Tag Archives: social contract

What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle

Every dungeon master sees an impatient player spoil a scene sooner or later. Or sooner. The party talks with the Viper Queen when a player grows restless and blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” If you have yet to deal with such a scene, I hope your second turn in the DM’s chair goes as well as your first.

Instigators who interrupt role-playing scenes expect to end tiresome banter and be rewarded with a free attack. While everyone was talking, they struck by surprise! As they see it, they earned first strike. Cheating them of a free attack just makes you a bad DM who wants to screw over the players.

Roll for initiative!

Except the rules say something else: When a character makes a hostile move, roll initiative. The instigator takes a turn when it comes. If a player with higher initiative wants to stop the attack, then they gain their chance. If a foe with higher initiative wants to stop the attack by, say, bashing the instigator’s skull, then they get a chance too.

To picture how initiative works, imagine a Western where two gunslingers face each other. Each dares the other to draw, but the first to move may still fall to someone quicker to shoot.

Instigators argue that the Wild West showdown differs from the scene in the game. The gunslingers stand ready, but the characters in the game are just talking.

Nope. The players at the kitchen table are just talking. In the game world, the Viper Queen faces a group of hardened, armed killers. While the woman with the lute seems agreeable, the ranger keeps an arrow nocked and the dwarf fingers his axe and glowers. (Charisma was his dump stat.) The Viper Queen knows these types by bloody reputation. When the dwarf hurls an axe, he takes no one by surprise.

Sometimes, players actually work to surprise foes by launching an attack during a conversation. Perhaps the characters wear cult robes, someone adopts a disguise, or the murder attempt happens at a festival. Before the players earn surprise, these scenes call for Charisma (Deception) checks to seem friendly and to hide deadly intent.

Most of the time though, the sudden attack comes from one player’s impatience. When someone interrupts a role-playing scene with an attack, I explain that despite their “surprise,” everyone will act in initiative order. Then I offer the instigator a chance to take back their action. I hate seeing role-playing scenes cut short even more than I love screwing over the players.

Often, instigators recant their attack. When they don’t, their action may call for more discussion.

If a scene runs its course, and the party grows tired of the villain’s monologue, and someone attacks, then fine. Roll for initiative. But if someone finds a scene tiresome and doesn’t care if anyone else likes it, then starting a fight rates as a jerk move. Players who enjoy role playing and cautious play deserve their fun without some instigator launching an attack.

The excuse of “that’s what my character would do” does not entitle a player to spoil the other players’ fun.

On the DM’s Deep Dive show, Elite DM Teos Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party.

Ultimately though, the game’s social contract does not allow one character to drag an unwilling party into a battle. Players bear responsibility for imagining a character who can cooperate with the other characters on the adventure. (See A role-playing game player’s obligation.) For the game to work, all the players must decide on a mutual course of action.

If you happen to be playing when some player picks a fight that you want no part of, and your DM fails to follow my advice, then try persuading the rest of the party to abandon the instigator to die alone. That’s what my character would do.

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.”

Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins

I have only run an evil-themed D&D campaign once, and only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released the Drow Treachery cards and the Menzoberranzan campaign book and promoted the products with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. I’ve served as a dungeon master for every season of Encounters and never considered skipping Council of Spiders, but I questioned the wisdom of promoting an evil, backstabbing campaign, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If the player’s actions defied her alignment, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Still, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from  classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second-edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In third edition, “thieves” became “rogues” to discourage similar mischief. Steve Winter explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

Of course, you don’t have to play a thief or assassin to “just play your character,” and to instigate fights among the party. In the Legacy of the Crystal Shard Encounters season, one player embraced the corruption of the black ice and seemed tempted to disrupt the party. This time, I felt willing to forbid any action that would make the players war amongst themselves. But first, I set in-game events that challenged the character to choose between the black ice and his other loyalties, and to the player’s credit, he chose to cast aside the corruption.

Games of Paranoia aside, I no longer see “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for disruptive play.

[February 15, 2014: Updated to indicate that “thief” became “rogue” in third edition.]

Next: A role-playing game player’s obligation