Help needed in making my players care about their characters

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I've been running the same group off and on for quite a few years now.    In the past 5, we've only played seasonally, a game here and there.  But we're getting ready to start an on-going campaign.    For the first time in a long while, I required the players to each create a backstory for their characters.

While all my players seem to enjoy the story, some tend to play in such a way that something is either a combat advantage or it's useless.   I have one player in particular who I've already hinted to that he is meta-gaming but I don't think my words sunk in.    He is the type of player that I swear I could offer his character a magic bow, but if he takes it, his (game) parents are instantly killed.    And I suspect he wouldn't hesitate for a second before picking up the bow.    By his logic, taking the bow makes his character better, and having his parents die does not, so the choice is obvious.  

FWIW, in his backstory he had a good relationship with his parents and cares about them.   His character was written as being fairly honorable, nor was he particularly greedy, etc. etc.   Suffice it to say he has nothing in his backstory that would justify such a cold-hearted action.

I don't want to tell him that taking the bow, especially without hesitation is the wrong decision, but damnit, it is!   In the real world, no one who loved their parents would just shrug and say oh well to their death in exchange for some treasure.   And the bow wouldn't have to be some powerful artifact.  I suspect that any gear upgrade at all would have the same effect on him.

I'm conflicted.   As a DM, I don't want to force another player to make a decision on what his character would do, but if his character is going to make choices that utterly conflict with that character background, then the background itself becomes pointless, no?

If you want your players to start to care about their backgrounds, and they so openly contradict it, start enforcing it. As in, if that character with the bow does kill his parents, send some powerful officers against him who catch him when he's alone (even if only for a second). Penalise him for so openly contradicting the character background. If he learns the lesson and starts acting properly, good for you. If he doesn't, throws a fit, and ragequits, even better for you - you didn't want to play with him anyway.
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DMG2 has formal rules for what Kalontas suggests.
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Have you actually included the character's parents in the plot?  Had conversations with them or even had them as relevant to quests (giving the quest/having needed info)?  If not, do you think having the parents involved, then offering the deal for the bow would turn out different?

Is the character evil or evil-leaning?

If you had the deal for the magic bow being "you must perform a service for a demon at some later time" do you think they would agree or not?  hestitate or not?  go along with it or fight it when the service is called?

A heavy-handed option, make the deal for the bow fake.  E.g. the offer is there but it's a test of character.  If the PC chooses the bow, the deal-giver figures that the PC is evil and acts accordingly (possibly attacking him to stop him being evil), if the PC refuses the bow, the deal-giver figures the PC is not evil and acts accordingly (possibly giving him the magic bow)

By his logic, taking the bow makes his character better, and having his parents die does not, so the choice is obvious.

is this actually what they said?  Because that's a pretty big "not getting it" moment.
First, the bow situation you gave is a great example of a forced alignment shift toward Evil.  If the player is clearly playing the character in a way that makes it appear the character doesn't care about the suffering of others, enforce it.  Also describe the details of the parents' gruesome, tortuous death, their funeral, and how other living relatives or family friends ostracize the PC if they know their dark secret.  Enforce it emotionally and the players will start to get it.  You should probably begin with a scene that isn't nearly as dramatic as the example you gave to mentally teach the players that not having consideration for their characters as "real" people won't fly anymore.

As more general advice, you need to present situations to the players where it is obvious that only having combat advantages actually *doesn't* provide an advantage.  Some examples could be: natural disasters and recovery, political intrigue, pestilence/disease/famine, noble titles and land ownership, presenting power grabs that would clearly align the character with the antagonist's interests, etc.  You need to provide clear consequences for meta-gaming and munchkining.  You need to make the players care, and doing that is going to require some explaination of why to the players.

