I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about temptation in an RPG setting. None of these thoughts are fully fleshed out. I’m putting this up in the hopes of starting some sort of discussion on how to best approach the problem. Please comment, Tweet, etc. I would love community input, as I don’t feel like I have a good answer…yet.
Temptation is a tricky business in RPGs, especially if you have a group that isn’t necessarily “role playing” focused. This is primarily because the character and the player are two separate entities; even though the player is supposed to be making decisions in a manner that reflects their character’s personality, that is often not the case.
Part of the problem is that many players don’t think about their characters enough to give them weaknesses. Part of the problem is that the character is not the player and the temptations aren’t really there. For example, I might choose for my character to be an alcoholic (see below). The DM could have an NPC offer my character a beer. Even if I were an alcoholic just like my character, the beer being offered to my character isn’t real, so saying “no” to the temptation isn’t hard, especially if I (as a player) see no upside, and a definite downside to my character giving in.
So, even if a player chooses to play a character with a “vice” it is often the case that he would not make a choice that would put the character at a disadvantage, or in any kind of danger. In this case, the object of temptation becomes a roleplaying schtick rather than a compelling part of the story. For example, back in 3.5 days, I did play a dwarven fighter who was an alcoholic. The rest of the party knew this, so when he went into a tavern and asked for a beer, the rest of the party would intervene. However, the “vice” of alcoholism didn’t really extend beyond that general silliness; if he had been presented with beer in the middle of a combat or other dire situation (like a skill challenge), with penalties for giving in to the temptation, I would have not chosen for my character to give in to the temptation.
So we have a distinction to make. As a roleplayer, do you (or your players) make choices that your character would make, or choices that are in the best interest of your character? It’s a distinction that I’m betting you’ve never thought of, but is an important one. I’ll wager most players make choices that are in the best interest of their characters. And that’s fine, to a point, but I believe it closes off a lot of good story avenues. After all, there is a very strong and overt theme of temptation surrounding the one ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If Tolkien had made choices that were in the best interests of the characters, the story would have been very different.
There are several ways that I have come up with to approach this problem with a group that is more interested in making choices that are in the best interest of their characters rather than choices that their character would make:
1. Layer a “virtue/vice” system over the game. This is basically a list of vices or weaknesses that each player has to choose from, as well as a list of strengths. There are penalties or disadvantages associated with each vice, and bonuses or benefits associated with the virtues. The problem with this approach is its narrowness. The player gets to choose exactly what situations they are “tempted” in. It also restricts the DM to some extent; if the DM at some point later in the campaign comes up with something he’d like to be tempting, but is not on the list, he is out of luck.
2. Compel characters to do things through mechanics. This is similar to #1, but more open ended. It also leaves the “choice” of what a character finds tempting in the hands of the DM and the dice. What this might look like: the DM has something he wants the characters to find tempting, so he makes an attack vs. will on every member of the party that is subject to it. Whomever it hits, has to give in to the temptation; the player has no choice in the matter. As a kicker, those characters that are “hit” by the temptation have future penalties to resist the temptation in the future. The open endedness of this approach means that the DM doesn’t have to forsee the things he wants to be temptations in his campaign. The big problem with this approach is the lack of player choice, at least at the start; I would hope that a player whose character “gives in” to temptation in this manner would embrace it as a roleplaying opportunity, even though they did not necessarily make the choice for their character. (The small problem with this approach is that it favors characters with a high will defense. But maybe that’s a good thing.)
3. Tempt the player. I know what you’re thinking. I’m not going to suggest that you find out what your player’s vices are, and then tempt them. (“Bob, I heard you’re addicted to gambling. It just so happens I have a bag full of dice here…”) So then, what am I suggesting? While there may be a variety of things that we can think of to tempt a character, I know of one thing that will always tempt a player: an awesome character. While this approach is a little less simulationist than the above two, it leaves the choice entirely up to the player. The DM simply provides a questionable way for the player to make the character awesome. No attack vs. will, just a hard choice. So, for example, in the middle of combat, the character is given the option to call upon a demonic power source to suddenly get a free action attack that does triple normal damage, and automatically hits. The consequences for doing so are perhaps a little vague, but “most certainly minor” (or that’s what the demon said, anyway). In a combat that’s headed towards a TPK, the player might have a hard time saying no to such a power (the character too, for that matter).
Of course, there’s probably a method or two I haven’t thought of. As I said at the beginning of the article, this is a problem I still haven’t found a solution to, so I’ll end with this…
How do you handle temptation and vices in your game? Is it a serious storytelling mechanic, or a fun roleplaying schtick? Or do you ignore it completely?