What a Dick Move Taught Us About Party Goals

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 19, 2012

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?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 funkaoshi October 19, 2012 at 9:16 am

I’m not a fan of people playing assholes, and then acting like assholes because “hey, its not me, my character is an asshole.” Certainly the rules are all there for players to play assholes, but that’s often not fun for anyone else. People sometimes overemphasize the “Role-Playing” and underemphasize the “Game” when talking about D&D. It’s not a real life simulator, it’s a game. Not everything needs to make perfect sense: lots of aspects of D&D don’t.
funkaoshi´s last blog post ..<em>The Magnificent Joop van Ooms</em>

2 Tom Coenen October 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

As a player, I would have said something if my character quit.

I haven’t had characters leave due to character motivations.
However, there is an evil character in my campaign that wants to learn powerful lighting magic.
I’m handing out ways for that character to obtain the power he wants, we’ll see what happens next.
So yes, I pay attention to the character’s motivations.

3 C. Steven Ross October 19, 2012 at 10:09 am

I think that was a fantastic thing to do. That had a lot of drama, change, and clearly made a lasting impact on your group. He changed the whole dynamic of the group and took everyone outside of their comfort zone. And it’s part of the whole idea of a hero; he or she overcomes obstacles and grows up. A character that does NOT change is a 2D cardboard cutout, a supporting character or a villain, and not what I think of when describing a protagonist

Bravo!

4 Svafa October 19, 2012 at 10:23 am

I think there should have been some warning. Even something as simple and indirect as an in-character argument over motives, goals, and how everything is falling apart (and not worth the effort/time). Then it may still be a shock, but it’s at least something you can look back on and think, “I should have seen that coming.” And from the little bit of character description provided, I’d think a livid argument or two would be right up his alley, possibly more so than walking out quietly.

5 callin October 19, 2012 at 10:51 am

This is why his behavior bothers me…

If it was the intent of the character to leave the party, why do it during a combat? In reality, such a character would simply leave when things are safer for himself, not when he is in a dangerous situation, that is just foolishness. No, the Player decided to have his character leave during a combat because it would have more drama and impact (drama-queen) and because he wanted to create a situation that would put the other characters into a potentially lethal situation. He did it to be a jerk, not because “it was the realistic thing for his character to do”.
callin´s last blog post ..Extra Life – Charity Through Gaming

6 Joe Lastowski October 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I don’t mind it as long as the DM is told. As the lead arbiter of the story, the DM needs to be prepared to handle many plot points that might result from a character like that leaving (not to mention the math of combat challenges). If this player really thought his character would be leaving, he should have given the DM a heads-up, so that maybe the player could play a different PC for a while, or maybe it’d turn out that next session some fuel he needs for his airship is held by the same key villain the rest of the party is going after, etc. There are ways to work character choices like that into a game’s narrative, but you should always give the DM a heads up.

In most games I’ve been in, we’ve let the DM know not only about jerky moves we’re planning, but what our long-term goals are, what paragon classes we might be working for, what our characters’ greatest hopes & fears are, etc. That sort of information allows the DM to craft a story that will keep the characters motivated and allow the players to have fun with those characters.

7 Dustin Cooper October 19, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I think when players play characters that are at odds with other characters at the table, there needs to be some effort on the part of both (and all players, for that matter) to justify why characters that normally would not normally adventure together to be associated. So, despite the fact that they are at odds, there is always that reason why that one person would not leave or the other person just straight up kill them.

Take for example in a Warhammer game I played in:
I was an elf bard guy who just could not take anything serious. Another player was playing a human zealot that would not let any slight to Sigmar go. Needless to say, my character got slapped around a lot by the zealot, but there was no give and take in the relationship at all. In fact, the rest of the characters just let it happen as though they were afraid of the zealot. It got so bad that the other player’s character attacked me with intent to kill. And needless to say it stalled the game many times.

I finally had to take the other player aside and explain that by all reason, my character would leave the group. I needed a reason to put up with his annoying character and explained that despite the fact that our characters don’t like each other, we need to have a mutual reason to be together. It finally clicked for him and we decided that he saved my character from a linch mob because he had a dream about having to save the soul of some elf. Since then (and before the story actually started) I had bailed him out of a lot of trouble with my social skills and also egged him on like I was interested in his sorry ass religion.

It worked. It was fun after that because it went from some annoying player on player squabble to almost a wacky sitcom kind of relationship (which fit perfectly in the game).

If any game needs to preach this, it is Vampire the Requiem because it is so easy to be at each other’s throats (no pun intended)

8 Chad October 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Honesty about character motivation is the best policy. In our good / unaligned party, we have a single evil member (who is also the healer). Day one, the player told everyone that he’s evil and he’s going to be as rude and abusive as he pleases (which is why it’s amazing that our party is still surprised that he brutalizes captives and kills people with potential information). Things have gone pretty smoothly despite his behavior all because the party knows the guy is pure evil.

