After the near-TPK (total party kill) discussed in yesterday’s post, one of my players suggested that I “let the group off easy” by allowing people to keep their characters and for the villain to keep their heroes alive, pending a timely rescue. He reconsidered what he meant by “easy” when he learned that the first phase of a ritual intended to turn the imprisoned heroes into undead servitors was completed, that those characters were magically marked with the symbol of a dark immortal pending the second phase, and that followers of said immortal can detect those bearing the mark within a limited radius.
His observation, though, did raise a question in my mind: what did he mean by using the term, “easy,” and what was he using as a basis for comparison? After speaking with him further, I learned that some of his previous dungeon masters had been adversarial in nature; one DM in particular essentially structured his games as weekly contests of wit between he and his players, and that DM had no qualms about calling the players “stupid” if one or more of them made a poor decision. This player thought that I would punish his character for “stupidity” by letting the hero die, and forcing him to create a new character. The story-based consequence I implemented – the plot implications of which he couldn’t have understood with available information at the time – seemed soft-handed to him.
For my part, I acted from what I consider to be a social responsibility I have to my players; after all, our group spent almost three hours creating the characters, their backstories, goals and motivations, personal enemies and allies, and ways that their character backgrounds intersected. After their time investment and a few sessions of role-playing, they really liked their characters and, apart from the player who agreed to serve the greater good and create a defender-type to better balance the party, they didn’t want the story with those characters to end.
I view my responsibility as dungeon master to be providing a game that is engaging and fun for my players. To this end, I consider the game to be a shared story-telling experience; I provide an original, “homebrew” setting, the characters’ decisions drive the plot, and I provide impartial consequences to those decisions, thereby inspiring new decisions. Running such a game is a bit more taxing, as I can never plan more than two or three sessions in advance, but at least the players feel that their actions have a definite impact on the setting and that they aren’t supporting actors in a story forced upon them by the dungeon master.
My stance on DM neutrality and shared storytelling is rooted in a conversation I had with a different player about two years ago. He had indicated that he was also a dungeon master, and that his most recent campaign had ended after only two weeks of play. When I asked him why his game ended so early, he explained that one player created a mercenary fighter-type whose sole motivation was money, and that this character only joined the party in exchange for a promised sum of gold. When the party failed to recover the agreed amount during its first adventure, this player demanded that all treasure gained in future expeditions be turned over to him, until such time that the sum was paid. The rest of the party refused, the fighter left the party, and the campaign fell apart. That player/DM had no rancor toward the mercenary player, probably parroting what that player told him: [He] was “only playing his character.”
I would rephrase “only playing his character” as “only playing a poorly-conceived, one-dimensional character, whose goals opposed teamwork and didn’t acknowledge the contributions of the other players who cleared their schedules to have fun gaming, but ended up arguing with an immature, selfish jerk.”
Form that point forward, every time I’ve begun a campaign, it has been a requirement during character generation for each hero to have a positive acquaintance with at least two other characters in the party, to help ensure that every character has a reason to stay with the group. We also make sure, as a group, that individual character goals are not mutually exclusive; while having ideological, social or economic differences in the party can make for enjoyable role-playing, deliberately including goals that can prematurely end the game are avoided. So far, it’s working relatively well.