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Author Topic: (Potential Game Design) The Good, The Bad, And The Chaotic Neutral  (Read 1192 times)

Paul Keith

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http://www.gamegrene.com/node/925

  • Was re-organizing my old Diigo bookmarks and found this article.

  • Didn't know if I posted about this article before so I'm doing it now here.


Also posting this in the Living Room because even if I feel the concept is more important for software game design, this is still at it's heart a tabletop rpg topic. (Not to mention I don't follow or have ever played a tabletop game before)

Anyways, the article is long so I'm just going to run down some of the parts I highlighted in Diigo and titled in TFLM. (hence the titles are my own addition and are not part of the actual link)

Alignment as a Straight Jacket

Of course, this means that the alignment system has been around long enough for it to become one of the more resoundingly criticized aspects of D&D. Like any attempt to put a complicated real-world issue into simplified game terms, D&D's alignment system has been blasted for being overly limiting and simplistic. Indeed, at its worst, alignment can become a straitjacket, with bad DMs using alignment and sessions degenerating into endless debates about whether a certain action is really Lawful Good enough.

Unknown Armies

#1

That game is Unknown Armies, a criminally underrated and somewhat obscure modern fantasy/horror RPG. UA posits that each character possesses a rage stimulus (something that makes the character really angry), a fear stimulus (a phobia the character has), and a noble stimulus (a cause or belief that the character strongly supports). Like almost everything else in UA, the field is wide open in terms of defining what these stimuli might be. When a character encounters one of their stimuli, he gets a substantial stat boost if he wants to attack or destroy that rage stimulus, escape from that fear stimulus, or go the extra mile to fight for that noble stimulus. The end result is that all characters in UA, no matter how saintly or evil they might seem, are fully capable of violence and righteous fury, acts of supreme cowardice, and moments of utter heroism - not unlike real human beings. What's more, including the three stimuli at the beginning of character generation gets players thinking about what really motivates their characters, and displaying a much wider and deeper range of believable behaviors because of it.Morality and character behavior in UA is also tied to five separate meters (Violence, Unnatural, Isolation, Helplessness, and Self) that behave like Sanity points on steroids, and have to do with how well the character copes mentally with the stresses of the crazy adventures all gaming characters eventually go through. I won't go into too much depth about this (awesome) system here, but suffice to say that the more exposure to weird and bad stuff a character has, the easier it is for that character to face similar stressors in the future. (Of course, too many failed rolls can also lead to psychological problems, but that's another issue entirely.) But at the same time, a character who spends too much time around heavy violence or supernatural stuff risks becoming a sociopath, unable to use their rage, fear, or noble stimuli at all.

#2

Morality and character behavior in UA is also tied to five separate meters (Violence, Unnatural, Isolation, Helplessness, and Self) that behave like Sanity points on steroids, and have to do with how well the character copes mentally with the stresses of the crazy adventures all gaming characters eventually go through. I won't go into too much depth about this (awesome) system here, but suffice to say that the more exposure to weird and bad stuff a character has, the easier it is for that character to face similar stressors in the future. (Of course, too many failed rolls can also lead to psychological problems, but that's another issue entirely.) But at the same time, a character who spends too much time around heavy violence or supernatural stuff risks becoming a sociopath, unable to use their rage, fear, or noble stimuli at all.

#3

The thing I love about the Unknown Armies way of approaching morality is that it's reasonably realistic while still being fun. It rewards players for gaming according to their characters' moral codes by making it easier for them to carry out actions that reflect their beliefs. Madness meters also add a fun element of randomness to shake things up. When a character fails a madness-related roll upon being exposed to a level of bad they've never seen before, the player chooses whether their character's resulting freak-out is panic (run away at top speed), paralysis (stand there frozen in terror), or frenzy (beat the hell out of it!). In the UA campaign I ran, my players had a great time with this aspect of the game; it gave them a choice over how to be scared while also acknowledging that in some circumstances, real people sometimes have uncontrollable reactions to the unknown. The rage, fear, and noble stimuli also do a great job of modeling the fact that drives both noble and base can coexist in the same person, which is perfect for UA's "shades of grey" approach. If UA's system has a flaw, it's that madness meters require a substantial amount of tracking on the part of the GM (as do many other aspects of UA). But that's a problem I'm willing to face for a system that really works for me.

#4

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tzuriel. I wanted to respond to what you said about the nWoD Virtue/Vice system. While the advantages you point out are true (and I do indeed prefer it to alignment), the point isn't that I can modify the system if I want - that goes without saying and I can do that with any game. The point is that if the game has a good enough morality system, I shouldn't *have* to modify it to get what I want. That's why I like UA's system better - it doesn't come with preconceived notions of what makes up a rage, fear, or noble stimulus. The player decides that based upon the character's background and personality, which leaves the field much more wide open for different perspectives than trying to shoehorn a character into a Virtue or Vice that may not really fit. But if adding a new one worked for you, hey, more power to you - I just wish I didn't have to consider doing that in the first place!

#5

In some ways the UA approach shouldn't be considered in the "Alignment" discussion because it lacks the breadth to speak to morality. It is a specific rule; and while it may suggest a morality, it certainly cannot encompass one. That has typically been my criticism of other morality systems -- they try to be general. Because each person comes to morality through the lens of personal perception, these generalizations do not fit the individual metaphor of psychology that we all have. Some systems work well for some people because they resonate. If we step back from whether we like it or not, we could examine whether the rule system encompasses a variety of perspectives. A general system that tries to address everything will fail. A system that is specific and allows a player to fill in the blanks with the yardstick by which they will measure themselves will satisfy. In essence, I believe players should build their own individual alignment system.

