Arcane Power, A Venture City Power

Okay, so other than last week’s release of my book Archetypal Roles, I’ve been working on some materials for a game I’ll be running at my library.  Here’s a sneak peek:

Arcane Power

You understand how the fabric of reality is woven and can change the weave to suit your needs.

Basic Arcane Power:  You recognize the use of magic whenever it is used.  Just by observing an effect, you can tell what sort of magic was used.  In addition, you gain a +2 to Notice to determine who cast the spell.

Enhancements

Master Arcanist: You gain an additional +2 to Notice when examining magical effects.

Arcane Might: The world need not terrify you.  You can conjure using Lore as an overcome action to create a spell in the moment.  If you succeed with style, instead of gaining a boost you create a situational aspect with one free invoke.  The spell fades at the end of the scene, even if you didn’t use its aspect.

Nothing up My Sleeve: With the flick of the wrist and a few words, you can pull any number of useful items from somewhere else.  You can spend a fate point to create virtually anything that could be hidden on your person.

Common Power Synergies

Mystic: Your power comes from the hidden forces of the world and you can conjure up virtually anything from the energies underpinning reality revealed by your inner sight.

Intensive Study: Your powers are a result of mastery of obscure and occult texts few have ever laid eyes upon.

Drawbacks

The magical world is invisible to those who do not know what arcane power looks like.  Thus, Everyone Thinks You React to Imaginative Figments.

Magic, like fire, behaves its own laws.  You’re Not Always in Control of the power you wield.

The source of your arcane power has a steep cost.  To maintain your power, you occasionally Must Make Unpleasant Sacrifices.

Collateral Damage

Tearing of the Weave: You reach with and grab hold of all the threads in your zone and shred them without concern.  Anyone within the zone suffers agonizing pain that prevents them from taking any action.  Nameless NPCs are knocked out while Named NPCs and PCs must make a Will check against a Good (+3) obstacle to prevent succumbing to the pain and taking a 2-point stress hit.

Primal Scream:  If you do not care who gets injured, you can unleash the full fury of the unseen power of magic.  The energy rips through you, dealing you a 2-point stress hit and wrecks the zone you’re in.  Anyone or thing in the zone must make a Physique roll against a Great (+4) obstacle or take a moderate consequence, nameless NPCs are killed instead.

Asymmetric Gaming in an Age of Forced Equilibrium, Part 2

Combat is the multiheaded monster we have to slay.  There are so many issues to tackle that it may look like a hydra at first blush.  But, this behemoth can’t be approached head on.  No, combat is too big of a subject and too robust of a terror to be demolished in one fell swoop.  Rather, combat must be slashed along its flanks.  The only to bleed this monster is to unpack why it’s become the elephant in the room and why everyone’s forced to pay homage to the terror at the table.  Defeat it we must if we are to free gaming from the rut that many products have maneuvered us into.

If pulp fiction has taught us anything, it’s that physical conflict is exciting.  The majority of fiction plays up on the interior monologues of the characters and how they process their predicaments.  The problem with all of this is that there isn’t any action and while the drama may be on the edge of your seat, it doesn’t make for good visuals.  But, this is suspense at its finest.  In visual media, you have to rely on dramatic irony as much as music and lighting to convey the interior spaces of the characters.

This puts us in an uncomfortable place in roleplaying games, however.  The inherent problem is that we’re supposed to be friends with the people who share our gaming table and to add that level of intensity to any game can strain the strongest of relationships.  So, how do most games escape that level of mental anguish?  Partially they do it by having little to no rules governing social conflicts.  This includes any experiential rewards for those situations.  The lion’s share of the rules covers the equipment, technology/magic, and combat system’s features of the game.  What’s left over is often advice on how to run the game and enough information to get a flavor of the different roles for characters and their niches in the world.

At stake here is the complete jettisoning of the interior for the exterior.  Conflicts are often resolved on the battlefield with little to no interior conflicts for the characters.  In effect, it’s the detached style of storytelling used in pulps and Ian Flemming’s Bond novels.  And it would be a mistake to ignore that it’s infinitely easier to stick with surface descriptions of interior states than it is to explore deeper.  A fist to the face is a clear indication that the attacker is angry/frustrated with the attacked.

Accompanying the excitement of the physical descriptions of harm beset on foes who in dramatic terms are in dire need of it due to their clear role as the alien “other,” combat is rooted in the thrill of sporting contests and conflicts that keep the tribe safe.  The result is the continued glorification of the warrior/athlete.  This should be expected when you look at the roots of the genre: sword-and-sorcery pulps and miniature wargaming.  The use of miniatures only helps to reinforce the heritage.  Add in the dice throws and the excitement of the outcome that the dice provide and you have a potent mix of physical actions that put the interior dialogues of characters to shame.

Why is this a problem for the RPG genre?  First and foremost, events outside of combat have fewer rules and are left in the hands of the players to interpret the outcome.  Even if the game system has rules to facilitate game play through social encounters, they are often loose and lack the excitement of combat.  Besides, how much of a letdown is it to have a passionate debate get reduced to a handful of rolls between the contestants?  Consider that the specialized roles of the characters in many games revolve around what they can do on the battlefield and not what they can do behind closed doors to grease the wheels of society.

Combat is the juggernaut of the game not just because of the edge cases, but also because it represents brute force and magical might.  The tactical prowess of the players and their characters is at its apex in the heat of combat.  A bit of terse, witty dialogue is preferable to a soliloquy.  The players get to showcase their unique talents at defeating their foes for good.  This isn’t always good for the story, which is why some boss characters often slink away during the battle only to antagonize the characters once more.  But what if you can’t touch your foe no matter what you want to do?  What if their words are always getting the best of you while their influence also keeps you in check?

In many cases, the characters are stuck pounding the hell out of that character’s underlings and followers or those who stand to gain from helping keep the player characters from profiting on their own skills and political clout. Beating the villains into the dirt and saving the townsfolk from their own blindness is a satisfying way to gain their trust, but it puts back at square one: solving all problems with combat.  This can make the game suffer from a formulaic pattern.  That’s a surefire way to boredom.

