I’ve said it many times before: I want the players at my table to play the character they want to play. Unless the campaign revolves around a specific theme (like the last season of D&D Encounters where everyone had to be Drow) or some other facet that the characters need to share, I welcome whatever race/class combo you can imagine – without restriction.
We don’t usually pay a lot of attention to the EXTREME diversity in a party’s composition. Heroes of six different races each of whom represents a different class all come together and go adventuring together. It’s just a part of the way D&D works. Unless you want to make this an important part of your campaign we have learned to just accept it and move on. But for players with considerable experience they’ll often ask questions and dig deeper. What brought theses characters together? Why do they continue to stay together? As a DM and player I’m completely open to this additional character development.
Yet even when the players ask these kinds of questions and look for the deeper motivation or party goals, they know that at the end of the day the party will go adventuring. It’s certainly nice to have a common motivation that will rally the troops into action, but for most of us, most of the time, we just agree that the PCs will form a party and take on the adventure the DM places in front of them. Six strangers will work together, trust each other, and risk their lives for one another along the way because that’s what we do in D&D.
This is the norm. This is what we all expect from the other players at the table. But it makes sense that some players will eventually feel that their character really needs a stronger motivation to keep going. A time when the character will finally look around and realize that he’s got no good reason to stay on the team. The question is what does the player do when he feels his character has reached this unusual predicament?
In a recent adventure one of the players in my group decided at a certain point that his character’s goals and interests no longer coincided with those of the party. The player didn’t say anything to anyone, in character or out of character (because his character isn’t a real people-person). Instead the player waited until there was an opportunity for the character to leave the group and he did just that… in the middle of combat.
This character, currently at level 25, has been in our campaign since level 11. The character has always been selfish and unpredictable. His motivation has been payment, plain and simple. He wanted to purchase an elemental air ship and needed vast amounts of wealth to do it. Once he earned, found, won or stole enough to purchase the ship and get it in working order his plan was to fly in to the wild blue yonder. But that’s not what happened. After he got his ship flying he decided to continue adventuring with the party for numerous levels over multiple adventures before his inevitable and completely unexpected departure.
The rest of the party, on the other hand, continued to work together for the previous 10 levels because they decided to follow a charismatic and revolutionary diplomat who was trying to bring lasting peace to a hostile political climate. This ideal kept the group focused and unified. Recent events had the PCs banished to another plane by an evil upstart, hell-bent on taking over the world. For weeks of real time the heroes fought tooth and nail to get home. Upon their return they learned that the man they thought was working for peace was really working a carefully choreographed grab for ultimate power. The heroes were hip-deep in an ongoing war – the fate of the world in the balance (they call it epic tier with good reason!).
This was when the hero in question left. The final nail in the coffin was when he returned home from his planar voyage and saw that everything he’d been working towards (not that he really had his heart in the cause in the first place) was falling to pieces around him. He simply decided that this wasn’t his fight. He felt that the other characters didn’t deserve his loyalty and he certainly didn’t deserve theirs. When his turn in round 1 of the combat came around he simply took off.
At first none of the players realized the weight of what was happening. We all assumed that he was merely trying some hair-brained tactic (he’d always been a lose-cannon who acted on impulse and tried crazy stunts). But by round 3 it was clear both in and out of game that the PC was done. The player packed up his stuff and was content to watch the rest of the party fight it out.
In the end the PCs emerged victorious, but the battle was exceptionally difficult, especially since our best striker didn’t participate in the fight and the DM didn’t scale it back to account for this (a move I certainly don’t fault the DM for at all).
I can’t even begin to explain the consequences in and out of game that these actions had on our group. We all knew that the character marched to a different beat than the rest of us, but to see him flee in this way was shocking. The character had been played as a risk-taker with a strong streak of chaotic in his personality, but no one expected that he would ever just leave in the middle of a fight. The player defended his actions as “what the character would do.” He explained to a table of irate players that we all knew this character was just in it for the money. The undercurrent of the statement was that we should have been more surprised he stuck around for so long as he did rather than be surprised that he abandoned us when things looked at their worst.
As I said at the top I always encourage people to play the character they want to play, and although this usually applies to race/class combos it also extends to personalities and alignment. We’ve had selfish characters in the party before and we’ve had evil characters in the party before, but this was a whole new extreme. You could argue that the player justified a dick move by say “it’s what the character would have done,” but I would disagree. The character was a dick. He’d always been that way since we met him at level 11. The player often down-played the PC’s dickish behaviour but it was certainly in there.
In a way I suppose it took a lot of courage for the player to actually play the character as he believed he would act in this situation, even though the player surely knew that it would not go over will in game or out of game. Personally I wouldn’t have done it that way; I would have given the players – or at bare minimum the DM – a heads up that this was something I might do, but that’s just me.
When the dust settled in and out of game I tried to look at the situation more objectively to see what we could learn from it. I realized that the party’s goals or motives are the glue that really holds the group together. It emphasized for me the importance of a story that really touches all the PCs. They need to have a good reason for seeing the job through to the end, and in this particular case one PC didn’t feel that way. His goals changed and the DMs (myself included) didn’t come up with anything to keep this character motivated.
By epic tier, adventuring for its own sake isn’t enough. At that point even material gains aren’t enough. Having never played an epic campaign before, it was a hard lesson learned for our group. My hope in sharing this rant (because really that’s what it is) is that DMs learn from our mistakes. No matter what level your campaign is you always need to ensure that every character has a good reason to participate in the adventure, and as the PCs level up, become richer and more powerful, this becomes even more important. The party’s goals and the characters’ motivations don’t have to be the focal point of your adventure but as we learned they need to be identified and they need to matter.
Has the lack of a shared goal ever split your party? How much emphasis do you place on individual character motivations? Have you even had a character quit the party during an adventure or even during an encounter? How did the character explain it? How did the DM and players react to the news?
- Character Motivation
- Why Are We Doing This?
- Quitting the Party Mid-Adventure
- Don’t Be a Dick – 4 Tips for Following Wheaton’s Law