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I'm looking at the next leg of our campaign being a "race for the MacGuffin" scenario. The PCs (Rolemaster) have been chasing an evil sorceress for a while now. She is currently on her own but will have the help of some hired guns by the time the PCs catch up to her. I want to let them catch up but put them in a position where they can't actually kill her. She's working for someone powerful who will come after them if they kill her. But it's in a mercenary role so if they can get the MacGuffin for him he won't care what happens to her after that.

Boiling it down to the main points which aren't campaign specific:

  1. There are two adventuring parties: PCs and NPCs
  2. Both want to get to the same MacGuffin.
  3. There is a reason the PCs can't simply kill the bad guys off

The problem: I've never run or even read an adventure with competing adventuring parties. How can I run the adventure so as to pit one party against another without having it be a straight up brawl?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 29 at 9:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great question which has attracted fantastic answers. I've just edited it to be directly asking for the expertise on how to do the thing - which is what folks have answered with anyway (good on you folks). If you genuinly just want people to throw links at you, that is better done by a traditional forum (see our curated list). \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 29 at 9:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Ginger McMurray May 29 at 20:52
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My first major campaign was almost exactly this structure, and it was a lot of fun. The setup was, the land was in danger of destruction due to the loss of eight magical load-bearing MacGuffins, so the rulers of the land offered enormous prizes for anyone who retrieved one of the MacGuffins. In my case, the PCs weren't aware that the rival party were evil until around halfway through the campaign, but most of the methods I'll describe will work even if the PCs already know the rival party are evil.

Exit Strategies

The rival party doesn't want to get squashed by the PCs - they have a goal to achieve, and unless the players manage to set up a situation where the only possible way for the rivals to win is by murdering the PCs, the rivals will avoid direct conflict. They'll take alternate routes to those used by the PCs, or try to get there first (or let the PCs get there first, if a route is dangerous). If the PCs do manage to encounter them, they won't stick around to talk or fight - they'll have teleportation magic, flight, or other fast-exit options at hand, and will use them early.

Minibosses and Goon Squads

Like you, I didn't want my players to immediately kill the rival party, but I still wanted to have conflict with them. I did this by giving the rival party a number of minions in the form of goon squads (lower-threat faceless mobs), plus a couple of named minibosses. In my case, the PCs didn't know right away that the minions worked for the rival party, and had an angry aha! moment when they figured it out. In your case, you can use minions to build up (good) frustration in your players as they keep having to fight the minions rather than the rival party itself.

Side Arc Antagonists

Your PCs don't always have to be directly opposing the rival party or its minions themselves. Especially on a MacGuffin quest, you can add in side arcs: find the key to open the dwarven door in Mount Doom, traverse the abandoned mines to reach the Sage of Sight, get directions from the Sage about how to avoid the traps protecting the MacGuffin, etc etc etc.

In each of those arcs, the PCs will be fighting not the rival party, but a unique antagonist to that arc: the dragon whose hoard contains the key, or the goblin king who's taken over the mine. The PCs can still make progress toward thwarting the rival team, either in obvious ways (by getting the key first) or subtle ones (by convincing the Sage to give the rivals incorrect information). But they aren't ever in a situation where they could kill the rivals - only hinder them.

Common Goals

(This suggestion is less useful in your specific case, but including for completeness)

In my game, many, many "teams" (aka NPC parties) participated in the quest for the eight MacGuffins, and the specific rival group was only one of those myriad teams - albeit one which the PCs kept running into. Those encounters allowed me to hint at the rival party's true, evil nature, while the fact that all eight MacGuffins were needed to save the land meant that the PCs were more comfortable pointing the rival party at some other MacGuffin rather than outright killing them (at least until the reveal). By giving the appearance that the PC party and the rival party are working toward a common goal, you can build up a (maybe not-so-)friendly rivalry that isn't hostile enough to warrant murder.

tl;dr

When running a campaign with a rival party, give your players lots of antagonists to focus on which aren't the rival party themselves, give the rival party multiple effective exit strategies, and build in story reasons for the PCs to work with the rival party instead of murdering them outright.

