[RPG] How to avoid “My Guy” syndrome while roleplaying a flawed character?


Related: What is "my guy syndrome" and how do I handle it?

A while ago, I ran into an interesting conflict in a game that got me thinking.

I was playing in a party with a Knight/Paladin and three other characters. The Paladin was playing what essentially amounted to a wandering freelance cop, bringing justice wherever they found injustice, while the rest of the party was following along for the promise of gold rewards. Everyone, players and DM, was happy with this arrangement, as it brought regular sandbox style quests and good money.

The problem began when we ran into a deliberately grey moral situation presented by the DM. A drow entered a human village and was immediately captured and thrown in holding before public execution. The party discovered the drow was a thief, and the Paladin wished for the drow to be brought to proper justice for this, without the extreme of hanging "because drow". The paladin makes a deal with the drow: they'll free him from execution if he surrenders to whatever local laws did to thieves. Drow agrees, paladin convinces local law, drow pleads innocent of all charges, local law lets him go due to lack of evidence. Paladin is upset.

Up until now, the rest of the party has been with the Paladin, helping in endeavors and generally agreeing with the course of action. This changes when the Paladin decides to go after the drow, talking about capturing him and hauling him off to the "Drow Town he came from" for whatever justice they choose (Paladin is in character not knowing how drow or their cities work). The rest of the party protests, saying it's probably several weeks' journey, but the Paladin is dead set and will not be convinced. Eventually the party begrudgingly agrees to follow, they catch up to the drow who resists arrest, and they mostly-accidentally kill him. It's bittersweet, but everyone is more or less okay with this resolution.

After the session, the player of the paladin explained the behavior sort of like this:

My character's major arc and theme is that he believes justice is a black and white, simple thing that he can recognise and deal with. In reality, justice rarely is, and I appreciate being given a situation that allowed us to explore that. My plan for the character is for him to slowly realise this complexity, and rely more and more on the wisdom of Bahamut to tell him what to do. I'll figure out how to take his development from there when we get there.

Where is the line between roleplaying a naive, stubborn character undergoing development and being a problem player? How can we portray internal character conflict and personal flaws without ending up in "My Guy"?

Clearly there are instances in which playing a flaw or ignorance like this is acceptable, otherwise we would all be playing Mary-Sue characters.

Best Answer

Where is the line? In agreement with this answer, there is no bright line between "My Guy" and "Non My Guy."

I use a handful of mutually supporting tests or questions, either as a GM, as a player to judge my own actions, or a player to judge someone else's actions, but the questions themselves are somewhat subjective and it's not like there's a formula that falls out of it to determine someone's status, Yes or No.

  • Does the possible My Guy status cover up basically anti-social behavior? I think easily half or more of the cases of MGS fall into this category: My Guy hates Orcs because reasons-- of course he slaughters the Orc children! My Guy is a thief-- of course he steals the treasure! My Guy was insulted by a town guardsman once-- of course he picks a bar fight with a platoon of them! Some people (sometimes or always) just want to play a consequence-free game, design a character to do it, and then pretend they had no other option.

  • Does the possible My Guy status seem bound to cause problems for one or a few of the other characters in particular? These often come in pairs: The thief and the paladin, the paladin and the assassin, the cleric and the worshipper of the cleric's god's rival, etc. Those are obvious. Sometimes it is subtler and it takes longer to come out in play.

  • Does the player of the possible My Guy leave himself and/or exercise any flexibility? In other words (say) does the player always agitate for killing the Orcs, say his piece, and usually back down? Does it always grind the game to a halt with the same argument over and over again? Or does the character just unilaterally spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats?

  • Is the possible My Guy dominating the direction of the game due to My Guy? I'll discuss this more below, but this is meant in the larger sense of the overall game, not just isolated moments of it.

  • Is the possible My Guy sucking the fun out of the game? This doesn't just mean making the other players unhappy (although it does certainly include that.) It also means, for instance, is the game dragging or bogging down and preventing other fun activities because the same issues keep coming up? Are other players preventing from getting their rightful spotlight time?

Once I answer these questions to my own satisfaction, I usually have my overall answer to whether or not the My Guy really is a My Guy. Yes, Yes, No, Yes and Yes (in that order) are the troubling answers.

How do we do conflict without My Guy Syndrome?

Ultimately, not all of this is on the player; some of the responsibility lies with the GM.

  • Well, as a player, the first thing to do is look over those questions and ask them for your own character, in the eyes of the other players. If you come up with bad answers, well, think about backing off and doing something else.

  • A theme running through several of those questions is flexibility vs absolutism, which can express itself over time through unfair domination of game play, or excessive time spent dealing with it. It's okay to have things your character cares about, in disagreement with some or even all of the other characters. It's not okay, generally, for the same player to use his character as a whip driving all the actions. It's not terribly unlike real world social dynamics-- healthy groups exchange social capital back and forth all the time, first one person then another person having a say. Having your say once, unless it's a really obnoxious say, is probably not My Guy syndrome in itself, at least in my book.

  • On the GM side, there is some responsibility to vet the characters as they come in (and at game start) to make sure obvious clashes are manageable, or removed.

  • Similarly, the GM bears some responsibility for setting the tone as far as conflicting character arcs are concerned. Not every game is designed with that in mind-- some are designed as extended dungeon crawls, while some are designed with weightier (or murkier) themes and potential disagreement in mind. It's not much fun if you've misunderstood the scope of the game while you designed your character. (This goes both ways, by the way-- once it's clear you're in a morally grey game and/or a game with character growth arcs, the players need to be talking to the GM about this once in a while. GMs are not mind-readers, and I've been hit more than once with, "Why aren't you supporting the arc I want to portray?" "Uhm, because I had no idea you wanted to do that.")

  • Finally, there is also a subtler GM responsibility that is analogous to, or flows from, the responsibility to try to get all the players some spotlight time: In a game where character disagreement is a feature, then letting one or a subset of characters dominate it from the outset just because their characters are inflexible creates a two-tier system of play.

What About This Situation?

This is necessary opinion-based, but it serves as a concrete example of how I use the tests above, and how I would approach it as a GM:

  • Is the Paladin basically anti-social? Doesn't seem to be to me.
  • Is the Paladin "aimed at" another character? Doesn't seem so.
  • Is the Paladin flexible? Hard to say, seems to be yes and no. He worked out a creative compromise for the Drow, but when it didn't go his way, then he refused to honor the deal and forced the issue.
  • Is the Paladin dominating the game? The superficial answer is yes, but I think the real answer, as described, is no, because this is either a one-time thing or a first-time thing and that isn't enough in my book.
  • Did this suck the fun out of the game? Answer seems to be no, in part because of the guidance of the GM.

This seems borderline to me. If this had been presented as a typical scenario-- Paladin does this, Paladin does that, group disagrees, group protests, Paladin shoves it down their throat, GM rescues situation-- it would be different.

But here's the thing: This campaign, as described, is structured to allow the Paladin to do this. This campaign is not described as an ensemble, it is described as a bunch of sidekicks following the Paladin. If this description is accurate, the structure of the campaign makes these conflicts much more likely than they otherwise might be.

If this is really a problem, then candidate solutions to this problem include:

  • The GM kicking the player (metaphorically) to accelerate that growth arc past the point where it's causing problems
  • The group making it clear that they're no longer willing to cash the Paladin's checks, so to speak-- you want to hie off for three months, you're on your own.
  • Changing the power dynamic in the group, possibly by virtue of the GM putting some constraints on the Paladin from his superiors, or empowering other characters, or introducing longer running plot concerns that the Paladin can't just dictate terms against.