Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Thief Problem: How to Deal with Someone Stealing within the Party

One of the most cliche of all GM problems is dealing with a thief PC that steals from the party.  It ranks right up there with "the Thief and the Paladin" problem.  Most GMs will come across this problem sooner or later.  In this article I give some tips for dealing with the problem from an experienced (30+ years) GM.  Our goal in finding a solution to this problem is to find a way to both make the game more interesting and to deal with the problem in game without generating a player vs player conflict that can disrupt your gaming group.

The first stage in setting up to deal with this problem is to establish your position early to your group of how you will deal with it.  My preferred position is that it will be discouraged, but always dealt with in game.  I usually also add that I will not allow player versus player combat, excepting perhaps nonlethal actions.  This gives the players some options without leading to the gaming group-killing scenario of one PC killing another.

When the thief starts trying to steal things, make sure you first use the perception vs sleight of hand mechanic (or whatever it is in your system) to ensure everyone gets a reasonable chance to see what is going on.  If the thief is smart, he'll do it when folks are distracted or asleep, or perhaps use a high-dex build to overpower this check.  Don't forget that larger items are almost impossible to hide, so giving magic weapons as loot often eliminates part of the problem before it starts.

Unfortunately, even the smartest thief doesn't always think ahead enough to remember they may have trouble carrying their loot.  Make sure you make them track how much they are carrying when they start stealing, and make sure you tell them all the trouble they have when they start carrying too much with a minimized strength score.

The next mechanic I would add is a daily check for each target who was stolen from.  Everyday when going through their stuff, a PC has a chance of noticing a missing object.  I let them use the higher of wisdom (it looks like something is missing from my pack) or intelligence (I know I had exactly 12 potions yesterday).  I set the DC to 10 for obvious or larger items and 20 as a max DC for items.  Once one PC in the party in the group succeeds at this check, give all other PCs a recheck at +10, because now they are actively searching for something missing.  Give everyone one check per item daily FOREVER.  This is somewhat realistic and will ensure that the thief will get caught.  At this point the party knows someone is stealing.

The thief may get smart and try to claim they have something missing too to throw blame.  Don't forget this is a lie, so a bluff check vs sense motive is required and can get the thief caught.

The other option is to allow an in game plot point to show who is stealing.  Force the party through a border crossing where they have to pay tax on the items they have with them.  When the thief has ten guards haphazardly searching through his stuff, the rest of the party will finally find the missing items.

Once the thief is caught, it is time to remind the party of their alignments.  Lawful players automatically get reminded that thieves get dealt with in these lands by "insert punishment here".  Stockade, imprisonment, and having hands chopped off are reasonable punishments in most fantasy lands.  The party can also choose to banish the thief.  In this case, I would tell the thief player that it is time to roll a new character.  The party may also choose the add new rules to the thief's continued mode of operation with the party.  For example, require the thief to be handcuffed to the paladin while not in a fight.

If there is a physical engagement, the party may choose nonlethal options to disable and perhaps restrain the thief.  Allows this to happen.  Allow the party to even have a surprise round if appropriate.

Worst case, you might end up with a thief who is excommunicated from the party and tries to follow.  Consider this condition banishment, and have the player roll a new character.  If that is going to be a group-ending scenario, have a large ambush happen, and let the thief get caught with multiple attackers by himself.  The thief player needs to understand that surviving in game requires team work, and undermining that is going to result in his character's death.

In the longer game, there are alternatives to getting rid of a problematic thief that evades normal measures to curb stealing.  As a GM, you can always make the thief a monster magnet, since he will likely have the best equipment.  This not only gives the thief another part of the game to focus on, but it also makes the thief wish his party members had better equipment to protect him with.  The thief can also become the target of thieves.  Forcefully indoctrinating a thief into the thieves guild, and then making him pay almost everything he steals will also curb his appetite for stealing from the party and leave him looking for a way out.

In the end, a combination of plot points and game mechanics will wear the thief down until he stops stealing from the party.  Along the way there will be some cool storylines, cool interactions, and a learning experience for the whole group.

The Greatest Frustration

"The greatest frustration of a gamer is not having someone to game with." -- The Pink Dice GM

Friday, June 27, 2014

GM Tip: Be a Nice GM

Much like religion, advice comes in two forms -- general guiding rules that help you figure things out, and very specific rules that apply to only narrow situations.  This week I want to address a key general rule for a GM:  Be a Nice GM.

We've all heard the horror stories of evil GMs just destroying characters for no reason.  We've seen the ongoing discussions of GMs figuring out how to tear down overpowered characters and punish ill-guided players.  We've probably even all played in Tomb of Horrors at least once, so we know how evil a place really can be for characters.  Unfortunately, these widespread tales really emphasize the ability of any GM to fall into the trap of being an Evil GM.

