for drama, or a wargame that puts the players to the spot to win or lose against each other?
  • TL;DR = @Jeph, do you want players to actually win or lose at the game, or do you just want characters to end up winners or losers while players all congratulate each other on a job well done?
  • Good distinctions! My gut reaction says that game is very much slated to be a serial blood opera. But there is a definite war game element: each episode, one faction wins, and one loses. The winners get to strip resources from the losing side.

    I think though, that I'm including that clear winner and loser just to make it clear to everyone at the table that there will be blood, as a default source of conflict to start things off and make other conflicts more complicated. And so that people have two possibly conflicting things to care about: whether their favored faction wins, and whether they get what they personally want.

    Here are some things that I'm hoping will happen:
    • I'm playing a spy whose special ability is to declare loyalty to BOTH factions. At the end of the game, I drop my declared loyalty for the losing side. I share in the benefits of my declared faction winning. I never reveal what my secret true loyalty was. Maybe I don't care; I just want power. Maybe I'm plotting to reverse the situation next episode!
    • My character's boss, another PC, is in the same faction as me. My boss is awful, I hate her guts! She has higher standing in the faction, she's really invested in it, but I'm just a lowly servitor, I really care more about making sure my boss gets her comeuppance. I work against my own faction for most of the game. Maybe I'm hoping someone will offer me the chance to switch sides, but that never comes. The other faction wins; both me and my boss suffer the consequences and have some of our resources stripped from us. But I'm mostly happy that she got what was coming to her.
    • It's Romeo and Juliette! Me and my true love are on opposite teams! But we each really believe our own faction are the Good Guys. We spend the whole game trying to convince each other to switch sides and become an ally of Justice. In the end, my team wins, and his loses; my betrothed is stripped of his power and imprisoned. I "won," but I'm not happy about it.
    • I'm the bastard child of the ruling clan, and I've joined the rebellion against them to throw off their evil yolk of oppression! I'm loyal to the rebels and believe in their cause. We're winning! I lead our troops to victory again and again. But my trueborn older sibling's master propagandist plants the idea in my general's (another PC's) head that I'm truly loyal to my family, and he kicks me out of the faction, just before the game ends with the rebels victorious! Fuck! I'm treated as on the losing team, and lose power and resources, even though I'm truly loyal to the victors! Maybe next episode, the propagandist will be able to truly recruit me back to my family's side. Or maybe I'll be able to convince the general that I'm legit, and take my rightful place in the new order.
    Side note, I'm ALSO interested in more wargamey competitive story games. I've wanted to run a Braunstein-style scenario for a while, and if anyone has interesting thoughts on that style of play, cough 'em up!
  • Sounds like "blood opera" to me, with "winning" thrown in into the mix as a mean to an end - not an end in itself - and possibly interacting with other game mechanisms like Keys or whatnot. I see it's important to be on the "winning team", maybe because it yields a number of mechanical advantages, but ultimately you have your own individual goals - or heart's desires - which might be at cross-purpose with faction objectives.
  • Yeah, that's just like Zombie Cinema - it also has a very, very clear competitive conceit in the form of "you don't need to run faster than the zombies, as long as you run faster than your friends". However, this supposed player goal of saving their own character from zombies isn't really the fundamental motivation of the players: saving your character while being a boring player with a boring character is ultimately a net loss, and the only way to really win in the game is to cooperate to create a great zombie story.

    The way I usually explain this in theory terms is that the competitive conceit is a "structural idea" that makes playing the game easy, because the game is designed so that the players can safely focus on simply playing their character and trying to avoid getting eaten by the zombies, and the game's structures make it so that this behavior makes it easy and fun for the players to create a story. The zombie-survival is not the real goal, but it is a framework that gives the players some idea of what to do until the internal logic of the story takes hold and you realize that damn, I'll have to sacrifice myself to the zombies to save the only thing I care about in this world.

    I'd say that this is also the core idea you'll want to actualize in your own design: make it so that the players can use the competitive conceit as a guideline for their activities, and that by doing so, they will also lay the groundwork for a thematically resonant story. If you succeed in that, then the supposed competition ("supposed" because while the characters may really believe in the Cause, the players know that they're not really enemies in the game) will be highly useful for you in building up drama, without encouraging the players to kill the drama in the interest of winning.
  • Seriously, the only thing which makes any competitive RPG work are players who don't let it affect their personal relationships in a negative way, and I've yet to find a systematic way of ensuring that.

    Competition for the excellence of all vs the exaltation of one both look the same on the surface.

  • edited January 2017
    Yeah, Anon, I'd say that caring about people vs just winning at all costs is a life skill, not a game skill. I don't think Eero's talking about that, though, he's just talking about two different types of gameplay.

