Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Alignment" part 3

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: A Web of Alliances
            Last week I talked about some other morality systems in geek culture, the not so black and white dichotomy of “Babylon 5” and the traditional virtues and vices of “World of Darkness”.  This week I am going to take a look at an iconic franchise in RPG’s, “Fallout”.
            Traditionally in RPG’s a computer or the Guy running the Game, let’s abbreviate that to Game Guy or GG for short, need a way to evaluate in shorthand how the world views the player character(s).  Are people afraid, hostile, friendly, guarded, or horny?  The spectrum of human emotion is a broad one dictated by the personal philosophy of the observer and the reputation of the observed.  How do you try to box in these things?
            Dungeons and Dragons tends to rely on alignment for the default.  If you are a good person and you meet an evil person they will at best see you as naïve at the start, maybe someone to exploit, maybe a direct threat to their interests.  There is variation based on how much depth the GG wants to give them, but that will usually be the rough starting point.  Chaotic people clash with Lawful, Good with Evil, and Neutral people presumably clash with other Neutrals about what not to feel all that strongly about.
            That is the thing about Neutrals.  You never know where they stand. It sickens me.
            Anyway, here are two examples of how the Fallout franchise has handled that question.  One is complete shit and the other is adequate.  I then give a bit of an insight into my own attempts to harness one of these systems in my own games and the pitfalls I found with it.  There is also a lot of "Skyrim" discussion in there too.
This is what "Web of Alliances" traditionally means.
This will make more sense later.

Fallout 4: “I didn’t bother”
            I chose not to give any thought to Fallout 4, because I played that game as an extreme loner and therefore missed out on most of what they decided was important, specifically how your NPC allies feel about you.
            Hey, Bethesda, if you want to make interpersonal interaction and team building a core component of the game’s story maybe don’t make “Lone Wanderer” a perk at all.  Maybe gear your game mechanics to couple with your other game mechanics…. and the story instead of having such obvious divisions between each of the parts.  And cut all the bloat, it is impossible that anyone in development thought “Ghoulish” was worth anything, whoever was pushing for it should be purged.
            One of these days I should go on a long rant about “Fallout 4” and its numerous bad decisions and how they kneecap the ever loving hell out of the good decisions which made the game fun.  One of these days.
Endurance 9, are you high?
If you are going to have a shit perk you should at least make it the lowest ranking one.

Fallout 3: “Murdered by an entire village over a fucking fork”
            There is a youtuber I follow who made a 90-minute video delving into the depths of “Fallout 3 is Garbage (and Here’s Why)”.  You don’t have to watch it, but I feel it does present numerous things about not only “Fallout 3” but the rest of the Fallout franchise and its value as a game series and story setting.
            I never really connected with “Fallout 3” for many of the reasons he points to primarily because of the shallow binary choice aspect to it.  Blow up a town that has done you no wrong or don’t do that.  This is not a meaningful choice.  The idea that doing evil, especially in a covert fashion, would have any effect on how people look at you is questionable considering the amount of anonymity that the setting would afford people in it.  “Karma” is a terrible system.
            I mentioned my issues with the bad over simplification of the morality system in 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but “Fallout 3” takes it a step even further.  The game’s AI is too stupid to have a rational reaction to minor transgressions.
            Go ahead and steal something, doesn’t matter if someone sees you, you lose karma.  Go ahead and steal something while someone looks, and even if the object is literal garbage they will lynch your ass.  I have been stabbed by the town doctor because I grabbed the controller weird while shifting in my seat.
            This is the limitations of the technology, obviously you can’t make fully thinking individuals, especially in town that could be obliterated at an early stage in the game.  A massacre committed by you.  For no reason.  But, I point to this because this sort of draconian blunt simplicity is used by lazy players and GG’s without thought.
            It is not fun to punish characters who are not playing the way you think they should with wildly disproportionate punishment or knee jerk in game terror.  It is also not okay for players to get a kick out of brazenly derailing the game because, “My character is going to steal, and I am willing to burn this whole village down if they tell me not to take apples without paying.”  Hey, dipshit, while you are trying to shock humor everyone with your edgy character everyone else is waiting to get on with the story.
             (If it is not clear I am admonishing my younger self for having committed these sins, I am trying to help you learn from my mistakes so that you can be a better player).