9 BeanBag October 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I concur that the DM should be apprised of any changes to the characters and storyline. Especially in a heavy roleplay environment. If this is a throwaway Encounters session, whatever.

In a recent underdark adventure the bard was finally overcome by a drow raiders; and as the party gasped at their impending doom a priestess of Lloth barged in and cleaned up the mess.

In reality one of my players hated their bard and wanted another character. Having the rest of the people at the table enjoying their characters and flow of the game is a lot of what the DM is responsible for.

Working with the DM can smooth out a lot of the bumps in the road.

10 Philo Pharynx October 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm

In most cases there are often many possible responses that are “playing in character”. After all, I’ve met plenty of dicks in real life and they have lots of ways of being a-holes.

I also understand that sometimes it doesn’t make sense for a group to stay together. But I still think the group should talk about it beforehand. Sometimes there’s a way to change things around and make it work, other times they just need to split off and figure out what to play next time.

11 Cory Huff October 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm

I’ve had something like this happen twice before in a game.

Once was in high school. One character actually tried to kill another character (by surprise), and then ran away when it didn’t succeed. Our group was really tight in real life, so we were all like, “cool!”

It fueled the next several months’ worth of sessions. The party tracked him down, killed his allies, and eventually got even with him for his betrayal. We still talk about it.

The other time was a few weeks ago when one character wouldn’t leave a certain child to go undertake the rest of the adventure, so the party left him there. It caused a long email chain after the game where we talked about how much the character goals need to align in order to have a good game.
Cory Huff´s last blog post ..An Open Letter to WoTC, Greg Leeds, Simon Blackwell and Jerome Lalin

12 Alphastream October 19, 2012 at 6:33 pm

The player could have been true to their PC without making it such a big deal on the rest of the PCs and their players. Yes, it is cool to do what your PC would do. No, not at the expense of everyone else’s enjoyment.

I knew a group in Living Greyhawk that had a player who really took RP seriously. She would constantly do things like say, “my cleric refuses to go down into the haunted mines because this dwarf (NPC) is not being thinking like a dwarf” (or some other reasoning about which she was really serious). The rest of the party would go into this place and be brutalized by the undead (which she could have turned) and come out covered in wounds (which she could have healed). In one famous adventure she took an item a bad guy wanted and handed it over to the guy to make a point because the good guy was more of a neutral alignment. At that point, the players politely asked her to leave the adventuring company.

This is a social and communal experience. It is fine to have “our PC”, but that PC should be bound by rules of players being considerate to one another.
Alphastream´s last blog post ..Classic Adventures – Converting Saltmarsh to DnD Next

13 John October 20, 2012 at 1:07 am

Oh man, we do this kind of stuff all the time. In my game, PCs have literally killed their fellow PCs with flaming oil in order to delay pursuit by monsters while fleeing from active, engaged combat. I repeat – PC-on-PC deaths in order to escape from combat. Not common, but it does happen. Granted, usually when the front-line fighter is about to die anyway, so it just hurries things along a little… But yeah, cowardice in the name of survival is very, very normal for us. Everybody’s there to stab monsters and get treasure, and those two goals are very hard to accomplish when dead. Now, I understand that this was a very different situation from the types of retreats I usually see, but I guess I just kind of wanted to argue that “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” is not what all of us do in D&D :P

@callin, I disagree with your assessment! The times I most often see my players flee are a) when defeat is clear and imminent (people start dropping), or b) during the first round of combat, when you meet the opposition and go “Oooh man… we were not expecting one of those to be here. Let’s bail, rejigger our spell lists, buy silver weapons and garlic, and come back later.” I’ve also seen my players write off entire dungeons as “Well, we are never ever returning there again.” “But there’s more treasure!” “Yeah, don’t care. Too dangerous.” So as far as fleeing as far as possible as fast as possible in the first round goes, I’ve seen it with good reason occasionally. Whether this particular player had such good reason, I will not argue.

14 Chad October 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

It all depends on the game, but like most internal conflicts, it comes down to communication. In is case, everyone in the game should have at least an approximate idea about what kind of campaign it is – is it a serious character-heavy, story-focused game, a social framework for several friends to gather and have fun, a lighthearted dungeon romp, or something else. None of these are wrong, but the answer should be known to basically everyone – and when there are changes (in a long campaign, there will be changes), the group should have some idea.
Story twists are great, and in the right group it can be cool to surprise the DM, but in most of the situations that match that group, the Dick has an obligation to work with at least some of the group to make things better – this is the basic social contract of most gaming groups. Maybe it’s just the DM, maybe it’s just one other player, maybe it’s the whole group in abstract terms – in most groups, it shouldn’t be nobody, and that’s why the group was shocked.
Remember, table cohesion is the responsibility of *the table* (usually). It’s not everyone else’s job to cater to your whims. In exchange for this simple responsibility, you get a hell of a lot of potential for awesomeness – which might mean abandoning the party in dire straights, but usually not as a big secret between you and nobody. That’s not generally how social games work.

