Character integration, as opposed to simply killing the new guy
There’s a scene in the fan movie The Gamers by the Dead Gentlemen where the group of characters meets up with a sketchy looking wizard in the cursed ruins of an ancient castle. Out of character, the other players know that this is the new character of another player. While there is a great potential for inner party conflict and distrust, there isn’t any incentive for the other players to worry about it. After making his introductory speech, the party leader greets the new guy with, “You seem trustworthy.” The wizard joins the group, and play goes on.
While obviously played for laughs, there is a lot of basic truth to this interaction. Some games are built for the sake of character conflict, but for the most part, this isn’t going to stand as the foundation of most Dungeons & Dragons game sessions. The characters have larger fish to fry, and deciding that a party member is a larger threat than the hill giant tribe they’ve been tracking is a hard assumption to make.
This isn’t to say that role-playing some level of conflict isn’t useful for characterization. On the contrary, most of the surviving D&D and Pathfinder classes have a tangible level of simple conflict built into them, through the use of the class alignment strictures. Barbarians are required to be chaotic in nature, where Monks must remain lawful. This is built out in the orderly regimens of the monastic life and martial training, where the Barbarian wants nothing to do with society and seeks the open sky far from the noise of the city. At their core, there is a basic conflict that can be explored if needed, but it falls to the wayside for most groups, simply because it’s less interesting than the larger plot they’re immersed in. Most people don’t give it a second thought.
The exception to a lot of this is the Paladin, which has become something of a whipping boy in some games as there is a tendency for single-minded fanaticism to portray Lawful Good. Just recently, a friend of mine was talking about a playtest game he was in where another player rolled up a Paladin to run through test scenario. The player decided that there would be no flexibility for the Paladin, despite having the same goals as the rest of the group, and instead of working through the conflict in some way, he simply wrote the character out of the scenario completely. And while there is a certain logic to the character’s actions, there seems little reason not to try to work with the other player characters for the sake of the game.
On some level, this fascinates me. I’ve seen it time and again, but the idea that a player would rather not play their character than be forced to compromise them in some way violates what I consider to be a basic and fundamental aspect of role-playing. There’s no solid reason to make a character in the first place if you can’t flex enough to keep them in the scenario.
I can’t fault people for role-playing a character the way they see them, but there’s a certain implied cooperation that needs to be observed in any given group. Most games assume that the characters are brought together for a singular purpose which binds them together for the time being. Much of the time, this sort of detail is dealt with in the different characters’ back stories, but it can also be dealt with in the scope of the gaming sessions as well. The players all know that their characters are going to be working together for the duration of the adventure, so there’s no reason to worry about the particulars in the mean time. There may be small, momentary bits of conflict due to the situation or some aspect of the characters’ personal ethos, but for the most part, character groups are built on general cooperation.
This all breaks down when a player decides to ‘role-play’ his character by introducing unilateral conflict as a means to develop personality or interaction. This usually takes the form of a character that develops distrust of another PC, mostly for the sake of trying to focus the spotlight on themselves. While I would like to play devil’s advocate on the idea, I’ve never seen it do anything other than frustrate or annoy the rest of the group, inevitably working towards simply expelling the agitating character. If not killing them outright.
Consider this scenario: The characters are part of a paramilitary team, the very basis of which hinges on complete trust and interaction of the various team members. An operation goes badly, and somewhere along the line, one of the team members (an NPC, for the purposes of this example) ends up on the wrong side of the local police. Two of the other team members decide to run interference and stage a rescue operation of some sort to extract the team member.
Pretty basic. There’s a common foe, combined with some moral quandary. On one hand, it’s a team member. On the other hand, it’s the police, so it’s implied that they’re only doing their job. A paramilitary group is likely to outgun and have much better training than the cops they’re going to be going up against, so there’s the high possibility that they could simply outmaneuver their opponents and do things as non-lethally as possible. Honestly, the outcome depends on the group in question.
Things are going well enough at the start. The team member is in a hotel that’s under siege, and while there are civilians around, they’re not in any particular danger unless a full-scale shoot-out takes place. The team of PC’s starts to plan out their tactical infiltration of the place, with an eye towards avoiding as much conflict as possible. Once they have an idea of how things are going to go, they move out.
And then one of the PC’s decides to draw on another, holding him at gunpoint while he outlines his moral opposition to everything that’s going on at this point. And there’s no immediate way to talk the character down, since he’s demanding that the characters surrender to the police and answer for their crimes one way or another.
… and the game grinds to a halt.
There are a lot of things going on in this particular situation, none of which are actually moving the action or the enjoyment forward. While it may seem important to the player that’s airing his character’s grievances about the situation, all that’s happening is that this character is getting an unfair amount of the spotlight while everyone else at the table has to deal with it. The GM put together a scenario that would force some basic examination of the characters and their motivations, which gives obvious role-playing hooks. But by forcing a confrontation in the face of a larger conflict, the offending player has managed to railroad the others into either caving into his demands or outright shooting him on the spot. And by drawing a gun on another character, the basic tenets of the game are roughly broken.
There are games that are built for character conflict, but it’s important to realize when this is important and when it’s unnecessary. If your character is introducing conflict simply because they need the spotlight, it may be better sought somewhere else.