In the 1970s at the dawn of role-playing game history in the campaigns of the time, was it the expectation of both the players and the figure managing the campaign that the PCs would betray each other?

That is, could a naive, unwary, or even just nice player consistently and routinely expect to see his PC killed by the other PCs, knowingly led into danger by the other PCs, sold into slavery by the other PCs, robbed by the other PCs, thrown to the enemy so the other PCs could escape, or otherwise treated no better than or maybe worse than the NPCs?

In sum, can a sufficient volume of advice, anecdotes, and experience from the hobby's start be marshaled from books, magazines, interviews, and other sources to paint a general portrait of the early-days-of-gaming player as nearly always playing a heartless dastard PC?

I am not looking for an impression of an era based on the recollections of one lone individual, even if that individual is you, Peter Adkison, or Gary Gygax! I know that such a sample is simply too small therefore largely worthless. I'm looking for an answer to draw from several disparate sources to create a general picture so that were someone (like me!) to ask Were PCs usually jerks to each other when the hobby started? a reasonable, general answer could be given beyond the largely unhelpful "It depended on the group."

A great deal of energy is spent here and elsewhere advising gamers that when wronged by the other PCs, the player should talk to the other folks at the table or leave the game. My goal was to see if the fundamental issue ("Of course PCs should expect other PCs to betray them! Duh!") has its roots in the attitudes of gaming's founders and pioneers; if the issue developed naturally, independent of gaming's founders and pioneers; and if the issue is overstated, often for comedic effect.

As an example, there's the "Head of Vecna" story, which, while it pits two opposing parties of PCs against each other, remains a fairly good example. As a further example, in the gaming magazine Knights of the Dinner Table one plot had old, beardy, FLGS-owning Black Hands gaming group member Weird Pete (who has has been involved in gaming since its inception) have his PC convince new player Newt's PC to contribute to the party's raise dead fund; when Newt's PC dies, Newt learns there is no raise dead fund and Weird Pete's PC and his co-conspirators were simply pocketing Newt's PC's money! I'm trying to figure out—based on evidence from multiple sources—if events like these were commonplace enough at the dawn of gaming that players at the time expected such behavior from their fellow players.

My thought was that if betrayal were not commonplace at the hobby's outset, an answer might show someone who is struggling with such PC-versus-PC attitudes at his table that the table's an aberration (perhaps an otyugh). And, if betrayal turned out to actually be commonplace, then an answer could show that folks once, indeed, played that way, even though, it seems most don't now. (This latter based on numerous answers—with which, let me be completely clear, I totally agree!—advising folks to exit such a toxic gaming environment rather than engaging with it.)

A difficult question? O, yes! Creating a general impression based on research is hard, but my hope is that someone's already done the reading and can, with minimal effort, pull out some books, a couple of magazine articles, and a few online interviews, summarize the findings, and provide that impression.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 1:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is being discussed on meta. rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6975/… \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 2:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Is there an existing shorthand for role-playing game eras (like comics and literature have) that would allow me to be more specific so I don't have to concoct my own, unique, clumsy, likely-to-provoke-more-arguments definition of gaming's infancy? Or, because of the medium's newness, is it up to us to establish the shorthand? Should this idea be a separate question? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 12:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ You might just have to say something like “the first decade” or “the first five years”, which is a lot of time still, but close enough to the apparent intended meaning of “gaming's infancy” to serve. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can go straight to the source, in terms of someone who played in the original EPT, Blackmoor, and Greyhawk. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 1:52

3 Answers 3


Before D&D was published, Dave Arneson's players engaged in some PvP

From a site that captured some of Dave Arneson's musings and memories:

This excerpt is heavily snipped to delete musings not directly related to your question. Mr Arneson's recollections clearly identify elements of PvP in the early forms of RPG play that in time (as recorded elsewhere) arrived at D&D being published and RPG's taking off. The Italics and Bold are mine for emphasis in terms of answering your question. They are not in the original musings.

A Quarter Century of Role Playing?
By Dave Arneson
Historical quotes

  • "I'm laying off Pete what about me?"

    Intercepted message in Medieval skirmish game. So was it to Pete or about Pete? Individual player goals introduced. {snip}

  • 'You can't stab me in the back. We're on the same side!"

    Early Blackmoor game Introduction of the Chaotic thief. (Character Class/Alignment). {snip}

A documented back stab during play.

Each marked a new phase in what was to become the first role playing game. Before the above Medieval game the battles with knights was pretty much a dice throwing match until someone got wiped out. No real tactics or strategy. With that game no one knew whose side anyone was on for the medieval sword bashes. {snip}

Free for all fights, not a party inherently working cooperatively.

Role playing came into it's own for me when I thought about using the Medieval skirmish rules called CHAINMAIL along with the individual goal concept explored in the Braunstiens. Set in a town called BLACKMOOR. Actually mostly the graph paper dungeon under the castle and town. The previous games had all been 'on the board' but it's hard to hide things there. A totally unseen dungeon maze added additional territory and to hide several nasty beasts therein.
The CHAINMAIL matrix called for any losers being immediately killed which the players certainly did not like. And there were not enough critters to satisfy them either. Shortly after that the matrix was replaced, spells added, yadda yadda yadda.

Obvious reference to proto-D&D and Arneson dropping Chainmail as the basic rules model since it wasn't working well enough. (Note, he'd already written some game rules, and this seems to be about the time he and Gary Gygax were putting together Don't Give Up The Ship, a naval combat game).

{snip} We began without the multitude of character classes and three alignments that exists today. I felt that as a team working towards common goals there would be it was all pretty straight forward. Wrong!