15 Lucas October 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm

We had a player who enjoyed writing the story (He’s now our DM). In our past campaign, he played a Wizard who was focused on necromancy. After adventuring with us for 5 levels (as we hit level 10), he decided that not only was his character not on the same motivation as ours (we were knowledge seekers, after the history of a forgotten race), but that his character would be downright opposed to our general sparing of innocents.

He talked to the DM, who agreed to let him ‘run’ one session. He ended up betraying us, laying a well-planned ambush of his person zombie legions. The DM didn’t have to plan, the character alignments were followed, and it was an all-around good game, despite a near TPK.

While it can be fun for both players and DM to watch an inter-party conflict unfold, especially if all the players are good friends and won’t take it the wrong way, I agree that the player does need to inform the DM, to make sure he/she doesn’t end up throwing off the story too much.

16 Pedro Rodrigues October 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Some unanswered questions: is the player still with the gaming group and what are his plans forward (particularly considering they are in epic)?

The follow-up can shed more light on the true colors of the player.

17 Joe Kushner October 20, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I’m a little conflicted about it myself. At that point in the campaign after that many levels, especially if it’s not the end of the campaign, I don’t think I’d be playing with the player again. And I’d make it clear to the GM too. The game is an investment of time, energy, and resoruces for everyone, not just the guy ‘playing’ his character.
Joe Kushner´s last blog post ..Conan: The God In The Bowl by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord

18 Philo Pharynx October 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm

@Pedro,

Be careful what you ask for. We may not find out what happened with the player until the statute of limitations runs out. :)

19 chad October 22, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Another thing to keep in mind: role-playing is great, and conflict doesn’t have to be black & white or even four-color, but you’re not putting on a play, movie, or television show (or, probably, even a LARP or other real-time event). Rather, you are the writers, directors, producers, and audience all together. This gives you some opportunities that other productions don’t have. In particular, you don’t have to solve these problems be yourself.
Case in point: I’m running a 13th Age playtest with a NE semi-undead necro-sorcerer experiment of the Lich King, a NG anti-undead cleric, and a LG paladin of the Priestess – who saved the sorcerer’s life through divine intervention. After a session where the party split up and spent most of their time trying to (half) help and (other half) assassinate the same person, the player of the undead sorcerer decided that the cross-purposes idea had mostly run its course, and he wanted to start focusing more on his character’s eventual redemption. He came to me (the DM), and I (among other things) suggested that he enlist the other players in his efforts. Their characters don’t know what the players are discussing, and their ideas aren’t automatic – 13th Age encourages players to take an active role in suggesting and guiding the world, but I still run the game – I just do it based on the group’s input, in-character and out.
This approach has given the `Evil’ player more ideas and support, has given the other players more insight into his character and their own, and has generated more good ideas for me to twist to my own evil ends.

20 Kiel Chenier October 22, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Did said player make or re-roll another character to continue on with the campaign? Or did the player leave the group along with his character?
Kiel Chenier´s last blog post ..Mass Effect/Dragon Age Improved My Marriage

21 Arithravel October 29, 2012 at 9:57 pm

I’m of the mind set that this was a good thing, despite it being a dick move, because it enhances drama. Obviously no one saw it coming, making an emotional reaction that much more likely. It is good to even throw the DM off, because they might try to modify the plot to put limitations on the group. Your group will probably remember that for years to come, and can even be used as a plot rail. A betrayal of that magnitude is heartless, and makes his character dynamic that much more interesting. I suggest your group uses it, if the player is still with the group, and if your DM is so inclined.

22 Ocampo October 31, 2012 at 12:46 pm

One of our veteran players, a halfling rogue, did something like that during a fight with a freaking dragon. His character was beaten unconscious, then one of his allies, a swordmage, helped him up. Next turn, the fighter falls, and while the swordmage is engaged with the dragon, the halfling player just runs away from the fight into a nearby sewer despite the fighter player asking form him to help his character back into the battle. As the DM, I asked the player: “Are you aware you are leaving the battle and turning deaf ears to one of your comrades?” and he said he was certain of it and he was true to his character’s personality.

“It’s what my character would do.”

So he fled the fight.

The group killed the dragon in the end but two of them died, including the swordmage. Next session, the hafling runs into the female characters and tries to warn them of impeding danger. Then he confesses he was not only not feeling bad because of him running way, but also that he planned on selling all his former companions out to the big baddie. So the tiefling warlock, tne elf mage and the eladrin bladesinger just killed him in a one-round fight. He had no chance at all.

“It’s what out characters would do to any traitor and coward.”

The thing is, no one felt bad at the table. It was kept strictly a character business. Matter of fact, the elf wizard player is the halfling player’s girlfriend in real life.

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