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In this question I describe my intention of running a courtly intrigue game where player characters have different goals:

To keep the group coherent, I would like to give them two sets of goals - major one, that is the same for the whole group, and a minor one, specific to each player. The minor goals would be divergent, but not mutually exclusive. An example would be to have a major goal: "Make sure Joe Traitor survives the trial he faces" and minor ones given to each player"Make sure he leaves the country", "Make sure he is acquitted of all charges" and "Make sure he escapes his arrest". While they potentially could be all achieved, it would be much more complicated than just achieving the major one.

I want to set the goals in such a manner that accomplishing the major one is relatively easy, but every minor one would increase the risk of complete failure. Thus, completing all minor goal would be very challenging, making them consider dropping some to increase their chances.

I know that different PC goals encourages conspiring, but I would rather have my players negotiate among themselves instead of backstabbing each other. I want players to keep their characters together in a single coterie and have them discuss action plans until consensus is reached rather than turning on each other to get their minor goals accomplished at the other PCs' expense.

I need two things to accomplish that:

  1. A modification of social contract that explains how and why we are going to rectify intraparty conflict before it rots the group.
  2. A tool, technique or mechanic that would help make this happen: examples I can think of are assigning party XP instead of individual XP, or "IOU" tracking to balance goals sacrificed by individuals for the benefit of the group.
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My technique focuses heavily on how you set up the plot and character resources. To simplify things think in terms of "political capital". This can be different things like:

  • An NPC who owes you a favor
  • Some sensitive information you have on someone that could be revealed, used for blackmail or sold on
  • A membership in some group/society/party that gives some influence and could make them do something for you if needed
  • A skill useful for the setting, like making good public speeches

As a GM you can think of it as a currency - but don't mention it's existence to the players. You want them to think in terms of characters and relations, not plot mechanics. Each player character has some of this (if not make sure they get some). All goals major and minor will require use of political capital to be achieved.

This way achieving the major goal would not be that difficult if they all just pooled resources and pulled their respective strings, but the more minor goals they do along the way the tougher it gets and the more they need to cram out of their advantages by clever thinking or good roleplaying.

This is the basic setup to always fall back on, from here you can add twists and layers of complexity if you wish. All political capital is not interchangeable, for example having dirt on the judge is much more useful for getting Joe Traitor free. The idea is none of the players will be able to achieve much on their own, they will have to cooperate to get the most out of their assets and succeed. But at the same time they will have to balance their own personal goals so they have to bargain with each other.

Some players may have the means to generate more capital, for example by approving another players character as member of some society which then gives voting rights there and can be used in the next step to achieve another of their goals. As always in roleplaying the possibilities are endless, but as a GM I find it a useful method to always relate things back to this currency at least initially when setting up the scenario.

Also players may not be aware of what the others have. But a word of warning here, this easily turns to a game of running in and out to talk in secret and you may not want that.

What you should watch out for is 3 of 4 players allying and just doing whatever they want and not listening to #4 at all. To avoid this make sure everyone has something the group will need. Maybe even have some backup info to feed one of them during play if you feel they end up at too much of a disadvantage.

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Bonds in Dungeon World works surprisingly well for this kind of dynamics. The cool thing about Bonds is that you can resolve them, which in game terms means they don't apply any more. When a bond is resolved, you get an experience point and get to replace them with a new bond. Context: In Dungeon World, you need XP equal to your Level + 7 to level up, and besides rolling complete failures, resolving bonds is one of the "safer" ways to get XP.

You could have minor goals as bonds to other characters when they pledge to help each other. "I have promised to help X to duplicate a copy of the secret documents." The cool thing is, a bond is resolved when it doesn't apply more. So whether you duplicate a copy of the documents isn't the key -- the key is that the plot progressed till a point where that act doesn't matter any more. For instance, the documents are burned, or you are past a dateline. This way, other players could know of the bond and choose to invest in it as well -- "I am going to stop X from duplicating the documents.", knowing that failure or success, mechanically both stands to gain an XP. The plot may progress differently, though the Bonds mechanics ensure that everyone involved in it get something for bothering to put effort into it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have a feeling this would incentivise the players to promise help and then abandon the players, since XP is generated regardless of whether you succeed. I need them to assume a stance, where they would rather drop their minor goal than backstab another player, how does that help? \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Jun 29 '15 at 11:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can have a variants of bonds that requires completion for it to be cleared and resolved. This is not without precedent in Dungeon World, where the Paladin can swear an oath to go on a quest in exchange for benefits, but he has penalty if he abandons it. \$\endgroup\$ – Extrakun Jun 30 '15 at 7:35
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(Don't let your eyes glaze over on this one-- bear with me!)

