Player vs. Player Combat in D&D
The time may come when your player characters want to fight each other; whether it’s for valid reasons or over a gambling debt, these guidelines will help you, the Game Master (we call them Quest Masters), create an enjoyable and safe environment to let the characters play out their WWE fantasies.
Before beginning any in-game combat, make sure that both player characters (PCs) involved are okay with it. If either player does not consent to the combat, it should not be run. This is the most important rule of PC vs PC combat, since it is inherently different from PC vs Monster combat. In traditional combat, PCs are unified against a common enemy, and are not fighting each other. Instead, they’re fighting an imaginary enemy, which, while played by the Quest Master (QM), is not meant to embody another person in the party.
In PC vs PC combat, it is easy to blur the lines between character combat and inter-table conflict; when a PC attacks another PC, it can quickly feel like a player is personally attacking the other person. This can result in emotional discomfort and interpersonal issues at the table. In order to avoid this, always make sure both players consent before beginning combat. If they don’t, simply move the story along, and pan away from the scene.
Set Ground Rules
Set player expectations: is this a bare-fisted brawl or a spell sniping duel? Set guidelines for which abilities can and cannot be used.
For instance, a bar brawl in the middle of a city may cause the need to refrain from using weapons, deadly force, or spells, as this will certainly attract the city guard and ensure the entire party will be thrown in jail. If the bar is important and the bartender is well-respected, you may decide that damage to the bar should be avoided (i.e. don’t use bar stools as improvised weapons and tables as improvised shields).
For a high-level spell-casting duel, certain spells may be disallowed. Spells which require further spell-casting services to recover from, for instance feeble-mind or contagion, may come at the cost of a greater or lesser restoration and cost in-game money. Other spells may be impossible to recover from, for example power word kill or finger of death, and would immediately kill or incapacitate a character, preventing them from continuing the adventure. It is advisable to not allow these kinds of spells, because of their effects after the duel has ended.
We also recommended that a healer should be on-hand to heal any characters which are reduced to 0 hit points immediately, in order to prevent death.
If other noncombatant PCs wish to influence the combat with buffs or debuffs, make sure this is acceptable to both of the combatants. Again, this can easily devolve into a many-against-one situation in which one player feels attacked or left out. Do your best to prevent hurt feelings and stop combat if it seems like one player is being ganged up on and in-game actions are affecting out-of-game feelings.
Most importantly, ensure that both players consent to the terms of the combat.
How to Run Combat
PC vs PC combat can be ran just like traditional combat. Simply have players roll initiative and proceed with the traditional round structure. You may want to have current non-combatants roll initiative as well, so that if they decide to interfere or intervene in the combat later, they will be able to easily slip into the combat. Regardless of whether they start fighting, some PCs may want to use abilities to quietly buff one side, provide healing, or provide bardic inspiration.
Noncombatant PCs certainly have the capacity to influence the fight one way or another and should be given the opportunity to do so. NPCs may also choose to roll initiative. For instance, the barkeep in a bar brawl may decide to intervene, or customers may decide to flee, creating difficult terrain. Alternatively, customers may accidentally get hurt in a bar brawl, and decide to join the fight for or against either side.
How to Run Combat-Lite
If you are worried about players being overly invested in combat and causing issues at the table, but still want to give them character-agency, you can hand-wave the combat and allow it to happen from a distance. Let both players roll a d20 and let the highest number win. This can be repeated for a number of rounds if necessary to give a slightly more immersive feeling, without getting players too involved and using up hit points, spell slots, etc. You can then declare who has won, allow some role-play, and move on. This type of combat may help distance players from the fight itself, making it less emotionally involved, and potentially preventing hurt feelings from arising.
The QM is the Final Arbiter
The QM is empowered to make a situation that is enjoyable for everyone at the table. If you feel that the situation resulting from PC vs PC combat will be negative, you can simply say it is not allowed and move on.