This Sunday, at my regular D&D game, an event occurred that can be quite controversial and, at times, drag a game to a halt, if not ending it completely: a PvP social challenge. PvP, or “Player vs. Player,” is a pretty generally term, usually used to represent conflict of any type between characters in-game, so “Character vs. Character” is probably a better term for it, but the concept has been solidified through the years in video gaming, and the term PvP has stuck. Who am I to go against convention…
So, a CvC incident arose this weekend. There are many kinds of CvC, and while inter-character combat is most closely associated with the “PvP” term, I find the worst form of CvC to actually be CvC resulting from social challenges. In the case of this past Sunday, one of the characters lied to another with a really good deception check, and the other character’s insight check failed to detect the lie. The problem, of course, is that the other player knew it was a lie and it wasn’t a very convincing lie to begin with… but the dice fell where they fell.
And this is where it becomes controversial, and there are a lot of opinions on the subject. By the rule of the dice, the lie-ee should absolutely believe the lie, and a lot of gamers, especially those of my generation, would say that “that’s that.” This is very dissatisfying for the player, however, because the player thinks that his character would have to be stupid to believe such an obvious lie. If the DM forces the player to act in a manner that he (I’ll be using the masculine pronoun a lot here because, in this case, both players were actually men) feels is out of character, it can cause actual player vs. player resentment or, worse, player vs. DM resentment.
A lot of people I that know would say, “so what? This is a game. The player should put on his ‘big boy’ pants and suck it up.” At times, I agree… but there are times when I don’t. This was one of those times.
If one player had scouted ahead to the left and seen a hoard of orcs camped in the middle of the woods, then come back and said “nothing that way, let’s go right instead” to a character with no basis to believe otherwise, then I’d agree that the other player should suck it up and accept the results of the roll. In this instance, however, all of the players heard a rhythmic pounding, not a steady rhythm, but clearly not a “natural” sound. Two scouts went ahead. They discovered a giant breaking rocks with a maul and wanted to keep the paladin from rushing in “swords blazing,” so one of the scouts returned to the party while the other remained behind to parlay. The returning scout’s lie was that the pounding sound was “falling rocks, very dangerous”.
It was a pretty transparent lie, especially since I had stressed that it was a regular, almost rhythmic sound, but the dice fell and the lie was, by the numbers, convincing. It was obvious, from the lie-ee’s response, that he didn’t think his character was stupid enough to buy that story. On the spot, I had to decide how as DM to handle the challenge. Adjudicating social challenges between player characters is always a slippery slope.
I chose to trust the players and gave it a minute to let it play out through role-play, ready to step in if I felt it was needed. As it happened, the paladin proceeded to remain openly dubious of the story, but to go along with the lie because it was well-intentioned. I was okay with that… the player had rolled well enough on his insight check to at least understand that there was a good reason for the deception and that the best decision was to just play along and wait it out. If the actual lie had been more convincing, I might have stepped in, but under the circumstances, it seemed like a reasonable solution.
The line between “acting in character” and “meta-gaming” (using player knowledge in place of character knowledge) can be a thin one. It is the DM’s job to enable in-character decisions while discouraging meta-gaming. In this case, I believe that in-character prevailed. However, this is the exact reason that I feel that social CvC challenges are perhaps one of the hardest things that a DM ever has to deal with. I prefer to avoid them completely, calling for die rolls only when they are absolutely necessary to curb meta-gaming. Fortunately, most of my regular players are experienced enough that meta-gaming isn’t a serious problem.
As a DM for younger players just starting out in the RPG-journey, however, this is something of which I try to remain vigilant. My oldest daughter seems to roll with the punches pretty well when it comes to role-playing and “character knowledge” situations, but my younger is just getting the hang of it, and still doesn’t really like it when she “doesn’t know things.” I’m confident that she will get over that with time, but it is a lesson that she still needs to learn. But that’s okay… part of my job as her dad-DM is to teach those lessons and be patient while I do; discouragement doesn’t teach… it just discourages. Considering how much I love RPGs, and how much I enjoy sharing the hobby with my family, discouragement is something I do my best to avoid.
Ultimately, it is the DM’s job to maintain the balance of “in-character knowledge” and “meta-gaming.” When it’s just the DM exchanging information or NPC social interaction, I think it’s pretty cut-and-dry. I’ll gladly say, “but your character wouldn’t know that,” and move on. When more than one player is involved, however, things get sticky. You don’t want to “play favorites” (or give the appearance of it), but you also have to be fair, even when a situation seems to favor the less likely outcome. To me, that’s when the real test of a DM begins.