Figurative Magnifiers and Maguffins

bladerunner 2Cyberpunk is a genre that relies on a lot of details to communicate a world at once strange and eerily familiar–a world that we know is right behind the corner given the prevalence of technology in our lives.  This is deliberate and forces the reader to ask some damning questions: how much humanity do we retain if we let the machines dictate how we live because of our own choices to let them do the hard work for us?

Bladerunner 1Malmart 2090 is no different in this regard.  If you’re familiar with my previous building guides, you know I like to develop a lot of tables–seriously, a lot of tables.  I’ve used this technique for Malmart not only as a way to help me price items that do have ad copy, but also to give the reader the tools to create thousands upon thousands of objects to fill their game world to overflowing.

bladerunner 7Just look at the screen captures from Blade Runner I’ve included here and you’ll see insane levels of detail.  Visually you take this all in and your brain tells you everything you need to know.  But, guess what?  You can’t get away with that in storytelling.  Nope. Nada.  Ain’t going to happen.  You know why?  Because everyone’s seen this damn movie already and if you don’t add details that makes it stand apart while adhering to the genre, you’re dead in the water and nobody’s going to be impressed or remember a damn thing.

Harsh, isn’t it?

Judge Dredd (1995)
Judge Dredd (1995), just to change it up a bit

Well, that’s cyberpunk.  It’s unforgiving and humanity’s been reduced to an insignificant mass while being the biggest thing in history at the same time.  This dialectic needs (dare I say wants) resolution.  Do we just shrug it off and join the nameless ranks; or, like our devices, do we rise above and become one of the few destined to change the course of history?

The overwhelming amount of detail is crucial to capturing the feel of the genre in ways that might not stand out right off.  Why do you think William Gibson spent so much time in Neuromancer detailing how brutal and shitty street life was?  There’s a reason the opening line describes a sky the color of a

Adam and Eve reference
Adam and Eve reference

television tuned to a dead station.  That visual tells you everything you need to know about how bleak the world is and the grotesqueness of the sky back when cosmic background radiation filled our TVs with slushy images of neutral colors and a roaring hiss.

Ever stop to ask yourself why so many of the signs in the city streets are in Japanese in what’s supposed to be Chinatown with a hodge-podge street language cobbled together from a dozen or so others for a film that came out in the early 80s?  No?  Well, if you didn’t, you’re not thinking this out.  It has everything to do with what the Internet means today and what not having a global network did to how artists depicted the future before the advent of the World Wide Web that allows you to access this blog from any point on the globe with a connection to the global village.

And then there’s this little gem:

Bladerunner 3

Why is there fire and an entire cityscape reflected in Harrison Ford’s eye?  Because the eyes, being the windows to the soul show how much humanity has consumed itself just to find an ounce of solace in this monstrosity its created.  The soulessness of the bleak urban landscape is constantly in search of something to consume.  It burns with desire and a deep search for meaning that isn’t there anymore because it’s been replaced with material goods to the point of crowding out every aspect of nature.

There’s no balance.

Authentic synthetic snake license number
Authentic synthetic snake license number

To replace it, there’s replicants out the ass in this film: people, animals, toys that think they’re alive, ads selling dead dreams in the guise of a better tomorrow.  All of them rendered as empty shells of the things they represent.  Platonic forms desecrated until the illusion of safety is reflected in the mirror.  That’s what’s in his eye and throughout the film, and thus the lingering question of whether Deckard is human or not.  Even his name is a twisting of Descartes and hearkens back to the brain-in-a-vat problem.

Everything is magnified to excess in cyberpunk.  It’s too big to take in at once.  That’s why the level of detail is so friggin’ high.  You want to know how to solve this dilemma?  Examine the finest of details, that’s why the eye is so important in that one, brief scene at the beginning of the film.  It, and the Voight-Kampff machine zero in on that one feature above all others while we, as viewers try to take in the entire aesthetic.

bladerunner 4
Running through sex to kill desire?

Authenticity, then, is captured in the minutiae.  It’s these little details that let people find ways to stand out and be different.  For this reason, the snake scale becomes enormously important.  It at once authenticates the world and shows how bereft and full of debauchery (or “sin,” if you prefer) the world is.  Hence the Adam and Eve reference with the snake.  The garden was the balanced world where urban and rural landscape meshed and escape was possible, which is why at the end of the flim, what do you see, Deckard and Rachel fleeing the terror of the cyberpunk world for the unknown of a “lost” paradise in green wilderness.

So, while the overwhelming number of choices in Malmart might seem excessive, they give you the ability to replicate the feel of the dystopian world of the genre.  And that’s why some of the tables generate more choices than you’ll ever need, like well in excess of 100,000 electronic devices.  Because everything’s a plot device and the biggest change can be contained in the smallest item.  Just like the snake scale’s serial number.

General progress updates.

Wrote nearly 1,000 words today.  I know that’s not much, but given the holidays and a few others things, that’s a significant number considering some of the circumstances.  But, it wasn’t just writing words that made today awesome.  I finished a few things:

  • turned in some additional material for the upcoming Republic of Texas book
  • Finished the layout for Castle Builder Reforged, Chapter 4
  • Started working on a new blog post (no, not this one)

So, while it’s not a lot of detail or anything, it’s a good start for the latter half of the month that I’ve managed to increase my writing production to close to 1,000 words a day.  I’m hoping to sustain that everyday going forward.

Don’t Tell Me About Your Character

One of the techniques that writing instructors stress time and again is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, no such piece of advice exists for gamers. In fact, more often than not players tell the gamemaster what their characters are doing while the gamemaster tells the players about the world their characters inhabit. It seems weird that something that would bore an audience to tears in a written format is how many players derive satisfaction in the heat of the moment.

Something that strikes me as being just as strange is that when people talk about their most memorable sessions, they show almost as much as they tell. The characters are more alive with details of what they were doing compared to the actual game session. In many ways, their descriptions are like stories of true events. But, again, this is not the most exciting way to tell a story.

What can gamers learn from this? There are ways to interject showing into the descriptions of the events that occur in a game without taking away anyone’s agency. This is why players are able to describe events as a story rather than a report after the fact. But there should be a way we can draw from this to move beyond a report style of gaming.

