Jan 23, 2020

A Brief Note on Alignment

So I finally struck out "Good" on my originally "Chaotic Good" wizard's character sheet and wrote in "Evil". It's funny, some of my most popular characters have been Chaotic Evil wizards, which many people consider an "unplayable" alignment for PCs.

I'm not a great believer in alignment's value, but I have played with many people who consider it tremendously important. I have therefore had to develop a "theory" of alignment.

Most people I know who really care about alignment love the version with the full nine positions, as opposed to the earlier Law vs. Chaos version. They also tend to prefer the psychological interpretation of alignment, rather than the Moorcockian cosmological interpretation.

My position therefore attempts to be comprehensible to those people and address both their desire to specifically situate any and every character in one of the nine positions and to address the psychological elements that cause them to be so situated.

Broadly speaking, I treat one's position on the good-evil axis as a matter of sentiment, conscience, and instinct.

Good people are by default deeply concerned with the well-being of others, and callousness or harm to the well-being of others is an exceptional state that requires strong reasons or experiences and is constrained to the minimal scope necessary (at least ideally). Their conscience militates for them to care as a general tendency, albeit one that can be resisted or overcome in specific situations.

Evil people tend to callousness to the well-being of others. This does not mean they are universally and completely callous, but rather that caring deeply for the well-being of others is the exceptional state of affairs for them, and is specific in the same way that callousness is the exceptional state for the good person.

Neutral people are not strongly inclined to be either particularly concerned with, or callous to, the well-being of others, and mostly default to states of mild concern or distaste unless given specific situational reasons to lean one way or the other.

In this rubric, the law-chaos axis is about whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivations predominate in one's reasoning. That is, a chaotic character is strongly driven by conscience and individual drives, while a lawful person is mainly concerned with extrinsic motivations (whether materialistic or more abstract ones like "respect" is irrelevant).

I do stretch extrinsic motivations slightly here to include extrapolations or extensions like "a right authority orders it" where the extrinsic motivation is a more just (or whatever) world built on universalisable moral principles, though I don't consider this essential to being lawful.

The focus on extrinsic motivations in lawful people tends to require their engagement with social structures or individuals who can provide these extrinsic rewards, and this engagement (even potentially antagonistic engagement if they want to do something like reform a rotten institution so it can function properly) is the basis of their lawfulness.

Neutral people don't have a strong tendency either way, and instead tend to waver between whichever of the two - extrinsic or intrinsic motivations - is stronger in a given situation.

Anyhow, all of this is codswallop since real human morality does not work this way, but I do find that this set up is more robust than most folk-theorising about alignment online, while allowing one to assign alignments to characters in games in ways that people find prima facie appropriate even when they are not aware of the rubric.

I play a lot of Chaotic Evil wizards under this rubric because I like playing characters with strong intrinsic motivations (I'm a "proactive" player) and because my characters tend to be relatively callous towards the well-being of others (they do kill monsters and harm people who resist them, after all).

On the other hand, the reason I can get away with playing Chaotic Evil characters in games is because rather than playing them as sadists with poor impulse control, I portray them as above, and often take care to make sure the other PCs are the exceptional instances of sentimental attachment.

I also try to make the inner motivations of these characters interesting and fun and then to portray them trying to actively and positively recruit others to help them realise them, while also being extremely risk-tolerant about the consequences (whether for themselves or others). This fulfils being Chaotic Evil based on the rubric laid out above, but tends to be taken extremely well by other players. 

I don't have any recommendations here. I developed this rubric to form a mutually-intelligible basis for analysis with some people I play with who love alignment and who want to use it characterise the psychology of characters, and I do so successfully. I find that its development aids me in playing characters with all sorts of unexpected alignments in ways that don't diminish the other players' fun.

Jan 17, 2020

Planning a Campaign as a Series of Decisions

Back in January of last year, I wrote what is rapidly becoming one of the most popular posts on my blog, The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions. One of the things I mentioned there was planning sessions and campaigns around reaching decisions instead of the referee pretending they were writing a novel's plot that the PCs imperfectly realised. I say a bit more about why one ought to do this in the anti-narrativism post I wrote years ago, but I also had a request to demonstrate the practice of planning this way.

As background, it would be helpful to read the Alexandrian's post Don't Prep Plots. I also believe in preparing situations (or problems) instead of plots and consider my decision-based method to be one way of doing so.

