A role-playing game player’s obligation

Always seek to contribute the most to the team’s success. From the players’ and the PCs’ standpoint any role-playing game is a group endeavor. Individual success is secondary to the success of the group, for only through group achievements can the quality of the campaign be measured.” – Gary Gygax, Role-Playing Mastery

Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax

Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax

As I stated in “Why second edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins,” I no longer see “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for disruptive play.

As a player, your first role-playing obligation is to imagine a character who can cooperate with rest of the party to achieve the common goals of the game.

Your rogue can be the king of thieves, but you must find a reason not to pick the rest of the party’s pockets. Your assassin can be the prince of murder, but you bear responsibility to find a motivation that enables him to cooperate with the do-gooders in the party. And if you maintain a darker nature, please be discrete enough to avoid forcing the paladin into the uncomfortable position of playing dumb and oblivious. Finally, if you do find your agent of chaos confronted by the party’s do-gooders, find a way out—withdraw your character for the good of the game rather than bringing the game down for the sake of playing your character. If cannot meet this role-playing challenge, then you must create a different character.

Dungeon magazine issue 132

Dungeon magazine issue 132

In the Dungeoncraft column in Dungeon issue 132, Monte Cook supported my perspective. “It’s a player’s responsibility to bring to the first session (or create in the first session) a character that fits into the DM’s world. The character has to be one that could conceivably work with the other PCs. The player should no more create a character that doesn’t want to work with the other PCs than the DM should force the PCs to fight a dragon with a CR of 15 higher than their average level in the first session. Neither would be fair, and either lends itself to a good roleplaying game experience.”

Your obligation as a player does not limit you to playing paladins and other milquetoasts, but it does challenge you to imagine and role play a character who can work with the party. If you need help imagining why your werecat might cooperate with the other players’ weremice, you can draw inspiration from this list of motivations:

  • A common enemy, cause, or goal
  • Loyalty to family, friends, or an organization
  • Fear of retribution from a greater force such as a powerful patron or a dangerous organization
  • An unbreakable oath
  • A magical compulsion

The Book of Vile Darkness offers more advice on finding ways for an evil characters to play nice.

Whatever your motivation to cooperate, you may not reveal your true nature at some climactic moment and deny the other players and dungeon master a satisfying conclusion. However, you can plan for a change of heart or a tragic end at that climatic moment. Such finales show the kind of hard-core role playing that enables you to win at D&D!

Gary Gygax may have had an impish streak, but he (mostly) met the challenge of taking a difficult character and contributing to the party. On EN World, Gary wrote, “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at the newly discovered magic items and rid the world their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it then… Because the Barbarian was otherwise cooperative and put the overall interest of the party first he survived quite a few adventures and his demise was not at the hands of a fellow PC. Some monster got him, which I don’t recall but it seems to me it was a basilisk. No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in helping the poor chap return to life.”

17 thoughts on “A role-playing game player’s obligation

  1. Joseph Skyrim

    I concur wholeheartedly. I view D&D as a cooperative experience, obviously the party is often pitted “against” the DM but even he has some measure of input to the enjoyment level of the whole game.

    I everyone is having a competitive game, then they’d better be well aware of what they are walking into. It’s when people play by different rules that most people get into scuffles.

    1. DM David Post author

      Thanks Joseph! I’m surprised how many years I took to reach this conclusion, and although I’m convinced I’m right, it feels a little like a betrayal of the role-playing principle that your character can attempt any action. Some groups thrive on in-fighting, but everyone must expect it and agree to it. For most players, D&D works as a purely cooperative game.

      Thanks for taking enough interest in my musings to comment here and in your own blog. I always get a kick out of seeing your reactions.

  2. Don Holt

    I think what you say is true for 99% of the RPG’s being played (probably 100% of the D&D, where the plots are formulaic), and in all RPGs ,contributing is definitely needed but in some games the party does not need to work together.

    Consider a game where the GM has no scenario for the characters. No predetermined objective. The characters are rolled (by computer, with meta values calculated), players must accept the first character that excels in one attribute (including things like family status, sibling rank, and horoscope, as well as primary traits) they have apriori chosen and are good in a second attribute they have selected. They may also determine the general alignment (1-20 good vs evil, no lawful/chaotic that’s role play.) and roll a die to determine where they CURRENTLY fail within that alignment.

    Consider a game where alignment changes based on your actions and alignment effects the ability of priests/cultist to perform miracles.

    Consider a game where the GM gives the players several options about what is happening in the world. As the players as questions, they roll 1D100. A low roll is considered to have something favorable happen and high roll indicates that something bad is going to happen to them. Their questions frame the story.

    Consider a game where random encounters occur, and the above mechanic (1D100) determines whether that encounter is going to be good or bad for that particular character.

    Consider a game that is not fluffy, but has a combat system that separates fatigue and body points, experience based on the actions you take, hit and armor locations, weight carried effecting ability to fight, weapon type, fainting.

