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Some of my players tend to forget that they're not their character when we play, which sometimes results in characters doing things they usually would never do. As the DM, I've been pretty lenient about this since they have been playing for just a year now, and still have much to learn.

However, it recently became a problem when the Lawful Good Deva suddenly decided to incapacitate his entire party and abandon his god simply to pick up a magic item that was undoubtedly of Evil Nature. To be specific, it was the Coat of Eyes, from the Khyber's Harvest adventure. This has caused many a conflict in the group as some of the other players think his alignment forbids him from doing that and he shouldn't have been allowed to. One player even asked me to have the Deva's god smite him for his wickedness, which I didn't do.

At the time, I wasn't quite sure how to respond to this so I changed his alignment to Evil, to which he strongly objected, stating that he merely wanted the artifact "so no one else could get it". Instead of destroying or hiding it though, he wore it. To me, it seemed like a thinly veiled attempt at justifying him grabbing the most valuable item so far (the coat is really good stat-wise).

What do you think? Should I punish characters if they irrationally behave the opposite of what it says on their character sheet? Can I, as the DM, even justify changing a character's alignment or should I keep out of it, as the behavior of characters is none of my concern? And most importantly: How hard should I bring the hammer down on that kind of behavior?

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Please take a look at this post and its answers, and remove any part of your question which overlaps with that post--we don't want to spread answers to the same problem across multiple pages because then it's hard for others to find them, so focus this question on the parts of your situation that the other one doesn't address. – BESW Dec 13 '13 at 14:32
I'm wondering here. Is the problem that the player is acting out of character, or is the problem that the other players are getting tired of how he is disrupting play. If it is the first, there are a lot of good answers below. If it is the second, you need to sit down, either with him alone, or the group as a whole, because then its no longer a roleplaying problem, but a social contract problem. – Rubberduck Dec 16 '13 at 14:12
It feels like there are two questions here: One question about the GM's role in character behavior and alignment changes, and one question about appropriate in-game responses to divine characters acting in defiance of their god's agenda. – BESW Dec 16 '13 at 15:04
up vote 24 down vote accepted

This player seems to not particularly care about the moral side of his character. But don't punish him for it. Even if he plays the character inconsistently, you should treat that as a creative challenge to you as a DM. You need to be the "straight guy" for their acting up.

Roll with the characters actions as is, do not prevent them either in or out of character, and have consequences play out in game, with little or no "punishment". The story consequences for a Deva that abandons their god and is beholden to an Evil artifact should be quite interesting. Your job as DM is to make them fun for that player and the rest of the group.

For example, I would suggest some "fluff" changes to the character - have their appearance change subtly due to the artifact (make it clear this is the cause, and not something inherent to the character - the character at all times belongs to the player) - e.g their Deva markings glow with odd dark energy, and their voice seems harsh and commanding to those that they talk to. Have Good characters with spiritual connections immediately distrust and/or avoid the character. Sometimes subtle story hints like this will bring a player who wants their character to be a shining example of goodness back on track. However, it should also be OK if the player is just playing for +X stats. They should just see the results of the choices by the way the world responds.

Other than that, you may want to consider that this player is looking for a slightly different style of game (more numbers-focussed) than the rest of the group is looking for. Try to be inclusive, but do check that everyone is happy, and that you are not storing up tensions.

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This is a great answer! Especially "Roll with the characters actions as is, do not prevent them either in or out of character, and have consequences play out in game, with little or no "punishment"." It's not the DM's role to say what characters can and can't do. It's the DM's role to tell the players the consequences of their choices. – Discord Dec 13 '13 at 15:14
I see the hints of a temptation subplot... Come over to the Dark side - we have stats! – Izkata Dec 13 '13 at 20:11
This has been quite enlightning! Great Answer, I'll try that. I mean, the Deva died in tonights adventure but I'm sure another opportunity to test this out will come up. (In case anyone's interested: The Deva tried to murder the groups Warlock in his sleep to steal his stuff. He got offed by the very players he did wrong earlier. Karma~) – FLClover Dec 14 '13 at 2:00
Worthwhile media related to angelic beings falling due to twisting the definition of "good" or giving in to ulterior motives: Constantine, The Prophecy. – SevenSidedDie Dec 16 '13 at 18:10

It's important to remember (and I know it's hard) that "consequence" and "punishment" are not the same thing.

Create consequences of the choice. Call them outcomes, results, spinoffs, whatever word makes you think clearly about what fun and interesting things might be caused by the character's actions and choices. Make those happen. They might not even be immediately visible, since consequences can play out behind the scenes for a while before they become obvious.

