Should PCs Charge Other PCs for Services?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 13, 2011

What if, during the heat of combat, when you’re down to your last few hit points and in desperate need of healing, the Cleric only agrees to use Healing Word if you promise to pay him 500 gp? What about a Rogue who won’t disarm and open a locked treasure chest unless he gets half of whatever’s inside it? Should characters be able to charge party members for performing unique services?

Normally this kind of behaviour isn’t tolerated at any D&D table. The game is cooperative and everyone’s supposed to get along. It’s assumed that all character brings something useful to the party dynamic. In the end everyone will contribute as necessary to accomplish the greater objective and by doing so everyone is entitled to an equal share of the spoils. But isn’t it reasonable to assume that every once and a while a PC will feel that what they bring to the table far outweighs that of the others? And in these circumstances is it wrong for them to take advantage of the situation for personal gain?

I must admit that this isn’t something that’s happened in one of my games for a long time. We just assume that all members of the adventuring party are friends and that friends don’t exploit their buddies in this way. Charging in this way is almost seen as taboo in D&D. Yet NPCs and other non-party members charge for their services all the time and no one feels that it’s out of place. Why then is it any different for PCs to charge each other?

Unless the PCs are all long-term friends with an interwoven back-story and common goal it’s reasonable for new members to charge for services. In fact, many adventuring companies will set terms at the beginning of an adventure. The Rogue agrees to join the party for an equal cut of any treasure found along the way and in exchange he’ll provide his services with no additional ad hoc charge.

In circumstances where the PCs are brought together randomly, like in an LFR adventure for example, you’re likely to have six complete strangers at the table. Neither the players nor their PCs have ever met before the events that brought them together for this adventure. In these circumstances why wouldn’t the only leader in the party charge for healing? In fact he’d likely charge more depending on the urgency.

I can already anticipate a lot of strong objections to this kind of play. After all, it’s clearly not how D&D is usually played. However, there’s nothing in the rules against it. Taking this approach will make you a lot more enemies that friends, but if the character you’re playing is a greedy, opportunistic bastard, why not charge?

The danger of charging for services is that once one PC decides to charge everyone else will likely follow suit. It may begin by a leader withholds healing, but next it’s a defender refusing to mark opponents, a controller refusing to push targets away from endangered PCs and a striker refusing to use his bug guns without adequate compensation. It is indeed a slippery slope. Before you know it the PCs are demanding payment from each other not to kill party members while they sleep.

This kind of in-game behaviour in public play is likely to cause the player serious hardship once word gets out. But in a home game where the players all know one another and are willing to accept some unique role-playing hurdles, this kind of experiment might actually be good for the game.

I know at my gaming table everyone feels that they are the most important member of the party. If you’re suddenly forced to pay for everyone’s services, it will become really apparent really fast just how important a defender or controller really is.

Before this kind of play-style is undertaken I strongly encourage the DM and all players to discuss it first. Having one player demand payment out of the blue is likely to get that PCs killed. Sure the wounded PC agrees to pay for healing after the monster is defeated; however, once the foe is down the rest of the party, knowing that they’ll likely be charged the next time they need healing, will (at best) expel the PC from the party or (at worst) kill him where he stands. Neither of these alternatives are appealing for the PC (or player) charging for services, and may cause real life friction.

Putting PCs under this kind of ultimatum when they have no choice but to accept can have even more detrimental effects. If the wounded PC calls the leader’s bluff and refuses to pay for healing will the leader actually let a party member die over a few gp? And if he does how will the rest of the party treat him after the fact?

For the most part I don’t think that PCs should charge each other for services. That being said, I do think there is merit in actually having the conversation in-game and outlining exactly what everyone’s responsibilities are before the campaign gets rolling. It could be something as simple as a conversation at the beginning of the campaign. All party members agreeing that they will carry their weight in and out of combat, helping each other as required, without any additional compensation beyond an equal share of the reward. Doing this early on could eliminate any thoughts that some players may have about suddenly charging other PCs for services.

Have you ever played in a game where PCs charge each other for services? Have you ever had a PC spring this on you at the worst possible moment? How did the rest of the party react to the demand for payment? Did they pay? Did they kill the PC charging afterwards? Do you think that PCs have the right to charge other PCs for their services?

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1 Svafa June 13, 2011 at 10:06 am

We discussed this once at the table with my group. The consensus was that if this were done it would be something determined at the beginning of a campaign, essentially making it a part of the setting. We tend to have multiple party members in the Chaotic Good/Neutral camp, so the idea was intriguing and the players were all for testing it out, but we’ve never given it a go.

