Raise your game’s stakes with a rival party

One question worth asking at the start of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign involves whether or not the player character (PC)  heroes are the only heroes in the campaign milieu. In many campaigns, the PC party is the only group of adventurers in the story – a logical enough consequence of the PCs being the central characters – but a range of new plot and dramatic options become available if the Dungeon Master (DM) introduces a rival adventuring party to the story.

Before continuing, is important to distinguish between rivals and enemies. Enemies and villains represent evil forces that the heroes must overcome to succeed at their adventures, while rivals are usually affiliated with the forces of good. The campaign purpose of introducing a rivalry is to foster players’ emotional investment in the story, as their successes and failures are compared with those of their rivals in the eyes of the players, the rivals and the NPC population alike.

Creating a Rival Party

It’s a good idea to create the rival party at the same experience level as the heroes, unless the group is using the fourth edition (4e) of the Dungeons & Dragons rules; a 4e DM might consider creating the party a couple of levels higher, since 4e non-player characters (NPCs) have fewer powers than their PC counterparts. It is also helpful for the rival party’s composition be comparable to the PC party, both in number and in class distribution, as doing so helps ensure that each PC can have his own personal rival in the rival party.

After assembling the rival party, assign group goals and motivations; the rivals need a reason to work together, just as the heroes do. It’s also important to give the rivals at least one general goal that is identical to one the heroes have chosen, so that there will be at least one point of contention between the two parties.

Lastly, try to connect the characters in the two parties when the players are creating backgrounds for their characters. it is logical, for example, to assume that the wizards in each party may have attended the same magical academy or had the same mentor. The rogues may have grown up on the streets together, or the clerics may have taken their vows at the same time. It helps for these connections to be neutral or mildly unpleasant, not strongly positive or negative.

Establishing the Rivalry

The stage is set for the rivalry to begin. Early in the campaign, introduce an objective related to the shared goal. Let the players know that the rival party is attempting the same quest they are, but in a slightly different way, such as trying to reach an important location by an alternate route or to obtain information about the object of the quest from different sources.

The DM can then establish a timeline, exclusively for his or her own reference, indicating when the rival party would complete the quest if the PCs weren’t present. Then compare the PCs’ progress to their rivals. If the PCs accomplish their goals in less time than the rivals, they succeed and the rivals fail if not, the rivals succeed where the heroes didn’t. Regardless of who won this first round, the rivalry has begun.

Feeding the Rivalry

While a DM shouldn’t put so much emphasis on the rivalry that it eclipses the central plot on the campaign, occasional references to the rivalry must appear in the game to keep the rivalry going. These references can take a number of forms, including:

  • Allowing the heroes to hear rumors about the rivals’ exploits, honors they have won, treasures they have recovered, and so forth;
  • Having the heroes enter a town in trouble, and see the townsfolk running out of their cottages to welcome their saviors – but they are disappointed that the heroes coming to their aid aren’t the rival party;
  • During a visit to the settlement that serves as the rivals’ base of operations, the PCs see a statue(s) of their rivals or see a holiday festival commemmorating some deed or other the rivals performed; or
  • Hearing a minstrel or bard sing a tale about the glorious deeds of the rivals – or about an inglorious moment for the PCs. If the PCs confront the minstrel, they learn that he or she is patronized by the rivals.

It is important to give both sides of the rivalry successes and failures. If the rivals consistently outperform the heroes, the players will feel like the DM is being unfair; if the heroes consistently outperform the rivals, the rivals become comic relief.

It is equally important to have the rival party gain levels at approximately the same rate as the heroes, in case the rivalry ends.

Ending the Rivalry

Like any game element, a rivalry should only be continued as long as it is entertaining. When the players stop anticipating what they’re going to do if they ever cross paths with the rivals again, or if the name of one of the rivals doesn’t evoke any emotional response from the players, the rivalry should be left to fall completely into the background. Three common ways to end a rivalry include:

  • Have them turn evil. The rivals could be seduced into the service of a major campaign villain, possibly betraying the heroes or their allies. Players like this option because it finally provides a justification to cross swords with the rivals.
  • Have the rival party split up. In this case, whatever cause bound the rivals together is saved or lost, and the members go their separate ways. This is a useful option if player interest in the rivalry died out; some former rivals may return to the campaign as villains, others as allies.
  • Have the rivals destroyed by a greater evil. Another way to end a rivalry is to have them killed by the next great adversary the DM plans for the campaign. The heroes will remember that the rivals are about as powerful as they are; if they learn that the rivals were slain by this villain or its minions, the players will know that something truly powerful has been unleashed on the game world.

5 comments on “Raise your game’s stakes with a rival party

  1. Rook says:

    Many years ago, our DM did this very thing to our group. In fact, our rivals mirrored us in every way except race. And they all wore mostly white. I referred to them (out of character) as the chess team (because all lined up to face us reminded me of chess pieces). If I remember correctly, we did have quite a heated rivalry going for some time. I don’t remember how it ended, too long ago. So anyway, the idea does work.

    Nice post and well done. Now you’ve got me thinking of doing that to my current group.

  2. […] Raise your game’s stakes with a rival party from The RPG Athenaeum (rpgathenaeum.wordpress.com) […]

  3. ClefJ says:

    I had just attempted this last weekend actually, built up over a few weeks. It was very fun! The current party works for a mercenary/wartime relief guild, among numerous other specialist teams. One of them was working with relatively similar jobs, hunting pirates and guarding government buildings, sometimes succeeding or failing in comparison to the party. Friendly rivalries were made, until it was revealed that they were working for a pirate guild the whole time, undercover.

    This really got an emotional reaction out of the group. The pirates attacked the guild en masse, a brutal skirmish, and this rival team’s objectives were to learn about the party, and keep them occupied in combat for as long as possible before making their escape.

    All but one managed to escape with guild secrets too. What made it worse was one of the PC’s fell in love with their ‘rival’ and was heartbroken. This PC actually assisted this love interest in escaping capture. I can’t wait to see what the party does when they meet up again with their rival team!

    I wish I could more thoroughly relate to 4e though, I’d love to hear stories on how this works in that.

    • Alric says:

      The story you just shared would make a great screenplay: espionage, romance, action and intrigue. That sounds like it was a very enjoyable game.

      As far as making this concept “4e-compatible,” I think I’d be hesitant to do so. The concept of rival parties could work in any RPG system, from any genre; it seems to me that all the DM needs to do is make sure that, statistically, the rivals are at or slightly above the PCs’ level of ability, just to keep things moving.

      • ClefJ says:

        Indeed, though this was running on something different, I still preferred to make the rival party a bit ahead of the curve. A few aces up my sleeve in case, during combat, they looked in trouble. Such as HP modifiers to keep them in the game longer.

        I think, depending if you want the rival team to temporarily succeed or not, having them at a higher level is more enjoyable across the board.

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