You may have heard the excuse "this is what my character would do" when a player has their PC act in a way that comes into conflict with other PCs at the table. It's not a failure of game mastery if players come into conflict during the game from time to time; the rules in OSR+ operate exactly the same when resolving player-vs-player (PVP) action as they do when resolving player-vs-NPC action.
However, there's a difference between PVP conflict and intraparty conflict, and you don't want to allow one become the other without the consent of everyone playing. This is because a player's first obligation to the table is to the social contract established in session zero, not the fiction.
Everyone joined the table consenting to play a particular game, with a particular set of expectations. This means players have to work actively to make the fiction respect the social contract at all times.
What is PVP in RPGs?
How we define PVP in RPGs is not the same as in other games. PVP is not defined strictly as "combat between PCs," nor does it mean any form of intraparty conflict (which is expected to happen): it means players taking action in the fiction that results in outcomes contrary to the interest of the table.
Examples of PVP in RPGs
The most obvious example of PVP is PCs fighting other PCs. In video games, this is how PVP is defined. But PVP in RPGs doesn't have to be that explicit: PVP can happen when a player makes her PC cast a spell against another PCs without its player's consent; when a player makes her PC steal from another PC without its player's consent; or generally, when players use the mechanics to frustrate the intent of other players at the table.
PVP also includes efforts to undermine the narrative goals of the table as a whole, or that of individual players. For example, suppose the party has set up an elaborate heist over the course of multiple sessions, but a player decides to foil those plans "because it's what her character would do," or because she has a better idea of how things should go. In both cases, the player is working against the interest of the table, even if she's well-intentioned.
The Interest of the Table
When players work against the interest of the table, they're not playing collaboratively, and this is a problem if the table didn't consent to that being a possibility in the game. Because they're doing things that other players have agreed not to do, they're co-opting a little bit of the control everyone has over the fiction. Control over the fiction is only ever mediated by the dice and by GM fiat, so when players take PVP action, they're stealing control from other players in a way that's not part of the game the table agreed to play.
PVP vs. Intraparty Conflict
When a player does something that frustrates the intent of other players while acting in accordance with the interest of the table, however, he's not taking PVP action. That being said, it should first be apparent to the table that what he's trying to accomplish serves the interest of the table, even if that means ruining a big surprise by laying out his intentions out of character.
It's your responsibility to proactively identify the player's intent, because this level of transparency is necessary to protect the social contract, and the GM is responsible for making sure that contract doesn't get violated.
Resolving Intraparty Conflict
You want to be mindful of players who use PVP to try to control other players' behavior, or who want to resolve a real-world beef through the fiction. Among the first few operations in the conversation is player intent, where you clarify what the player wants to accomplish in the fiction when their character takes some particular action. The disconnect between the character's goals and the player's intent will be obvious if the player is attempting PVP, and when player intent and character intent are too far apart, then it can be argued the player isn't roleplaying.
When resolving intraparty conflict, slow down, handle each mechanic that comes into play with discreteness, and bring your authority as the GM to bear in delivering the resolution. This is a moment where you have to become a Judicator and set aside your personal feelings for either player. What matters is that you are fair and deliberate in handling the rules as written.
Remaining Fair When Exercising GM Fiat
If fiat creeps into your ruling (as will often be the case in OSR+ with mechanics such as success at a cost, fate points, GM advantage, etc), explain aloud your reasoning to both players to offer them opportunities to weigh in, and make it clear (as much as is possible) what the outcomes will be before they roll. Transparency in these situations is key to making both players feel good about whatever happens.
For example, if a PC has to subdue another PC because she's been infected with a "rage virus" that causes her to blindly attack, it's in the interests of the table that the PC should be subdued (and the player controlling the raging character would very likely consent to the subduing, because the intent of the action is obvious on its face).
In a more elaborate example, if a PC seems to be blowing the party's cover in the middle of a heist when in fact he's creating a diversion or somehow actually benefiting the party's overall goals, the player controlling that PC needs to make it obvious that's what he's doing, whether in character or out of character, or else he risks violating the social contract.
A little bit of uncertainty in the moment can be fun and suspenseful, but if it's too prolonged, it quickly mutates into frustration; the table may wonder if the player is just hogging the spotlight to showcase his cleverness.
Hindsight in this context is not 20/20.
What About "Evil" Characters?
"Evil" in OSR+ is defined by the moral compass of each campaign, as outlined in the section on Ethos in the core rules.
If the party is made up of Guardian paladins, an Esurient Necromancer is unlikely to mesh with the party unless the player controlling the necromancer comes up with a very good reason for his character to behave in a way that can further the interest of the table.
Consider the following character concepts:
- Quacryn, a Mastermind Nim politician whose seemingly beneficient behavior masks his evil intentions. Despite the character being motivated by gaining political power, his actions are always in line with the interests of the table because cooperation with them is the clearest path to achieving his goals.
- Magda, a Megalomaniacal archaeologist who remains loyal to the party as long as they are useful to her. While the character is fundamentally self-interested, she acts in accordance with the interest of the table because she needs their help to get to the treasure she wants.
In either of these examples, once the PC's actions start to work against the interest of the table, the GM needs to decide if the PC's continued behavior will violate the social contract, and then work with the player about how to handle the PC going forward. This may mean relinquishing control of the PC to the GM so that it can become a villain, or integrating new story hooks into the campaign so the PC can attempt a redemptive arc in the future.