Critical Party Roles, Part 7: The Party Conscience
We come to the last post in the Critical Roles series, discussing the seventh and final role that should be filled in a good adventuring group: the Party Conscience. This is the role that gets mocked a lot in cartoons, and there's good reason for this, as this role can be pursued poorly. So our discussion of how to do it well v. how to do it poorly will be a bit longer than normal, as there's a lot to talk about.
As a quick reminder (in case, for whatever reason, you're starting with the last post in the series), this series is discussing the roles that should be filled by players in the group: your character's race, class, background, training, etc., has very little to do with this. I mention this here because, as you'll soon realize, your character's alignment/affinity toward good or evil also doesn't preclude you from being the Party Conscience, though being good or evil may preclude you from being a good candidate for it. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
I. The Party Conscience: Stay on Target
The "Party Conscience" is the person who keeps the party true to who they are. This does not mean that they are playing the "Lawful Good" character in the group, nor does it mean that the player needs to be the "nice" person in the party.
The Party Conscience could be the guy who reminds the group to slit the throat of a traitor so that they don't get caught, so long as the party is a group of rebels overthrowing a government: if the party is a cutthroat band, they need to act like a cutthroat band.
It could be the guy who reminds Han Solo that he needs to be 1) alive, and 2) gain a reward, to pay off Jabba the Hutt, and delusions of grandeur will not get him there. For Han's band of smugglers, the Party Conscience could be the kind of person who would say, "Don't stop to help those people; we need to keep moving." And if he/she did say that, they'd be doing a good job in filling this role.
The Conscience could be someone who is morally upright, or it could be someone with questionable morals. The critical element of the Party Conscience is that it is the conscience of the party, keeping them true to wherever they are on the spectrum.
I had a player once (we'll call him Graham) who served as the Party Conscience of his group. And his character didn't say much, nor did he challenge the group often, but he'd speak up when it came to preserving the goals and aims of the group. He always kept an eye out for what jobs they had taken, what the terms of the deal were, and made sure the party kept it. This is a great picture of a Party Conscience.
The Party Conscience is extremely helpful to a game master. Sometimes people show up for a game session tired or out of sorts, and this presents the risk of a character not being played in a way that is consistent with past portrayals of the character. The Party Conscience helps to keep this from derailing the campaign or causing the group to act in a way that is contrary to how they have acted in the past. This makes it a lot easier to manage expectations and revisit consequences (for good or ill) on the party for past actions.
II. Party Consciences: Frodo, Samwise, Book, and Tarkin
As we mentioned earlier, Frodo is not the best example of a Party Leader, as there is much that he does not know. But you cannot doubt (except in the fires of Mount Doom itself) that Frodo knows the purpose of the Fellowship and is dedicated to keeping that goal at the forefront.
Perhaps more so than anyone else (I say "perhaps" because I'll be giving a caveat below) Frodo knows the burden of The One Ring, and it is fitting that he is the one that must execute its destruction. He gets there with help, but he is the one that is tasked with orchestrating its destruction.
Frodo is tempted to veer from the task set before him, but he demonstrates the fortitude that every Party Conscience needs. He is also consistent in keeping those with him on-target, considering alternate paths but continually pushing toward the goal.
I caveat Frodo because Samwise also serves as a Party Conscience of sorts for The Fellowship. He bears the Ring for a time, and has the added benefit of hindsight and third-party observation as he watches Frodo wrestle with the One Ring.
Samwise adds to the fortitude of Frodo a persuasiveness that is helpful for a Party Conscience. When Sam speaks (which is not often) people listen, and this is something that the Party Conscience should give thought to. Why would someone want to listen to their conscience? And how can the conscience present its opinion in the best way?
And just because a person has good advice and has an outstanding moral character does not necessarily make him a good Party Conscience. Consider Shepherd Book from the Firefly tv show. Captain Reynolds and his crew sometimes side with him, but one of the fundamental types of jobs that the party takes on are crime jobs, something that Book never participates in. And on more than one occasion Mal finds himself at odds with the advice of Book and goes his own way.
This is not a bad thing - it just means that, for the crew, Shepherd Book is not the best choice for a Party Conscience. He's a good conscience, pointing Mal and the crew toward what is right. But he's not a good conscience for the party. Characters like this should continue to give their opinion (because the party needs to hear it), but they should be honest: they are not the Party Conscience.
And as a warning through example, a Party Conscience should be honest about when to abandon a task, even when it is consistent with the aims and goals of the party. Grand Moff Tarkin shows this well - between his portrayal in Star Wars: A New Hope and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, we get the ideal Imperial officer, loyal to the Emperor, desirous for control, willing to do what it takes to crush the Rebellion, and earnestly believing to his dying breath that the Empire could not lose.
Tarkin is the "Conscience" of the Empire: he keeps his officers, even Lord Vader, from acting out of line with who they are (and seriously: he's one of two guys in the whole Star Wars universe that have ever given direct orders to Darth Vader that he obeys without question). But his downfall comes from his inability to assess whether a course of action consistent with the party's aims and goals will be too much for the party to handle. An officer approaches him noting that they have studied the Rebel strategy and found a danger, yet he does not evacuate the Death Star.
And thus the Party Conscience must watch for those subtle dangers that may cloud their counsel: pride, over confidence, and "tunnel vision" as regards how to approach the vision of the party.
Now naturally, you don't need all of these in your campaign: if you are playing a Lord of the Rings-style campaign, for example, you can probably get away without a Lip Man if you spend all of your time fighting orcs. If you are not running with a lot of gear, you may not need a Lift Man or Quartermaster.
But having these roles in the group preempts and answers questions, streamlines gameplay, and gives every player around the table something interesting and unique to do, making it easier to find value in one's contributions to the party. And that is a great reward in and of itself.
And for the game masters reading this post, you can already see the utility of your players embracing these roles as it is one less thing you need to track. So as players take on these roles, the game master suddenly has more brain power and energy in-session to, you know, game master. And this will improve the experience for everyone.
We finished just in time for Star Wars! Tune in over the next few weeks as we look at the prequel trilogy, original trilogy, and anthology films to see what is of use to us as roleplayers, which should buy us time to get to the sequels to avoid spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker and the end of The Mandalorian show.
Until next time,