Don't do that.  Follow these few easy rules and you will be a nice GM who still can have lots of fun and kill lots of characters without generating unhappy players:

Rule 0.  Try to make sure everyone is having fun.  This may mean accommodating changes to the game to make players happy.  This may mean allowing character changes or designing future encounters to better fit what the players want to do.

Rule 1.  Characters should only permanently die for three reasons:  the player left, the player made a stupid choice, the character was being sacrificed for their greater goals.  If you limit death to these three reasons, players will be happy with deaths instead of unhappy.  They will feel like they got a fair shake.  This doesn't mean they won't be sad.  Many a player has become emotional at my table over losing a beloved character, but they want to keep playing after their character's death.  This also doesn't rule out making them role a new character to play until they can save up 5000 for a rod of resurrection.

Rule 2.  Clearly communication the rules to the players.  When players are clear about the rules then things will go smoothly.  The GM should reserve the right to review rules in detail outside the game table, if they don't know, and proceed with a standby call during game play, if needed.  They should take inputs from players on how to interpret rules.  The rules represent a contract between the GM and the players and should be respected.  GMs shouldn't break the rules.

Rule 3.  The players (and their characters) share the spotlight.  Make the game play to the abilities that the players are designing their characters for.  A trapfinder rogue that doesn't find any traps, a mage without magic, a fighter without monsters to fight, or a bard without talking, make for a bad time.

Rule 4.  Let the players lead the way on role playing.  You will encounter a mix of players.  Some will be their characters.  Some will narrate their characters.  Let this slide, as you can.  Engage the players how you want to role play.  This kind of easy-going role play attitude allows everyone to get comfortable in the environment and find their sweet spot for role playing.  This mix is good.  And generally, the players will edge towards a happy medium established by the group.

Rule 5.  Be firm but clear on conduct rules.  When you have interpersonal relationship problems in your group, be firm but clear on your expectations.  Don't let players break rule 0, but make sure you talk to them when there are issues.  Some of my best players through the years have had issues, but with a quick talk, things were resolved and the game continued better than ever.  Don't allow a single disruptive players to continue to play if they don't correct their mistakes.  It is never worth it.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Paladinic Philosophy 101: Another Way to Play a Lawful Good Paladin Without Being Lawful Stupid

Quite a few years ago I found an excellent reference for explaining paladinic philosophy based on the Path of Honor.  TL; DR on this is pretty simple.  Paladins have a set of privileges that can be earned or lost based on how an individual person acts.  A number of these privileges are default privileges that everyone gets by default and can only lose:

  • Life -- Privilege to not die a meaningless death
  • Well-Being -- One should not have their health intentionally compromised by another
  • Procedure -- People should be allowed to do what they want by the paladin, so long as it doesn't infringe upon others' privileges
  • Esteem -- One has the right to courtesy and respect
Beyond these default privileges are additional ones that can be earned:
  • Confidence -- trusted by the paladin
  • Deference -- a person's word is trusted in a given area
  • Command -- a person can direct the paladin
  • Absolute Command -- a person can direct the paladin without question
So when playing a lawful good paladin, many of the "good" side of things are simply these default privileges.  Of course, how the paladin chooses to play these default privileges in a setting can vary.  For example, do they only apply to intelligent humanoid races?  Do they apply to goblins?  Do they apply to murderers?  What proof does the paladin need to revoke the privileges of a person?  Must he witness the acts himself?  Can he simply hear of these acts from someone he has confidence in?  These distinctions give the "good" side of lawful good still a good bit of grey area.

The "lawful" side of the paladin is really all about the earned privileges.  What law the paladin chooses to follow depends on who has earned the deference, command, and absolute command privileges from the paladin.  For example, one would suspect a paladin to always hold their deity in a level of absolute command.  High priests and clerics under their deity may also hold absolute command.  However, where do kings and noblemen fall?  If there is an evil king in the land, does the paladin still give that king absolute command, command, deference, or even confidence?  Does that king lose privileges as he performs evil acts depriving his subjects of their default privileges?  This grey area of law also gives a spectrum of options when playing the paladin.

Unfortunately, the one area of the paladin where the grey area does not apply is committing evil acts.  Evil, which could be interpreted as breaking default privileges in an unjustified manner, is simply something a paladin should not be involved with.  This is not to say the paladin is without fault; however, the consequences of an intentional evil act, as judged by their deity, is for them to be cut off from their deity's power, until they make up for their evil act.

So next time you come across a paladin in your party, along the road, or even as your own character option, remember that there are a lot more ways to play a paladin that just your typical shining knight lawful stupid.  Put together a picture of how your paladin views the world, and you'll find a better way to play.