If you are unfamiliar with the difference between showing and telling, consider the following descriptions of events:

“My character walks up to the door and I want to check for traps. I rolled a 16.”
“I walk up to the door and examine it for traps with a result of 16.”

The differences are subtle, but one is more active than the other. The first example is a play-by-play report of what the character is going to do and the second is a smoother rendition of the same event that shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the first method, and this is often the way most game sessions go as there is a need to pause to let people know what is going on in any particular game.

If you trust your players or gamemaster enough, you can show these actions and trust that neither side is trying to circumvent any of the rules. After all, if there are any adjustments due to situational circumstances, there should be little reason to believe the gamemaster is cheating. This also requires the gamemaster shows rather than tells what the world looks like.

In this instance, it requires the gamemaster does not just provide a list of details for what the room, town, or dungeon looks like. A 10’ wide corridor with moss is boring after a while, but if you say that the moss is growing or creeping up the walls, you give a description that feels alive and more active. One of the techniques that keeps descriptions from moving from a showing to a telling is the verbs used. Do the objects interact with one another, or are they just present? If they interact, then you are showing.

Telling is often passive and does not come across as vividly. Veteran gamemasters are often great at doing this, but when players make the transition to the other side of the screen they often tell as that is the mode they have learned to operate from when playing a roleplaying game. Showing is a skill that people have to develop as we are used to reporting what has happened in the past. This is as much caused by how we learn to receive news as it is the way our brains process stimuli and weed out the information it doesn’t think is important, like how things interact with each other unless the event affects the observer.

Another area where showing and not telling comes in handy is in interior dialogues with a character. We might not be able to show the interior of a character’s thoughts, but we can show how he acts as a result of them. Even if the process is mostly in the character’s head, there are a few tricks to help make these moments dramatic and active. Most of these tricks are the same as those outlined above. What is important to remember is that the events have to be actions if you want to retain the excitement.

To make it more mysterious, you can limit who gets the information for what goes on in the character’s head. However, that can lead to other problems with players being left out of some of the action. That is where letting the players see the results without seeing the cause comes in handy. It is just like the movies, only better because it is unfolding in real time.

So, when someone gives a dry description, you can tell them “Don’t tell me about your character, show me.”

Lawful Good Interpretations #1: The Intolerant Zealot

If the common concept of the Lawful Good alignment is the saintly figure of the priest who overflows with compassion and has taken vows of poverty or charity, the holy warrior that is the paladin, and the heavenly beings occupying the celestial realms. There is no doubt that these are paragons of the alignment. Not everyone can serve as the epitome of the alignment’s tenets, however. Far and few between could even hold to such a standard. To make your game feel like a living, breathing world, some characters must fall short of the ideal but still retain most of the core of the alignment.

Not everyone can hold to the ideal, so what do others do to exhibit the alignment? The rest of the adherents might strive to embody the ideals, but their shortcomings mean their interpretations as to what they should do and how they act are seen through a lens of the person’s background. This means that what many Lawful Good characters do falls short in reality, especially if viewed by someone else without the same set of experiences. Some of the characters may be fully aware of their failings. To compensate for the difference, they are hyper vigilant.

The intolerant zealot is a character who is ruled by his passion. At his core, he is filled with compassion for the tenets of his alignment. It is through this love of his ideals and convictions that he works to save his culture and the populace from corruption and strengthen the worship others have for his ideals. It drives him to extol the benefits of a well ordered and benevolent society and to police it lest it becomes lost to the ages. When confronted with deviance, his response is not to express melancholic feelings. His compassion becomes anger directed at and borne of the social ills caused by chaos and evil which lead to harm of the individual or the collective.

Anyone on the wrong side of this fury experiences the zealot as being a member of the awful good. The intolerant zealot is so convinced of the rightness of his tenets that he does not see his concerns as an imposition of his views on others. In fact, he may not even be aware of his actions affect on others. The deviation from the “true path” is the blasphemy or heresy that imperils the soul, so it must be stamped out before it takes root.

The intolerant zealot routinely expresses his views at every opportunity. This goes along with his self-appointment as society’s watchdog. The slightest failing is subject to an espousal of doctrine or philosophy. A keen eye is developed for such scrutiny to be possible. What is the purpose of this? It is fear of the damning of the soul or society to irrevocable and eternal loss. With a belief that such is the gravity of what is at stake, what loving and compassionate Lawful Good character would not act on the individual’s or society’s behalf? Thus, the tom foolery must be corrected.

It is possible that this view conflicts with the alignment’s core edicts of compassion and tolerance? Maybe, but the zealot will be quick to point out his tolerance of others so long as what they do is lawful and promotes the greater good. Questioning whether something does this is not a rejection of anything new or different. For the zealot, people or laws are created to serve the greater good in an orderly fashion.

One can easily envision how merely being in the presence of an intolerant zealot can be an insufferably torture. The nitpicking of the wrongs of society and one’s on companions is as irritating as it is draining. Such a situation can lead to a group dynamic rife with tension, which may explain why so few players will consider such a character is Lawful Good. Characters in such a group may find themselves trapped in the uncomfortable position of needing to defend or explain their actions on a near-continuous basis.

Unless the intolerant zealot has a common goal or affiliation with the group, any cohesion the group may have will likely evaporate at the first perceived deviance from the intolerant zealot’s lofty ideals. Amongst a group of player characters, this might be unsuitable as a choice. The problem is the risk that the tension between the characters might carry over to non-gaming interactions between the players that may require the gamemaster to intervene in both the game and outside of it. There are ways to work around this if a player insists on following an interpretation this strict. If there is a lighter tone to the campaign, then a comedic gap between the intolerant zealot’s worldview and his reality can make the game more bearable when such a well meaning but abrasive personality is part of the group dynamic. When the group then encounters non-player characters, there can be a collective groan as the likely outcome is well guessed at in advance. Another option is to involve a lot of character building scenes and even flashbacks as part of the background story to let the other players in on the reasons and motivations for the intolerant zealot’s behavior so that whatever transpires between the characters stays within the framework of the game world.