    Now in that type of game I currently have one player running a character that has self promoted himself as a witch hunter tracking down a witch who escaped the destruction of her coven. She has taken refuge in her (half) uncle’s tower deep in the mountains (a necromancer) and his faithful orc guard. Our self appointed witch hunter got himself lost and ended up at this tower. The necromancer has welcomed him inside, and the witch hunter is sincerely grateful for the hospitality he has been shown.

    Of course the story would be over, if I didn’t come up with an idea, so I let the world help me. The coven leader of coven leaders was suspected, but not proven when his sub-coven was broken. He is known to have an interest in recovering the jewels from the magical elven crown. He thinks he might be able to recover one them, but the text indicate that only the hand of an innocent can retrieve it from its hiding place.

    So in this story, yet to be told, one character wants to use parts of the witch hunter’s body to create his monster, one character likes his job where he gets to retrieve body parts, one character wants to get appointed to be head of a new coven, a NPC warlock wants help recovering a jewel, and our hero is grateful to all of them.

    It might be over next session and our hero is dead, or they may be off to recover the jewel, I mean find that hiding witch.

    I just never know what is going to happen, and yes the party will be “working” together (or so our hero thinks.)

    Do your D&D games have adventures like this?

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Don,

      Your witchhunter situation makes me of the Braunstein and early Blackmoor games games that spawned D&D. In these games, every player entered the game with a character with a his or her own goals, often in opposition to the other characters. Much of the fun comes from the setting everyone loose and seeing who lives, who dies, and who thrives. This works great when everyone appreciates the style of play.

      I’m fond of introducing characters in roles that make them wary of each other and each others motives, the classic ones’s a cop, one’s a con man type set up. However, in my games, I’m always careful to create a larger goal that unites the characters.

  3. Don Holt

    Well yes, that’s D&D. All for one and one for all. Little variation seen in play. A good lesson in teamwork.

    But as a group developed story, most D&D modules leave me wanting. Like Gilligan’s Island (you know the episode where they’re trying to get rescued, but Gilligan does something and messes it up), many D&D story’s revolve around the group fighting and killing something. Usually oriented around a morale right and wrong, so the characters are usually the “good” guys, no matter what or how they do it.

    It’s not that D&D can’t be played for good story development, because it can. It’s the mindset that has developed with the game.

    Nor are all my stories about the group not working together. The coven of witches was a random event, that needed a resolution before anther story could continue. In both these stories, the characters worked together. So my game has all kind of stories. There is always character disagreement and it involves something other than how to split the loot or whether or not to kill the prisoners.

    That being said a simple game like D&D is always going to be more popular than harder strategy games or story development games. D&D is an RPG for people on the run. McDonald’s will always have more customers than Alfredo’s. It’s filling and it serves a large need.

  4. Timothy Park

    I’ve wrestled with this more than a little myself. Several in my first solid group back in high school in 1977 and after were aspiring writers and actors and such. We loved good story and as the game developed from crawls to campaigns the power of merging the immediate situation into the larger story and developing some depth in the characters grew for some of us as the sophistication of our reading and writing developed.

    In the late 80s several of us were fortunate enough to reconvene and go at D&D with still more maturity and talent. And within the game conflict emerged. In some cases, again. But there was a difference. I came to understand the difference and the model that helped me do it was the concept of tactical vs. strategic. We tend to blur the distinction between the words now, but growing out of wargames and with several military friends I was aware.

    Using a — rare for me — football analogy, tactics are the plays and the playbook and somewhat the business of managing the succession of downs and plays and turnovers in the course of a game. Strategy considers the whole enchilada: the team, the b team, the feeder teams, the season and the league. The immediate situation and the big picture.

    Tactically, “Don’t divide the party” rules in a great majority of cases. It is sound *tactics*. There are ways to bend and break that which experienced players will happily exploit, often to the head and heart ache of the referee. But to blatantly and willfully break that tactical maxim for no good reason spells disaster at a grand level. The assassin who offs members of the party (and yeah, I’ve done it too … *once*), the paladin who won’t let the rogue and barbarian have their “fun”, divisive arguments over treasure and the like do ruin a game. And they do not usually serve the story well as they’re often outbursts that have their source in out of game events.

    But there was this time when the main thread was that a member of the original party found that she had title to a ruined and abandoned castle on the old frontier of the kingdom and the party took the notion to go “at least see what’s there, it’s *yours* after all”. They went and did and found a passle of ogres and gnolls using it as a base. The battle was epic, and, tragically, our heroine was slain leading the last charge, taking the biggests and nastiest of the ogres with her. Too far from home for a resurrection the player developed a new character and things progressed. The party had a foothold on the frontier and were happily occupied exploring the surroundings, discovering the strangeness that lurked beyond the old frontier and more.

    The campaign went on a good while and we didn’t notice the rift that was slowly developing. The cleric in the party came up with reason why she should be able to lay claim to the deed to the lands if not the titles and quietly advanced that in the course of the role playing over the months. The elf mage, delighted to have a castle to rebuild and call home with his very own tower didn’t care *whose* castle it was on paper. But the rest of the party got comfortable with a home base, appreciated that the elf was willing to keep the place up and didn’t think too much of things other than to periodically shift some of the party treasure into the “castle fund” to keep that growing.