The party paradigm in the published Original D&D issued by TSR in 1974 wasn't the only model in the proto-RPG's Arneson was running in the Twin Cities Area.

  • "Give me my sword back!"

  • "Nah your old character is dead, it's mine now!"

Well I couldn't really make him give it to the new character. But then came the treasure question. The Thieves question. Finally there were the two new guys. One decided that there was no reason to share the goodies. Since there was no one else around and a +3 for rear attacks . . .. well . . Of course everyone actually KNEW what had happened, especially the target. After a great deal of discussion . . . yes let us call it "discussion" the culprit promised to make amends. He, and his associate did. The next time the orcs attacked the two opened the door and let the Orcs in. They shared the loot and fled North to the lands of the EGG OF COOT. (Sigh)

Team play? Not always. Sometimes, Dave had Griefers playing at his tables.

We now had alignment. Spells to detect alignment, and rules forbidding actions not allowed by ones alignment. Actually not as much fun as not knowing. Chuck and John had a great time being the 'official' evil players. They would draw up adventures to trap the others (under my supervision) and otherwise make trouble.

DM supported PvP, from the master his own self.

And finally; The message was to Pete by the way but everyone assumed it was to someone else. The resulting free-for-all left no victors, just losers.

PvP, many versus many. All during the early role playing games in Blackmoor.

An old school player's reminiscence

To answer your question directly, from a players perspective, I asked Mike Mornard, who played in Gygax' Greyhawk, Arneson's Blackmoor, and M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne (posting as gronanofsimmerya)
Question from KorvinStarmast:

As RPG's were forming, were the player characters expected to distrust, mistreat, and work against the other player characters?

Mike's response:

Not much PvP per se, but very MUCH "uneasy alliances between ruthless pirates."

Note: Michael Mornard Played in the original Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and EPT Campaigns

He made another observation about PvP episodes that offered a look at how the board game Diplomacy influenced the gaming community, and how wargaming in general shaped attitudes in proto-D&D play in both the Twin Cities area and Lake Geneva. (Alert: some harsh language in that thread).

We were wargamers, and DIPLOMACY players, and many of us were members of the “Castle and Crusade Society.” We were not a “true blue fellowship of Adventurers,” we were rivals for power. Usually friendly rivals, but rivals nonetheless. There was no trickery or double dealing in the dungeon, because such actions would be frankly suicidal; the dungeon was so dangerous that you could not afford to weaken your party. But in the larger game of political maneuvering, we were rivals. We were all going to build our own castles because there is only ONE Lord of a castle.

Another instance of early PvP is recorded here, albeit second hand:

Mike told a story of a wizard played by Ernie Gygax. Mike doesn’t know the character’s name because people usually called the character “Ernie’s Wizard”. He found a powerful magic item, possibly called “the Orb of Cleric” (not an item I’ve heard of, but maybe Mike can clarify). Tom Champeny’s character was a cleric and wanted it. He offered to buy it, gave Ernie presents, etc. Finally, out in the wilderness one day, he cast Finger of Death on Ernie and took it. No one got upset: 13-year-old Ernie was like, “oh well, guess I should have given it to you.” (Ernie’s Wizard’s henchmen got him resurrected.)


Back in the days of 1e and 2e you had parties of mixed alignment and mixed level working together to overcome challenges. And yes, at times they did antagonize one another.

The way things were "portrayed" back then in the books was that the party is sort of like a mercenary partnership with set rules of conduct and loot division arranged before time. There are some references in the early books to evil players backstabbing good ones. Usually an evil character will treat his teammates like business partners rather than buddies. The game was about killing monsters and collecting treasure, and an evil character is probably dreaming of wine and women or early retirement. He'll live up to his obligations but not go out of his way to protect them from outrageous danger or their own stupidity. And if there's a bad choice about to be made that will put him in unnecessary danger he'll speak up and say as much.

Most of the real "character vs. character" treachery in D&D games happens when one player is antagonistic toward another and trying to vent that in-game. This is inappropriate and disruptive, and in earlier editions there were sections of the players handbook and dungeon masters guide that briefly addressed how to stop that.

The best answer is, "Don't let two people who dislike each other that much into the same game group."

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    \$\begingroup\$ While this probably accurate, the question's crux is the research proving it. Could you cite some examples from the books this answer mentions? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 10, 2017 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you referring to AD&D 1e, or an earlier version of the game? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 13:38

I have an almost complete collection of Dragon Magazine.

I can say that the only articles that I can recall from the entire run that involve PvP discussed Paranoia! That game was all about PvP.

Did backstabbing happen in the 70s? Yep. Of course, my group was made up of 14 year olds. Back stabbing didn't happen much through. Mainly, from that time, I remember that the DMs were actively trying to kill the players. It was rare for a character to reach 4th level and was a celebration when one reached 6th level. Just walking into a room was enough to auto kill characters.

At that time, there was a replacement for selfish backstabbing behavior: hirelings. They were the ones that were sent into the room first. My recollection of early D&D adventures is that they ran a lot like the tales of Sinbad (why would anyone sign up under him?) who was often the sole survivor of several adventures.

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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, paranoia was first published in 1984. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 22:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast, OK 6 years after I started RPGing. I think that Paranoia was a reaction to killer GMs. I do recall that D&D got less antagonistic (plaver vs GM) after that game came out. \$\endgroup\$
    – ShadoCat
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 22:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think it was certainly heavier on the laughter and fun elements of RPG than AD&D. :) I made the point due to how the question was presented. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 23:05

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