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I'm not asking how to make every character be played as I would play them. I'm asking how to handle a situation in which the character that the player presents to me as a GM (with complete back-story, concept, etc., included) ends up being played vastly differently than I think that character would actually act given their initially presented concept. How can I look at a player and say, 'I don't think the character you presented to me would do that,' in a way that doesn't make it seem like I'm accusing them of poor role playing, or trying to play their character for them?

For example, one of my players decided he wanted to run a half-orc Paladin. The character he came up with had been born in a paladin order, was the son of its leader, and was held to higher standards than everyone else because of his parentage, and race. He described the character as 'being the type to follow the rules as-written, no matter what.' (In his own words, he wanted to play a 'lawful stupid' paladin.'

Well, as a sort of safety-net, I gave him a modified magic item. It was a phylactery of faithfulness, with the advantage that he did not have to have his character consider an action before being told if it was or wasn't evil. However, if he tried to go forward with an evil action, it would give him a small jolt (in the form of 1d4 nonlethal) to make him realize that what he's doing is wrong. Basically, if he asked me if he could do something (ex: throwing a chair at the performing NPC bard, to 'get his attention') I would say no, and he would take the d4. (Looking back, I see that this was a bad idea, and bad GM tactic.)

He took exception to this, as, in his words, "I wasn't letting him play his character as he thought it should be played," and, "even though he asked if he could do those things, that didn't mean his character was thinking about them." It came to a head in one game when, after telling him that 'grappling and throwing the rogue at the group of Orcs earned him a d4' he completely stopped playing. Literally, stopped. He refused to even speak, and under the circumstances, basically ruined the game for everyone.

I do not condone what he did, nor am I asking how to deal with that specific situation. I'm asking how I handle a player whose idea of what his character should do in play is nearly opposite to what I (the GM) think it should be given their background?

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Sounds to me like y'all (and that probably includes the rest of the group too) need to put some time into learning what each other wants from the game. After all it's supposed to be fun, not friendship destroying –  Simon Withers Nov 23 '12 at 2:40
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Thing is, most people tend to justify anything with "I can do it, the paladin code says I have to slay/punish/burn/save/marry the guilty!" So everytime, I ask myself one question: what would Superman do? He is probably the only real Loyal Good character out there (Captain America could apply too), and it usually gives a straight answer. Would Superman behead a man because he is Evil? No. Would he throw a chair at someone to get his attention? No. Would he throw a rogue on some orcs? Well, unless the rogue asked for it, no. –  Scrollmaster Nov 23 '12 at 19:13
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6 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The question is a bit unclear and I’m not quite ready to delete my other answer since I’m not sure it’s inappropriate, but I think this would get lost in it and may be closer to what Zach wants, based on comments.

Therefore, I am answering two questions here:

  1. How should I tell a player that he’s not playing a character the way he should be played?

  2. How should I deal with a player who describes his character as one thing, but plays him as something else?

I separate these two because they are different question, and need different answers.

1. How should I tell a player that he’s not playing a character the way he should be played?

Simple: you don’t. That’s none of your business. If a Paladin needs to Fall because of his actions, then that’s what happens (but see my other answer for thoughts on how best to handle that mechanically – I despise the official rules on the matter, and never recommend them), but it’s because he’s not being a Paladin, not because he’s not playing how you imagine the character. It’s his character, not yours.

In effect, when you ask how to do this without seeming to accuse him of bad roleplaying and/or trying to play his character, the answer is you can’t, because that is exactly what you would be doing. Maybe he is roleplaying badly; maybe that accusation isn’t unfounded, and maybe that’s a discussion you actually should have. But if he’s not roleplaying “badly,” there shouldn’t be any need to comment at all.

2. How should I deal with a player who describes his character as one thing, but plays him as something else?

This is a different matter. Particularly when the character’s backstory touches on the rest of the world, as your player’s does with his father as the head of an order of paladins, there is a greater cause for concern and a greater need to set things straight. Remember, while his character is his, the setting is yours. If your setting does not include any order of paladins that would condone or accept his behavior, then he can’t be a member of one – or he is about to get into trouble with them.

And if he was raised to be this way his entire life, and up until now upheld those standards, maybe they’re going to worry if he’s been cursed or possessed or something. But maybe he hasn’t been – maybe he felt stifled in the order, and now that he’s out in the real world he’s feeling a bit restless and rebellious. Maybe he’s looking for a bit of independence from a father in whose shadow he’d spent his entire life, whatever.