As a villain, the intolerant zealot makes an excellent choice for Lawful Good antagonists. From an outside perspective, the character’s motivations are too rigid to be recognized as being rooted in the alignment’s tenets. While he might not outright terrorize his self-appointed charges, it does not mean he is not doing just that. Such a character is more likely to visit everyone under his sway to ensure they toe the line. What ultimately keeps the people in line is the fear of punishment. They might have more fear of the retributions of their deity than the intolerant zealot. After all, this is the very retribution which the intolerant is trying to save the people from.

The intolerant zealot might not do much to discourage such a mindset in others – if he is aware of it at all. Depending on the society, the intolerant zealot may be given more power, not less. The populace may very well see the character as an emissary of their deity, making it easier for him to preserve the souls of the people or their culture while risking flirtation in developing a cult of personality around the intolerant zealot. Such a villain is empowered by legal and moral authority to enact his policies. So long as this does not lead to abuse of power, the character is still Lawful Good.

Whether such powers were usurped or not is of no consequence so long as the means to gain that power were not overtly dishonest. After all, the zealot prides himself on his honesty and likely used it to secure his power base. The confidence he and others have in his morality is how he got here in the first place. For the intolerant zealot, this confidence is often resolute and unwavering, allowing the character to exude it in his speech and mannerisms. So long as the intolerant zealot has not transgressed, the illusion is the lie perpetuated by those believing it. Should he be able to do so, the intolerant zealot will use what he sees as a self-delusion as a method to guide the person to the correct path. The justification for this is that he did not create such a view; if it can be used to promote the greater good and an orderly society, then it is a loving gesture on the intolerant zealot’s part. Eventually the scales should fall from the individual’s eyes.

Discipline is an oft used tool for the intolerant zealot. Both components of the alignment require it, with it being known as restraint when referring to good. Not all intolerant zealots will use such a tool or love to do so. It is only a necessity to enforce discipline when an offender cannot keep his ways upon the purity of the alignment’s ideals. Nobody enjoys pain and the intolerant zealot knows this. That said, he resigns himself to the task out of a belief that punishment of the body teaches the mind the lesson of restraint. The intolerant zealot metes out justice in the same manner as a parent disciplining a child. In fact, the intolerant zealot may view his stewardship of his society as a parental one.
Another way in which the intolerant zealot remains Lawful Good is that he never pushes for a punishment that exceeds the law or surpasses the crime. The point of serving the greater good would be lost, rendering the effectiveness of the lesson to a diluted state. Keep in mind that the character desires to curb chaos and evil tendencies before they take hold in the community. The intolerant zealot is afraid of crossing a line wherein any punishment carried out becomes an act of evil.

Given the propensity to seek out and quash behaviors that threaten the social order and greater good, it would be easy to believe that the intolerant zealot would use any means at his disposal. This is not the case. Some acts are so abhorrent that not even the intolerant zealot can justify. If he can, he is no longer Lawful Good. At best, the character will use questionable methods, but they must still be legally acceptable when rooting out the bad seeds. Again, the methods are used to prevent moral decay and corruption that helps his fellow citizens keep the faith in the value of the Lawful Good tenets.

The intolerant zealot has to view the administration of justice symbolically in order to carry it out. Otherwise it feels too personal. If he is carrying out the corporal act, he is not flogging an individual; rather he is flogging the deviance out of the person. Yes, this is dangerous territory. The intolerant zealot cannot take solace in the symbolic role. Giving in to that temptation is a form of justification used to distance himself from the violence he is parceling out. The key thought behind this must remain that the use of the rod applied justly and as needed serves as a lasting reminder that the pain the transgression caused others will be visited upon the offender. They received a taste of the suffering the lawbreaker’s actions caused as a lesson; hence the reason the justice cannot be personal.

Up until this point, the focus has been on the visceral. Is this what the intolerant zealot defaults to? Does the punishment have to be physical? No. The intolerant zealot prefers verbal instruction and correction. Physical punishments are seen as a last resort. They received so much emphasis because the intolerant zealot must not shy away from the hard tasks. The severity of the infraction must be weighed, but the effectiveness of the disciplinary methods must also face the same scrutiny to see if they will prevent future instances of the infraction. The intolerant zealot wants to bring the wayward back into the fold, not drive them further from the flock.

When Good Zealots go Bad

You probably noticed how tenuous this position is within the Lawful Good alignment. Most zealots eventually go too far in their methods. When this happens, people remember why they cannot stand the character. The problem is that ultimately for many zealots nothing is good enough for the intolerant zealot’s exacting standards of purity. Zealots are still mortal and subject to all the flaws that entails – another reason they try to be impersonal when carrying out some offices. When they can no longer keep their emotions from overruling their reason in pursuing their ideals, they cease to be Lawful Good.

Such individuals may admit that their actions are harsh, but claim that they are misunderstood. They are often blind to their own faults. Many intolerant zealots reason that if people only knew the truth the way they do, it would be clear how much they love their faith and country and they have the best of intentions. The intolerant zealot is quick to point out that there needs to be someone to watch over society and protect from being frayed. The best way to do this is a vigilant policing from within and without. When the intolerant zealot takes it upon himself to shoulder the deity of holding the line for the community, he often does so without anyone to reign him in. This leaves him to judge what qualifies as an evil or chaotic element seeping into his beloved community should his vigilance fail.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that the intolerant zealot is aware of the challenges and that he cannot hold back the darkness on his own. Like-minded zealots will thus band together in order to increase their efforts and as a means of protection. Thus it is rare that an intolerant zealot will be encountered alone. Worse, such insulation serves to unmoor the group from its original tenets and creates a gap between the zealot and their society. Banding together serves several functions: it keeps the intolerant zealots from giving in to temptations, a way to receive moral support, and a method by which they can organize. All of these things further isolate them from the very people they believe they are saving.

While all zealots have a dim view of the world’s moral state, those who have gone too far (and thus make suitable villains) have an exceptionally grim outlook. They have all but abandoned their alignment. These zealots feel they must do whatever it takes to fight against the moral decay at all costs. Such characters are close to becoming irredeemable fallen heroes. Once they cross the line to use any tactic to get their point across, the character stops being Lawful Good. Justifying the razing of a town to save the nation at large is neither lawful nor promoting the greater good. Even the possessed can be redeemed. The only way for this character to return to the alignment’s tenets is to give up the ghost to rid society of its ills. To continue is folly and eventually will lead to the character losing himself.

