This column often focuses on conflicts between a player and his DM. But sometimes, conflicts arise between players, and the DM is obligated to step in as an arbiter or proxy. In this month's Sibling Rivalry, the authors tackle one of the most common intra-party conflicts: hogging the spotlight.
Setting: A hole-in-the-wall taqueria in downtown Renton. Andy, the DM, and Greg, one of his players, are sitting down to a tasty lunch. But somebody has an agenda beyond gorging on burritos . . .
Andy: So I think we need to talk about your character. When you created Adarrial, you described him as a fast-talking charlatan, specializing in bluffing, conning, and otherwise swindling folk out of their hard-earned gold.
Greg: That's pretty close to the concept. Coming late to the group, I saw that they had most of the major roles already slotted -- cleric, wizard, melee combat, ranged combat -- so my character would be able to do a little of a lot. Bingo-bango-bongo, I had myself a bard. But not a singing and dancing one -- this guy's all about talking. His Gather Information gets the party into trouble, and his Diplomacy gets us out of it. Along the way, if he happens to take a little extra money from the duke or double-cross the church to get what he wants, so be it.
Andy: Yep, I remember sitting around talking about those ideas back before the campaign started. He seemed like a really interesting character, and a good way for me to get story ideas to the group.
But starting a few sessions ago, I noticed some of the players getting restless, and, after the last game, I overheard Chris grumbling that he'd made only three attack rolls in four hours of play.
Then on Tuesday, I got an email from Joe, who was wondering when we were getting back to that cave complex your group hadn't finished clearing out, and I realized that it's been ages since you guys were actually killing monsters and looting dungeons. Lately, it seems like almost half of every session centers around Adarrial interacting with various NPCs.
Greg: But that's what Adarrial is good at. When I picked my character, I didn't want to duplicate somebody else's schtick so I came up with my own. Because it doesn't involve swinging a sword in some dank pit of a dungeon, they're complaining? Besides, what's stopping them from talking to their important NPCs?
Andy: Nothing, but their interactions are much shorter than yours, since they don't have much in the way of useful skills or tactics to use in such encounters. When an emissary from the elven kingdom contacts Eandrynn, it's a brief chat designed to move the story along. But when Adarrial talks to the same guy, that's a half-hour of game time when you're rolling dice and nobody else is, and that's what folk are starting to . . . well, resent is maybe too strong a word, but they can see it from where they are now.
Greg: Ingrates! I got us that deed to the keep because of my contacts, and the palms I greased at the merchants' guild showed us that secret entrance to the warehouse. But to get that sort of information, I need to talk to a lot of people. Six inns per night, that's my motto. Plus it seems like my hard work off the battlefield is making life easier and more lucrative for the entire party, so I don't see a problem.
Andy: Nobody's complaining that Adarrial isn't useful, and I certainly appreciate having a character who makes it easy for me to introduce new adventures.
That said, it's one thing to use your skills in pursuit of adventure, but remember that time last session when you insisted on tracking down every weapon merchant in town trying to get the best price on a +1 bow? Or the session before that, when you wouldn't let the party leave town in pursuit of the slave caravan until you'd spent two days researching the family history of the slavemaster?
Greg: Well, I made this character because these were the things I wanted to do. They're part of the rules, and these choices of skills and abilities certainly don't make Adarrial too powerful. So I'm supposed to let those skills just rot? Plus I enjoy the "man about town" aspect of the character -- that's not only when I get to shine, but I have fun doing it.
Andy: The problem is that the scenes where Adarrial shines don't really allow any other characters to participate meaningfully. Thorgrimm's happiest when he's slaying stuff, but everybody can get into a combat scene easily, so nobody feels left out. But when Adarrial's working the locals, or negotiating a deal with the duke, the rest of the players are pretty much just watching the two of us talk. Making an occasional "aid another" Diplomacy check at +0 isn't exactly as thrilling as landing an axe blow or detonating a fireball.
Greg: It's not like Adarrial is useless in a combat, but chipping in a haste spell here and a few points of damage with my shortbow there doesn't do much for me, and often times those contributions are marginal at best.
Andy: That suggests to me that Adarrial may be a little too focused on noncombat encounters. A little intrigue here and there is good for a game, but it's getting pretty clear to me that the rest of the group is itching for "a little less conversation, a little more action," as the King would say.
Greg: Do you want to do away with those interaction scenes all together? You said how they help you move the plot along, which seems pretty necessary.
Andy: Agreed. I'm just suggesting that you, as Adarrial, be aware that when your character is doing his thing, the rest of the group's doing nothing. You may want to pick and choose your "big moments" a little more judiciously -- if you want an in-depth discussion with the chamberlain about all the rumors floating around town, that's not a good use of the group's time.
Greg: What if we try moving that talky stuff out of the sessions when everyone is there, and tackle them over email or solo sessions? That way I can still do the things I want to do, but it doesn't burgle away everyone else's time at the gaming table.
Andy: That sounds fine to me, but it's only half the issue. If you don't think Adarrial's interesting enough to play in combat scenes, we need to find something fun for him to do in a fight, because otherwise you're just as bored then as the others are during your interaction scenes. Are there any spells you could learn that would make you feel more "active" in a fight, or is there a prestige class or multiclass option that would help?
Greg: If the duke continues to treat elves like second-class citizens, that choice might be easy. This half-elf wants justice, and a few levels in holy liberator could not only help crystallize Adarrial's diplomatic role, but he'd become a better combatant.
Swapping out a feat or two and changing some spells could change the effectiveness of Adarrial without betraying his original concept, either.
Andy: And in turn, I'll talk to the other players about finding ways for them to be more involved in negotiation encounters. Fair's fair, after all -- if you're going to modify your character to fit with their needs, it's reasonable to ask the same from them. Maybe buying a few ranks in a useful skill that can contribute, or establishing a contact that can help out during an investigation, or something of that ilk.
Greg: The more, the merrier. Adarrial wasn't intended as a way to pull the spotlight away from other characters (but hey, he's a bard, so a little spotlight-hogging is natural).
But this also doesn't mean I want Adarrial to become a plot device to get the other characters into action. I want to gain some benefits from investing time and resources into abilities that don't manifest when push comes to shove against the frost giant Jarl.
Andy: Fair enough. I'll make sure to include interaction scenes that contribute materially to the party's success, and you agree to keep Adarrial's gift of gab from crowding out the rest of the players' fun.
Greg: Hey, what kind of name is Jarl, anyway?
About the Author
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?
As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D , Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.