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I'm a fairly new DM and am trying to plan my own story, I'm having trouble envisioning an important part however.

I have the group getting separated and eventually meeting up. Before they realize it's the other half of the group, however, a fight ensues between the two groups. (PvP)

I have how the players get separated and how they are unable to recognize each other. I just want to know how to go about having the players attack each other and not realize that it is they're teammates that they are attacking. I'm unsure how the actual attack sequence should play out. The problem for me as a GM is that I am not sure how to work the at-table logistics. Narratively, everything is sound. I just don't know how to logistically set it up.

How can I go about having the two player groups fight each other without realizing who they are attacking too quickly or too late?

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I have witnessed a game where the two stories are played out asynchronously.
Group A was going through their scenario (Took 20-30 minutes?) while Group B waited out their turn (with brief moments of "meanwhile" dialogue to keep them involved). Group A found the group of "bad guys", and managed to launch a sneak attack. After the surprise round, they rolled initiative and then their story paused.
DM then hit the proverbial rewind and we played out Group B's story. They follow their path (with brief moments of "meanwhile" dialogue to keep Group B involved) and eventually get attacked by a group of bandits who get a surprise attack on them.
At this point it was clear that Group A had attacked Group B. Group B relished the opportunity to get a return round. At relevant moments, calls were made for perception checks (before the sneak attack, after the surprise round, when someone got face to face it was with advantage and they realised what had happened)

Everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even though Group B knew out of character after the surprise round that it was Group A that attacked them, they rolled with it.

Alternatively

You could set up an almost identical board for each (have a few flourishes or touches to make them seem different) Group A's board showing the positions of Group B as bandits, and vice-versa.

Mirrored boards

Make the 'bandits/rogues' for each group move in the same initiative order. So you can get a whole round of attacks from a group, then a riposte from the other group. You make the 'rolls' behind your DM screen and fudge them to get the same result as the opposing team did*.
Once they figure it out you just switch them onto the one board. Probably harder to pull off, but could really have them fooled if you can do it.

  • DMG p.235 on roll fudging

    Rolling behind a screen let's you fudge the results if you want to. If two critical hits in a row would kill a character, you could change the second critical hit into a normal hit, or even a miss. Don't distort die rolls too oftren, though, and don't let on that you're doing it. Otherwise, your players might thing they don't face any real risks - or worse, that you're playing favourites.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 3 '17 at 1:21
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As a player, I always take the cautious approach to new player characters - "who are you and what do you want", to see how it pans out. The meta knowledge that this is another member of the story would stop me from actually killing them outright, but a bit of controlled PvP has always been fun.

As a DM however, this can be a bit of an issue. It can cause issues with the players, since the fight is always instigated by one person. E.g. "The rogue kept stealing my gold!", or "I was only pinching one or two gold. He didn't talk to me, he just swung his axe!" These types of fights are always better off handled by talking to the players, rather than resolving it in combat.

If, however, this is plot driven - two PC's forced into combat in an arena, or, perhaps a paranoid PC meeting a new member that has unexpectedly arrived in a hostile environment - perhaps allowing maybe one or two rounds of PvP could be fun; but only if both parties are ok with it, and make sure you have a plot device to help stop the battle!

A bigger, common threat is often a good way; the combatants in the arena can use the combat to act as a diversion for the rest of the party to get closer to a target, or the paranoid and the new PC's fighting in the BBEG's Wizard tower are suddenly assailed by the henchmen. You want to stop the fight before any real damage is done!

So, in short:

  • Make sure that both parties are ok with the PvP
  • Make sure you have a plot device to stop it
  • Always stop the fight short - not many people would be happy to see their PC die, and especially not at the hands of a friend.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 3 '17 at 1:21
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Don't let them do it!

It sounds fun, and it should happen. Do not let the players get involved. Let them get to a point to where you have to finish the tale via DM narration. In my humble opinion. I've seen this go poorly every single time it's came up.

One example of this went as follows:

I had a large table of 8 players playing 5e D&D. I allowed this large of a group to split into smaller groups to take care of tasks a little more than usual because it was 8 players. Basically I had two groups of 4 most of the time it seemed. They acquired a ship and a crew. 4 had interest in running the ship / 4 decided to just wait that out. The 4 leaders became tyrannical and one of the other 4 wanted to leave the ship. A duel was settled on and I thought it'd be fun to see what the dice said. They took it personally in 1 round.

