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I'm DMing a DnD 3.5e game with some combat but mainly focused on narrative and building towards interesting moral themes. I told my players this in session 0. In the game for our last session the party were guests in a manor house. There was one player acting up for laughs and building friction with their slightly haughty in-game hosts. This ended with him failing a roll to steal a paperweight and getting locked away until I could think of a way to deal with him. I'm not afraid to imprison badly behaved characters.

I guided the others on with the plot I had written but the player ended up leaving the session early as there wasn't anything for his character to do and he hadn't said anything for about 40 mins. I said I would allow him to contribute to the discussions the main party were having but he didn't seem interested.

This obviously wasn't ideal but it fit the reality of the situation and environment they were in. Even when the rest of the party attempted to free him they were unpersuasive and rolled badly and I couldn't justify letting him go.

I think the player and I have different approaches to playstyle. My question is how much am I expected to compromise? I don't want to upend the rules and lore of my world because someone wants to mess around.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What exactly is the problem to solve here? Did the player express discontent or did they leave for the practical reason that they cannot do anything anyway? What would a compromise here mean? Lower DC to steal or to escape? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Apr 1 '20 at 20:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega the problem is not likely to be recognized by the OP, as I read the situation. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 1 '20 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ How familiar is the player with the setting? How much did you warn the player of the consequences of his PC's actions? (Presumably, the PC would know those consequences as a dude native to the setting even if the player didn't!) Did the thief know he'd be imprisoned instead of just beaten or warned? (In addition, how about detailing that failing a save to steal? That's a nonstandard DM practice so far as I'm aware.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 1 '20 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega yeah they expressed that they were unhappy afterwards, I'm asking how much I should compromise if at all. \$\endgroup\$ – erfalen_22 Apr 1 '20 at 20:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @erfalen_22 how badly do you want to DM a game? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 1 '20 at 20:45
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There Are No Universal Answers

I don't think anyone is going to give you a quantitative answer on how much you or the player should adapt to each other. The answer is simply too dependent on personal and environment context.

  • By personal context, I mean things like: How well do you know these folks? How important are they to each other? How important are they to you? How much do you want to run the game? How much does this guy want to play? How likely is he to take other players with him?

  • By environmental context, I mean things like: How many other players are available in your area? How easy is it to get one new player or a whole group?

I think everyone realizes that running a game for your sister, her significant other, and your two best friends (with the SO as the problem) in a small town where that is the available pool of players is quite different from a game organized at the local gaming shop with a crew you've never met before and who are easily replaceable.

Other factors that make this particular case tough to offer firm guidance on are:

  • It's just hard to know if the player was having a bad day (in which case effectively removing him from the session is harsh) or if he's one of those guys who is always like this (in which case coming down hard and fast might be appropriate.) That's no one's fault, really, it's just distance.

  • And by the same token, it is hard to know how that Session Zero really went, since all we have are descriptions of you telling, and no reactions, agreement, or push-back. Although I do note there was also a lot of mention of "guiding" the remaining players through the "plot" that had been "written."

The Bottom Line

At this level of detail, there's just no hard answer. The answer is always the result of an implicit social negotiation of sorts between the GM, the players as a group, and individual players. The correct but basically useless answer is, "You want to compromise as little as possible... just like the players do." But that is useless because of all the contextual factors above.

Indeed, one way (not the only way) of looking at a Session Zero is as a way of making some of those ongoing, implicit negotiations up front and explicit. A question only you and your players can truly answer is this: Was your Session Zero a discussion and negotiation, with this player reneging? Or was it more of an ultimatum?

A Frame Challenging Suggestion

There are, perhaps, ways to get your point across or bring your player around without dropping the hammer and effectively removing them from a session, which are not equivalent to compromising your whole game.

Sometimes a simple out of character, "Hey, what the heck?!" can work wonders. So do incremental in-game punishments combined with stern out-game commentary.

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First of all:

Make sure you are playing the same game

It seems like your player views the game world differently than you, maybe rather comical, while from your perspective the situation was meant to be taken seriously. Also it seems you expect the PCs to be somewhat decent beings, while the player lets the PC behave in a non-decent way. I'd recommend to talk to him/her and maybe compromise in the sense that you offer the player situations to behave comically/non-decently (for example bar scenes), but make clear that you expect other situations to work out differently.

About the game mechanics/rules:

You can adapt the extent of the aftermath

Even if a player does something very stupid, excluding a PC from the session is in my opinion a harsh countermeasure. (Though your player was allowed to take part in the discussions, he/she was not really included.)

Examples for compromises in the extend of the aftermath are:

  • The guards could beat the PC up, giving him/her a hindrance for the next 1 or 2 sessions. (Physical or psychological, like limping/trembling or getting easily scared.)
  • Whoever detected the PC stealing, could ask for money (or the PC's nice weapon) to let him/her go.
  • The aftermath could also be entirely role-play based, having your haughty hosts taunt a chained up PC. But be careful: For some players a PC humiliation might be worse than being excluded and would be a fun killer!
  • Since the question is tagged "system-agnostic": Depending on your setting you could have the PC killed and have the player control a new character. (This could fit e.g. a horror game with replacable PCs, where the players don't put much work into character creation. But in most cases this would be an overreaction and a fun killer.)

TL;DR: Make sure you're having compatible expectations on the game and use your options to punish the PC, while not excluding the player from the action.

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