But the key thing is for the player to recognize that his actions do not jive with his backstory. I suggest that you give him these choices:

  1. Change how you behave, to be more in line with how the character was described in the backstory.

  2. Change your backstory, to make your character a bit more rebellious or a bit more light-hearted; maybe his father hoped that going out into the real world would make him a bit more serious.

  3. Keep both the behavior and the backstory, and accept that this is very much an abrupt change in his behavior. Tell him that the order will not be amused, and will be greatly concerned about it, possibly even angry.

All of these things, however, have more to do with the order’s rules, and not the Paladin’s Code of Conduct. In both the second and third case, however, warn him that Falling is a very real concern for the order. They do not appreciate his behavior precisely because they believe it will cause him to Fall – and point out that putting others in danger needlessly is something that could cause him to Fall quickly.

But like I said in my other answer: a Paladin’s allowed to have a little, or even a lot, of harmless fun, so long as it is harmless, and he remains that unwavering bastion of Good and honor. Throwing a chair at someone or throwing an ally into a group of enemies may not be harmless, but there certainly are plenty of “un-Paladin-y” things he could do (e.g. harmless pranks) that will never cause a Fall.

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What you need to do is leave the meta-game out and just handle the in-game.

If someone described their character as mopey and emo and Batmanesque, and instead plays them in game as crazed and Joker-esque, though as a GM it's helpful to try to understand how they reconcile the two to aid in providing character motivation and all, in the end it's none of your business. They may always play their character how they want. Character background (and alignment for that matter) is descriptive, not prescriptive. If you're saying "You can't do X because it's not your character" or "You can't do X because you're Lawful Good" then you are being a foolish control freak. The character can do whatever the player wants them to do, even if it's inconsistent with those things.

However, they may come up against in game world issues with their behavior. If you're a paladin, then your order and your deity will object to you breaking the paladin's code and you'll lose your abilities from violating your alignment. If you're a spy, your cohorts and employer will object to you being a big blabbermouth spaz. If you are good and act evil, that's fine and it's your right as a sentient being, but your alignment will change and "protection from evil" will start to proc on you at the GM's discretion. Heck, if they're acting different from their background then maybe NPCs who knew them "before" will be concerned and ask them "What the heck happened to you, you used to be so... reliable, and now you're a giant freak. Do we need to have an intervention?"

You may have out of game discussions to work through "why you think it was a good act to hurt the rogue" etc. as a shared discussion to gain mutual understanding. That's fine, but in the end that part is not up to you. They play their character. You play the world and NPCs and the gods. If there's conflict between those, then play it out. You are not stopping them from playing their character, but their character can't be chaotic and be a paladin - they are choosing to play a fallen paladin. If they are choosing to play a blabbermouth spy, that's fine, but then their spymasters are choosing to put a hit out on them. Simple.

Here's an example where I had to handle this as another player (appropriate, since in this case the GM had no cause to intervene). We were players in a game where we were undercover and a demon was looking for us. We had to keep a low profile; magic was illegal and we used magic as well. A new player brought in a new character, a gnome. He played him as totally gonzo insane to the point where you couldn't even really talk to him. "So hey gnome guy, what's going on?" "TURNIPS WHEEE!!!!"

Well, he finally learned our secret. We tried to talk with him and make him understand that he couldn't reveal the secret because our lives would be in danger. "TURNIPS WHEEE!!!" was the general tenor of the answers we got. I then explained patiently to him that if he didn't start making some Goddamned sense immediately to where we could tell he understood what was expected of him, we would have no choice but to put him in a sack and drown him in the river. "I'm playing my character" is an excuse to players - not to other characters. I didn't care why he was a spaz, his spazziness put our characters in danger. And I'm playing a character who doesn't want to die because someone else is playing a jackass. It worked.

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I think this is an issue of boundaries.

Sure, he wanted to throw a chair at the bard (was the bard performing badly?), you are allowed to have thoughts of evil, even as a paladin. That is "human" nature. What you do is what is important. So, maybe he throws a rotten tomato at the bard performing poorly. Your second situation is in the middle of combat. I'm not sure what he was trying to accomplish by throwing the (I'm assuming) party's rogue into the middle of the fray. A rogue is best on the flanks. Maybe it was the "you'll learn to fight with honor, into the middle with you" which COULD be argued as him trying to improve the honor of the rogue. As a GM, I doubt I'd buy that explanation but there it is.