The (L)awful (Good) Truth, Part 5

The “Sins” of Time

 

The acts of today are the crimes of tomorrow. The sin of time is not any actual misdeed on the part of an individual. Rather, it is the reevaluation of the past based on the evolution of a culture. This moral interpretation of the culture’s history is something modern societies are used to. Each generation in its search for identity to distinguish it from its forebears holds a critical light on the past. This is not just a modern phenomenon, however. It is more noticeable with our modern technology. The stories of the past are not just told to keep the traditions alive. Each retelling of the story is couched in the language of the writer’s or speaker’s time.

The lens of time changes perspective, for some it may be a myopic one. Who killed Julius Caesar, why did it happen, and did he play an active role in his own death to gain a type of immortality? While historians have a plausible reason for their speculations, they are still interpretations of the available data. The same holds true for the thought process behind Alexander the Great’s decision to kill his father and seize control of Macedonia. Even with what evidence that still remains, no one can ever examine the contents of Alexander’s mind. The two men were products of their respective ages. What constituted lawful or good behavior for them does not necessarily translate to today. The inferences on the acts of history’s great figures have been viewed through the thought process of the day.

The very nature of human cultures’ tendencies to change with such rapidity means that today’s heroes may very well be tomorrow’s villains. With the revelation of new information or better technologies which allow deeper understanding, the views held often change. The shift may be gradual or abrupt, depending on how the new perspective comes about. There are those who will resist a cultural shock that knocks their lives off of their pedestals, but it is what the following generations believe that determine the outcome. The Victorians didn’t write about their era, they wrote about their parents’ and the social problems that resulted from past actions that affected Victorian life, just like the Romantics who rebelled against the Enlightenment did. The American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century are obvious forms of social shifts. In France, the Bastille became a symbol of tyranny and it was demonized as a place that held political prisoners; despite if this was true, such was the accepted view of the period. The shift in what had been and no longer was acceptable became symbolized in the structure and reached a critical point that the political and cultural structure could not be sustained.

The Lawful Good character born into a Lawful Evil society was used to show the concepts for how what one sees as the tenets of the alignment are subjective and can slide into another alignment. The hypothetical caricatures were without flaw to highlight the differences between the strict interpretations of the alignments. By themselves, the conceptual views are purified versions free of all their potential nuances.

The history of the country is this: long ago, forces loyal to Chaotic deities besieged the nation. The theocratic ruling council had always been a fractured lot. Invasion brought the council to its knees. The most prominent churches had a martial quality to them. One god was Lawful Good, the other Lawful Evil. Both had a common enemy before them. The two churches set aside their differences in order to preserve their system of government and its laws.

The invading humanoids had a semblance of a plan: drive a wedge between the council’s factions to distract them and keep cooperation from taking root. In such a state, the theocratic council would fall while the forces of Chaos did as they wished. It almost succeeded. The invaders had not considered that the more Lawfully-minded churches would make concessions amongst themselves. The combined might and codified systems aided the parties involved in planning counterattacks. Seeing that this was a war of annihilation, the terms stipulated that while genocide was not allowed, forced labor and bondage in perpetuity until captured combatants could be released as law-abiding souls was.

Contingency plans by the clergy of the Lawful Evil deity were enacted as the tide turned to favor the theocratic council. In a few key battles, the Lawful Evil troops were “delayed” or “ambushed” by pockets of humanoid units. The Lawful Good divisions most at risk were those of the church leaders. In a few cases, Lawful Evil leaders feigned incompetence and pulled their troops out of position, exposing their allies’ flanks to the enemy. The Lawful Evil clergy also used a couple of well placed assassinations to gain a clear majority. The deaths were publicly lamented and vows were sworn to honor the fallen by the Lawful Evil church. When the dust settled, the nation was in the hands of the Lawful Evil clergy, who were heralded as saviors.

With so few remaining to oppose their ascendency, the church was viewed as valiant heroes for the token members of other clergies they helped save. The clergy did nothing to dissuade the perception; in fact, they encouraged it. The Lawful Evil church bided its time as it slowly made changes which made it even more difficult to break their hold on power. As the remaining heroes of the various clergies died from old age, the institutions which played the greatest role in the nation’s survival were imbued with the credit. Through subtle manipulation, the Lawful Evil church received the lion’s share of favorability. When enough of a cultural shift had been engineered through the laws, the other churches faced sanctions that led to their criminalization. All other faiths became branded as enemies of the state eventually.

The enslavement became codified and, other than an occasional token figure, none of the humanoids were deemed capable of rehabilitation. The Lawful Evil church found it was to its advantage to keep the humanoids as chattel. Any frustrations a person had could be taken out on the enslaved. A few rumors of potential uprisings and even the occasional group escape went a long way in cultivating the xenophobia and paranoia necessary to institute draconian measures and legalized cruelty for anyone who does not contribute to the efforts to rehabilitate the enslaved creatures.

For the Lawful Good character, it is quite possible to engage in the codified institutions. The acts are couched in words like “defense,” “duty,” and “rehabilitation” to justify the character’s behavior. The interests of the state in perpetuation of its existence have used indoctrination and a skillful campaign of propaganda that promotes the greatest good of the populace at large. In this manner, the character can be a staunch supporter of the state (and thus become a potential villain) until learning the truth from outside of the government’s official channels.

In the point of their history in Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians had always hated their enemies because of their scandalous beliefs. That was the way things had always been. Most were aware of the root cause for the dispute, but years of blindness to their own culpability prevented them from resolving the issue. Miscommunications combined with social shifts and the passage of time magnified the anger and distorted the historical truth. As a result, the true cause of the feud was all but lost in the heated rhetoric that became a prelude to war. Gulliver’s presence only sped up the timetable.

