Our weekly group has a tendency toward playing into escalating spirals of self destruction, regardless of the system or genre. Players will look for opportunities to fail, or to set up other player's characters to fail. In settings where teamwork is essential or expected, we seem to find ways to undermine it in favor of intrigue, drama, and glorious destruction. Nothing ever goes right for our poor PCs.

Usually this is fine, and provides a lot of fun sessions, but it can get old, especially in circumstances where working together would make things more interesting in the long run.

We all enjoy melodrama and a little good-natured PVP competition, and we're all busy adults with limited time, eager to cut to the chase - factors that I think contribute a bit. I should point out that I am as guilty as anyone - we all recognize this tendency as something shared by our group.

How can I address this tendency toward self-destructive play in a way that is positive, proactive, and doesn't make our sessions less fun for anyone?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Anybody else notice that Jmstar apparently just recently released a game which caters to exactly this kind of group dynamic? That seems significant, and I'm not sure why. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16, 2010 at 5:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I write stuff my friends will want to play, that is definitely true. If you are referring to Fiasco, it works great for us, but is flexible enough to handle a variety of group dynamics. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jmstar
    Nov 17, 2010 at 14:42

3 Answers 3


Where many game groups need incentives to add drama — like Perversity Points in Paranoia — it sounds like you guys could use a boost in the joy of success. Do your game systems allow for the use of action points, destiny dice, bounty chips or the like? It may be time to resort to old-fashioned bribery. I'd use those tangible incentives in a cooperative way; you can burn them to give yourself an advantage, as normal, but if you spend them to make another player succeed, you get them back at the start of the next session. (Or at some ratio that makes you happy.)


If playing in a system that explicitly rewards teamwork hasn't done the trick, then your group just might not have the buy-in for that kind of game. It sounds like playing for the drama is what everyone wants. Why not channel this tendency into a structure that rewards such play with an upward spiral of fun?

In-fighting can certainly be played in a way that isn't self-destructive. Partly you have to let go of the assumption that there is a party that needs cohering. With the right GM tools, you can run a four-way split group of characters without anyone getting bored. Running a game with a number of independently-acting PCs can be very rewarding, and is excellent for putting the focus on (fun) constantly-shifting conflicts and alliances.

There are two games that I'm familiar with that reward PVP action with not only the immediate pleasure of vying against another player, but also with constructive consequences and complications: Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you should be switching systems. You might already have a game that you really want to play. Besides, you're asking for GM techniques rather than a system recommendation. However, it sounds like your group has a willingness to try new games, so my suggestion is to play one or two sessions of one of these games as a meta–GM-technique:

  • Play one or two sessions of a game that 1) supports long-form play, and 2) either encourages or is perfectly happy to accommodate PVP play. The point is to experience a system that both allows for internecine conflict in your group and is designed to not collapse under the weight of the PCs' differences. Apocalypse World would be my first choice because it's more a GM manual on how to run exactly that kind of game, and it just happens to also be a playable game so it can demonstrate the techniques.

  • See how the game ticks. Study how the in-game situations emerge and are channeled into productive, rather than self-destructive, play. See if you can identify the exact GM techniques that are encoded in the rules that make this happen.

  • Play a game of your choice, incorporating what you've learned from the other game. This will probably not work the first time, but the point of the exercise now is to see what you have to do as a GM to get the productive play you want out of PVP &etc without the game's rules doing the heavy lifting. If you can re-implement the technique in the absence of the rules, then you've learned a technique that is portable.

These two systems are also, incidentally, perfectly suited to non-PVP play, so your group can find its sweet spot organically within a single system. Hopefully that will give you the most "natural" view of your group's dynamic, when they're not fighting the system to get the drama they crave, and where the system/player friction isn't pulling the game down into an un-fun spiral. Of course these aren't the only games that will do it, but they're the ones I know that would work for such a study. And hey, there's also the chance that they'll do just what you want and your group will want to stick with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Several other game systems also thrive on conflict: Burning Empires (A sibling of Burning Wheel), Houses of the Blooded, Blood and Honor (HotB's rethemed and simplified), FATE (Starblazer Adventures, Diaspora, Spirit of the Century), Paranoia. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Nov 12, 2010 at 21:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ We've played both BW and AW and didn't really care for either, actually. Although we agreed to try AW again (we were playtesters). We've also played Spirit of the Century. This isn't a system related problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jmstar
    Nov 14, 2010 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jmstar Well, that's fair enough. Was there nothing to scavenge from the experience? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16, 2010 at 8:10

Are your players unhappy with how the games progress, maybe they enjoy setting up the game to be all about infighting? Do you feel as if the players want to play a different game than you - are you and your players are on different pages when it comes to where they want the game to go? Maybe they don't feel compelled to explore and progress, and if so why is that? Are you not fleshing out the world enough, is there nothing interesting other than doing what they do?

I dunno, it sounds like you need to talk to your players about what they want to accomplish.


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