In last night’s game the thief endured a nasty trap and discovered a magic item on the corpse of a previous victim. Unfortunately it was an item he couldn’t use, so when the party got back to town he tried to hock it. The party was up in arms – it was actually the first magic item they had found and several party members really wanted it. The thief insisted that he had risked his life for it so he should get to do with it as he pleased.
Sound familiar? I think we’ve all played with the thief character who is always looking out for number one. Whether it’s skimming a little off the top, trying to pocket the best bit of treasure before the rest of the party notices, or even pick-pocketing fellow party members, this can lead to some real inter-party strife. The player will often defend themselves with “I’m just playing my character! I’m a thief!” But it still leads to resentment, and can even end with that player finding themselves uninvited to future games. How do you deal with it? I have some thoughts.
The problem is one of separation of player and character. As DM, I try to never involve myself in discussions of how to distribute party loot. It feels like such an “in character” thing that I feel I shouldn’t get involved. However, the above problem player often fails to make it clear when they’re just trying to portray a sneaky, self-interested thief vs. trying to make their character better, richer, or more powerful at every other player’s expense. I think there are a couple methods you can employ to play nice with the group, and let everyone have a little fun while still being true to your character.
Make In-Character Vs. Out-Of-Character Super Clear
When you say “I try to hock the sword” and the party makes a fuss, don’t reply with “Hey, I risked my neck for this thing, I deserve the pay-off.” Say something like “Sneaky Pete gives the rest of the party the stink-eye and says ‘Oi, I risked my neck for this thing, I should get sumfink fer it.'” It’s a subtle difference, but it clues the other players in that you’re engaging both as the portrayer of Sneaky Pete, but also as co-narrator of the story.
More so, follow this up with calling out responders who are unclear if their response is in-character or out-of-character. For example, if someone says “That’s not fair, Pete can’t even wield a polearm!” ask them directly “are you saying that in-character?” that way you can respond appropriately. If it’s a player response, you can reply with “you’re totally right, someone in the party who can use the polearm should have it, but Sneaky Pete is an asshole who is always out for what he can get.” Or if it’s in character, you can then together have a fun in-character conversation grounded in the fact that you are two people who don’t have a conflict pretending to be people that do.
Help Pursue The Group Goals
It should be pretty obvious that the group would benefit by having a magic polearm. So when you find you have to balance that against portraying the rat-bastardry of Sneaky Pete, try to find a way to do it that still engages the group’s goals. For example, maybe have Sneaky Pete approach the fighter in the group: “Hello my friend, look at this shiny polearm I found. Because we’re pals I can cut you in on a real deal – just 1,000 gold and it’s all yours!”
Share A Laugh Over Your Character’s Set-Backs
Watching a greedy bastard get shut down or make a fool of himself is entertaining. Make it clear to the group that you too find this entertaining too, even though it’s your character. For example, say the DM asks for a stealth roll as you try to separate from the group to go sell the polearm, and you roll a 5. The DM says several members of the group notice you trying to slink off. Grab the narrative reigns:
Sneaky Pete holds the polearm behind his back, the heavy axe blade obviously swaying around above his head. He looks at the party members all staring at him and says, “What polearm? Oh, um, right, this polearm! I was just, er… going to see if I could find a wizard to identify it. Why don’t you join me?” If the fighter comes along with him he then grumbles “stupid eagle-eyed so-and-so…” then turns to look at the fighter who can clearly hear him and gives him a bit shit-eating grin.
If It Gets Heated, Step Back
If things should go badly, step back completely and have a quick out-of-character chat with your fellow players. Say some of the things I’ve said here and make your intentions as clear as possible. For example, if everyone is looking really upset at you trying to get more than your share for the magic polearm, try this:
Hey guys, real quick out-of-character — I realize Sneaky Pete is a total bastard and I like playing that up for laughs, but I don’t mean to piss you all off for real. I’m totally cool with it if you want to play out dealing with him, but if you’d rather just say that you yell at him and threaten him until he coughs up the polearm and move on, I’m fine with that too.
Well, those are my thoughts on the situation off the cuff. This coming Sunday Dan and I will be having a related discussion on Wandering DMs about the separation between player and character, and how much or how little of each concern we like in our games. Watch us live at 1 PM Eastern and toss your thoughts into the chat, we’d love to hear from you!