There may be some truth to the adage that history is written by the winner, but it is the job of the historian to rewrite it without bias. American history is not immune though many wish otherwise. Part of the reason extends into a more mundane reality: the changing nature of language. Colloquialisms and references to contemporary events fill the ages of any given document. They are, after all, products of their time. We use them as a species because they convey ideas quicker than other phrases might deliver. Shakespeare did the same with his humorous characters often receiving many of the lines. In part, this was to appeal to a broad audience, but humor requires a person remains topical for mass audiences. Some of these expressions, along with the writer’s bias, have to be translated or filtered out to get to the truth or reasons behind the words. The way to do this is to unpack the meanings and untangle the writer’s feeling from the event, not because such emotions are unimportant, but that they need to be placed in proper context to fully appreciate what they connote about the era.

Social shifts also spark debates. Change for the sake of change is as terrible as doing what others have always done without question. Many of these debates revolve around the status of social/racial/religious or other minority groups within the social fabric. There are also the issues of biological and reproductive rights and laws of who can own weapons. Every one of these issues serves as a potential spark to ignite passions and cause the tension to threaten stability. The requirements for governments to step in and make rulings on the traditional habits as well as the implementations and reasoning of laws and passage of time means that everyone involved is a potential villain in the eyes of the future.

Religion is not exempt from this. Is the faith as a whole contrary to our values or how it is interpreted by the believers of the age? Ask Martin Luther. He was a priest and challenged doctrine with his ninety-five theses. What about the split between Sunni and Shia? We may think in concepts, but language shapes how we transmit those thoughts to others. We cannot predict how people perceive those words when in the same room. How do we do so with a century or more separating speaker from audience? Some terms and words become obsolete or shift in meaning, deepening the potential for misreading and confusion. If this happens in the real world, how might the faiths of your game world interpret their holy texts and doctrines?

So, what does it mean to be Lawful Good? If you were the Lawful Good character in the Lawful Evil dominated country, how would you perceive the world without outside interference, and what would you do?

The (L)awful (Good) Truth, Part 4

The Flaws of the Flesh

 

The human condition is such that in some capacity, we all know too well the temptations of the flesh. Every hero has a flaw that blinds him in some way. Ask any storyteller if you do not believe this. It is by this means that authors use a fundamental characteristic of human frailty to illustrate the transition from an everyman into a hero. Flaws let us accept the character as one of us, making him or her real and only highlight the character’s exceptional qualities rather than detract from them.

The same rule holds for villains, only inversely so. The character flaws of villains are magnified by the inclusion of a redeeming trait. It is what makes us revile villains all the more. The most memorable villains are designed this way not just because it gives them a depth of realism, but also because it is a gift squandered. Not a gift of individual merit, but a gift for society at large. When we see the cruelty of an evil overlord that loves children or animals, it is what he does to the parents that we are not placated by his generosity like those he fawns over. That grotesqueness makes us want him stopped.

The misguided actions of a Lawful Good character brought about circumstantially through a flaw are no different. The erroneous action horrifies us far more than bogymen. When we see the flaws of the flesh dominate the soul of an honorable person, no matter how brief of a moment, we realize how far we can fall because the great ones are just as vulnerable to taking the easier path as we are. It is that one act of hamartia that makes the tension all the greater when the climax of the story approaches. Up until that point, his actions may be seen as unjust and immoral, but when the truth is about to be revealed, we fear the outcome and pity whomever the guilty party is.

This brings up an issue that is controversial and for many is darker and infinitely more disturbing: mental afflictions. It is a trope that has been used repeatedly in fiction and film. Consider Renfro from Dracula, cultists from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or even the mad god archetype like the World of Greyhawk’s Tharizdun. The truth is that while the loss of self or agency is terrifying, it is often inverted in a villain in the same method just described for qualities. The inversion of what is perceived as the natural order is used to construct a villain at the expense of this otherwise rich terrain. Mental illness is not inherently evil. Since alignment is but a reflection of basic tenets and habits, storytellers have a vast psychological landscape to explore – and exploit – in our characters. Imagine the OGL ranger’s Favored Enemy ability as an obsession (and an unhealthy one at that).

Any number of ailments or quirks can develop in a well-intentioned person. Traumas are often the catalyst that sends a character down the path of heroism. Often the character is haunted by that event, or even a series of them. Consider a character that develops Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Make her a high-ranking member of society. Minus the desire for power, this could readily describe Lady Macbeth (out damned spot,” anyone?) after the horror of murder begins to eat at her. With such a fragile state, it is quite possible for the OCD to manifest from a need to wash hands frequently as a public safety precaution to an edict that oppresses a nation or a specific population, like a minority group, for being seen as a source of pollution (such as a group unable to bather regularly in this example) – perceived or otherwise.

Sadly, these flaws have a habit of showing up in national affairs. The physical and psychic failures and limitations leave an indelible mark on cultures and how they act towards outsiders. We do not have to look far to see this in action. Look at the political climate of the US over the last twenty or thirty years. The line touted by both Democrats and Republicans is that they seek to do what is best, but the influence many members of Congress fall to the traps of special interests and the pervasive power of money. These things, along with the desire to garner power amongst their supporters, lead to numerous problems. Without name-dropping or pointing fingers, there is enough news concerning any number of dishonest behaviors, whether an affair, controversial remarks, or even corruption charges at all levels of government.

The flaw of a character means he or she is capable of committing an act of unimaginable horror. In the moment it can be construed as an act for the good of all. A vice in the guise of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins serves as an excellent starting point along with books on psychological disorders. Indiscretion on the part of a hero does not make him evil, but can lead to character traits that are neither lawful nor good to those on the receiving end. These flaws fall outside of alignment and are either rooted in beliefs or psychological issues, but they are the blind spots in everyone. It is how the character atones for his actions that prove he is good.

Still not convinced? Consult any religious or mythological text to find heroic figures that struggle with such flaws. When they rise above those failings, they are viewed as exemplars of what we can achieve as a species. When they fall, the story is a tragedy and a cautionary tale. Lest we forget the Lilliputians, their flaws that generated their conflict were pride and deep nationalism. What they sought was a promotion of the public good on either side of their cultural divide.