BUT I can say if I had it to do over I'd let the player's have a chance to choose a Perception.. Or an attack roll.

If they choose attack roll either before a skill check or failing a skill check and not recognizing a target... Let them make an attack roll and just pick a player from the other group for them to shoot against their AC.

Don't let it go to rolls after that tho'. Make that hit or miss the realization of what's unfolding.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the question made it very clear that this isn't one group of players deciding to attack the other group of players. The idea is that they unknowingly attack the other players. It should be very hard to take it personally when it is made clear that they didn't know. \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Sep 27 '17 at 1:19
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This is where you need adult players who understand meta levels.

Let the players know that they are attacking each other, but the characters are unaware of it (until they manage perception rolls, etc.)

Also set it up so that the players understand this is a fun section that will not harm their characters in the long run. This is successfully done in the LARP field by an even in Germany called Drachenfest, which is pure PvP and has built-in resurrection. So you can play and fight and die a hero and will not lose your character. If the players know that this will not be a slaughter, they will probably enjoy it. If they don't, they will pull blows and do all kinds of gamey things to not harm each others characters.

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There is two ways you can play this out successfully and it depends on your players which one is the appropriate one:

With good role players, just tell them. They don't recognize each other, so they fight. With good roleplayers, the level of meta gaming should be minimal and a good fight should happen, where everybody is openly playing his character, fighting for his perceived side, against the others, that just happen to be characters as well.

But there are people and groups that are not that good in keeping meta knowledge from influencing their gameplay. This might be a good learning opportunity if you try the above and explain what you expect. But in case this has a low probability of working out because their playstyle is not exactly role playing but more like roll playing, there really is no way to pull it off without physically separating the knowledge. And that means the players.

Separate the two groups when they actually get separated in-game. Put one group in another room. This has the added benefit that for the time you are not with them, they can do stuff without disrupting the gameplay of the respective other group. Whether they discuss gameplay or switch on the gaming console when the DM is out of the room, it's their thing and won't bother the active part of the group.

For the actual combat, you need to have one initiative for the whole group or it will be too tedious. Have one turn play out in the one room, then switch rooms, play the "NPC" turn (repeat what just happend in the room you left) and then let them play their turn. Repeat until they recognize each other and invite one group over into the other room so you are united again, both as players and as characters.

We did this very successfully many times back in school when we had whole weekends to play and having the DM in the other room with half the players was no problem when you could try to beat your fellow players at Tekken for an hour or so. But be aware, this needs both real estate and commitment. Today, with limited time on my hands as an adult, I would maybe not be too happy if I made time for role playing and then had to play console games for half of the evening instead. Make sure you have both another room and the consent of your players when you do this.

Back in school we played 2e, now it's 5e, they are very similar. With other systems that have more "reactions" where your players can make decision even in other peoples combat turns, this might be problematic, but with 5e it should be fine.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree at all with the "with good role players" part. It is more something like "with players that are more interested in the acting than the game aspect". \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Sep 27 '17 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnneAunyme If players disregard the fact that their character has different knowledge and perception then themselves then by definition, they are literally not "playing a role". They might use the rules but they aren't "role playing". Doesn't mean it's bad or not fun... just not playing a role. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Sep 27 '17 at 16:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ What bothers me it that you you answer implies that to be a good (thats the important word) roleplayer you have to roleplay like you would play theatre, by following a role. But that's only one of the ways to play and it is not better of worse than for example stereotypical norwegian larps where people are encouraged to react with their guts, blurring the border between the character and the player. Anyway that's just a word so if you really want to keep it I don't really care. \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Sep 28 '17 at 9:42
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If you really want to run a full combat with a chance that the players are legitimately surprised at the end, you'll have to separate them and simultaneously run both ends of the fight.

Switching between rooms accomplishes the logistics of no shared information, but if you're pausing every round to visit the other players, and then coming back with actions for "npc's" of the same class as the other players, they'll figure out what's going on.

Using an online tool for one or both groups is probably easiest. Make up an excuse for why this session has to be online and then run the combat there. Maybe tell them the story changes based on the outcome of this combat, so you want to run it before the next session so you can prepare the relevant branch. Or that you want to play out the "split party" portion of the campaign online so you can all play together in person next session.

Alternatively, recruit a substitute GM for the other half of the group. They're experiencing separate stories, you don't want them to have to wait, so you brought another friend/sibling along to run things for half the players tonight. Then keep a phone/tablet/laptop behind your screen and surreptitiously coordinate the combats.

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