The method I'm going to describe is intentionally quite sparse when compared to other methods of preparing. I use it because it is "low prep" and undemanding.

You generate a handful of key decisions, assign elements from the campaign world and specific adventure to one of the possible branches of that decision, and spend most of the time between any two decisions playing out the consequences of the previous decision and setting up the next one.

When you start to get towards the end of the chain of decisions, you either extend the chain further, or conclude it and move to running downtime before setting up another. You can run multiple chains of decisions at once if you so please, so long as you make it clear to players which decisions are associated with which chains.

Here's an example:

You have four PCs: A, B, C, and D, playing in a Necrocarcerus campaign set in the Ooze Salient. The PCs are freebooters and camp followers hanging around the Association of Useful Citizens' military base. You want to run them through a scenario where they are hired to break into an abandoned incarnation temple in no-ooze's-land, steal a load of nepenthe (memory-juice) crystals, and then escape before either side can capture them.

The first step is to break this into a series of discrete decisions and graph out answers where you can:

Will they take the job? (Yes / No)
How will they get out of the military base and into no-ooze's-land? (Stealth / Talking their way out / Fighting / Magic)
How will they find the temple? (Guided by something / Searching the area)
How will they secure the nepenthe? (Not my problem)
How do they escape without getting caught? (Fleeing / Killing / Trickery / Magic)

The answers don't have to be complete lists, but it helps if you have a rough sense of the most obvious options PCs tend to employ. The important thing is really to get the questions rights rather than the possible answers, because the questions form prompts you can ask the players directly at the table.

I write these on index cards, but there are fancier technical ways to do it. I then line them up left to right, in order, from the first problem to the last problem.

The second step is to generate a bunch of elements that can feature in the adventure. You're going to want at least two for any given decision point, but more is better. I encourage you to recycle things, but since this is a mock example rather than an ongoing campaign, here are some ideas based on regular fantasy stuff:

Ooze-knights on motorbikes
A Cuban communist air-pirate + her air ship
Somebody's specific memory-juice in a reusable thermostat
A twelve-armed demon who is chief marketing officer of an "Uber for dental hygiene" start-up
Cyber-trolls that all started off as one troll
A dog with strong opinions
A cool magic tank that shoots lasers but not from its gun
The prophetic intestines of a guy named "Joseph Blankenwell"
A boiling cloud of acid with a New York accent and a heart of gold
A skeleton rights activist who is also a cleric of the Big Fire
A giant wolf-spider thing who works for an insurance company
A Jacobin golem with wheels
Thousands of obols
A nuclear reactor on tank treads with a giant glowing crack
A 33-gallon fishtank with no top that's full of expired fireworks
Six ghost paladins on a holy quest that's kinda sketchy and low-key racist
An EDM dance party club
The colour "red"

I write these on post its or cards, one per post-it or card. At this point, if you're still jacked full of energy, you can pick a few of the cards and sort them under each problem like a curator. Or you can just shuffle them and stick few under each until you get a good combo.

The pile of cards are the relevant elements that you're going to introduce that can be used to solve the problem. The PCs can introduce their own elements of course, and you want to hold back a few cards so that if they come up with an idea that depends on them knowing something or dealing with someone, etc., you can whip out an element card to slot into that proposed solution.

If you want to get clever and run a "living world" you can also foreshadow elements under the next card or introduce them as Chekhov's gun type thing, and you can allow elements from previous problem cards that weren't used to recur (I just grab the unused ones that seem interesting and stuff them into upcoming piles). As elements are revealed, feel free to throw the cards onto the table for them to keep track of. You can write the name or location or use or whatever else they need to know on the other side of the index card. You can also write up new cards as you go.

For example, if the PCs want a guide to the incarnation temple and the dog with strong opinions is the thing they need, you could write "Imprisoned within the heart of a giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond" so they remember that they have to break into the heart of the giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond to free the dog so it can show them the way.

I suggest badgering the PCs with the questions periodically because they'll forget them and get off-track. If you let them get off-track frequently, you're running a "sandbox".

You can change specific questions ( and create more or remove others) as PCs progress through them and gain or lose interest in them, and move everything around - this isn't meant to be a rigidly mechanical system, but precisely the opposite - a way of condensing one's focus to only spend time on what one needs to in order to move things forward.

I hope this helps illustrate the idea that campaigns can just be series of decisions of varying scope via the demonstration of one technique of planning and implementing such a campaign.