If all you say is, "okay, you take the bow, now your parents are dead," instead of "your parents are in shock, tears running down their face as they watch you walk over to the artifact you've been offered in their place.  Emotionless, you hear their screams echo through the chamber as the antagonist's brutes [gory details here].  Memories of childhood fill your mind, delicious apple pies that only your mother could get right, and being inspired by your father to live the path of a hero...but not today.  Between her last gurgles of life, you hear your mother whisper 'Why?'"  Or something like, "You made the decision not to warn your parents or anyone in town about the oncoming threat of invasion in your lust for power.  As you return to town, your find the charred ruins of a devastated village as the army passed through unceasingly.  You find your parents crucified along with several others in the town square [more grisly details]."  Honestly, if the player still doesn't care, then they are actively resisting getting in character (rather than just ignoring it or not knowing how to).  If the player is having a difficult time getting into character, then describe situations that the player can obviously empathize with themself, and really describe it out.

However, I should caution that D&D is about an entire group having a good time.  If the players really just want to play a campaign that's more like a long version of Call of Duty rather than a long version of Final Fantasy VI, then consideration should be given for that.  They may not want that kind of heavy emotional drama interjected into their "kill things and get treasure" game.  Your enjoyment is important, too, so perhaps there could be some compromise.  But take those things into consideration and tread carefully when shifting how the game scenario is structured.

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Very helpful responses!  Thanks.   This group tends to favor combat over roleplaying, and I do skew the adventures accordingly.   However, in an effort to get them to dip their feet into the roleplaying pool more often, for the first time I've required that they provide backgrounds.   I've also tried to incentivize this by telling them I will be taking hooks from their backstories and weaving it into the plot.   They can expect at least some of their background issues to resolve or evolve well beyond what they've written.

I will take the advice offered to heart.
I don't want to tell him that taking the bow, especially without hesitation is the wrong decision, but damnit, it is!   In the real world, no one who loved their parents would just shrug and say oh well to their death in exchange for some treasure.   And the bow wouldn't have to be some powerful artifact.  I suspect that any gear upgrade at all would have the same effect on him.

I'm conflicted.   As a DM, I don't want to force another player to make a decision on what his character would do, but if his character is going to make choices that utterly conflict with that character background, then the background itself becomes pointless, no?




Your player is telling you that his background is pointless. The bow is not, so he values it over what he knows to be hollow--his background.

I'd suggest that the fault is at least half yours and not the player's. The player sees value where he does because that has been the focus of your gaming sessions. You, as DM, may have failed to use the backgrounds provided by your players to create deeper and more meaningful tie-ins with the game world and their characters. Unless and until that happens, your players will almost always see the "bow" as the more valid of the two options.

Make character backgrounds have meaning. There are two primary ways to do this.

First, backgrounds should serve as a source of current and future context for the PC. Context means that the background is directly tied to the character's current and future concerns. It needs to be related to their problems and perks alike. Doing so moves a background into the forefront, even if the problem is initially subtle or minor.

This means that if a character some day becomes a demigod, his original background should somehow be tied into it. That's context taken to its full promise. If you get item wish lists from your players, tie background in with an item, boon or other reward that they'd like to receive. If they know a paragon path they want to pursue, lasso it to that. And so on. Don't let a PC's history exist without a tangent to their current or future existence.

Second, backgrounds should bring both positive and negative baggage for a player and his or her character. This is a game, don't forget, and just saying "those are your parents" has little inherent meaning to a player. After all, they weren't raised by these imaginary parents. They have few (and maybe no) events to give them context, meaning or relation outside of the label. It means nothing to many players.

So, begin by making the parents (or other NPC relations) valuable so that the player wants to have an ongoing relationship. Perhaps the parents provide him or her money or other resources. Maybe they have a status in the world that will (or does) confer to the PC. Perhaps they just provide a safe haven, a key source of information or an active hand when things get rough.

Look for tie-ins based on what your player provides, but work with him or her to build a rapport between character and setting. Make clear what benefits the PC has because of the relationship, big or small. Give them context and show value right away. After all, would you say that your real-life relationship to your parents, relatives or close friends has no value to your current or future self? Probably not. 

