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Followup to this question.

So, I'm running a Starfinder game, and we are 50 sessions into this campaign.

The campaign involves the fate of a small but strategically important settlement, which several factions are vying for control of. My group are from several different factions, but have temporarily agreed to set aside their differences to fight the largest threat. The keyword here is "temporary".

The thing is, 50 sessions in, the cracks in the group have finally come to a point of no return.

The incident in question

The party finds themselves backed into a corner while negotiating with a neutral group. Their ship is besieged by said group (that PC 1) and they demand the arrest of an ally who works for a faction the party is closely allied to.

PC 1 who has a personal grudge with said ally suggests accepting their terms. PCs 2 to 5 think this is not a good idea and want to fight. PC 1 convinces them not to.

At the request of said ally, the ally is sent back while PCs 2 to 5 arm him with enough weapons concealed to either kill himself in case of capture, or to break out at a later date. The latter plan is enacted much to the dismay of PC 1 who attempts to stop this by fistfighting said ally. When that fails, PC 1 informs the besieging faction that the ally is armed.

This has gotten the ally tortured and killed. The faction he belongs to is not happy, and would like to punish PC 1 by shooting him. Furthermore, this has strained the working relationship between PC 1 and PCs 2 to 5 to the point where in-character I don't know whether they would save each other's skins.

I do not know how to "single out" PC 1 without singling out Player 1 and causing hurt feelings.

Attempted solutions

I have spoken to each player that if they do something individually that compromises the group's interest or safety, they might drag the group with them, or they might be singled out (i.e. named personally to be executed).

For the last 50 sessions, I have given them various reasons to stick together, i. e. the BBEG threatening to annex their territory. Despite the BBEG's forces strengthed, these factional issues resurface.

Additional information

  • This is Player 1's first campaign. I have previously spoken to him on concerns that he may be taking in a bit of My Guy Syndrome.
  • This is my first GMed campaign, and I did not expect the campaign to last this long. It was supposed to last around 15 sessions with factionalism being a more limited factor, but the players requested I continue due to a continued interest.
  • The players have stated that they wish to continue playing, and seem not to be particularly distressed by this event as a whole. However, I would still like to avoid hurt feelings when possible.
  • The campaign is ending soon, which means rolling a new character and integrating said character into the party would be a bit disruptive.

Please let me know if more information is required. System is Starfinder, if it helps. Tone of the campaign is action comedy.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How do PCs 2 - 5 feel about PC 1's action? e..g are they angry with Player 1? \$\endgroup\$
    – komodosp
    Dec 6, 2023 at 15:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Players 2 to 5 are not angry with Player 1, but PCs 2 to 5 are angry at PC 1. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 7, 2023 at 13:53

6 Answers 6

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Actions have consequences

The character acted in a way that pissed off the ally's faction, enough that they want vengeance for the death. That's fine. Actions must have consequences for the game to have meaning. So the faction will go after the character. That's not you singling them out, they did cause that themselves. That is also fine.

It however is a mistake if you think they must kill the character for it. You decide that. If you feel that is not going to be any fun, none of your NPCs can force you to do it. You are just falling in the my-guy syndrome trap, just in your case as the GM.

If you think this is only going to cause bad blood and is not worth it so near the end to the campaign, don't do it. Have them send someone to give a warning shot instead. Have them give the character an out in paying off the widow's pension. Have them send an inept killer, so the PC has a chance to survive the attack. In essence, this is a similar problem you need to solve as when the PCs made mortal enemies that want to send assassins.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems easiest to do from my skillsets, thanks! What are some other warning shot ideas that are out there? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2023 at 16:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HFOrangefish That would be a good separate question (at least if made as an experience based on, or one that lists examples from published modules, to avoid running into issues with opinon-based answers). The link to the assassination one has an example from Dragon Heist/Dungeon of the Mad Mage \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2023 at 18:51
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I should caveat that I have never played Starfinder, but this issue sounds borderline system agnostic.

