How Observation Changes Characters’ Behaviour

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 28, 2011

How often has your character done something during the heat of combat that he would never do under normal circumstances? Usually these uncharacteristic actions revolve around killing the enemy. It could be something marginally questionable like attacking an unarmed opponent or it could be a lot more extreme like killing an opponent that has already surrendered.

We don’t often worry too much about the consequences of these actions because the only witnesses are the other members of your party, and let’s face it they’re probably just as guilty of the questionable behaviour as you are. But lately I’ve wondered if players would make different decisions for their characters if they knew that the PCs were being watched. Would PCs still act with impunity if there was a good chance of their actions being seen by others?

When we played Tomb of Horrors last year one of the PCs worked into his back-storey that he was basically “on TV.” As a renowned thrill-seeker he’d agreed to let the proprietor of a local tavern attune a scrying spell to him so that he could be observed in action during the course of the adventure. The patrons could then bet on the outcome of his actions and ultimately whether or not he’d survive the adventure (which he did). It added a lot of humour and great role-playing to the game because this PC knew that he was being observed. But I see this as just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this idea’s potential.

This particular PC was willing to go the extra mile in order to put on a good show for the viewing audience. He’d take unnecessary risks because he knew they would bet on any extreme undertaking. The very act of being observed changed the way the player ran the character. It was unlike anything I’d seen before in D&D.

So what would happen if your PCs found themselves in a similar situation to the one I just described? What kind of things would they do differently if they knew someone else was watching? In a situation where they’ve agreed to be observed they’d likely do what the thrill-seeker described above did – they’d put on a show for the viewing audience.

PCs would likely put much more emphasis on looking good. This might actually get some of the players who don’t normally get into role-playing to really ham it up. I’d bet that we’d also see a lot more creativity during combat. It wouldn’t be the usual move and attack; actions would likely be described in much more detail. Players would likely want to push the boundaries of what their PCs can do. When PCs are being observed and worry about appearances DM should expect to hear a lot of strange requests and be ready to say yes a lot.

But being observed, even in situations where the PCs agree to it, does open the PCs up to criticism. Think about your PC’s reputation. What exactly do people know about him and his conquests? Basically what you’ve told them. Seeing the PCs in action and observing their methods may horrify some of their greatest admirers.

The lovable Rogue who tells a great story of his part in the combat may lose a lot of fans when they see him stab his opponents in the back or attack from the shadows like a coward. The very tactics that have made him so successful could alienate the general public who love him. A devote Paladin of a good aligned deity may face sanctions from his church when they realize he has no qualms killing unarmed monsters, their young or their women. The fact that even the “weakest” of these monstrous races still pose considerable danger isn’t an acceptable excuse for breaking his vows.

If the heroes are aware that their standard operating procedure may get them in trouble or hurt their reputation how will they adjust their tactics? Are they willing to put themselves at a disadvantage in order to keep up appearances? I guess it really depends on what they stand to lose if their reputation is tarnished. This is where the DM should be very clear about the kind of things that might be impacted. If the PCs have families the player has to think about how much detail the PCs has shared with them. Would a PC’s wife leave him if she saw how he earned all those gold pieces?

The more the PCs have to lose (and the sooner they realize it) the less likely they might be to let themselves be observed during a quest or adventure. And now we have an interesting idea for one of the PCs’ greatest villains. What if the PCs are being watched but don’t know it? Perhaps the evil Sorcerer that the PCs have been fighting for the past five levels goes to the heroes home town and sets up a scrying portal at the tavern so that the locals can see their heroes in action. It seems harmless enough, but when the PCs return from their latest quest they have to answer a lot of unexpected questions. Why did the leader withhold healing or why did they feel it was necessary to push the one monster over a cliff to his death?

Think about how a married PC’s wife would react when she see’s her husband (the party’s undercover man) romantically involved with another woman. Justification that these acts were required to complete the job is not usually sufficient when emotions are involved and preconceptions are shattered. After a bout with this kind of fame the PCs may realize how vital anonymity is when they’re adventuring, especially during combat situations.

What do you think your character would do differently if he knew his actions were being watched? How much of your typical gaming style would change for better or worse? How important is reputation to heroes? Do you think they would be more likely to fight honourably and put themselves at a tactical disadvantage to keep up their goodly image?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Karkabe-Olson November 28, 2011 at 11:12 am

Awesome post! Very thought-provoking. I’m definitely going to incorporate some of these ideas into my own campaign. Thanks!

2 Kiel Chenier November 28, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Again, way to bring focus of the game back to roleplaying.

Maybe this was reinforced more with previous editions and “Alignment”, like how Paladins were forbidden from committing morally questionable acts, lest they lose their Paladin class status.

I like how you bring up the ideas of morality and monster slaying. Most people playing D&D forget that most non-humanoid monsters are just kind of monstrous animals, hanging out, doing their thing, living life. Yet we as players go out of our way to crush and kill them, simply because it’s kind of tied into the mechanics of the game.

I’ve been toying with the idea of a “Monster hunter” season of Encounters, and the moral/animal-rights quandaries it might present. Great article.

3 Starhawk November 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Google XCRAWL. It was a treatment of 3.0 SRD D&D that involved a future D&D-ified Earth where magic works, the Roman gods are real, orcs and trolls live underground…. and dungeon crawling is the world’s #1 pay-per-view sport.

Nothing like racking up the melee kills and seeing your hit ratio on the Jumbotron… taking a round to play up to the crowd (using the Grandstanding skill)… or trying out your brand new “signature move” to the delight of the throngs!

4 Rabbit is wise November 28, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Definately stealing this idea for my campaign…
Also you dont need a system or mechanic that brings consequences to characters who serve good gods, and do morally ambiguous deeds…thats called a good plot, as a DM this makes for a wonderful oppurtunity for a story arc…
Best advice i ever got for DMing, pay attention to the PC’s and they will give you all the ideas you need

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