If you strip this situation to its barest essence, what you're doing is trying to set up a game (in the game theory sense) within a game (in the role-playing sense.) What you want, specifically, is a co-operative game (theory sense) within the game (role-playing sense) rather than a competitive game (theory sense) which threatens to infect the game (role-playing sense) with an overly competitive edge.

To borrow a little bit of formalism from that game theory world, co-operative games have rewards and coalitions. Coalitions form when people in the game begin to work together because they can achieve greater rewards. What you want, formally, is for your players (their characters, actually) to bargain amongst themselves, explore a space of coalitions, and eventually settle on one.

(Yes, I am a nerd.)

But if all you do is set up a game-within-a-game where there is one big shared reward, and then a bunch of independent little rewards that apply only to individuals, and can be accomplished alone, then there is precisely zero incentive to form coalitions. There is nothing to be gained by Players 1 and 2 declaring alliance-- they don't share their rewards and they don't influence each others' success.

So, what can be done?

Well, you can have characters share goals, or share in each others' rewards. But without doing any formal analysis (I am not that much of a nerd) I think this is going to be unsatisfying-- the coalitions are probably in some sense going to be either obvious, or symmetric and unresolvable.

Or you can have the members of the coalitions affect the chances of success for the independent goals of the other members of the coalition. So for instance, Player A has some resource than can help Player B, and vice-versa. Or perhaps not vice-versa-- these coalitions can get very complicated very quickly. But now, there are incentives for co-operation, negotiation, etc.

Now, how do we put role-playing meat on all these abstract notions?

Well, one classic quest form is, "We couldn't kill the dragon without the magic sword, but to get the magic sword, the smith needed mithril from the Dwarves, who needed the Balrog killed, which was only vulnerable to..." It's a sort of a stack, where sub-quests keep getting pushed on the stack until a sufficient depth, and then the whole structure resolves.

Well, if the resources are within the group, this can become a similar structure, although a little more parallel: "Everybody wanted Joe to survive, but Tommy was working for his wife who wanted him to join her overseas. Well, that wasn't happening unless someone fixed his visa... luckily, Mack knew a guy who knew a guy. Or maybe Carlo could have him smuggled out. But Carlo was working for Joe's brother who needed for none of the charges to stick. Luckily, Mack knew a another guy who knew a judge...."

Even that's a little bit on the plot coupon side.

I would encourage you to throw a fair number of quirks into the arrangement-- maybe Mack knows a guy who knows a guy... but it's always the same guy, who can be used to support several goals in theory but only one in practice. Maybe Fast Eddie is an all around hustler who can help with a lot of things, but can't even do one of them all on his own. Etc.

And beyond that-- depending on how long you want this to play out-- I would encourage that when you're giving everyone these resources, that you don't be up front and obvious about how they can be used. Let the players explore that through role-playing. It may take some role-playing before Mack realizes that his guy can help out here, there, or the other place.

And finally, there is still always the chance that some player will somehow be locked out. Consider strongly the notion of "side payments" which is to say, some alternate form of reward (whatever in-game would be appropriate-- money, gear, favors from NPCs or PCs) to make these negotiations a little more fluid.

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I would suggest two modifications to achieve your goals, one for your social contract, and one for your game rewards.

Tell your players explicitly what kind of behaviour you want.

It might seem a little weird, but if you sit your players down during character creation and explicitly tell them that the dynamic that you're going for is a group of people with disparate, but related goals coming together to help each other, then you can at least be sure that the very beginning will end up going in the right direction. By telling the players that you'll be incentivizing behaviour where they work together to help meet each other's goals, you set their expectations for what comes next. If someone expects to be rewarded for a certain kind of action, and you're clear, up-front, and consistent with your rewards, then they're more likely to contextualize your rewards as desirable.

Give one reward for succeeding at a plot, and another for helping someone else.

This is similar to the 'plot coupons' idea, but more explicit. For example, in your Joe Traitor example, the player who wants to get Joe out of the country will get a favour from the king of that country if he is successful, and all the other players will get XP for helping. If the reward for succeeding at your mini-mission is both personal to the character and similar in value to the reward that the rest of the party gets, then your players will be more likely to feel satisfied with either outcome.

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