Maybe I’ll have to convince our group to get together for a quicky campaign that charges one another for services rendered. I’ve been wanting to try out a few rules variations as well, so I could knock out a few birds with one stone. Sadly, this wouldn’t really lend itself to trying out the d20 wealth system, rather than the currency system, in a fantasy setting though. :/

2 David Flor June 13, 2011 at 10:32 am

One could argue that a cleric charging for healing services goes against the very nature of being a cleric. That’s bordering on entering the realm that is “acting your alignment”, which is a whole other can of worms… It’s the same thing as a paladin not performing his paladin duties and falling from grace.

Sure, I’ve played rogues that want more than the rest of the party gets, but either (1) I rather hide stuff from the party and keep it to myself, rather than demand that the party give it to me, and (2) I usually end up balking, considering that the rest of the party doing all the hard work is sufficient compensation (if it weren’t for them killing everything, I would have nothing).

3 Brian Engard June 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Doing this sort of thing because “it’s what your character would do” is a great way to bring a game to a screeching halt or, at the very least, find yourself on the outside of the gaming group, looking in. The mantra, “it’s what my character would do” is often used to justify all manner of disruptive behavior at the table, and it rarely ends well. Unless such things are discussed before play begins, and the entire party agrees that it’s acceptable, it’s effectively a violation of the social contract implicit in D&D.

And really, if you play in this kind of game, where do you draw the line? If the leader is refusing to heal unless he gets paid, does that mean that the defender refuses to protect his allies, and the striker is within his rights to not get involved in the fight at all, so that the party isn’t benefiting from his high damage output unless they pay up? Even with full party consent, this kind of playstyle could easily lead to a very short-lived campaign, and probably one that’s not a lot of fun for most of the group.

4 Seb Wiers June 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I know at my gaming table everyone feels that they are the most important member of the party.

I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt by assuming that is because the game runs so well that they all get to be super-awesome, but… wow. Taken the other way, that really makes the players sound bad. The first lesson any RP gamer should learn is, your character (and in fact, you) will only matter to the extent which you make the game more fun for other people. That doesn’t mean you can never create conflict, but it does mean you can’t just make the whole group suck.

Practically speaking, this is like a pro athlete stopping in the middle of the game to ask for a bonus, and refusing to score points if he doesn’t get it. The team would loose, and s/he would be fired (and probably sued for breach of contract, and investigated by the various gaming commisions).

Even Pirates didn’t pull that crap. They had rules about how loot was divided, and crew any who shirked their duty during a fight to argue for a bigger cut were cut loose, or worse. I don’t see how adventurers, even evil ones, would be any less dutiful. Combat units simply do not work if they can’t trust that each person will do their job.

5 Tialla June 13, 2011 at 10:02 pm

We’ve done it before to decent effect–in a group, my character was a Lawful Evil monk of Hiddukel (Dragonlance setting, evil god of bargains), and was the one character to heavily invest in potions, and other things that ‘might just be useful’. When the need later would come up for the items, he’d sell them back to the group at a modest markup, pocketing the rest. The group was well on board, simply because none of them had to worry about thinking of, and holding on to, any potion that might possibly be useful later on, and the prices were right.

Going overboard, it can be a bad idea–properly played, though, it can be a fun character trait.

6 Bigtowel June 13, 2011 at 11:01 pm

During one pick-up game I played, another PC was the one to find gold after our first encounter and he decided to keep it all for himself rather than dole it out fairly. Since the characters had all just met up in the woods and had no bond of friendship the DM shrugged and said there was no reason that the loot really had to be shared. As you can imagine this caused a bit of a ruccus and an arguement ensuded. Luckily I happened to be playing a Rogue at the time and while the player was defending his greed to the table I turned to the DM, mouthed ‘Thievery check’, and rolled quite high. The best part about the situation was that when he complained after failing his perception check, I was able to say ‘Yes, you know that I stole your gold. But your character doesn’t.’ I’d like to believe that turning the rules around on him like that taught him a valuable lesson in sharing. Whether it did or not I can’t imagine that a long term campagin would have worked out well between our PCs.

7 Shinobicow June 13, 2011 at 11:56 pm

That had to be one of the most interesting ideas I’ve heard in a while 🙂

8 Ameron June 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I think you’ve identified the two most important contributing factors: 1) the way the campaign setting works (is this common practice), and 2) alignment. If your world is capitalistic and opportunistic and people are always charging for everything then this would be seen as common place (I think the Thieves World campaign would safely fall into this category). It would also be more likely that the party would all agree to some kind of contract for the duration of the adventure to avoid any exploitation at critical points. In a world where this is not common (like most D&D settings) then alignment should be monitored as well. A Lawful Good Cleric that suddenly charges for services is clearly not playing his alignment.

@David Flor
Would your position change at all if the PC withholding healing was a Bard or Warlord? I agree that the very spirit of the Clerics class is to help others so it’s unlikely anyone playing this class would without vital healing, but what about other leaders?

