I think we’ve all seen dysfunctional RPG parties in our games, with a Drow Assassin and Cleric of Saint Cuthbert trying to work along with a Chaotic Evil Barbarian and a Paladin of Kord. Okay, so that example may have been taken from a campaign I was once in (I was the Chaotic Neutral Human Fighter in that mess), but let’s face it, players don’t need clashing characters to be competitive. Many players could be in an adventuring party comprised entirely of inoffensive monks of the same order who grew up together and all swore an oath of non-violence, and by the third session, someone will be seriously considering the best way to put their Harmonious Fist right through another character’s head.
Players like to compete against one another, even in the most cooperative of RPG parties. Here are some of the key ways in which they do that:
Loot: Oh man, we’ve all seen this. The last enemy falls, and all of the sudden you can cue the Benny Hill Theme Song (“Yakety Sax”). There’s a madcap dash for the spoils of war. Coinpurses, breastplate, scabbards, and possibly even limbs go flying in the search for Loot.
Even in groups with an adventuring charter that ensures the division of wealth (such as our current campaign), it doesn’t take much for players to quickly begin angling for the best piece. Over the years, I’ve found Loot is sort of a secondary competition, always there but only occasionally super-bloody.
Body Count: As a great man once said, “Let the bodies hit the floor” (probably Whitman or Thoreau, can’t remember which). Body count remains a popular way for characters to compete. It’s Gimli and Legolas all over again. Taken to extremes, this can cause the deaths of surrendering soldiers, local wildlife, and peasants who look at you funny.
Power: This is all about the character build. To-hit bonuses, hit points, lethality in a fight, and how pimped out your character is. Perhaps the most common encountered, and the most problematic, for a group trying to keep a certain theme or feel going. When you find out that John-Boy just multiclassed and now has the same to-hit bonus as your Fighter AND can teleport AND can shoot fireballs, well, your simple town guardsman may just not look as appealing. Known in other spheres as Keeping Up With The Joneses.
Spotlight: The spotlight is not just for would-be thespians. Yes, the Bard wants to be in every scene (“Dude, you aren’t even here—you said you were going to the castle for the night!”) and make every little thing about him, but Spotlight doesn’t just mean that character who wants tell the compelling story of his inner Drizzt. It can also mean the guy who has to pull off the most bad-ass maneuver in combat. This can be annoying, but if your group is entertaining, it can also be one of the most enjoyable of these entries.
Last Man (or Woman) Up: I see this a lot in convention games, especially where the mortality rate is high. For example, if you managed to actually survive in the Tower of Gygax (I didn’t), that elevates you—you are a gamer of Stature and Import now. You survived the best Mssrs. Kask or Mentzer could throw at you. That character was a pre-generated one, you’ll never play it again, and yes, you only survived because your thief left a cleric to die, but who cares? You’ve lived to run another day, after all, when no one else did. (There are also RPGs such as Agon, where PvP competition is core and there is one decided winner from the game).
Position: I classify this as a little different than Power. Position is a little more metagamey. This is control for the hearts and minds of the group. Part in-character, part out-of-character, this is your influence over the direction and feel of the group. Groups with an Alpha Male pretty much have position already defined. If it’s less clear, especially as a new group comes together, this can become pretty core.
Competition between players is one of those things that isn’t good or bad on its own; like a lot of things in roleplaying, just enough can add some spice, too much can see things get nasty. Too little, and you feel like you’re playing with a too-nice group of kids from Barney*. Now if you’ll excuse me, the Cleric and Assassin just made a wager on hunting pheasants. Or was that peasants?
*-Seriously, on Barney (the Purple Dinosaur), why is there always one kid like 5 years older than everyone else? I know he probably makes more on one show than I make in a week, but seriously, kid—it’s more than a little creepy to see your 12 year-old hide smiling and marching in place while singing “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy” along with a bunch of first-graders. There’s a high school existence full of pain in front of you, kid.