Also, as a tangent, I recommend against punishing players or PCs. With very few exceptions where you are a genuine authority figure and the player is doing something totally unacceptable, you should not punish players. (Asking a disruptive player to leave is of course acceptable, but that is not exactly a punishment at least as I view it so much as it is protecting the integrity of the game and group.) I think you mean you want to punish the character. That of course is acceptable in a sense, but personally I advocate against even doing that as a direct intention. Players generally do not like having their character's punished directly and the point is for everyone to have fun.

Of course, that does not mean you should prevent negative consequences to the player characters. Preventing any consequences would, at least for many players, diminish the fun. The possibility of negative consequences such as character death or losing gear is and (at least at most tables) should be part of the game.

But I think there is a subtle but fundamental distinction in the mindset between "What are the logical results of this action, even if the PC might dislike some of them?" and "How can I punish the PC?" I believe the first works better.

Now with that said, some options that I have used before in somewhat analogous situations:

Consider having the faction give PC1 a way to atone.

You may wish to have a representative of the offended faction contact the team, say that they are extremely unhappy about the actions of PC1. But in light of the teams value and prior relationship, they are willing to forgive this transgression if the party handles an issue for them.

This gives you an easy way to introduce a major plot hook and introduces consequences that at least on their face look negative without singling out PC1 too much and without being too harsh.

This kind of thing happens fairly often in fiction, including the 2016 Suicide Squad movie.

Consider giving the team a chance to change sides.

How well this works depends on the full relationship between the characters and the various factions and the various factions with the other factions.

Still, PC1 acted against this faction. Perhaps the group wants to use that as an opportunity to align themselves with one of the other factions that might protect them from this faction's retribution and even reward them.

This would require buy-in from all the players. (Having players on opposite sides can actually be a lot of fun, but I wouldn't recommend it for people new to RPGs and its a lot of work even for experienced groups).

Consider having the faction attempt to punish PC1, but in a way the others can rescue him.

This probably won't work for your group if PC1 is relatively new to RPGs and you are new to running a game. Still, with the right group and the right circumstances, having the other PCs swoop in to rescue this one from punishment could be a lot of fun, and the basic idea of rescuing a roguish character from a punishment that is well deserved is very common in fiction and hardly unheard of in RPGs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Was going to comment that players not wanting to have characters punished is an over-generalization, but you cover that in your very next paragraph. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Dec 1, 2023 at 3:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Questor it could be an interesting sideplot in itself to avoid the vendetta of the faction or trick them into believing that they have accomplished their vengeance while protecting the character. \$\endgroup\$
    – zovits
    Dec 1, 2023 at 16:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Questor faction brings to mind organisation and management, gang brings to mind big egos and powerful weapons. One cares about looking tough, the other cares about larger objectives. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Questor a cartel is interesting, because if they see the PC's are rivals they are more likely to entreat with them because they respect the power, if they think they can actually win or don't respect the PC's then they will most likely resort to violence. Cartel vs cartel violence for example is mostly street level, the actual people who run those cartels negotiate. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri except when someone betrays them. THere is a very large difference between how people treat with people who harmed them because they were enemies.. To how people treat people who harmed them that they thought were allies. Look up what the historical treatment of traitors is... Or how gangs/cartels treat traitors... PC1 was nominally an ally of the NPC, they were working together, and he betrayed them. Thats a very different boat from PC1 being an enemy of NPC + group and killing NPC. \$\endgroup\$
    – Questor
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:35
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I would personally ask Player 1 how he intends the storyline he has started to play out. He's obviously not thinking in those terms, but he will either (a) be forced to see the issue from a more useful perspective (i.e. 'how best to continue the story' as opposed to 'how can I get the most drama in or out of character') or (b) he will abdicate all responsibility.

In case (a) he probably won't give any useful suggestions, but you can work elements into whatever you do decide on and keep him from feeling bullied. In case (b) I would, in the same conversation, tell him what is going to happen - the other answers have good suggestions but I would recommend saying that there will be a constant stream of assassins whenever he's alone, and that you will make sure that he's alone fairly often.