Some points in time are "lynchpin" moments. I can honestly tell you that on 9/11 I felt the world change. The day a few other events happened to (just) me, the world also changed. Sometimes the change was better, sometimes worse. Your paladin was in a Holy Order. It's easy to follow rules when the bell rings every time you need to stop and pray/do something. Get out into the "wild world" and you have to work harder to maintain your piety. Leaving the monastery/order hall is likely one of those lynchpin moments in the paladin's life.

To fix the problem, talk to the player outside of game. Take him to a coffee shop/bar/wherever (just NOT at game or where the game traditionally is played). Buy his beverage and make things as non-confrontational as possible, say something like "I'm a little confused on how you have played your character. You explained he was a follow the rules guy, then the bard incident happened. What was the character's motivation to throw a chair at the bard?"

Then stop. Listen. Most folks I know don't truly listen, they wait for their turn to talk (a big difference). Start every one of your responses with confirming what he just said, ask clarification when he does not make sense. Maybe you will decide to flesh out some of these rules he follows without question. For example: "Always charge into battle to defend your friends/brothers/allies" (which would explain the rogue incident) or "Tolerate no blasphemous or lewd entertainments" (which would explain the bard incident). Simply put, when you both agree on a set of rules that this player lives by, type up and initial the rules, then if he breaks those rules/commits evil acts then hit him with the consequences.

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+1 for listening. It's easy to assume that someone else is wrong when their decisions don't appear to be in accordance with your understanding, but your understanding, itself, might be flawed. –  GMJoe Nov 28 '12 at 4:42
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How direct I am with a player about their character is directly inverse of their playing experience (especially in the game I'm running). Often times, especially in L5R (when someone is playing their high honor bushi like a Scottish Highlander for example), I will say something to the effect of "Here's how the game itself works normally..." if they don't know the system; regardless I add "Now here's how my setting of this game works" if I feel like what the character does would be so avant guarde for its build.

With the data you presented, another concern of mine breaks into two questions:

  1. How often does this player play more brash characters? There may be residual default attitude from a favored class poisoning the well.
  2. Do the decisions seem to relate more to a metagaming result? For example, does the player try to antagonize NPCs with ethical contortions using OOC logic in a vaguely acceptable way in character? (IE: I want to pick a fight with that Bard. Lemme throw a chair at him and say I was just trying to get his attention IC)

Now! Onto Things You Might be Overlooking

Lawful Good is not just one blanket statement. It is in fact two. Good means that they want the best for all deserving parties. Lawful means they follow all of the local rules or their own personal code. It does not mean that they always believe in Habeus Corpus. For example, in one D&D game our party found a very misogynist town, and the LN fighter in the group grit his teeth and had to obey such laws as our group's women had to be in chains in public. He obeyed the law despite both the player and character contempt for it.

To continue, Orc culture is very pack-oriented and tends to have an alpha/bravo attitude. A Lawful orc is not necessarily in the wrong if he is brutal - it is part of the heritage of the people. A Good orc may need only to do subduing damage with a well placed pommel strike instead of lethal with the business end of his battle axe to prove a point. If he doesn't have a particularly powerful wisdom score to fuel the Will save (despite Pally saves), those natural sentiments easily creep into those situations. He may have been raise quite strictly, but that's the thing about home schooling: How do they react in the external world, especially without guiding supervision?

So the bottom line is that your magic item is a great saving grace and has a good plot center. Getting to the end about how the player threw a quiet tantrum means that you need to talk to them personally so that they do not feel cornered (thus defensive) and explain that they need to be more composed at the table. Keep a plot device in hand and if he pulls the same thing again, simply state that a Paladin or Cleric of his order throws a whammy on him all of a sudden and pulls him out should the player step away, as to have an IC out.

EDIT1: Ask him to create his Order's list of tennets to follow. This way he is bound to his own words.

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What you need to do is talk to the player. That's the only place to start: If you disagree as to how the character should be played, it can only be because you have differing interpretations of that character. Working out the differences between the two interpretations, learn the justifications as to why those differences exist, and only then try and work out how those interpretations need to be changed.

Always start by asking the player why they think their actions were in-character. Don't assume your own interpretation is correct just because it makes sense to you: The player may have thought of something you haven't.

Explain your reasons for saying that the action is out-of-character. It's possible that the player simply misunderstood some aspect of the alignment system or the paladin's oath (or whatever else is appropriate). It also gives the player a chance to ask questions - and you never know, the player might point out something that you , yourself have overlooked.