I too have seen Rogues simply take more than their share using Stealth and misdirection rather than an upfront ultimatum. This usually ends worse than just demanding a bigger cut up front. If the PCs and the players find out afterwards that your Rogue stole from their cut, it’s likely to cause more grief than if you just said at the beginning that you wanted a greater share.

I agree that alignments should be strongly considered before taking anything even remotely like this kind of selfish action.

@Brian Engard
I’m with you 100%. I too have seen players do disruptive and outright mean things in game because they say it’s what their character would do. If that’s what the character is like his unacceptable behaviour would have been detected a lot sooner. However, if a character sees a real opportunity for gain and does this once and only once because he’s got an evil streak, I think I’d be more accepting of it.

As I said in the article once one guy does this it’s a slippery slope and it can get out of hand really fast. You’re right that even pulling this kind of stunt once is a clear violation of the D&D social contract. However, it still happens. Likely it will be a short-live campaign as you describe since the party won’t trust each other in the end and those who live to tell the tale will likely leave after getting burned or making a bundle.

@Seb Wiers
I guess when I say “most important member of the party” I mean it more like everyone thinks they’re the coolest and most powerful. That’s not to say that anyone takes any steps to actually prove their hypothesis. I think many gamers believe that their character is the best at what he does. Everyone at my gaming table thinks that their character is awesome and we have a lot of fun when we play.

As for suddenly charging for services, I really like your examples. They illustrate the absurdity and possible hazards of pulling this kind of thing without giving it serious thought ahead of time. I’m sure that pirates will happen upon a situation once and a while that is not explicitly covered by their contract and suddenly they’re all weaseling their way to a bigger share. I see the captain saying something like “I’ll decide how to handle this and divide treasure. Anyone who doesn’t like them apples is free to swim home.” Is this really all that different than a Cleric charging for healing?

A party of all evil PCs would certainly try to take advantage of one another by charging. I think your example is a great middle ground. They know that he will sell them the resource they need, at an inflated price. It’s then up to them to choose if they want to pay or not.

Awesome. This is why I said in the article that everyone at the table should be made aware that this is the style of game you’re playing. If you just spring it on an unsuspecting party the players will likely be angrier than the PCs. But I agree with the guy in your example. If my character is new to the party, doesn’t really know anyone, and isn’t an official member of the group yet, then this kind of action makes sense. It happens in fantasy novels and movies all the time.

Glad you think so. Although we usually provide tips and resources about D&D, every now and then we try to stir the pot and come up with a topic that will actually generate discussion, both positive and negative. It looks like this is moving in that direction.

9 Caleb June 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm

I completely condone and allow this type of interaction. Especially if it defines their character. Further kudos if it opposes the player’s typical mannerisms. This shows it is a player playing a character with character lol

I also believe that the other players wil respond in like manner when treated a such. there may come a time when a player needs assistance in a life or death situation, but that aid comes with a price. A price he may not be able to afford, but he must pay due to his same treatment to others.

Create and play a character. Define that character by actions, and interactions. Such as charging other pc’s for services.

10 Sunyaku June 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I think my players might enjoy my having an NPC that they need in the party do this to them… for example, a guide of some sort– so long as they get to either do something mean, or allow something bad to happen to them in the end… the greater the annoyance of the NPC, the greater their schadenfreude satisfaction would be…

11 Lahrs June 15, 2011 at 9:04 am

First time someone refuses to heal me without payment will be the first time I step aside and say I can’t defend their character without payment. Payment comes in many forms, and if a group is not willing to work together, it will eventually fall apart or be unable to complete a quest. My Shaman cannot pick a lock, but the rogue cannot heal, in the end, who did the most work and does it matter as long as the goal is completed by the group? If the goal isn’t completed, nobody benefits.

In Tialla’s situation, I wouldn’t have a problem with a rogue, or whoever, profiting some by being the potion mule. That is a prearranged setup and doesn’t cause detriment to the party. I see that as a good balance of RP and party cohesion.

12 Svafa June 20, 2011 at 11:32 am

The way I envision this working for the group I play with is a contract drawn up beforehand. Essentially, it would list the services and prices the characters would charge. Then in actual combat, you wouldn’t have the worry of not being healed or similar, and would just be billed later. If there was leftover treasure… I’m not sure what would happen, maybe split the remainder evenly or donate it to a local church or guild or something.

Where I see this really shining though is in the area of crafting. If you take the necessary feats and abilities required to craft items needed by the group, then I would seriously consider charging for those services. Maybe not full value, but you’re essentially replacing an NPC, so you should be paid like one. 😛

@David Flor: Concerning your comment on it being against the nature of the Cleric, what if they worshiped a god/goddess of trade and economics? 3.5 had both the Travel and Trickery domains, and Pathfinder goes further with the Trade and Thievery sub-domains. Other editions and games don’t have the same setup, but gods of trade, thievery, and wealth are fairly common and their Clerics are possibly more inclined to be of the adventuring sort.

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