    All cool. Except, bit by bit *staying in character*, the cleric really took to being “Queen of all she surveys” and using the fortress to “advance the cause of her god and faith”, and started being much more strictly lawful than the party, ultimately cared for.

    Along the way a band of nomads who were something of refugees from far off conflicts appeared and became friends with the bulk of the party. Several times the nomad tribe helped and saved the party and vice versa and the interactions became a great part of the game, source of several adventures, and their culture added realism and flavor to the growing tale.

    They loved freedom. Probably chaotic good in the main, where our cleric was lawful good with emphasis on the law. And the nomads were of a very different culture, worshiped the “wrong” gods, practiced polyandry, and a great many “alternative” things. We didn’t get graphic but relations were part of the story and one of the ways in which I got across the differences of outlook and culture. And the party began to split.

    The castle was nice, but the cleric began to make it plain that it and the lands around were *hers* and she did not approve of the goings on of the nomads. They were welcome to stay, but they would have to do things her way on her land: she had her rights. And the nomads were going “who *owns* land? We’re of the earth. And why are you so uptight?” And the bulk of the party was keeping their gear safe in the castle, but more often than not going down to the nomads because they were fun and happy.

    At a point the tension grew between the nomads and the cleric to where she delivered an ultimatum, and many in the party came to the defense of the nomads. Amazingly folks stayed in character and the … discussion … played out.

    “I rule here. By right. I have deeds. I have been confirmed in them. There needs to be order for there is great evil beyond the frontier and we defend the kingdom here!”

    “All well and good, but have some consideration for the fact that you would not have this pretty castle if it weren’t for our help in the first place and our continuing support. I’ve kept track of my contribution and I really think my fifth of the stonework would look better across the river. Shall I have the dwarves start a new structure there? I have the gold to pay them.”

    “I’d back that plan.”

    And so it went. It did get hot. There were tensions and strain and some breaks. And the adventures continued for a time. The campaign ended due to the intrusion of life, not conflict.

    But the night that the wizardess and the priestess had it out and the wizardess left and began to live with the nomads and eventually became one was … dramatic.

    Keep in mind that I’m compressing the bits of role playing spread over months here. There were many adventures, forays, battles, a few delves and more going on through all of this, often with the two sides of the argument working hand in glove.

    How did that work?

    Yes, at one level, we were mature 20 turning into 30 somethings, most of us very educated and working on more.

    But on another level some of the conflict was over some really fundamental stuff.

    In the end what occurred to me was the level at which the conflict occurred. It was not about the rogue turning on the party in boss fight or filching the prized item from the wizard. Or the barbarian destroying magic. Or anything else *tactical*. At the tactical level the party always hung together.

    The conflict was at the *strategic* level. Are we allies or do we merge? How do we compromise? Can we find room in the tale for the cleric to have a change of heart? Will the nomads go along to get along? With much to be gained and lost on all sides. There were still common enemies, reasons to work together, and such. And there was always “the easy out”. We were still playing 1st Edition and everyone had a henchman character or three. The cleric started taking to staying at the castle and letting the fighter go on adventures.

    And when the same player was managing the cleric and the fighter who loved to party with the nomads things were deliciously tangled.

    The story was rich.

    And it worked partly because of *where* the conflict occurred.

  5. geoffreygreer

    Hey, David. I was looking through your archives to see what thoughts you had on this particular topic, ultimately finding my way to this article. I was wondering if you could articulate a little more–or perhaps reference another article (the Book of Vile Darkness link wasn’t very enlightening)–on the problem of “renegade” PCs. Reading the other comments, I see that there are audiences who like a little intrigue, but as for me and my group, I agree with the main thesis of this article: It is the player’s responsibility to at least attempt to be cooperative.

    But as a GM, what do you do with that one player who is chronically non-cooperative, even destructive to the party’s aims? Or when you have a whole band of fresh characters with nothing in common. I appreciate the short list of common motivators you provided. Can you offer any more suggestions? Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League | DMDavid

  7. Pingback: Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins | DMDavid

  8. Pingback: Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing | DMDavid

  9. greatwyrmgold

    This is undeniably true for macro-scale decisions (“Who am I playing?”), but I can’t help but wonder if it should always trump everything for micro-scale decisions (“What am I doing?”) Flaws are core to a good, or even decent, character…but flaws that don’t negatively affect a character are meaningless, and by definition any effect a flaw has is going to be detrimental to the team’s chances of success.
    A too-honest character is going to awkwardly blurt out secrets at bad times or be a bland piece of cardboard. A knowledge-hungry character is going to crack open the mystical tome obviously sealing a demon within or be a bland piece of cardboard. A too-righteous character is going to stomp on party members’ revelry and pragmatic-but-forbidden plans or be a bland piece of cardboard.
    If I had to choose between playing with a group of actual characters and a group of blandly efficient cardboard…if I trusted the other players, I’d pick the former.

  10. Pingback: Updating the 35-Year-Old GM’s Ten Commandments for Today | DMDavid

  11. Pingback: What Choose-Your-Adventure Books Can Teach Game Masters About Pacing and Decisions | DMDavid

Leave a Reply