    Personally, I think Blood Opera is more fun when the players do exert their full skills toward character success and the game does give them some avenues to do that. Removed storytelling is fun too, but I get more invested as it gets a little more wargamey.
  • One of the things that I think makes Shinobigami "work" is that in addition to clearly defined win states, it provides for lots of other ways to have fun. There's a lot of thematic support for things like portraying a villain, playing to lose, being a spoiler to another character even if your character has had her avenues towards "winning" blocked, as well as mechanical support for alternate win conditions (in addition to XP rewards for clan goals, staying true to your alignment, and for roleplaying, the scenario structure of the game also doesn't even require having all of the characters having the same scenario-defined win condition).

    It tries its hardest to allow for collective goals (like group storytelling), mechanical rewards, and individual player objectives to exist alongside each other, and to not let the game itself get in the way of any of them or privilege one over the others. I think that the huge amount of agency it gives players is one of the main avenues by which it tries to accomplish this, and in turn understanding that another player might not even be aiming for the same thing as you can make it easier to surrender yourself and your character to their goals when they do have control.
  • Seriously, the only thing which makes any competitive RPG work are players who don't let it affect their personal relationships in a negative way, and I've yet to find a systematic way of ensuring that.
    That's definitely a prerequisite for all kinds of friendly competition, including the overwhelming majority of games known to humans. :)
  • I like the insight that the core competitive conceit / win conditions in this sort of game are sort of like training wheels, a default direction to play towards until you stumble on something you care about more. Since this campaign will be a serial—revisiting the same factions again and again, probably with a rotating cast of players & characters—I'm hoping it'll also drive continuity between game sessions.

    Are there any effective competitive story games *without* this feature?

    @AnonAdderlan, @David_Berg, assuming everyone I play with is capable of competing non-vindictively, and that we do want to revel in the competition and go all out, what are some techniques to actualize that kind of friendly but intense competition? Like, what is it that's missing from Diplomacy or Monopoly, or present in Eero's Zombie Cinema, to nudge people in that direction? (Is it as simple as the possibility for objectives other than winning?)

    @yukamichi, can you talk more about the thematic support that Shinobigami gives to alternative objectives? I've been kinda leery of adding TSoY/Lady Blackbird key-style "When you do <<action>>, get XP!" rules, on the theory that extrinsic rewards interfere with intrinsic motivation.
  • The bit that struck me as really telling is a minor footnote in the actual play included with the main rulebook, where the game's designer is talking about numbering player handouts, and he says to think of Player 1 as the main character or protagonist. This seems to be a fairly explicit statement about individual characters' "weight" in at least the metaplot of any individual scenario (everyone is still essentially equal within the rules though). When I first read it, it was something I struggled with, but as I came to understand the game more I realized that it opens up more possibilities than simple cutthroat play. As Andy likes to say, "Shinobigami is a game of frenemies"; you don't want all of the characters to hate each other.

    The other thing that I think lends weight to the idea that the game is supposed to run with "alternate objectives" is to look at the kinds of secrets and goals used in both the actual play scenarios included with the books and in sample scenarios, as well as in the section on scenario creation advice. A lot of them are not mutually exclusive objectives, but ones that will nonetheless bring characters into conflict with each other.

    So in addition to straightforward conflicts of interest like "Defeat Player 1" and "End the scenario with the McGuffin," you can also have things like "Make sure Player 2 doesn't die" or "Form a bond with Player 3" (I like this last one for its potential to represent things like strategic alliances or winning someone over to your point of view). Maybe your way of defending another player involves attacking them, stealing the McGuffin, and giving it to their enemy, for example. I think that having these kinds of "side characters" in a scenario gives the opportunity for characters who are in direct conflict with each other to bargain with or manipulate the people with side goals to their advantage in the primary conflict; the unaligned characters can be a kind of wildcard in the scenario.

    Another interesting example is two-part objectives; for example, "Your goal is to stop X from happening, but if you don't, then your goal becomes Y instead." This means that you legitimately won't know where your character will stand at the end of the game, and if other characters learn your goal, they may end up with the option of either focusing entirely on their own goals, which could put the two of you in conflict later, or to postpone their goals in order to help you achieve yours (even if you might hate each other or be from opposing factions!), since it would be to their benefit later on.
  • edited January 2017
    What stops blood operas from drifting into wargames when someone really starts to push? Explicit social contract? I've played in blood operas where some players clearly want to win more than lose, and it tends to make the atmosphere a bit tense. People start hoarding points for big finishers and disrespecting the established losses.

    Edit: One answer I'm thinking could be that you have to design a blood opera that is emphatically NOT a good wargame. Resource manipulation is simplistic, you can't predict anything, losses mean nothing, the win-loss ratio is set before the game... Stuff like Fiasco, pretty much!
  • Thinking about how you might be able to incorporate these sorts of things into your game, based off of what you said earlier...

    Perhaps one character is unwittingly feeding information to another faction; through another deep cover operative she's leaking information to, or maybe she was secretly kidnapped and implanted with a bug, or she has been magically possessed, or whatever. That faction might dispatch an agent to make sure that character survives, to protect their investment and their information source, but they may not care whether or not that character actually succeeds (or they do care, but less than they do about protecting their plant).