One final note: your players may surprise you by finding a way to kill the rivals early despite all your precautions. If so, roll with it! Your plot doesn't have to be over just because the PCs outmaneuvered your villain. Add in a surprise Greater-Scope Villain who was using your original villain as a cats-paw, or a reveal that the MacGuffin itself is evil or dangerous, and the rival party was actually trying to stop it being unleashed, or some other twist. Your players will always surprise you, so make sure you're prepared to surprise them back.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! Could I ask how you had the PCs figure out that the goons worked for the rival party? \$\endgroup\$ – Fivesideddice May 28 at 6:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ That last paragraph convinced me of giving +1. I think having adaptability to your players shenanigans is completely vital for a GM \$\endgroup\$ – LordHieros May 28 at 7:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fivesideddice I had two versions. Most of the goon squads were left behind by the rival party when they exited a conflict, so it was obvious where they'd come from. The minibosses openly talked about working for $BigBad, so when the PCs figured out that $RivalLeader was actually $BigBad in disguise, they connected the dots. \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm May 28 at 16:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thatgirldm awesome! This is meant to be a single competitive adventure, though if the sorceress escapes alive like she has in the past then the fun will continue. There's already a greater villain planned. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Ginger McMurray May 28 at 20:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm all about reacting to shenanigans. The best campaign I ever ran went totally off the rails when the players took Paris Hilton to Africa so she could teach the children to read using old copies of Vogue, People, etc. :D :D :D \$\endgroup\$ – Ginger McMurray May 28 at 20:24
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This sounds like a really fun campaign design! I've run some politics-and-intrigue games (though not in Rolemaster) in which I've needed some similar dynamics, and some of the solutions I found might suit you here as well:

It's easier if the goal is not just about the MacGuffin

Many, perhaps most, TTRPG plots involving MacGuffins have a basic setup of "you have it, but we need it, so we'll be taking it." It's true that there are often other details that make these armed robberies (or burglaries) more palatable for more heroic characters, but it's difficult to prepare a story about getting a crucial MacGuffin without encouraging players to do whatever they can to get it as soon as possible.

But if there are extra, explicit layers which are also important you can do a lot to constrain your players' enthusiasm for simply getting the MacGuffin. Some which I have used include

  • The MacGuffin is necessary, but not by itself or not right now. It may be crucial to possess it before the year is out, but not necessarily this very day. Or maybe it only matters when combined with the MacDuffin and MacRuffin, and so getting one of those might be equally meaningful at this stage of the campaign by denying the sorceress the complete set
  • The MacGuffin is important to the things the players are focusing on, but is tangential to the rest of the game world (early on, at least). If the sorceress has prepared false evidence on a dead man's switch that will plunge the continent into war if she dies, your players maybe still can fight her head on but might prefer not to just now
  • There is something wrong with the MacGuffin. Maybe taking possession of it also places you under a curse, or something similar, and so while the players still need to get it they may prefer to plan the circumstances around obtaining it much more carefully
  • The players don't actually care about the MacGuffin, but they operate in a setting which does. This sounds fairly close to your actual situation, as the powerful figure who has hired the sorceress to get it doesn't really care about how it falls into his hands. The players may have different plans for it, but if the ultimate result is that the same NPC gets the MacGuffin anyways it's just a question of whether or not they can deliver it successfully after killing the sorceress but before being killed by the NPC's minions-- it may not be worth the risk just now

It's easier if the groups are in conflict for reasons other than the MacGuffin

If both groups are looking for the same thing, they'll be following up on a lot of the same leads and going to a lot of the same places. Instead of fighting over the actual MacGuffin itself, maybe they end up in conflict over finding the right guide to take them to the place where the MacGuffin is rumored to be.

Or maybe the sorceress has been planting false rumors about the party accusing them of being violent thieves, and the players not only have to overcome that (due to her head start on them) but they also may not be able to just kill her and take her possessions because after that they'd never be able to shake those rumors. Indeed, killing and robbing the sorceress might essentially make the rumor true!

Perhaps it's not obvious that the sorceress has been hired to find the MacGuffin, and so the party runs into her party (with her in disguise) as a group of humble fellow travelers who happen to be headed in the same direction for a while. There isn't any outright hostility, but tensions rise as it becomes clearer that everyone is after the same goal and they can't all succeed.