My logic here is that you need the player to actively buy in to your plot (or at least his character's part in it), or there's no reason for him not to be disruptive again. This means you both need to be on the same page about what's going to happen and how it will play out. You can even guarantee that he'll survive the consequences, if you think the player would prefer that (though I generally wouldn't expect him to; I expect he wants to overcome a challenge without any sort of visible training wheels).

The greater problem, of course, is that he didn't tell you about his secret plan. It's nice that the other players seem okay with it, but you might ask them privately how they would handle the situation if they were GM (make sure not to give up responsibility, though - they're probably only so tolerant because they trust you to deal with the problem for them). The two times I've had that type of player the solution was to kick them out, in one case after playing with him for several years (he actually quit in a huff because he felt disrespected, which I would not recommend as a plan).

Although it doesn't give a 'how-to' for this specific situation, I would say that Robin's Laws of Good GMing gives lots of good general advice, particularly in how to think about your players' wishes, so I'd recommend it to someone in your situation (or any GM, really).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Getting the new player to understand the GM perspective is great advice. I am going to use this kind of thinking in my own games when players go completely left field! \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ "and that you will make sure that he's alone fairly often" <-- that inappropriately steps over the line to be the GM punishing the player. \$\endgroup\$
    – Makyen
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Makyen The intention here is to make sure the player knows he can't just say 'I make sure my character is never alone' and become immune to sudden assassination attempts. If it were a player you could rely on to actively support a plotline like that, you could just ask them to tell you when they feel it's dramatically appropriate for them to be attacked, but in this situation I feel that the GM needs to make the decision on timing, and that therefore it's very important that the player knows what you're planning to do before they agree to it. \$\endgroup\$
    – aantia
    Dec 4, 2023 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aantia It's reasonable for the GM to have the NPCs respond how they would respond to the situation, with the caveat that's mentioned in other answers that it can get into a "my guys" situation on the part of the GM. However, the GM saying "I'm going to make sure your character is alone fairly often" steps right into GM manipulation of the character and/or the situation. That's very different from saying "these NPCs may take any opportunity to attack your character when your character is alone." The latter leaves the player with the agency as to making sure their character isn't alone. \$\endgroup\$
    – Makyen
    Dec 4, 2023 at 15:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Makyen That's absolutely what I intend here. My goal in this scenario is to railroad that character's personal plot so that it it forms a satisfying narrative (with 'frequent assassination attempts' just being an option I would recommend). That's why it's important to be up-front about it and solicit the player's opinion - perhaps they would like to suggest a way they intend to get the enemy off their back, as an end-point for this situation. (I'll update my answer to cover my logic better after we talk it through here) \$\endgroup\$
    – aantia
    Dec 4, 2023 at 16:29
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First, I'd like to say I have enjoyed reading this little puzzle you've presented to us.
Second - and I mean this sincerely - it sounds like your first attempt at being a GM was way better than my first attempt.
Props to you for sticking in this awkward situation for 50 sessions.

I have a couple things for you to consider.
They aren't answers exactly, but I hope these thoughts will point you toward answers as you think about this, and work through it. Regardless of how you choose to resolve this campaign.

So here's a question that I can't answer from what I've seen so far:

PCs 2-5 arm him with enough weapons concealed to... break out at a later date. [This] plan is enacted much to the dismay of PC 1 who attempts to stop this by fist fighting said ally.
When that fails, PC 1 informs the besieging faction that the ally is armed.

What was the Player like at this point?
Was PC 1 frustrated and desperate... or was the player frustrated and/or taking it personally?
The answer to that, is a key in how to wrap up this story arc and end it.

This has gotten the ally tortured and killed.

I'm going to toss out this question to help you think it through again:
That made it happen... really? Did it? Or was that just what you decided?