There are many ways to read a book (schools of literary criticism). There are many ways to interpret behaviour (schools of psychology). They all have their merits. A game that keeps its rules specific avoids building a bias into the interpretation of things.

Morality is Madness:

Unknown Armies has the Madnees Meter. Remember the name. It is not something that measures morality, it measures Madness. What I love about the madness meter is that the situation and the role you make determines wether you would run away and curl up in a ball, or just stand there and think what was happening was not really that interesting. You are crazy either way. And that is all the Madness Meter does. Do you fail a check, and therefore recoil from what caused you to fail the check next time, or did you pass the check, and therefore have a better chance of not really noticeing it. It is the difference between hiding scared in your fox hole, or telling the scared soldier "I decided when I landed I was already dead".

The Madness Meter does not measure morality. The Noble/Wrath measures are the closest measure and like every other system I know they are just as black and white as any other. However they do allow player choice and thefore control. Still they are very specific and can therefore be extremely narrow. Making pretty much every other thing in the world something that washes over you. They do come close to allowing you to create a personal morality system. But if we did that we would really be helping those players that like portraying people with the PLAYERCHARACTERGAMER alignment...and that is not always what we want.

It is however a very powerful roleplaying aid. But another question. How often have you played Unknown Armies in comparison to a White Wolf product? Why?

Unknown Armies' Flaw

UA excels at one of the three qualifiers at the expense of the other two. It captures motivation almost perfectly and simply by focusing on strong feelings instead of trying to outline everything. But it's so personal, so gray that it's useless from the outlook of consequences and certainly from the outlook of judgement, both of which are important, even for a game.

Pre-Set Dilemma (Self-note: KOTOR and Fable)

One of the major flaws of the D&D alignment system as well as other approaches to that end, is that it is applied at character creation. True, many players tend to have a fairly good image of the character they intent to play, but intent and execution just as often don’t match. Campaign background and style, group interaction and last but not least the much denied but ever-present personal playing style can all be factors that quickly change or even destroy the first concepts, more often than not invalidating previous choices in alignment. Even worse if alignment becomes a straightjacket , which most likely will happen to new players and make their first experience needlessly complicated.

KOTOR

We generally used alignment as a sliding scale back when we used it. A PCs alignment didn't dictate their actions...their actions dictated their alignment. That way you could be whatever alignment you desired at creation, but as the campaign progressed your alignment would change to suit the things you were actually doing. This always caused the arguements mentioned above ("That's not a good act!"..."Yes it is, and here's why!"), but those arguements happen anyways if alignment is used; they may as well be happening for a good reason.

Cultural Dilemma

On a limb, I'll suggest that the real reason that games have alignment is because of cultural influence from religion. And politics. We learn it from school tv, parents. Zoroastrianism certainly had the abstract Good and Evil. Christianity. Islam. Buddhism has, in my opinion, realistically embodied good and evil by keeping it where it belongs, in the mind of humans. So something like this is universally human. When angered repeatedly by someone, you might come to feel hate, loathing, want to do things that will hurt them. You might have a feeling about them that we can call, if we agree, a feeling that they are evil. Regardless of that, they're certainly causing you to somehow fill yourself with bad stuff. You know your friends, you know those who aren't. D&D has an abstract alignment system, but our lives have something else, like a socio-emotional alignment. It has ethics and morals, and I personally think these are driven powerfully by emotional reactions, and focused and tinted by the lens of our life experience. Poets and prophets and lovers have felt evil and felt good. It's in the water, so it got into the games.

Did I mention I think alignment systems are weak?

Cultural Suggestion

Very well said, bartmoss. huh, it seems like there's somebody else now that gives dissertations every time they leave a comment :). I think I could make a book from my comments on this site.

I particularly like what you said concerning nWoD's western perspective. What they should do, then, with this in consideration, is release a book that focuses entirely on virtues and vices, how they can be changed, and perhaps different ones for different cultures or religious views, like Islam, Confuscianism, etc. It should also talk about these religious morals and such in depth to help people play them as accurately as possible. I would totally buy that. That's one thing I've always like about GURPS books, is their almost scholarly content that fills the books. You can learn a lot from just those books. Anyway, WoD should totally come out with a book like that. That'd be cool. It could even have sections on how a Storyteller can best use this mechanic. That's the problem with the mainstream rpgs, is that new books have always got to be new material, you know, 50 new monsters, 18 new prestige classes, etc. What I'd like to see is more discussion on what's already there. A book dedicated to Morals and virtues and vices from WoD would be awesome. Something like that from D&D would be cool, too, really. I dunno. No more new rules - just flavor text. At least WoD's got the flavor text covered.

AFMP (A Force More Powerful Game) model:

I still think my favorite system for *morality* is in Palladium (here: http://en.wikipedia....ing_games)#Palladium ).

It's less sytematic, and more a set of laundry lists. It works super well with the way I think, and is a good way of reminding yourself what your character is like. There's no assumptions of abstraction, as far as I can tell, but you can get the basics of your character verbally described. I'm fond of the idea of a list of things that a given character might find acceptable and unacceptable, and noting those for later reference. It isn't a straight jacket, and there's no real game mechanic that prevents you from changing later, should the change make sense. Yet you still get the coarse granularity that lets you understand, peeking at a NPC sheet, what you might expect in the long run from a Miscreant.

To Fix: Roleplaying Rules are a Poor Measure of a Person

At the end of the day Roleplaying Rules are a poor measure of a person. Modern gaming systems generally allow you to create a character who could not function on a day to day basis in any reality, other than the one they are created for, a fictional one. For a game to really work on a level of morality/humanity the system, the player and the storyrteller (or referee/gm etc) need to be on the same page. Recently I informed a group of players that I would only run NWoD once they had digested the system and spoke to me about it. Only when we are all working from the same perspective will it work.