Resist the urge (or urging from others) to think up something unpleasant to discourage and punish the choice. That won't work, and it will add unpleasantness to a passtime that is supposed to be pleasant, if not wreck the game entirely.

Besides, "punishment" for giving you pure storytelling gold is silly – does an author "punish" her characters when they do something against their previously-determined principles? No, she explores the "why" and the unintended consequences of the action – that is the story.

So, sit down and think about it a bit. "If a pure goody-good deva gave into temptation, what would happen? What's interesting about that situation?" Spin out a few possibilities and then pick one or two of the best to add to your game.

The best part of this approach is that you don't need the deva's player to care about moral questions, because it's going to result in interesting stuff that they (and/or others) will end up interacting with and dealing with regardless of whether they want to think about morality.

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In 4e, Alignment has no real bearing except on the type of deity you can follow and one class' feature (Blackguard). The full alignment table doesn't even really exist either. Unlike previous editions of D&D where the alignment system was a key part of the role-playing experience; In 4e it is there merely as a guideline.

That said you should probably have a 1-on-1 discussion with the player about what it means to roleplay a character vs. rollplay some dice and and a statblock. The player may also have different expectations about what D&D/RPGs are in general are meant to be like. For example, the group of people I learned to play D&D with came to the table with some misguided expectations based on stories about previous editions (4th was our first) which took a really, long time to hammer out.

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What is "in character"?

Should you punish the character for what he did? No. The player of a good God who is Good alignment should not want to do something that is evil. His argument of "I wanted to keep everyone else away from it" would have worked had he not chosen to wear it. However, 1 infraction like this I would not force-change his alignment. You can tell a child 1000 times that the stove is hot and will hurt, but they seem to still need to touch it to know that hurt means "OUCH!". I would argue that if your characters who have strongly defined moral codes (i.e. not Neutral in alignment) are not challenged occasionally, they don't have the morals, they just sort of bounce around life in a "good" area. If the character does something like this repeatedly, then it is a clear case that maybe he should not be Good, but Neutral. It is also a good time to sit down with the whole group and hash out what being Lawful, Chaotic, Good, Evil, and Neutral (both neutrals) all mean. Let anyone who thought their character was one alignment but now realize that the group's understanding of alignment is another to change their alignment. To do anything else would be unfair. On the chance that an alignment now conflicts with a class, they should either decide to keep the alignment (and change personality accordingly), or re-skin stuff as necessary.

How much leeway do you give?

So, a character acts against alignment, yet only does so occasionally and feels badly afterward? Sounds like a good character who does not want to do evil, but realizes it is sometimes necessary. What is more evil, to remain pure and allow a greater evil to spread through the [area], or to embrace a minor evil to combat the greater one?

In older versions if he breaks alignment and feels no regret, his god would just express displeasure by denying some/all spells for a few days. 4e, however, doesn't penalize interesting character arcs by withholding mechanics. Once a character is granted divine power, the god cannot withdraw it. This doesn't mean the gods are without teeth, though. Since the disobedience is narrative rather than mechanical, the response should be the same: Maybe first just troubling dreams, but then censure by other members of his order, ranging from disapproval and the witholding of favors to being outright hunted down by vengeful priests of the god he's betrayed.

How I would have handled that situation

It is possible that the magic in the robe did something to him? I once played a 2e ranger whose sword was a family heirloom. Come to find out, the family used to serve the (quite evil) god of rot and destruction, and said god was resurrected in game, the sword decided I was now it's lackey and my character went on an (unintended) destruction bender. Great story-line, and my character took the hit to his alignment to save his distant-cousin (another PC, who was also a cleric) from falling to his evil. I would explore this as a secondary plot-line, but my group also likes those morally gray stories that force characters to choose between 2 moderately bad actions.

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In 4e, all power is learned and inherent. Even a fallen paladin keeps his powers: he learned them, they're his to keep. He might have learned those powers through devotion to a deity, but his powers are his just like with sorceror and their spells or a fighter and their exploits. – doppelgreener Dec 13 '13 at 15:12
@JonathanHobbs, does this include the spellcasting too? I know every other version makes plain that a cleric's spells are all channeling the deity's energy. – Pulsehead Dec 13 '13 at 18:26
Yes, that includes spellcasting too. The book explicitly states for Paladins and Clerics that their spells are not granted by a deity, but gained through various rites during their training. How they use those powers is up to them, whatever path they choose in life. – doppelgreener Dec 14 '13 at 1:38
@JonathanHobbs, I edited out the god's holding spells for 4e clerics, does the new version pass 4e muster? – Pulsehead Dec 16 '13 at 13:58
Yes - and I'll leave you some messages in chat with some details. :) – doppelgreener Dec 16 '13 at 14:26

What do you think? Should I punish characters if they irrationally behave the opposite of what it says on their character sheet?

