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Making the Tough Decisions

by Rich Burlew - originally from

Since this series was originally conceived as a series for DMs, I was thinking "Texture for Players" would be a one-article subject. But as I got into it, I started to see more and more ways that a little extra thought about your character can improve the game. So I'm going to start here with a few thoughts about making decisions. Really, that's 90% of what a player does in a roleplaying game; he or she makes decisions. But too often, players fall into the mistaken belief that certain decisions are not really theirs to make, or are foregone conclusions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are two ways in which you can always choose for your character to act differently, which will add an extra level of realism and fun to your game.

Throw Caution to the Wind: One of the most common problems I see is when a player thinks of "roleplaying" as what you do during a diplomacy scene, completely separated from what you do during combat. Bzzz! Wrong answer. Everything you do, when talking or when swinging your sword, is roleplaying. A well-developed character will have a fighting style that extends beyond his selection of feats, and will have a consistent and believable response to any obstacle they encounter. If you turn off your character's personality just because the dice come out, you are missing out on a whole range of roleplaying possibilities that would add depth to your character.

A good place to start when thinking about your character's combat roleplaying style is to consider what your character thinks of as an "acceptable loss." Does your character balk at the thought of being wounded, running to the cleric whenever he's hit, or does he stand in melee long after he probably should have withdrawn? Is his focus on staying alive at all costs, or defeating the enemy no matter what? This could partly be determined by alignment, but a particularly stubborn character might fight to the bitter end despite being Neutral.

Another choice concerns how willing he is to use renewable (or nonrenewable) resources, such as spells, potions, scrolls, wand charges, rage uses, etc. He may have a cavalier attitude, feeling the party will always be able to rest or restock, or he might never use any resource if he can win a fight without it. A barbarian, for example, might rage as soon as he sees a tough band of foes, or he might wait until he is wounded and could use the extra hit points. The choice reflects his personality: if he saves his rage, he might be a cautious pessimist who knows that things always get worse, but if he rages right away, he may be saying that he is confident that the heroes will win quickly. If he's a spellcaster, does he liberally burn a spell every round, even in an easy battle, or does he miserly save his spells for desperate situations? A sorcerer who revels in his magic and flaunts it at every opportunity probably falls into the former category, while a greedy wizard who covets all magical knowledge might be the latter.

What these issues boil down to is how cautious the character is. Caution is at once very important and entirely overrated. It is important for players to be interested in the imaginary world and be invested in their characters' lives. But at the same time, too often players let caution overwhelm them, spending hours carefully proceeding in a calculated manner that may well belay their characters' stated personalities. The key, then, is to forget about succeeding. Your goal as a player in a roleplaying game is not to succeed; your goal is to have fun. An entertaining defeat is better than a boring victory, so let go of the need to always take the most effective route every time, and try taking the route your character would, even at great cost to that character.

Obviously, that's hard to do. There's a natural desire to do well, and really, your character does want to succeed every time. The key is to separate in your mind what your character thinks from what you think. That's how you add texture, by giving your character views on how to proceed in battle that are different than your views. Your character will take every advantage that he or she perceives, but you, as the player, have the benefit of determining what sort of advantages are within your character's perception.

Some examples might help. I recently finished a year-long campaign playing a samurai. On the very first adventure, the child the samurai was supposed to guard was kidnapped, and as one might expect, Isawa Shojo was willing to sacrifice anything to get him back. Now, the DM had set up this long series of tunnels that were trapped repeatedly. I ran right into the first trap, because we didn't know any better. Once we knew the tunnel was trapped, the prevailing opinion was to slow down and have the party rogue search for traps. At this point, though, I made a decision that would more or less define my character's reaction to danger: I kept running down the hall, knowing that there were more traps. As a player, I knew this was probably a Bad Idea, but I decided that my honorable samurai felt that getting hit with the trap was acceptable when weighed against the need to hurry. He reasoned that even if the traps killed him, he would have sprung the traps and allowed his allies to get to the end safely. By having him react without caution, I was able to show that he was a man who was willing to sacrifice his life for his duty. As the campaign continued, Isawa often ran headfirst into danger, not because he was foolish, but because he was willing to die if it meant success for his team. A caveat, however: if you decide to play a character who takes risks or acts rashly, you should let yourself get talked out of it from time to time by the more level-headed characters. Isawa, for example, often suggested wildly inappropriate courses of action, which the far more cautious paladin Adhemar would convince me to not enact. Throwing caution to the wind is fun once in a while, but if done during every encounter, it gets annoying to the other players.

