Saturday, September 12, 2015

Evil Necro-cleric Seeks Adventuring Party for Fun and Profit

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a player who was playing in a D&D fifth edition game.  He was lamenting because his character was seen as a jerk by the rest of the party.  I asked him what he meant, and he explained that his character had chosen to kill a couple of NPCs that the rest of the party had wanted to leave alive.  Additionally, his character was somewhat abrasive in temperament and had already had some in-character issues with the other members of the party.  Out of character, at least one of his friends told him his character wasn't fun to play with.  

Oh, and one last thing - in a party of do-gooders, this player had chosen to play a chaotic-evil cleric of Cthulhu who fancied a bit of necromancy when corpses were available.

For me, the narrative of a D&D game is extremely important.  Initially, I felt like this problem was unlikely to be resolved satisfactorily.  After all, the player did not want to change his deity or alignment, and his party did not wish to become evil.  I began to think about ways to resolve this problem while maintaining a believable story.

As a dungeon master, I wouldn't normally encourage my players to introduce this type of element into our game. Believably integrating a chaotic-evil character into a good party sounds like a virtual impossibility on the surface.  But what if you have a player who's dead set on it and genuinely believes his character can help to promote great story and role-playing moments?

Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins both of Wizards of the Coast say that dungeon masters should say "Yes, and..." (or "Yes, but...")  When their players do something that challenges the status quo of the game. Saying "Yes, and...." grants the player the freedom that only a table top RPG can deliver and also allows the dungeon master to levy constraints that make for interesting game play or story telling.

The following are some "Yes, and...."s that I might levy against this Cthulhu worshiping cleric.  Each of them would be discussed with the player beforehand and we'd collaborate on making his character's story arc one to remember.

  1. Yes, and after a few game sessions I'm going to turn your character into an adversarial NPC who betrays the party.  What type of character would you like to play at that point?  Yep.  The ol' character swap.  At some point the evil nature of this player character and his secret aims will come out.  He does something terrible and the DM gets an awesome villain; one who's betrayal really resonates with the party.  There's no better villain than a character the party once loved who has broken their hearts by turning on them.  This is a great solution if the player in question really loves knowing cool in-game secrets and wants to have major input into the direction of the campaign.
  2. Yes, and over the course of a few game sessions, lets come up with some crazy events that cause your character to have a change of heart - something that makes them question what they've always believed or known.  Great literature, cinema and yes - even great RPGs are stories that contain characters who change in a significant and meaningful way between the start of the story and the end.  They learn to conquer their fears and tap into their true potential.  They discover that a deep-seeded belief they've always held true is not all its cracked up to be.  Maybe an experience changes the way they see the world?  Maybe its a slower transition that the DM and PC collaborate on so that little by little the player comes to learn the error of his ways?

    Personally, I've always liked the idea of a cleric - good or evil - deciding that being so zealous has gotten him nowhere, and this causes a shift to neutral-neutral while he reconciles his place in the world.
  3. Yes, but don't come crying to me if the rest of the party kills you.  One great thing about a party of do-gooders is that they do good.  If a player chooses to play an evil character, and that character is actually doing evil, then that character is demonstrating that they are a threat to society.  Good parties kill evil creatures.  If your character is evil you are accepting the risk that every monster in the Monster Manual has to accept:  a party of heroes is coming to kill me.

    Hopefully,this option is the kind of thing that can be (and would be) discussed openly with the person playing the character to be killed so that the narrative can be preserved and so that no one gets their feelings hurt.  All too often this sort of thing happens without involving that player.  This is usually the result of players solving player problems in-character - this is not ideal.
  4. Yes, but lets talk to the group.  Inviting intra-party conflict is a decision a gaming group must make together.  This is the closest I'd come to saying no. Some players really like to have parties with conflicting ideologies and goals.  This can be an interesting part of your game provided that all players at the table are interested in this sort of conflict.

    If the one player's fun negatively affects the fun for one or more other players at the table, there is a problem.  Don't force this intra-party conflict without first discussing it with your gaming group and see if they're as interested in it as you are.
  5. Yes, but why are you a member of this party?  It is extremely rare for a cast of characters to not experience conflict when those characters have conflicting beliefs and goals.

    Maybe you play in a game where backstory and narrative aren't important - if so, this post isn't for your group.  Go have fun and don't be bothered with this fluff and nonsense.

    For the rest of you - if you have a conflicted party - have the conflict.  It could be awesome.  but also have a reason that the party originally formed and how they hold together.  In my games, I make sure that each member of the party has at least one unbreakable bond with another member of the party.  It has to be something their character would fight to the death for.

    The reason for this is a simple one:  adventuring parties require unflinching trust.  Party members regularly trust one another with their lives. Maybe the rogue doesn't trust our Cthulhu fanboy but he trusts his brother, the fighter who has vouched for the cleric's trustworthiness.

    From a story perspective there has to be a believable and compelling reason for this trust to exist between a good party and an evil character. In the case of our Cthulhu-worshiping necro-cleric, that's an incredibly big ask. Evil characters, especially chaotic evil characters, are the definition of untrustworthy.
  6. Yes, but its unlikely this alliance will last forever.  Eventually it will make sense for your character to move on, how do you feel about that?  Okay, so we have decided not to turn your character into a nemesis for the party, you don't really see this character experiencing a change of heart, we're really hoping the rest of the party won't kill you, we've gotten the rest of the table's buy-in on having some intra-party conflict for a while, and we've established a near-unbreakable bond between your character and some of the other party members.  That's great!

    Although it is possible to explain why an evil character might collaborate with a party of plucky do-gooders, these alliances are often temporary.  
    Eventually the characters part ways at the appropriate time.  This is an opportunity for a character to gracefully leave the story (for now) and retain some mutual respect between the characters.

    Saying goodbye to your character can be hard.  Having the courage to let a character go at the right time to serve the story is an role-playing badge of honor.  There should be an achievement for that.  You wouldn't want your character's shtick to become tired and old hat would you?  Besides, maybe now's the time to roll up that ranger everyone has been clamoring for....
So can it be fun to play Sinister McCorpseblood, Cleric of Cthulhu, Raiser of Dead, and Enslaver of the Nine Realms?  Yes!  And there are a lot of things to consider.
To sum up:

  1. Your character may not be a permanent fixture in this game.  If this idea appeals to you, think about your character's arc and plan an awesome exit for them.
  2. Your character could undergo a meaningful change due to a series of events that cause them to evaluate who they are and what they stand for.
  3. The party may kill you.  Sorry - not sorry.
  4. Inviting intra-party conflict to the table is not one person's decision.  Talk to your gaming group before doing this.
  5. Develop at least one unbreakable bond with another player character - justify why you are a member of the party.

How does your group handle intra-party tension and story elements?  Would you allow this player to participate in your game?  If you were a player, would you conspire to kill them?  Have you played this type of character?  What worked?  What didn't?

No comments:

Post a Comment