The goal of an approach like this is to obscure the fact that the MacGuffin is both the climax of this leg of the adventure and also the immediate source of conflict way in advance of reaching the climax. While the groups may come into conflict before the end of the adventure, those conflicts can be for lower stakes which may not be worth killing (or dying) for.

Pieces of a puzzle

Finding the MacGuffin can require assembling lots of information: old legends, fragments of maps, magical keys scattered about, or similar things. In such a situation, killing the sorceress may be a distraction or even counterproductive. If she's heard one of the old legends from the last living person that knows it, and then killed that person afterwards, killing the sorceress might guarantee that the party cannot succeed (because they will always lack that piece of information). Or maybe it just saves time to let her hunt down different items from the players, as the fact that one group will eventually need all the pieces will force them into conflict at some point as long as either group holds at least one piece.

The NPC and PC parties are similar, and so have to do similar things to find the MacGuffin with similar constraints and obstacles

Fighting with the PC party doesn't put the MacGuffin into the sorceress' hands, but does cost her time and resources. This might give some third adventuring party the chance to find it instead of her or the PCs! Instead, the adventuring parties might be better served by doing all they can to obtain the MacGuffin and only interacting with the other groups indirectly-- laying false trails, installing their own booby traps in dungeons, placing decoy plot objects, or similar things.

The main idea is that direct conflict between groups is inefficient for them, and if they're under time pressure that can be a big deal. If you convey to your players that indirect competition is possible they can still enjoy opposing the sorceress' party without actually getting into a fight.

A thorn in the paw

Finally, a cautionary note: the more you allow your players to interact with the sorceress directly, the more likely it is that they'll kill her. It's extremely tempting to come up with a scenario in which it's a bad idea, or it is extremely difficult, to kill your NPC. In my experience, players love disrupting that setup more than nearly any other activity at the table.

It is extremely difficult to convince players that they can't (in the sense that they really, really shouldn't) kill an antagonist NPC that is evil and directly competing with them for a zero-sum prize which is also the culmination of the adventure. If it's really important that she survive this phase of the adventure, then it's important that the sorceress not be around the PCs any more than is absolutely necessary.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! It's not extremely important. It would be better for my fun if she's a recurring villain. And I think a final battle with her where they manage to take her down would be fulfilling to them as well. But if she dies, she dies. \$\endgroup\$ – Ginger McMurray May 29 at 20:51
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It is all about choices. There is a perceived goal to the players (might not be the actual goal) and different options that the players can take (each with a perceived quality).

If the players know the actual goal (getting the McGuffin) and the only thing that they think could prevent them from getting it is the sorceress, killing her looks like a fantastic option if she happens to be around and the players will go for that option.

To avoid her being killed you need to work on the goal (or its perception) and the options, as well as their quality (and perception thereof). These can be (and many suggestions in the other answers fit in these categories):

  • obfuscate the goal

  • obfuscate the role of the sorceress

  • don't have the sorceress be around (killing option is less interesting)

  • provide other rivals / problems (especially some that seem more relevant)

  • provide a course of action that seems like it will provide easy success and which does not involve the sorceress.

Obfuscation and "bait goals" are valid techniques but you should be careful to not making your players feel betrayed. It is vital that things that turn out differently than the players anticipated make sense. You should also never lead your players (or trick them) into a really bad situation (involving character deaths or catastrophies in the story that are the players's fault). And you should avoid regularly presenting information that makes an inferior option look superior (or vice versa). Especially so, if the actual difference between options is large.

Another thing: To avoid senseless killing, it is probably important to regularly provide goals where players get good results without getting into a combat, i.e. develop a culture of open-mindedness concerning different methods for achieving tasks.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks! This particular item is one in a string of items. The party doesn't even know they're after it (kinda). They're after her and will find it as seemingly random loot. Her boss is after it and several other things, which they'll learn about here. \$\endgroup\$ – Ginger McMurray May 28 at 20:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ If she dies, no worries. I'd rather she live but it won't derail anything. It'll just put them in a bad position of having to deal with the repercussions. \$\endgroup\$ – Ginger McMurray May 28 at 20:47

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