Almost immediately after the player embraces the relationship, a small (but growing) problem should arise that threatens the relationship externally. You can even make the problem exist right away, but give the player a reason to want to defend them--either as parents or as a resource, it doesn't matter.

If you handle it well, they'll grow an attachment for these "parents" because of an in-game history that grows as their adventures continue. Eventually, they may act more with a notion of nostalgia and beneficence rather than "x is worth more than y," when it comes to the NPC relation. This holds true whether the NPC is a parent, a monastery master, a past partner-in-crime, or a hundred other possible relations. But all of them have to start with a benefit in the now because of the relationship during the past.

And then, beware of forcing them to make a choice between x and y until you feel that the player (and PC) would be truly conflicted. Give up a meaningless relationship or take a magic bow is simple math. Giving up a beneficial and endearing relationship for a magic bow is another thing entirely.
Agreed.   See my post above yours.
     As others have said, the player is acting sensibly.  If you want him to actually consider his background, you need to make that background meaningful. 

    Maybe read thru each background and identify one benefit and one cost.  The PC gets a bonus from this and a penalty from that.  [A given item can be either way.  He has rich parents who mean he gets 10% extra treasure as an allowance.  But they also send along his kid brother who must be defended in battle despite being useless  [Any damage to him also affects the PC as well]].
I agree with what has been said above and would like to also add "make the item cursed"

In Mordenkeinans, there are some delightfully evil cursed items that your player would hate to have to try and get rid of.

I think the death scarab is one of my faves. Essentially, its a cursed neck item that gives you -10 on death saving throws as "the scarab animates and begins to burrow its way to your heart".

Use that instead of a bow, and when the scarabs hatch have them have the faces of his parents, as they worm their way into his body he is confronted by their spirits at the door to the afterlife.
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Your player is telling you that his background is pointless. The bow is not, so he values it over what he knows to be hollow--his background.

I'd suggest that the fault is at least half yours and not the player's. The player sees value where he does because that has been the focus of your gaming sessions. You, as DM, may have failed to use the backgrounds provided by your players to create deeper and more meaningful tie-ins with the game world and their characters. Unless and until that happens, your players will almost always see the "bow" as the more valid of the two options.

Make character backgrounds have meaning.


 Yeah, this.


Also, part of the solution is encouraging the players to create backstories that are coherent with their values. For example, this character is obviously an ambitious competitive combatant. So have the player create a backstory that explains how he became so power-hungry. If he is going to be an “optimizer”, then he should roleplay as one too.
There's another thread wondering why so many PCs are orphans.

This sort of stuff is the reason.
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It seems like you're intentionally fighting your player by setting this situation up in the first place.  Hypothetically, he would trade his parents for a bow, but you don't have to make that happen.  If RP isn't that important to him, you can't force him to like it.  It's better to just let him live in the metagame and reward the players that do care more about RP by weaving their stories into the plot.  No need to expend so much planning time and energy on something he's not going to like anyway.
It seems like you're intentionally fighting your player by setting this situation up in the first place.  Hypothetically, he would trade his parents for a bow, but you don't have to make that happen.  If RP isn't that important to him, you can't force him to like it.  It's better to just let him live in the metagame and reward the players that do care more about RP by weaving their stories into the plot.  No need to expend so much planning time and energy on something he's not going to like anyway.



I think I gotta kinda go with Scatterbrained here on this one.  I will say though that I don't think you're doing anything really wrong.  What seems to be the case is that you're looking for a game with more roleplaying than the party you're DMing.  At at least this particular player, but it sounds like the group as a whole is of similar feeling from your opening post.  And you admit to that, that the games you guys have been sporadically playing haven't really included roleplaying.  Nothing wrong with that really, personally not my deal I love developing characters, but nothing wrong with just wanting a character that can kick butt.

