Game Plugin: Instant Rivalries

[What’s a game plugin? Go read the working definition. Basically it’s a rules add-on that can work with any game system, so whip it out when you play D&D, Traveller, Ars Magica, Vampire, Fudge, whatever]

The Instant Rivalries game plugin establishes relationships and dramatic tension between player characters in any game system. Rivalries can be friendly competition or they can be bitter enmities — it’s up to the players and the desired tone of the game.

Brainstorming a few rivalries can jump start the character creation process and give characters solid personal connections right off the bat. Subplots write themselves.

Defining A Rivalry

A rivalry is defined by who the rivals are (two or more player characters), what type of rivalry it is (love, fame, wealth, etc.), the specific object or topic of the rivalry (Princess Buttercup, white crane kung-fu, the Swedish scientific community), and how important the rivalry is to each character.

Here are six types of rivalries, but you can add more or omit ones that don’t fit your game setting:

Ability – I want to be better at something than you. My kung-fu is better than your kung-fu! Your theories of the natural sciences are juvenile compared to mine!

Fame – I want to be more famous than you.

Love – I want someone to love me more than you. It could be an actual lover or a friend, parent, child or mentor.

Respect – I want people to respect me more than you.

Station – I want a better position than you or the same position you want. It might be a political post, a military promotion, or a noble rank.

Wealth – I want to be richer than you. I might want to find the ancient treasure before you do or make more money on the stock market.

The object is the target, topic or scope of the conflict — the would-be lover that both are courting, a field that both want fame in, the military order that both want a promotion in. Whereas the type is a broad concept, the object tells you exactly who or what the rivals are competing for in the game world.

Those details are the same for both rivals, but each player individually decides how important the rivalry is to their character. Rate the importance on a scale of 1-3, with 1 meaning it’s a minor concern and a 3 meaning it’s intensely important to the character. Don’t like abstract numbers? Use descriptive terms instead — minor, moderate, strong. Players should know what importance their rival is assigning, and as usual they can negotiate to make sure it works for both of them.

The difference between the values tells you a lot about the dynamic of the rivalry. If one character in a Love rivalry has a 1 and the other has a 3, it tells you that one character is thinking about it a lot while the other isn’t concerned. Does that mean one character already thinks they’ve won the person over or do they just care less? Is the high motivation character obsessed or over-protective? It’s up to the players to decide.

One (and only one) of the characters could instead have a 0 value, meaning that rivalry is actually one-sided and this character is not concerned about it at all — what we call an “unrequited rivalry”. You intensely want to prove you’re better than me and I don’t even know you exist or I’m just not willing to compete.

When you write down the rivalry always include how important it is to your rival:

Brother Wu’s character sheet:
Ability rivalry 3 vs Brother Po 1 (white crane kung-fu)

Brother Po’s character sheet:
Ability rivalry 1 vs Brother Wu 3 (white crane kung-fu)

Ulterior Motives

“It was never about the girl! It was her fortune I was after, you fool!”

A rivalry may appear to be about one thing but really be about another. It may seem like I want my kung-fu to be better than your kung-fu (an Ability rivalry) but really I’m doing it to win the affection of our teacher (Love) or to show others that I’m better than you (Respect). The value of the surface rivalry is really the value of the ulterior motive — the character is pursuing or appears to be pursuing the first to get the second.

Any player can choose to add an ulterior motive to their rivalry when it is created. You can make it public knowledge or if your group agrees you can keep ulterior motives secret until they are revealed in play.

Make sure the ulterior motive still involves the rival. It’s fine if I want to win the love of someone who might love you instead, but if I’m trying to win the love of someone completely unrelated to you there isn’t really a rivalry there.

Brother Wu’s character sheet:
Ability rivalry 3 vs Brother Po 1 (white crane kung-fu), ulterior motive Love (old Master Fong)

Establishing Rivalries

There are several ways you can decide on rivalries during character creation. The default “pell mell” option is to just let players figure it out — let them pair off as they prefer, and pick whatever type of rivalry they can agree on. You could also pair up player randomly, or have each player secretly choose a type of rivalry first and then look for obvious matches (“You wanted a love rivalry? Me too!”).

Because rivalries are part of character concept, it is important that players like their rivalries. If you want your character to vie for a lover’s affections but that doesn’t interest me, the rivalry is not going to work. Players need to negotiate until there is mutual agreement.

Depending on the game premise you might require all characters to have rivalries. If you have an odd number of players you can let one character have two rivalries of different types with different rivals.

If players are having a hard time agreeing on a rivalry type, encourage them to consider an Ulterior Motive. One player wants a respect rivalry but you want love, so you are only appearing to vie for respect to win someone’s love.

Playing Rivalries

So what effect does my rivalry actually have? Mechanically, none. It’s a guideline for your roleplaying and an overt agreement between you and the other players (GM included) about what kind of plots and tensions exist between your characters. You chose it, so we assume it’s something you want to play.

The basic set up is one rivalry per character with one rival, but you can make things a lot more complicated:

– If you are involved in more than one rivalry, are you willing to sacrifice one to win at the other? What’s more important to me, winning the hand of the woman I love or proving I’m the finest scientific mind in Prussia? Mean GMs (aka good GMs) will inevitably set up situations that pit one rivalry against another.

– Several people could be part of the same rivalry, like three students all wishing to prove they were the true inheritors of their dead master’s kung-fu. If there can only be one winner, that means a lot more potential losers. Do you side with one rival to bring down another?

Rivalries will often change over time, erupting into serious conflict or fading into irrelevance as the game moves on. Players should always be allowed to raise or lower the importance of a rivalry by one between games or at some other reasonable interval to reflect events in the game if they want.

If a rivalry is eliminated for some reason, either by being won, resolved or put of reach by events in the game, you can let the players just drop the rivalry or they can opt to transform it into a new rivalry based on what happened. You were named the queen’s champion instead of me (completed Station rivalry) and now I bitterly want to show that I’m really the better swordsman (new Ability rivalry). The world may laugh at me, but you will know I am your better!

    Ben Robbins | June 17th, 2008 | | show 9 comments