Decide to React Differently: Have you ever had a party break down into fighting over the actions of one of their members? Has a character ever threatened repeatedly to leave the party? Often, intraparty fighting boils down to one player declaring, "That's how my character would react." Heck, often you'll be the one saying it; it's a common reaction when alignments or codes of ethics clash.

However, it also creates a logjam where neither side wants to back down. The key to resolving this problem is to decide to react differently. You are not your character, and your character is not a separate entity with reactions that you cannot control. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a player state that their character's actions are not under their control. Every decision your character makes is your decision first. It is possible and even preferable for you to craft a personality that is consistent but also accommodating of the characters the other players wish to play.

When you think about a situation, ask yourself, "Is this the only way my character can react to this?" Chances are, the answer is, "No." Try to refine your character so that you can deal with situations that conflict with your alignment/ethos without resorting to ultimatums, threats, etc. This will often mean thinking in terms of compromise and concession to your fellow players, or at the very least an agreement to disagree.

Here's another example: In a campaign I DM'd, the party's bard lifted a magical sword behind the back of the party's Lawful Good monk. The monk had basically decided that the bodies of several fallen knights would be buried without looting, and rather than argue, the bard just grabbed the sword. The bad news was, the sword was cursed; it was the blade that had belonged to a ghost that roamed the castle, and whenever the bard drew it, the ghost materialized and attacked him (and only him). Eventually, the bard 'fessed up that he had stolen the sword. The monk (and the monk's player) became furious, and declared that he could no longer travel with the bard. Either the bard had to leave, or he would. It became a huge argument between characters and players, and it was entirely unnecessary. The monk did not have to react with an ultimatum; the monk did not even have to be angry, no matter what his alignment was. The bard had already suffered the misfortune of having his Charisma drained by the ghost repeatedly; the monk could have chosen (for example) to lecture the bard on how his theft had brought him nothing but misery. He chose to create player conflict when it was just as easy to not.

Personally, I blame the paladin for this. The original paladin class created the precedent for one player thinking he has the right to dictate the morality of other players. That drives me nuts. Ever since, players who select a Lawful Good character automatically assume it is up to them to police the rest of the party, and too often, the rest of the party lets them. As far as I'm concerned, no player has the right to tell another player how to act. Lawful Good is not the "right" way to be, and it is unacceptable to push your character's ideals on other players whether they want them or not.

Another useful application of this concept involves accepting story hooks your DM gives to you. Try to never just say, "My character isn't interested in that adventure." A lot of people mistake this for good roleplaying, because you are asserting your character's personality. Wrong. Good roleplaying should never bring the game to a screeching halt. One of your jobs as a player is to come up with a reason why your character would be interested in a plot. After all, your personality is entirely in your hands, not the DM's. Come up with a reason why the adventure (or the reward) might appeal to you, no matter how esoteric or roundabout the reasoning.

If the paladin is to blame for the last problem, this one belongs to the druid. Druids have such a specific set of principles that players often mistake them for being a free pass to demand that each adventure revolve around their goals. Raiding a dungeon for gold doesn't appeal to the druid mindset, so what are you to do if you play one and are presented with that goal? You improvise. Maybe the gold will enable you to purchase magic items that will let you protect the wilderness. Maybe the ruins contain unnatural monsters that need to be killed regardless of the treasure. Maybe, just maybe, the other PCs are your friends and you are willing to help them just because. Too often that last part is forgotten; I don't think anyone reading this has never spent the night doing something they'd rather not because a friend asked.

So if you're really paying attention, you may be thinking, "Hey, don't those two points contradict one another? First he says to separate what your character thinks from what you think, but then he says your character doesn't have its own reactions." Well, no. Separate your character's thoughts from your own thoughts, but don't forget who is in control of both personalities. The division between your personality and that of your character only goes so far as it helps the game; once it begins becoming a disruption, a player has a responsibility to alter his or her character's decisions in the interest of the group. In the end, your relationships with the people you are sitting in someone's living room with are more important than your character's internal consistency.

OK, so I originally said this article would be about backgrounds, but it ended up about something else. Next time, I promise.