Remember it is your world - you control the game and the NPCs.
Given that fact, you also control to an extent the PCs. That's at the root of your whole question, right?
So, in a couple days, ask yourself, "Did they have to torture and kill the ally?" Maybe, but then again, maybe next time you can set up the situation better, so that doesn't have to happen.

You asking yourself questions like:

  • "Maybe they had to torture. But, did they actually have to kill the ally?"
  • "How could I have set it up differently, so I had more options at that point in the session?"

is like athletes who watch game films to get better.
To help you grow as a GM, it is good to rethink things like this.

Since this has already happened it might come across as critical, but that's not my intent - as I said above - you're doing better than I did my first go at GM!

The faction he belongs to is not happy, and would like to punish PC 1 by shooting him.

As above, I will suggest that shooting him isn't the only way it could go.

I do not know how to "single out" PC 1 without singling out Player 1 and causing hurt feelings.

It's his first character, you are right to tread carefully.

In the spirit of SO, I supposed I'm obligated to give an answer to your question.
The whole thing doesn't work well if no one gives answers.

Your title question is:

One of PCs backstabbed a powerful ally.
How do I punish them without seeming like singling them out?

The answer is: You can't.
If your plan is "punish PC 1" you have just "singled out".
You can't have it both ways. That's how life is :-)

Q: No. I said "punish without seeming to single out" that character.
What's the answer to that question... the one that I actually asked?

A: True. But being sneaky enough to pull that off takes some skill, and a lot of planning and effort.
(Even with all that, the player will likely figure it out)
However, I'm hearing you say that you're tired of this campaign, and you want it to end.
If I'm wrong I'm wrong - but while I think that maybe you could do it in a future campaign, I don't know that you can do it now... in this one... which you're kind 'a tired of.
(And I don't blame you if you're ready to be done with it... whew! Gaming should be fun - and while it may sometimes take a lot of work - you should enjoy the work you are putting in it!)

The options I see for you

You can just allow the whole thing to unravel as it will.
You are blessed to have four experienced players (2-5) who seem willing to roll with whatever happens.
You had a plan for the campaign - I know you did because you said you expected it to run about 15 sessions. The plan was likely for the PCs to do something. If the PCs aren't willing to (or can't) do it themselves, NPCs could achieve the goal for them while the "PC part" is unraveling.
Or... not. You can just see how and where it goes. Because you have only one new player, and you're all working to not spoil his first experience, that will cushion any bad fall the newbie may have at the end.

You can ask the four experienced players to help you end this.
They may be surprised at this.
As player/GMs they probably were just enjoying playing. I bet they think it is going better than you think it is. Tell them you want to keep running a campaign, and that you can immediately start another one - but this one is "burning you out with the stress" or "keeping you up at night" or whatever phrase works for you.
If they know you're ready to run again, they'll figure something out for you to end this one just so they can play a little longer.

Please do follow up to let us know what you chose to do, and how you think it went. I'm invested at this point - not sure why your two questions have hooked me in so thoroughly, but they have.

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Talk with the Player

So, the Player currently has done something to seriously anger a big faction, and the other PCs aren't in-line with it.

Sit down and talk with the Player. Tell them you are going to make this a major part of the next arc, and the character may or may not survive it.

Is there anything dramatically fun the player would like to do with the character? Any important inter-personal issues with other PCs they want to resolve? Anything they want to add to the dramatic arc of the character?

As the DM, you can be on the side of the character's dramatic arc, even if you are dooming the character themselves.

Do the build up

Help resolve the character's arcs. Push the PC and the other character who have unresolved character arcs into interacting. Bring up a character from the PC's past that twists things up a bit.

And out of character, remind the player that we are possibly winding down that character's story.

Part of this is ensuring the player doesn't feel punished. They get the spotlight for a bit, just before the trap snaps shut. But the other part is opening up for the next phase:

See what happens

Bring in an outsider.

I mean, when haven't you seen this in fiction. The rag-tag group of people pushed together by circumstances. Then an outsider shows up and threatens one of them.