Talk to the group. Is the game you're trying to play one of heroes? If so, make sure that's clear. Is the game more focused on roleplaying your characters, or is it a fight/loot game? Make sure everyone understands what kind of game this is supposed to be.

Given that you stated they've played a WHOLE YEAR and you're still having these problems says to me either those ideas weren't clearly stated and discussed at any point, OR, some players really just don't care to play that game and instead of asking for the kind of game they want, are just trying to force it in play.

When players do things that seem weird and out of place for the kind of game we're supposed to be playing, I'll stop the game and go, "Help me understand what's going on here? You're doing XYZ which doesn't seem to make sense to me?"

Here's a useful checklist you may want to use to make sure everyone knows what kind of game this is supposed to be.

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What do you think? Should I punish characters if they irrationally behave the opposite of what it says on their character sheet?

This isn't as problem with the character but the player, as such your fist course of action should be to deal with the players behavior, the players also have a responsibility towards preserving the harmony of the group.

If he justified it with 'So that no one else can use it' then the next quest should be to seal it, and if he doesn't want to do that, then he is simply keeping it to himself and by those actions why should the other characters have him in their group? At this point its up to the player to justify his place in the group with the action he's taken or its time for them to separate. (Though naturally, there's no reason to let the character leave with the item in question, considering his recent action -can he be trusted with it-)

As you can see it just gets darker and darker down along that path, though on the other path responsibility lies with you (the DM), when the player stated what he wanted to do, you should have demanded justification, and why his character didn't trust the other characters and if so why was he travelling with them in the first place. And then, if you feel that he is justified in his actions, you allow him to do it, otherwise you say no, if on the other hand you didn't stop him and as it goes on you see it's developing badly in a way that can't simply be fixed, then you as DM got to step up and say 'let's rewind this', to redo it will often be better then trying to patch something in a situation where the characters can't work together.

But if you really want to keep going, and the player can see how things won't work out and is willing to work with you (if the player sin't willing to work with you then this is an entirely different issue). Then you could for example say that the item in question was cursed/possessed and the character was taken over/influenced by it which provoked his actions. How you play it from there.... there's countless of possibilities.

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Players need a sense of agency, and so their actions need to have consequences. But when the DM starts thinking of it as "punishing the player," that becomes problematic. Bad things should happen when a player acts foolishly, but it still needs to be credible: something the players can believe the character caused to happen. If you go far enough that it's clearly just the DM handing out punishments, that strains suspension of disbelief even further, and so it winds up damaging the game even beyond the character's original problematic actions. The things you're talking about are not unreasonable in the general sense, but you're taking them further than is really plausible or fun.

Evil artifacts can certainly have a corrupting influence on Good characters: in fact, they should. But the PCs should be strong-willed enough to keep from being catapulted straight to Evil instantaneously. Maybe LG to G at first: "It's just a tiny slip in discipline, really, and besides, think of what we can do with an artifact like this. The laws of the cosmos aren't even really being fair to me on this. Maybe I should show them someday; give them a demonstration of what good really is. Yeah, that would be great."

The god-smiting thing is another example. Gods don't really like to smite valuable servants, even ones who step out of line, because they're just too hard to come by and build up. To get a god to smite you, you pretty much have to hit its own personal Berserk Button: make it so mad that it's not even thinking about pragmatism anymore. If you're a cleric of the elven god of hatred of the drow, but you marry a drow, that's a smiting (as seen in the 3.5e book Weapons of Legacy: wrong edition for this question, but we're not talking about rules anyway). Other violations, even fairly major ones, shouldn't get you struck down on the spot, but gods do get angry, and they have ways of making their displeasure known. It would certainly be plausible for the PC's god to get mad about something like this, just not berserk enough to reach for the smite button.

What's an appropriate consequence for out-of-character actions? The answer is "whatever would make things most interesting at the moment." A dead PC is not as interesting as a PC who needs to get back on his god's good side. An Evil PC is not as interesting as a PC who has slipped a bit from LG, is actively being corrupted further, and needs to correct that (or choose not to, which leads to its own interesting paths).

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