The (L)awful (Good) Truth, Part 3

Implementations and Habits

 

Up to this point the discussion on Lawful Good actions may have created a conundrum in how the literal interpretation works in the face of some of the examples presented thus far. It should be noted that characters in such circumstances come across as Lawful Good in all sorts of stories where these and other dubious predicaments exist. As such, we may have to rethink what is Lawful Good. Quite possibly how the alignment is implemented and the habits in question are will not suffice to explain the alignment in all situations.

In the last section, our Lawful Good character was born in a Lawful Evil nation. How does he live up to his beliefs without breaking the laws? This character is left with a difficult decision if we hold to the strict interpretation of the alignment. Two reasons for this: the protagonist in a story is the moral center of good and adages such as “the path of least resistance makes for crooked rivers and crooked men.” But it is clear the laws of the nation goe against the moral fibers of the character if he willingly follows them, right? Yet, if caught fallowing a Lawful Good deity, he would risk certain death, presuming he knows his god is LG and those sanctioned by the state are not.

The character is walking a fine line in searching for fellow worshippers in order to fulfill any desires of companionship. The risks are great on both sides. The character cannot attract too much attention and his would-be friends are going to be suspicious of his intents. After all, how do you trust when your nation’s laws promote ethics in opposition to yours? A lot of loyalty tests are likely to ensure as such groups will want to sniff out agents of the state before the secrets of the faith’s places of worship and meeting are disclosed. When lives and traditions are at stake, it’s prudent to be overly cautious.

Alternatively, the character could give the illusion of being a part of the social order. Such a character may go through the motions of the ownership of slaves. To keep the fiction alive, he could have the slaves scream out as the whip cracks above their heads. Granted this is a greater effort than just giving in and following the dictates of the law, but where’s the struggle that marks the story’s conflict? Heroes are supposed to struggle with these issues, stumbling along before conquering the temptation to conform to a system the audience feels is wrong. We wouldn’t care much for the characters if they didn’t take a stand, even if they ultimately realize they were wrong to challenge the system. We applaud them for taking a stand and asking the question along with the lumps earned from the attempt.

What is the key to winning an audience over in any medium? As hinted at above, it focuses on making the main characters sympathetic. The audience has to identify with the protagonist in order to foot for him or her. The challenge has to appeal to what the audi3nce wants to do but may not feel capable of doing in reality. It’s during the struggle that we begin to root for characters and hope the underdog wins in the end. After all, isn’t that a reason why people enjoy reading epic stories? The same holds true for epic quests in games right?

Habit can provide a power impetus for implementation of culture. After all what is tradition other than codified habits passed from one generation to another? So, an act done in the past, like enslaving a race bent on total destruction, may start out as a solution to a problem that no longer persists. When the legal or cultural codification governs how the habit cum tradition is to be performed, there is the kernel of the question “for what purpose does this rule still serve?” As a case in point, the traditions of the Lilliputians were ingrained habit for efficiency in egg consumption. Lawful cultures try to live orderly lives. To such ends were the Lilliputians a lawful society. And, if these are the habits that preserve the society, they become the traits that define the culture, especially when similarities between the two are so great that the smallest of contrasts are brought into the sharpest focus.

The adaptation of beliefs by governing bodies can follow similar principles. The political climate in America has grown ever more hostile in the past two decades (not that it hasn’t been heated before this time). As the two wings work to boil down their core beliefs into so-called “purer” concepts to define what they represent, what is really happening is a hyperfocusing on the scant differences between the parties. Replace the egg with the budget and the ends become the revenue sources the sides wish to tap. Ironically, both sides are trying to approach the same issue from a different vantage point. The Republicans have traditionally championed the concept in the adage of “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime” as their plan. Democrats concurrently urge the establishment of programs to provide immediate assistance to those in need. Before a person can “fish,” you have to help him or her out while the skills are learned. Both methods of implementation comply with the Constitution’s order to protect the citizens and, depending on your viewpoint, promote the greater good.

Personal agendas, perceptions, and a lack of cohesion within the parties have helped blur the lines and tinted the lenses through which observers within and without the parties see both groups. So, while the pervious comparison might not ring true to some, it doesn’t invalidate the point that the goals of the parties are rooted in the methodology described above. Time, human error, and entrenchment of rhetoric have led to the distortion of the two parties and the murky divisions between them. In part, this is because so little exists to separate them.

Turning to a real-world religion, Muhammad was a soldier. He was also a faithful adherent of the religion he founded: Islam. He stressed the belief that Islam must be the dominant faith –by the sword if necessary. This is what a paladin does in OGL games. In this context, Muhammad was a crusader, which is the one-word summation of the Lawful Good alignment. Through such conviction and crusade, he preached that others who believed in the “one true God” and accepted Islam as the true and dominant faith would be tolerated, even if they would not receive the same privileges as Muslims. The European crusaders did much the same. And both sides persecuted those who didn’t accept the Judeo-Christian god; yet, followers of each faith believe what they did was both lawful and promoted the greater good. As in reality, many settings have included a theocratic state, such as Fire Emblem: Path of Radience, Warhammer 40,000’s The Imperium of Man, and The Theocracy of the Pale in Wizard of the Coast’s World of Greyhawk. In the instance of the Theocracy of the Pale, there are many similarities with the tenets of Islam. The key difference seems to be that the real-world efforts to subjugate secularism and other faiths within nations have been more successful than their fictional counterpart. There is a crucial difference in the doctrinal approach of the Theocracy of the Pale, however. The point of all of this: Lawful Good religions can go on the offensive without the need to terrorize a land first. All that’s required is a threat to the faith and the potential of corruption by dissenting viewpoints that might destabilize the power structure.

In the end, what matters is that we can see that the habits and methods of implementation of laws and traditions can vary widely while seeming strange, and possibly chaotic, to another. The traditions or methods can slip from good to evil without vigilance, one of the problems that can creep into any system that doesn’t allow some dissent in criticizing any shifts in policy from the established order. Hence, even if the society isn’t Lawful Evil, those enslaved beings are still in a precarious position along with their overseers. No matter how the deviation occurs or the conditions for the original traditions have ceased to exist, you have a source of tension that can lead a Lawful Good character to question what others perceive as being Lawful Good.

