We’ve all had this problem at least once. The damsel in distress cries out for mercy, the village needs saving from marauding orcs, and the players have a quick response.
“What are you going to pay me?”
This stymies me a bit, because on the off chance I do get to play, I like to play heroes. Heroes are the exact opposite type of characters from mercenaries.
Heroes don’t expect payment. They rush to aid the needy because the needy need them. They don’t weight the cost to benefit. They don’t expect a reward from the peasants who clearly can’t afford to hire soldiers of their caliber.
Nobody pays Superman. He just saves people.
In my current game the players are mixed up in a game of Xorvitaal, the great dragon game. Xorvitaal is a fun way of clearly marking who’s the enemy, and gives the players both a powerful patron and a reason to act in the world.
But they were working for a beginner silver dragon named Inshallah, and that took them toe to toe with the minions of an experience dragon player, Thannadruk the elder black dragon.
Thannadruk’s minions had cool toys, and good gear, and they were supported by a full mercenary company called the Ebon Spear.
When the enemy minion asked them to switch sides, they paused to consider the offer. This boggled me.
I was raised on Luke Skywalker screaming in rage “I’ll never join you!” even as he was clinging for life to a broken steel beam. This is what I expected to play out.
But no, they set up a meeting with Thaneyya, the teifling working for Thannadruk for several in-game days later, and spent a lot of real world time arguing whether they should switch sides and ally themselves with an evil dragon.
Because that side had the kewl lootz.
The only reason they didn’t is because the cleric was concerned that his deity might not approve, so they stuck with the silver dragon and spent the next several sessions intentionally avoiding Thaneyya and the bar they said they would meet her at.
I heard someone else suggest that this was video game experience. After all, in a video game your objective is to squeeze every last ounce of “reward” out of the game. The real reward comes in the form of cash and prizes, like a gameshow, and whatever story rewards is nothing more than an easily skipped cutscene. The cash allows you to upgrade your avatar and win the game, and thats the goal.
So what’s the fix? There really isn’t one. Mercenary Players are going to do their thing, and the key is less correcting the behavior as identifying it and crafting the story accordingly.
The villains will always pay better, because purchased loyalty is a villain’s go-to method. If the players want to be the bad guys, let them, and craft the story accordingly.
What you don’t want to do, is change the rewards to match their greed. If the village doesn’t have enough gold to pay them to be saved, either allow the village to be destroyed, or even better, have a brave band of NPC heroes (actual heroes) save the town and get the glory. (The “rival party” is a technique I’ll discuss in another post)
If the players want to play villains, let them, after all, it’s their game.