We had an interesting dilemma in our game recently. A lawful good paladin was playing “bad cop” in an interrogation and threatened (a bluff) to execute a stranger (by all appearances, a peasant hunter) who was being less than wholly truthful. The stranger’s companion was subdued after pulling a knife while sharing camp and stabbing the Paladin (inflicting a surprising amount of damage for a peasant). As the party approached the second hunter, who had backed away from the scene, with clear intentions of detaining him, the second hunter drew his knife as to attack. In response, the Paladin’s comrade (the one to whom he gave the bluff “execute” order earlier, attacked and killed the second hunter.
This escalation of violence caused a sudden tension between the party members. Some felt the order for violence, and the execution of the order, should be considered an evil act, and require atonement or loss of divine powers for the Paladin. After all, the peasant was surrounded by high-level heroes whom he had little to no real ability to mortally threaten. Others viewed the situation through a lens that did not include the game system’s relative immunity of heroes to people as weak as peasants (even if the peasant is holding a knife). They were acting as though their friend really had been stabbed in the chest, and the possible threat of death that could accompany it. They would not allow a second possible assailant to draw a weapon and attack before acting.
The result of this was a party where the players were suddenly not so sure how their characters would react to each other. The party priest was initially inclined to immediately leave the party, return to civilization, and to potentially raise an investigation into the Paladin’s actions with the church and authorities for the act of ordering the death of another man (or associating with a man that killed him) when that man didn’t offer any real risk to the party.
Some people like these moral inter-party conflicts, and others hate them. It started to look like sides were being drawn up among the party, and it seemed in that moment as though the night of gaming would be derailed by players trying to figure out what their characters would do, if they would be willing to be led by the Paladin anymore, and whether they would retire their characters, etc.
Why have I described all of this in detail? The point is that we reached a pivotal moment where not only might the game have been derailed, but where character conflict might start to boil over into personal player conflict. I actually ran another game once that dissolved due to player conflict when two players disagreed on a pivotal decision. One player ended up having his character use force against the other. To make matters worse, the player using force seemed to really enjoy the inter-party conflict, while the other felt as though the whole thing was a betrayal of a social contract of the game. The session turned awkward and the game never really got rolling again.
Personally, I like the idea that players are immersing in their characters and for their decisions to be the decisions they think their character would make in the situation they are in. This means that character conflict is not only possible, but likely, in an ongoing game. But, if everyone is immersing on that level with their characters, then they’re going to feel hurt when another player starts a conflict with them, because the more players are in the minds of their characters, the more personal that conflict is going to become.
In the end, the Paladin essentially agreed to atone for his actions and raise the killed peasant from death, and the Cleric agreed to accept the gesture and continue adventuring with the party. I doubt either of them felt those actions were in character, but they both realized that enjoying the game is more important.
We don’t have a defined social contract at the gaming table, but look – more than any other game, an RPG is a cooperative experience where we work together to create a fun experience. No single player can be responsible for this, and neither can the GM. I do think we have a social obligation at the table to make decisions that might be best for our relationships as people, more so than to make the right game decision. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be character conflict. Some of the most memorable moments in our game have had some significant character conflict – the key is that everyone at the table needs to understand that conflict isn’t necessary bad, or directed at them, or an indictment of you personally when clearly we’re acting through characters and those actions may only reflect us, the players, on a superficial level. At the same time, as friends, we have to understand what each others threshold for conflict is in a given situation and work to resolve it, by whatever means. This may result in your character making an absurd decision or judgement, or it may result in the game going in a different direction that you the player wanted. But, didn’t we already make such a concession up front when we started adventuring? Your character just decided to go out into the dangerous world, with a group of mostly strangers, and put his or her life in these strangers’ hands? Would your character ever really do that? We often start the game by making some absurd concessions because of the same social contract – we’re gathering to play a game and to have fun spending time together – which we can’t do without this hand-waving of origins and hand-waving of character trust in one another.
What I’m saying is that while one of the goals of the game is to role-play a relatively consistent character, we can’t let that trump the reason we play the game in the first place.