Save My Game 05/12/2006

Table Talk

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Wait, I Didn't Say That!

How do I get (new) players to play the game as their characters and not themselves? I don't want to be an enforcer of only In-Character speech. These are my friends and I want them to be able to ask questions and even joke a little if it helps them have fun. What are some good ways to teach them to be someone else when they face the table?

-- hotspike18, Wizards message boards

D&D is a role-playing game, but it is not only a role-playing game. It is a tactical simulation, an unravel-the-mystery game, a puzzle-solving game, a rules and number-crunching game, a smash-the-bad guys game, and so on. It is also an excuse to get together and hang out with your friends, to pig out on munchies, to swap stories and catch up on real life with them. D&D is the focus for our interaction at the gaming table, but the game is an event that goes beyond what is happening 'inside' the game.

'Leave my mother out of it!'I say all that to make it clear that D&D has many aspects. You need to think about how much you want players "to be someone else when they face the table." Sure, the in-game experience is more immersive if all talk is in character, but it does present problems like those you mention above. Likewise, what about you, the DM? Much of what you have to say is (in movie terms) a voice-over, exposition about what is happening but not actually someone talking. When do the PCs know when you are Lady Rovin talking and when you are telling them something as Clary the DM? What latitude do players have to describe what they are doing without speaking?

There is a style issue here -- is a player in character when she says "Anucha sneaks over and uses Sleight of Hand to swipe the jewel," or should she say "I sneak over and subtly palm the jewel"? If talking in character, should players use game terms such as the names of skills, feats, spells, and class abilities? In character, they wouldn't know what levels, hit points, and such are. Clarify what is and is not allowed when talking 'in character'.

Finally, if you do want to use a strict 'player = character' rule in conversation, where everything the player says is something the character says, I suggest you make it time- and context-limited. No one wants to sit for three hours feeling that they can't say "I need to use the bathroom" for fear of getting humiliated in-game. Maybe you have a particular light (or even a candle) that is lit, or some other item that is placed out in full view to indicate times when everyone is 'on-screen' and must talk in character. Once that episode is completed, the item is removed, and you go back to gamer-speak. Alternatively, each player could have such an item, or you could use a universal signal (e.g., raising your hand) to indicate when you need to ask something out-of-character during those in-character episodes.

Whatever method you use, make sure that the signals are clear and everyone understands them, to avoid complaints of "No, no, my character didn't say that!" Also, realize that this might be a style your players aren't interested in playing (in reference to your second question). You need to balance your desire with the desires of others to 'just play the game' and not engage in theatrics.

Problem: Character-on-Character Violence

The rule we operate with is that no PvP combat is allowed, with the exception of rare cases, and the results don't affect in game play. However, if that doesn't work, here's another idea. Have the party join an adventurer's guild or some sort of organization. Make one of the bylaws that intraparty violence with result in a forfeiture of pay to the guild, and a suspension from adventuring work. Then make sure the guild has a near monopoly on things the adventurers can do, kind of like the Hero's guild in Fable.

-- Jager Mage, Wizards message board

I guess I've been blessed over the years to rarely have to deal with PCs attacking other PCs, setting aside people getting charmed, confused, dominated, etc., and forced to attack each other. Dealing with the problem depends on your style. As an out-of-character house rule, you can simply forbid PCs from attacking each other. "But that's not realistic!" says the angry player. "Who cares?" says the DM and the other players who don't want to deal with one or two players hijacking the gaming session for their own selfish feud. You make the game more fun for everyone when the players don't need to watch their backs all the time.

Character-on-Character Violence is Not Good!This is no different from a house rule that you can't play evil characters or monsters as PCs. It is a conscious decision to constrain choices during character creation in order to reduce friction, dissent, argument, and messiness down the road. We've all read stories where the secret, double agent betrays the heroes at a crucial moment, but where do you go from there? The double agent essentially becomes an NPC once his cover is blown. What is the upside of turning on the party? That your PC ceases to be playable? Some fun. Admittedly, it's heavy-handed, but it's effective.

Your second option makes more sense in-game. Most adventurers work for themselves. They don't have bosses who tell them what to do and where to go and mete out discipline when they don't toe the line. Adventurers don't get 'paid' -- they take a share of the loot when they're adventuring. Forcing them to join a guild in order to go adventuring allows you to control things that way, but there are some problems.

How does the guild enforce its monopoly? Is knowledge of adventure locales something only the guild possesses? Does it guard the gates of known dungeons to make sure only card-carrying members go inside? What happens if you go adventuring somewhere that's not a sanctioned 'adventure locale'? How does the guild regulate city adventures? Wilderness? Other planes? Having a monopolistic adventuring guild works fine inside a computer game where your options are restricted to whatever the programmers decide you can do. In a live D&D campaign, the players can do (or try to do) anything they think up, and the resources required for an adventuring guild to be a monopoly are unplayably vast.

Still, the idea is not without merit, if the focus is shifted a bit. Adventurers could require licenses or charters (as in Forgotten Realms), without which they might be arrested or stripped of their goods (or at least heavily taxed) upon returning to civilized lands. Perhaps some of what they sign up for when they sign the charter is an agreement not to fight amongst themselves. How the in-game authorities could keep track of this is another matter. Perhaps the ink to sign the charter is magical and changes color if you betray the charter. Perhaps you sign two charters, one to take with you and one for the royal archives, and both copies register transgressions.

You could definitely use this model if you were playing an Oriental Adventures campaign or a similar game wherein some, most, or all of the PCs are in service to a liege lord. The party undertakes missions on behalf of its daimyo/master and returns with the job done. Characters are bound by oaths of honor not to squabble (perhaps with magical reinforcement). In this model of campaign, PCs wouldn't bother to loot the dead (and for that matter, fewer monsters would have treasure), because the model of wealth distribution is different from a standard D&D campaign where PCs need to amass significant resources on their own. Rewards are not found lying on the ground or on the bodies of the fallen, but in the form of wages and gifts from their master for a job well done. PCs who violate the master's wishes should certainly suffer the consequences.

This model can also be used if you assume PCs are essentially super secret agents or commandos, or even if they are basically superheroes. Whether working for a powerful church, spiritual oaths to nature, secret society, mercenary company, or merchant guild, certain rules must be followed. Yes, you can violate the rules of one group and move on to the next, but you will quickly acquire a bad reputation and may have trouble finding work, or receive less pay, or feel less trust from those who hire you to do a job -- perhaps to the point where they betray you.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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