Now that isn't to say this particular player isn't without fault.  He created a backstory which develops his character to be a good guy.  He has a loving family, relatively noble demeanor, etc etc.  Yet when presented with a situation where he would have to trade the lives of his parents for a magical bow he has no issue with sacrificing them.  Mind you I think the situation is a little dramatic.  I mean the bow would have to be wicked awesome and the right scenario in my mind to make that deal even make sense to be presented.  But not the issue really.  I agree with some people who say let the guy take the bow if he wants and then kill his parents.  He obviously doesn't care, but at the same time penalize him for going against his alignment.  Such an act would be evil to me, so maybe penalize him experience for not playing in character.

Now maybe this player just through together what sounds like a relatively standard hero backstory because he needed one since you asked and couldn't think of anything himself or didn't care.  That may be true, and if that's the case that's a shame because backstories are the core of characters.  Now I disagree with Anarchsdelight in that just because a background isn't brought up repeatedly, or has ties to the current game exactly doesn't make it pointless.  Backgrounds set up a character but the character can develop from there into something more, to change.

But I think the issue may be that your players aren't ready to get that deep into their characters.  My suggestion is to just make your game as you want, as the DM.  But be aware that your players probably don't want to rp much and would rather just move along combat to combat.  Don't try to force roleplaying scenes that much, give the option but let the players decide the amount of roleplaying they want.  Now if a character acts against the nature they've presented, sure penalize them as I said above, best bet would be experience.  Or if you do like our group sometimes where we don't do exp but just tell the players to level up when we want, you could penalize the player by maybe not including an item or equipment for them in the loot, something to that nature.  But otherwise let the players just play.

The best course of action may be with introducing these guys to roleplaying gradually.  Offer up situations, options for them to express their characters wihtout forcing things upon them with a kinda do or die scenario like you've given with the bow.  The reason I say that is that you obviously have a handle on your players; you know they're more for combat than roleplaying.  And probably from how it sounds, more so with the player in your post then the others.  So by putting this ultimatum before him you really knew how he'd respond before you even told him the options I bet, how could you not?  Sure you may have hoped he'd refuse the bow, but you know the type of player he was and knew he'd see the bow as the better option no matter what.  So instead of ultimatums give them choices.  Say the group gets to a town, ask them what they do.  Maybe someone wants to explore the city, maybe someone wants to hit up the bar, whatever.  Maybe the player who's sightseeing comes upon a person being roughed up by thugs down an alley.  The player can then choose whether or not he wants to interfere.  Or maybe he fights a guard or something, whatever.  That'll give them the option to roleplay without it feeling too forced upon them.  If the player chooses not to interfere with the mugging that isn't exactly a bad thing.  Most people wont get involved, and maybe that player wants to stay low key while in the city, who knows?  But it'll all be developing roleplaying.

Then maybe more and more of the players will get involved in the roleplaying and their characters.  It just might be something that'll come along slowly rather than all at once as it kinda seems you want it.  I mean when I first started playing D&D a few years ago(3.5), my character was a fighter who wielded a scythe.  Average guy but he was "cursed" with this scythe and cloak(yeah, a reaper image his name was Grimm) and could never sleep.  The scythe absorbed the souls of any evil being he killed with it.  He use to be a farmer who's wedding night was interrupted by a demon after the scythe(Grimm didn't have it yet, his dad did), resulting in his family being killed along with his wife whom he managed to secure her soul in the scythe in the hopes of someday resurrecting her.  Maybe a little more involved then the average hero backstory, but still pretty basic.

In the end I developed the story of the Scythes(there ended up being more), Grimm's wife, and Grimm himself.  What turned out to be a simple, straightforward and basic character turned out to be a legacy which has influenced a few characters I've played by having ties to Grimm.  And it all happened just by simply playing the game with the character and adding and developing his story as I saw fit over time and experiences.          

   
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