The (L)awful (Good) Truth, Part 2

The Hows and Whys of Choice

 

Choice is an extremely important element of morality and ethics. How the Lawful Good character approaches the quandaries of each dilemma, then, becomes an important part of how such a character conducts himself. A strict interpretation of the alignment holds that by being Lawful, a character will never willingly violate a law. But are such people able to choose whose laws to follow? Why are they allowed such leeway, if at all? It’s an important question with no clear-cut answer, as this section will illustrate.

Here’s the premise: a Lawful Good character is born and raised in a culture where the enslavement and torture of nonhumans is not only the accepted practice, but also failing to do so when such creatures get out of hand is construed as treasonous. A lot of questions beg to be answered, not least of which is how would a Lawful Good individual know any different.

So, how can a person of this alignment exist in such a society? It seems a position that’s tenuous at best. If he was holding to the alignment as it is usually interpreted, it doesn’t seem as if this is possible without some sort of deception on the character’s part. The two likely options that spring to mind are either keeping a low profile or hiding one’s beliefs. Keeping a low profile would include the need to remain quiet, which means the character must turn a blind eye to the acts of others, which is essentially being complicit with the acts. Lawful Good people would have to hide their views to avoid persecution. This would also include deception in the form of denial. As a dishonest practice, something seems off with a strict interpretation of the alignment in such a culture.

Now, it is easy for us to view such a place as being anything but good. Perhaps it is difficult because the only sentient species on Earth capable of propagating any evil against humanity is ourselves. If any human can be the victim of torture, then the possibility (no matter how remote) exists that it could happen to you. Consciously or otherwise, it’s a thought that terrifies us. Science fiction and fantasy can reframe the debate by adding other species to the equation. One can see a level of cruelty in Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Humanity has to take a drastic step of eschewing clothing and accessories of all types to prevent the insidious aliens from taking over the planet via symbiotic enslavement. The only way to save the human race is to shed any notions of decency that informed the past. In Alien, Ripley jettisons her inhuman opponent out of an airlock. The orcs in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings are also treated without mercy.

Before condemning this theoretically society, we should consider what could possibly lead to such draconian rules against nonhuman entities. The history of the society is important in making the determination for whether the situation in question is what it seems to be on the surface. Consider the possibility that a war for survival was waged some time in the past where the only solution that preserved the species on all sides of the war was complete domination of one group over another. Those who lost were hell bent on annihilating the humans. Given their general tenets, the powers that be decided to enact harsh measures near the war’s end when it became clear that no other solution would suffice. The Americans’ decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan was rationalized in a similar manner, minus any enslavement as in the society under examination. What sounds less distasteful, having to drive an opponent into extinction, or saving their progeny even if it means harsh treatment?

The above scenario presents a damning position for anyone forced to take it. For someone born after the fact and taught about the terrible price paid to make the decision and the two choices presented, this doesn’t sound as heinous as it could be. Knowing the choices and seeing the resultant peace doesn’t strike one as being necessarily evil. If the churches of the Lawful Good persuasion also support the government’s position, then it is even harder for a character to deny the oppression of another species. Either the gods agree with the treatment, or something ghastly is going on. Or, perhaps the individual of the Lawful Good alignment in the society is ignorant. In either case, there is a history that backs up a morally and ethically justified position that looks gruesome to anyone looking in from the outside.

Let’s change the scenario a bit. Say there is a state religion where the truth of the teachings is hidden behind a code that appeals to a Lawful Good sense of propriety. All other faiths would likely be outlawed in order to bolster state power. As such, the conditions within the nation’s borders would be reinforced and glorified by the churches granted official status. A Lawful Evil deity could fill the role by masquerading as a militant figure. The harshness of his teachings and promotion of obedience to his teachings as the pathways to the greatest good would make an excellent cover for the continued treatment of nonhumans as necessary so that they, too, can achieve paradise.

What happens if the Lawful Good person discovers he has been lied to and that everything he’s been taught is a violation of his ethos? The character would be in a bind. Obviously, the Lawful Evil deity would no longer be suitable for worship. Issues on how to survive without openly breaking the laws and violating his beliefs have to be resolved. Would the character pay lip service to the official deity will illegally worshipping someone more appropriate? Does church law supersede state law? Would such a person risk such a threat to personal safety treasonous actions impose when it is easier to just follow social dictates? Is there justification for a national good rather than a universal one? The answers may be as unappealing as the questions.

Let’s return to the Lilliputian leaders called upon in the previous section. Again, the two sides were concerned with the preservation of their cultures. From our vantage point, the reasons appear quite childish. But how does one suppose they felt? The cultural aspect stems as much from the geographical as it does preference. As such, we see it as national pride that fuels the argument. To accept the claim of the other nation as legitimate would be an admittance to its right to exist, and due to its own nationalistic feelings, belittles the embittered acceptor. This is true even if it is a subconscious affair for the view engaged in such a long-term rivalry.

In a government with multiple political parties, each can work for similar ends by approaching issues from different philosophies. Things get murkier, however. The charter that delineates the governmental power may be the basis of authority, but it doesn’t necessarily describe how to perform and execute the duties of office. The lack of guidance on how to govern beyond the procedures and limits on power create obstacles in the form of philosophical roadblocks where rhetorical detritus litters the road to a nation’s future. The choices may strike a political opponent as nationalistically destructive, but it’s a strategy evolved to enact what is believed to be the best way to achieve national goals. Like previous examples, it is the choice and reasoning behind it that colors one’s view of the other.

Religions are no stranger to sectarianism. Monotheistic faiths are not monolithic. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have sects; so too Buddhism. If the real world works this way, wouldn’t various chapters of a deity also have discrete doctrinal differences? Add to this the heroes of a church or sect. What if the hero was also a patriot? Who selects which figures are enshrined as heroes? If the faith is the state religion, chances are pretty good that national heroes will be portrayed as icons embodying the faith’s (and nation’s) highest tenets, such as Romulus as the founder of Rome. If our own real-world religions have saints and martyrs who struggled with the question of choice, why shouldn’t the faiths in your own campaign have the same?

You should think about how the people of your campaign world come to their decisions and why they act the way they do. After all, it is the basis for their Lawful Good tenets. Somewhere, a choice and its justification were made, and they continue to be made with each successive situation and/or generation.