Thursday, October 1, 2015

Alignment Used Well & Poorly (Thought Eater)

These are two new entries in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

The contest works like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Alignment: Used Well And Poorly for the contest.

Who the hell are these people playing with?

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ALIGNMENT1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Alignment: Used Well and Poorly

When I'm thinking about how to uses a particular mechanic in an RPG, I have a few basic principles.

A well designed mechanic used well...

1. Tells me something about the setting of the game.

2. Provides a meaningful choice

3. Resolves the outcome of that choice:

2a. In a way that (ideally) everyone at that table feels is fair

2b. In a way that is applied consistently.

Alignment, as it functions in Chainmail tells you what figures could be used in a particular army. If you play Chaos, then you can have dragons. If you pick Law, you can't have dragons but you can have treants. That's give some context to the assumed setting and makes a choice of belligerent you are playing meaningful. The original D&D rules expand on the simple “us vs. them” aspect and tell us about the assumed universe in which a D&D campaign takes place.

1. There is an eternal struggle between Chaos and Law

2. There can never be peace between them.

3. The principle beings in this eternal war are driven by their essence to fight for one side or the other. They are what they are and can not choose to be otherwise.

4. Some creatures, like humans, have a choice.

5. Each side wants humans to choose. If you choose the other side or betray the side you are on, the great powers will smash you when it is in their interest to do so.

The fight is bigger than the petty concerns of mortals. Forces beyond the understanding of mortals have an interest and choosing one side over another may mean a big headache for your character. Now the PC has a complication to take into account. The context gives the player a feeling of depth to the setting. It can help the player to feel like they are part of a fiction not just a meeple on a two dimensional representation with a thin veneer of context. The emotional engagement or immersion of the mechanic helps make the decisions meaningful.

At the beginning of a character's existence, you make a choice, Law or Chaos? Since the choice has context then it is meaningful and that choice has a consequence. Certain creatures, when encountered, will seek your character's death. Certain creatures, when encountered, will aid your character. Certain creatures could go either way. Certain creatures will seek to subvert that choice and convince you to change sides. A character may decide to change sides and that betrayal brings problems.

Alignment goes bad when it is used to force player choice or there is no consequence to player choice. The evil vs. good axis introduced in AD&D made alignment more complex. Some unskilled DM's use the two axis alignment to railroad players. The DM may impose such a nasty consequence on a choice that the player has to comply to continue playing that character. Go rescue the village or you aren't a paladin. The DM may choose not to impose a penalty because imposing a consequence will derail the train. The paladin does something egregious but because the DM needs a paladin for his story to work the paladin faces no consequence. Either way, not a good practice. In the first case, your choice is go the way the DM wants or be miserable and in the second, your choice has no consequence and breaks the context of the setting with discontinuity. Both create a dissonance in the game that players have a hard time resolving when they are making future decisions.

Players will sometimes get into a situation where one character intends to do something that would potentially cause another character to face an alignment crisis. The conflict between players can get out of hand and cause hard feelings. It creates a tough judgement call for the DM and the group as a whole. The DM will do well to be clear about where the act falls on the alignment chart and the effect it may have on individual characters before deciding that the character has done the deed and resolving the outcome. Go back again to the basic underlying questions: Does the choice have a meaningful consequence in the context of the game setting? Is the consequence fair? Is it applied consistently?

There are some alternatives to the standard alignment system of D&D. There are “honor” systems where certain acts add to the honor of a character that can have an effect on NPC reactions. In Vampire: The Masquerade, certain acts would reduce your character's humanity and making it more likely they would lose control of themselves and become mindless killers. I've run D&D games without alignment but certain classes had a code of conduct that could cause problems should the player chose to break it. If you use alignment, it doesn't necessarily have to be Law/Chaos and Good/Evil. RPG's are about conflict, alignment is a tool that can give you a rough way to model which side of a conflict everybody is on. That conflict can be Bilderbergers vs. Conspiracy Theorists, Hatfield vs McCoy's or Axis vs. Allies. You are using it well if it tells players something about the setting and provides meaningful choices resolved in a fair and consistent way.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ALIGNMENT2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.


Let's get the obvious out of the way: Alignment sucks when it's used as an excuse to be a douche.

To use some of the clichés:

"Of course I'd steal from the party! It's right there on my character sheet: what part of chaotic-evil thief do you not understand?"

"I burned down the tavern because I'm chaotic neutral. I'M CRAAAAAZY."

"Well you resisted arrest from the evil overlord's goons. Since he's the lawful authority around here, your paladin just totally lost all his class features."

"And in the back of the cave are baby orcs! Do you let them grow into murderous monsters or do you kill INNOCENT LITTLE BABIES. What I'm saying is you're evil now."

Those last two examples point out that on the GM's side, alignment is used poorly when it limits how players can interact with the game. No one wants a straightjacket. This implies the inverse: alignment is useful when it adds shit the players can fuck around with*.  A few examples.

Lots of games have chaotic sorcerers summoning eldritch monstrosities. Only Carcosa comes with 34 pages of horrifying people-sacrificing rituals. Wanna summon the Leprous Dweller Below? Get yer ass to hex 2205, find a leper, tear him apart and eat his flesh. Wanna stop that bastard? Well you know his plan, what are you waiting for? Carcosa gives you blueprints for evil.

The Planes take the nine fold alignment and convert it into geography. Lawful neutral? You can go there. There are armies to fight and everything! Have a problem with Zeus? Find him and give him a wedgie. A TPK means you get to bust out of hell.

Here games with others gives you a Jedi/Sith class. In a nut shell: each force power has a light side and a dark side version. You can choose which version you use, but you get a light/dark side point. Level up with more dark side points and boom! You're Sith now. Level up with more light side points and you have been redeemed! It's mechanical support for one of Star Wars' great moral arcs.

And lastly this bit of genius from Monsters! Monsters! "BLACK HOBBITS: This does not refer to their skin tone, but rather to their political affiliations." Law and chaos go from personal philosophy to political parties. The best game I've ever played had me going door to door in the caves of Chaos as a black hobbit, asking each monster in turn "Have YOU decided who you're going to vote for Evil Overlord in 2016?"**

And like anything else, sometimes alignment makes for good roleplaying. Absent any fun mechanics or interesting scenario, this is the wooden spoon award for including alignment in your game: it might make someone's character more interesting, it might be cause for roleplaying.

Another essential quality of alignment is how LOUD it is. If you put an alignment slot on the character sheets but then never mention it again, it's entirely up to your players to fuck around with it. If the standard currency of your campaign is souls and various alignments have different exchange rates, alignment is going to come up all the time. If Satan himself rises from the ground and insists you JOIN HIM OR DIE, then the players literally cannot avoid alignment. All of these have their place, as long as you observe rule number one: don't be a dick.

So there you have it: alignment is a sometimes food. Spice it up but don't force feed it to people.

*To be less colloquial: using alignment well adds ways to interact with the game.

*After a wave of disappointing answers, I decided I would run for Evil Overlord 2016. The problem I kept having to solve was this: how do I make all these monsters obey me while killing as few as possible. Assassination, intimidation, charm spells, bargaining, stockholm syndrome and sexy orc girls were all tried with varying levels of success.

1 comment:

  1. Y'know, OSR blogging was flagging a bit until these essays came along. Kudos on punching things up.