    In the same vein, you might have one faction trying to turn another faction's character traitor by making it look like she was being betrayed by her own leadership, but in order to do so their intervention absolutely can't be noticed. Or conversely, maybe a character really is being set up by other members of her own faction, and they need to make sure that she doesn't realize who's really behind it.

    In your Romeo and Juliet example, their own parents might try to sabotage the relationship, but if either of their children find out that they're doing so, then it will almost certainly lead their children to more proactive rebellion, potentially against BOTH families in the service of a third faction (and if so, does this mean that the parents of both are forced to temporarily work together to stop a result that's disastrous to both of them?).

    Basically, have someone who potentially stands to benefit regardless of the "main" conflict, or who doesn't have a direct stake in it but who will be influenced by its outcome, and see how adding them into the mix complicates things. I feel like it can soften the "competitive" aspect a bit, where winning and losing become less clear cut (your "I lose, but my boss who I hate loses too" example already does this), and people can take sides in a way that isn't a permanent shifting of alliances.
  • In a well-designed game it's mostly that there isn't much of a wargame there, which combined with the understanding the players have of the point of the game suffices to keep the competitive urges under control. This specifically does not stop morons: I've played Dust Devils with players intent on winning every shootout with all comers, Zombie Cinema with players whose raison d'etre is to feed the PCs of other players to the zombies, and so on. Apparently, when you're sufficiently detached from reality (or single-mindedly inflexible in thought, or whatever it is), the lack of an actual wargame does not seem to prevent a person from acting as if they were playing one. It is both frustrating and hilarious at the same time.

    Still, that's just one of those rare foibles of the rpg medium - the great majority of the time there's no particular difficulty: you just play the game on hand. I guess it might be more difficult for a less text-based tradition of play, like if the game being played doesn't have a particular name, or particular rules, or much of anything aside from a GM, then it might be more difficult to know whether you're in a blood opera or a wargame. With games that have discrete rules, though, it's usually pretty obvious.

    Another exception comes to mind; there are some traditional games that occur somewhere in this zone, yet are relatively vague about their creative agenda. Amber is an example of a game where it is indeed realistic for the players to have crossed wires about the wargame vs. blood opera distinction.

    So yeah, I guess that there are dark corners of the hobby where this is a real issue. Get better game texts and follow them more clearly while playing, and the confusion should go away :D
  • @AnonAdderlan, @David_Berg, assuming everyone I play with is capable of competing non-vindictively, and that we do want to revel in the competition and go all out, what are some techniques to actualize that kind of friendly but intense competition?
    Good question!

    On the one hand any game can be made competitive simply by setting goals, and I know of no techniques which specifically apply to RPGs/Storygames. On the other hand, competition in any game with an all powerful GM ultimately depends on playing to their expectations, so maybe it's worth looking into techniques which address that.
  • edited January 2017
    Have you heard the Good News about Burning Kingdoms? It's the GM-less hack of Burning Wheel strained through Burning Empires I co-wrote years ago with Jonathan White.

    I've played two almost-complete games of it! Both times the games fell apart for social reasons; the first time was because of a flaw in the design / a mistake we didn't catch, the second for deeply interpersonal reasons unrelated to the game design (which is, of course, unimpeachably brilliant ;-) ).

    A lot of what makes it, along with the actually-a-real-published-game Burning Empires, work is that the terms of engagement are explicit, as are the rules for advancement at the macro level. Including Compromise, as we discussed in the recent thread about social combat mechanics. I find a lot of games with winners and losers among the PCs are problematic because it relies on dramatic feel or just time running out to know when it's over.
  • Burning Kingdoms
    And... do you have a version of it available somewhere?
  • @AnonAdderlan, @David_Berg, assuming everyone I play with is capable of competing non-vindictively, and that we do want to revel in the competition and go all out, what are some techniques to actualize that kind of friendly but intense competition?
    When I played Burning Empires, I don't remember the GM employing any assets to his advantage beyond his NPCs. Traditionally, the all-powerful GM has, like, terrain and monsters and kingdoms and natural disasters and traps and whatnot at their disposal. I think our BE GM just had the stuff his NPCs had.

    Maybe "right toolkit" is where it's at!
  • Oh, right, Burning Empires! Though that's more players-vs-GM than players-vs-players, isn't it? I have never played nor read it, nor seen the actual game text! From what I understand, a BE is kinda structured as a slowly unfolding Duel of Wits, with each scene being one move in the DoW, and scenes thus being a strictly rationed resource.

    For those who are more familiar with it, does BE jive with the idea the core adversarial conceit of a competitive game is mostly there to give direction to play until the people at the table discover their real goals? Or is it actually all about outmaneuvering the enemy and achieving victory?
  • edited January 2017
    I would say that BE play is about more than just pursuing victory -- "burn for your beliefs" and all that -- but the adversarial conceit itself is absolutely all about pursuing victory.
  • Each *session* is one move in a sort of extended DoW / Firefight.
Sign In or Register to comment.