Have this outsider "kick the dog" - gives a sign that nobody should like them. And the outsider demands that the entire party help punish that one member of the group.

You aren't writing the end of the character. You are writing a potential end.

Be open to either possibility. The other characters turn on the betraying character, or they decide that no outsider gets to beat up their friend.

Both lead to juicy drama. And it isn't a throw away moment. It was after the character wrapped up their story lines, and the entire party deciding to turn on one of their own or turn on an outsider.

And now the conclusion

Either way - the players falling apart, or forming up ranks - should be possible. And use that as the introduction to the end of the campaign.

Have a plan ready for the player whose character is betrayed. Maybe he gets to take over as the kick-the-dog dude who killed their previous character.

Regardless, now the character's death (or not) is central to the plot of the end of campaign.

If they turned on the character, the kick-the-dog NPC should be a great villain for the final arc (or, an alternative PC). If they didn't, then the chaos of finding a new patron and realigning the party will make a great final chapter. The party is now its own faction. Who will they align with?

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Mistakes were made

It sounds like a mistake was made here. You didn't want this NPC to die, perhaps he had an important role to play in some future plans.. Regardless he wasn't supposed to die. But he did because PC1 was allowed to kill him.

PC1 was allowed to kill him, because NPC didn't behave like a real person. No desires, no sense of self preservation. Would you be willing to be turned in to a bunch of your enemies? I wouldn't, I don't think your NPC should have been either... the NPC should have refused PC1s demands. Full stop.

If PC1 tried to force the issue. the NPC should have shown PC1 why he is an important member of GroupX. I wouldn't necessarily have NPC kill PC1, but PC1 shouldn't have walked away from the fight. (In any dnd game... if your VIP NPCs aren't strong enough to beat a PC, then why are they a VIP?)

But that isn't what happened and now you are where you are.

What happens next?

You need to do some research into human psychology... So you have a bunch of factions that are fighting for control over a territory. Probably in an illegalish manner. This sounds to me like a bunch of gangs fighting over control over territory... What would a gang do if person(s) were to betray one of their own members to a rival? Google "gang war" to see the most likely result of PC1s action.

What should happen? Next time the PCs meet GroupX, GroupX should say "We haven't heard from NPC for a while he was with y'all last going to do Y where is he?"

This gives the PC's a chance to lie themselves out of the situation, while informing them that GroupX isn't going to be an ally anymore because of PC1s action. If they lie poorly, or don't lie at all. They as a group are now in direct conflict with GroupX. But even if they manage to talk themselves out of a conflict at that time... Eventually their lie is going to catch up to them and GroupX should eventually treat the PCs like enemies because of NPC's death. ANd yes GroupX would blame the entire play group, and not just PC1. They don't know that its PC1's fault... The only thing that GroupX knows (unless your other PC's betray PC1 like he betrayed NPC) is that the PCs caused NPCs death.

In other words, it is important to let the players know that acting like psychopaths who betray allies because they don't like them, will lead to other groups treating their PC's like a bunch of rabid dogs that need to be put down.

How to not single out PC1

I wouldn't worry about it. PC1 has already singled himself out by killing NPC. There being consequences for to PC1 for actions that he willingly took is not singling him out.

(not PC1 is not player 1. PC1 is the character, Player 1 is the person)

However

You do need to communicate out of game with player 1, and let them know that because they murdered NPC, GroupX will not be happy with PC1. ANd will most likely communicate that displeasure violently... You need to make certain that player 1 is okay/understands this.

I will admit that I play tabletop games a bit differently then most people... I have a tendency to treat my NPCs like real people who have wants/desires/behave the way real people tend to behave. "If you cut us do we not bleed. If you wound us shall we not seek vengeance"

Ask yourself what would I do if someone killed my friend, and I could do something about it... And let that be your guiding light to how GroupX behaves.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your summary of the situation doesn't match the OP's description of events, so the proposed resolution doesn't quite follow. \$\endgroup\$
    – asgallant
    Dec 1, 2023 at 20:52

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