A good DM should be prepared for their players to do the unexpected; to drop a chandelier your villain before they can even start the monologue, or get distracted and spend three hours shopping. However, there’s one thing they can do that is almost impossible to prepare for or even improvise around – they can act like normal people.
By ‘normal people’ I don’t mean that they suddenly turn to a life of medieval accountancy or subsistence farming. No, I mean that when werewolves attack they bar the door and hide under the bed rather than march out into the streets to fight them off. They flee from danger and generally look for the safe, sensible option that keeps them warm, well-fed and reasonably content with life.
In short, forget that they’re meant to be adventurers.
“But surely”, you may ask, “isn’t the entire point of a role-playing game to act as your character would? Isn’t this sort of behavior actually something we should all be striving for?”
And you’d be right, to an extent. If you’re running a pure role-playing game that focusses entirely on the personal stories of the characters you create then this sort of thing is absolutely fine. Bicker about the price of bread, aspire to get your children a good apprenticeship and die old and happy.
However, that’s not actually what most of us are here for. We’re playing D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder or any number of other games where you are expected to play as a hero, a rogue or at the very least somebody out of the ordinary.
Years ago I introduced my wife to D&D with a short solo campaign. She was playing a Cleric of Sehanine who had been sent to investigate reports of strange behavior at a remote temple. Except when she arrived it seemed spooky and dangerous, so she had a bit of a poke around and went home.
In many ways this was the result of her almost being too good at roleplaying. She has a background in drama and is used to inhabiting characters and working out what decisions they would make. In that situation, leaving the spooky temple was probably the sensible, maybe even logical, decision. But it sure as hell wasn’t the heroic one, and so the adventure was left flapping limply in the breeze for a few scenes.
There’s nothing wrong with playing a character that isn’t completely gung-ho, of course – every party needs at least one member that stops the others murdering the innkeeper because they don’t want to pay their tab.
However, if you’re trying to help things run smoothly and keep the entire table entertained, even those relatively sensible characters need to remember that they’re heroes every now and again, and heroes are people who take risks and do unusual things when the circumstances call for it. They’re the interesting ones, not the crowd of generic NPCs at the inn.
This holds true even if we leave the realm of fantasy behind. Picture the scene of a young child struggling to stay afloat in a ice-cold canal running through a busy part of town. Who wants to know the stories behind the dozens of pedestrians fumbling with smartphones and yelling “somebody do something”?
No, we’re interested in the businesswoman kicking off her high heels and preparing to dive in; the pale-faced father desperately trying to overcome his fear of water; the man hurrying away and praying nobody saw him knock the kid over. Why would you want to learn about what it is to be just another face in the crowd?
A Two-Way Street
It’s easy to make some mistakes or be confused about your goals early on in your roleplaying career, of course, and most of the time people will eventually find a playstyle that works for them. However, there is definitely a breed of player out there that revels in creating characters that go out of their way to make things hard for both the DM and the rest of the party.
These are the people who create cowardly wizards who turn invisible at the start of every combat but still expect a full share of treasure because “it’s what my character would do.” They’re the ones who actively ignore quests because they want to challenge the DM’s ability to improvise or try and spin the entire adventure around their own personal plans.
Playing D&D and other RPGs is always a two-way street. Obviously, a DM who insists that the only way for the plot to advance is for your Paladin of Pelor to burn down an orphanage is being a jerk. But if the Paladin refuses to stop the guy eyeing the orphanage with a barrel of oil in one hand and and a pack of matches in the other because they can’t stand even the slightest hint of railroading then they’re also being a jerk.
Ignoring obvious plot hooks and committing to a character who refuses to take part in adventure isn’t a sign of your roleplaying skill, it’s a sign that you place showing off your dedication to ‘roleplaying integrity’ over the fun of everybody else at the table.
I’m prepared to accept a lot of things at the gaming table, but destroying other people’s enjoyment isn’t one of them.
Tips for Players:
- There is nothing wrong with committing to your character. In fact, it’s a really good thing. Just remember to create a character who is actually an adventurer rather than a random schmuck.
- If you’re going to play a cowardly Wizard, remember that you need to give the party a reason not to tie you up and use you as a distraction the next time they come across a band of Orcs.
Maybe you fight because you don’t want your friends to die, maybe because you need others to trust you so that you can exploit them later, or maybe you just cast a heap of buffs and then turn invisible.
- Remember that your DM has probably spent hours preparing the session. Getting side-tracked and playing to your character is fine, intentionally wandering off in order to annoy them is a good way to kill the campaign.
Tips for DMs:
- Don’t get grumpy if your players go off-track and you need to improvise a session. It’s a good chance to stretch your DMing muscles and you can probably re-use most of the content elsewhere.
- If your group consistently tries to avoid acting like heroes, ask if the system you’re using is right for them. D&D is a comparatively combat-heavy game, so if everyone would prefer something more focussed on pure roleplay it might be best to investigate the alternatives.
- Don’t let one player dictate the flow of the game. If someone is disrupting the adventure, have an out-of-character chat about what they’re looking for from D&D and try and work out a compromise.
This may mean a new character arc where they find the courage to confront evil, leaving the character behind at the next village and rolling up someone more team-oriented, or simply having the player leave the table for good.