A group of RPG characters is like a U. S. Army Green Beret team or a Navy SEAL team. Every member of the squad has a specialty, and for the group to succeed, everyone needs to be on the job. That means cooperating with teammates and sticking to the plan when the world, in the guise of the GM, throws its full weight against the heroes and tries to cast them down in defeat.
The story (the adventure) has a villain, and he wants to win. His goal is not to provide the heroes with a heady challenge that fills their lives with excitement before they inevitably triumph over the villain’s ambition. That outcome is the exact opposite of the villain’s goal (unless your GM adheres to the idea that villains should have fatal personality flaws like those outlined in this i09 article on the 12 biggest blunders evil wizards make. A worthy villain will do everything in his power to prevent that outcome.
This doesn’t mean the GM is out to screw the players, but it does mean the challenges characters face won’t be easy. No one should expect to be allowed to skate through “for the sake of fun.” Before it’s all done, you should expect to be in a no-holds-barred fight to the death—meaning that if you lose, you die. In a situation like that, what could possibly be your motivation for working at cross-purposes to the team?
One Wild and Crazy PC
At the same time, there’s no denying that it’s fun to be the fly in the ointment, the lone crazy person who never does what’s expected. Everyone else can be boring and predictable; you’re Sigmar the Chaotic! The only plan you’ll follow is the loopiest/funniest/most outlandish idea that pops into your head.
That’s great fun for you and maybe even for others at the table—within limits. While pursuing your own kicks, you also need to remember that you’re part of the team, and you remain part of the team only as long as the other members think you’re valuable to have around. Don’t assume that the entertainment value of clowning and chaotic behavior is sufficient payoff for everyone else. When someone doesn’t pull his or her weight, everyone else is forced to pull harder to take up the slack, and that’s generally not fun for the people doing the pulling.
There’s a time for being wacky, and there’s a time for getting down to the business of slaughtering monsters before they slaughter you or your friends. Unless you have the most patient, forgiving friends in the world, know the difference and behave accordingly.
Watch Your Six! Aww, Too Late
It’s also fun (occasionally) to do things that are overtly harmful to the party’s objectives and to justify it by claiming “I’m just doing what my character would do.” It’s true, as my good friend Jeff Grubb likes to say, that “roleplaying is about making sub-optimal choices,” but there’s a fine line in this situation between being a good roleplayer and being a jerk. This particular line is especially problematic because it moves around, depending on how your GM and the other players feel about getting sucker-punched by a “friend” on any particular day. They might find it a dramatic change of pace the first time it happens, amusing in a “fool me twice” sort of way the second time, and a valid excuse for some blood-spattered housecleaning the third time around.
Can I Get a Key Light?
In the course of an evening’s play, every character typically gets one or more opportunities to stand in the spotlight and be the star of the moment. This happens when the rogue scouts ahead and sneaks into the heart of the enemy camp, when the wizard goes into full experimentation mode with newly found magic items, when the bard eloquently lays out the case for immediate action to the king, or when the paladin squares off toe-to-toe against her death knight half-brother.
Time in the spotlight is not the time to show off, to vamp endlessly, or to steer the adventure in a new direction. It’s your chance to show how you’re a valuable member of the team.
Sometimes you’ll be caught unprepared, or your plan of action won’t work as you intended. That’s OK. You can’t expect to sing a showstopper every time the limelight swings your way. But when the light lands on you, do something that contributes to the group effort, not just to your ego or your own amusement. By all means, contribute in your unique way; you can be funny, dramatic, risky, cautious, or whatever else suits your character in that situation. Just be sure to provide value to the group.
At the end of the session, every other character in the adventuring party pays a cost for your presence in the group; because you’re there, they all get a smaller share of treasure and XP. You owe it to your teammates to earn your share.
If you have a story about how teamwork saved the day or failed disastrously—either between characters in the game or between players around the table—share it below.