Finally, if both you and the other player have explained your interpretations, you can discuss what to do next: If the player's interpretation and your own differ, but both are reasonable and based on the same assumptions, then let your player play the way he wants. After all, that just means you have two different but equally valid interpretations. On the other hand, if your paths of reasoning are fundamentally incompatible, negotiate with the player and work out what kinds of concessions need to be made. Don't be afraid to declare that things have to be a certain way if that's what's required for the other player characters and NPCs in the setting to make sense, but also don't come down hard on the player just for disagreeing with you - after all, you're all there to have fun, so try and make sure that whatever solution you come up with is fun for everyone involved.

The goal is to make sure that everyone is on the same page, because unless the player is acting contrary to character in a deliberate attempt to annoy you and ruin the game, then the problem must stem from a misunderstanding of something by someone. Trying to work out what that misunderstanding is a necessary part of solving the problem.

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Generally speaking, I think there is a serious problem if a DM is telling me how my character “should” be. That is never a good idea, and frankly, it’s rude: the DM gets the entire world to play with, hands off the one thing that’s mine.

If this weren’t a Paladin, I’d stop there.

The Paladin is a problem, of course, because the Paladin is a problematic class. The Code of Conduct is poorly defined and poorly implemented.

But ultimately, the Paladin is supposed to be the ultimate paragon of Doing What’s Right™ no matter what. They have to achieve Good, and they cannot let the ends justify the means: they have to do what they will say, they have to keep their word and no tricks, but still have to get things done. On many levels, the Paladin is, oddly enough, the ultimate loner – he must disobey, must leave, if those around him are Evil. His loyalty is to Good – not to his country, his church, or even his god.

Therefore, while he may not be admissable for various churches or knightly orders, he can certainly go on being that champion. He does not need the approval of anyone except some cosmic Good that apparently operates in the Dungeons & Dragons universe.

So my honest opinion is that you need to loosen up on your idea of what a Paladin “should” be. People can be Paladins in many different ways, so long as they are that absolute bastion of honor.

Of course, if he really is not being a champion of honor (and his antics suggest that he is, perhaps, not; though I would say that no harm does mean no foul – destroying someone else’s property, the chair, or injuring someone, is a foul, but that doesn’t mean he cannot be a bit silly, even bordering on the juvenile, so long as he does no harm – after all, in orcish culture his behavior may have been totally normal), then you need to do something. I do not like your phylactery idea at all; it definitely seems like you’re trying to play for him, and that’s not fair.

Regardless of how you handle this, you need to talk to him out of character and privately about this. You need to express your opinion and problems, and you need to listen to his position. It may be that he is looking for a drastically different game than you think; if that’s the case, you need to talk to the entire group to see what they want in terms of tone. If they want something that you do not care for and do not wish to provide, then you need to stop DMing for them; let someone else do it or whatever. If they, excepting this one fellow, want what you do, then he needs to suck it up or move on.

Beyond this, my suggestions are as follows:

  • Just let him play the character as he wants to. This is appropriate for a light-hearted or casual game. Arguing over alignment is too serious for that kind of game.

  • Ask him to rebuild the character as something other than a Paladin, or let him keep the mechanical features and call it something else. Don’t worry about balance if he loses the Code; the Paladin is not a particularly powerful class and the Code does not provide a particularly meaningful form of mechanical balance.

  • He falls, but not the way it’s described in the rules. That Fall is terrible design because it leaves him unable to play (at least in combat) – no one should be spending their time “playing” when they cannot actually do anything. Instead, he becomes a champion similar to that of a Paladin for something else, whatever he does represent. Mechanical tweaks to the nature of his abilities, similar to how the Paladins of Freedom, Slaughter, and Tyranny get slightly different features, would be very appropriate. This is similar to the previous idea, but does allow him to atone if he wishes to attempt to continue being held to a higher standard. Make sure both of you are very clear on what that standard is.

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Well, here's the thing. He wasn't 'just a paladin,' or 'just an orc.' His character basis was 'I was born the son of the head of a paladin order, and raised under higher standards than everyone else. I try harder to be good than everyone, because of this,' with the end-result being, he wanted to play a paladin that stuck to the rules-as-written, no matter what. In the end, not only was he not playing his class right, he was not playing his character as he'd described it to me. Mainly, I'm asking for how to handle that situation. When the character as-presented is not the character as-played. –  Zach Nov 23 '12 at 3:18
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@Zach: I think you should edit your question and put that in there, because I was not clear on that. The only real answer to that, though, is "talk to him." And really, what you should say is "how you're playing the character is fine, but you cannot call yourself 'held to higher standards than everyone else' if you continue to play like this." –  KRyan Nov 23 '12 at 3:28
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