Fallout New Vegas: “You can tell a lot about a guy by the company he keeps”
            This system… actually works really well.  If you don’t know much about “New Vegas” (understandable, because at the time of its release it was way too buggy and as a result failed to gain the traction I feel it was due) let me tell you a bit about it.
            In it the post-apocalyptic Mojave Desert.  You are a mailman that has survived being shot in the face and buried in the desert.  You are now out for revenge on the guy who did it and along the way you meet a variety of colorful characters and learn the intricacies of numerous factions.  There is a war on and thru chance you are drawn into the conflict as an agent for one of the 3 primary factions… or you are out for you.  You’ll need resources, allies, and an army to win the war for your chosen side and that means either killing or winning over the numerous groups of the wasteland.
            There is no good and evil (well, there is certainly an evil side, kind of hard to spin the faction with all the slavery, misogyny, cultural extermination, mass murder, and luddite sensibilities as anything other than “evil”) instead you are viewed as being on good or bad terms with each primary group.
            The three primary factions differ in notable ways.  The democratic New California Republic are nominally the good guys but they are stretched thin and plagued with numerous frailties, it seems inevitable that if this war isn’t what beats them then something down the line will.  There is Caesar’s Legion, dozens of tribes banded together into a grand autocratic military that is sweeping the nation, they are the aforementioned “evil” side.  And there is the leader of the powerful city state of New Vegas, the notorious Mister House, who wants to run New Vegas as a model of pre-war glory, utilizing his robot army to protect his glitzy city from all threats.
            Taken along with the option of, “None of the above” you can actually populate the traditional alignment system of Dungeons and Dragons with each faction, House is Lawful, NCR is Good, Caesar is Evil, and taking control and pushing out the others is Chatoic.

            If it were at all possible, I think this sort of system would be ideal for Dungeons and Dragons.  It is not possible.  A GG would have to first think up all of the factions, their priorities, and their primary members.  They would have to have a key central conflict, WAR IS A GOOD ONE, and the players would have to understand each one, which is difficult because inevitably one of them is going to look worse than the others from the start.
            For an instance of how difficult it is to create a real parity, think of the Imperial Legion at the start of Skyrim, it is really hard to justify why your character would work with them after they were about to have you executed when you were not even on the list to be executed, and it is really hard to justify joining the Stormcloaks if your character is anything other than a Nord or maybe an Orc.  By the Eight they yell, “Skyrim is for the Nords” when fighting, naked jingoism is not attractive.  Make Skyrim Great Again, I suppose.

            Beyond that, a video game can keep a score card in the background keeping track of favors and favor that the player has done and curried, a DM would be punishing themselves if they tried to keep track of all of that information in any consistent fashion, how do you measure the weight on an action or a trespass?  And good luck getting all the players to agree to help any particular faction, better luck trying to get them not to follow only one, better-better luck keeping them all from descending into backstabbing.
            How do I know?  Cause I tried it.  Woof!

The Red Crusade: “Unfortunately the experiment ground to a halt”
            I had a war campaign that I put a lot of creative energy into and while I still consider it a great idea (I will one day just make a multi-week blog about the details of it once I get past all of these more general topics) the campaign eventually slowed down and then stopped.  It was not entirely the fault of the premise, we all had lives and there is only so much mental energy two lawyers, one physicist, and a graduate student can put into Dungeons and Dragons.  That being said let me show some ideas and my big failing.

            There were two big sides, the Maunder Empire which resembled Rome or Byzantium in a state of confusion and in many ways collapse.  They were the Lawful to Lawful-Evil side of things, but they had their strong points (if you were Human or Halfling and really liked having a well regimented society with great architecture and functional utilities).  They are led by the nephew of the previous emperor and up till recently they were the most powerful military on the planet, it is only because a dozen things went wrong all at once that they did not handily win the war.
            Beyond the “We are really good at illustrating all of the best things about orderly state run society, but are kind of racist” there were parts that were far more open to reform and even saw the war as a time to push thru new ideas.  It had an evolving status quo.

            The other side was the Alliance, or “Barbarian Horde” as they were called by the Empire.  They were made up of a diverse group of beings from the neighboring continent that had pushed off the colonial yolk of the Maunder and were now on a counter invasion.  They were led by the Infamous Red, a half red dragon who married High Empress Jessica, daughter of the now dead previous Emperor.  The validity of the marriage was suspect (as Jessica was 13 when they got married), Red wanted to install himself as a Governor General with Jessica as a puppet ruler.  He is the Chaotic to Chaotic-Evil side of things.
            That being said, Red’s side was far more diverse, Jessica is legitimately in love with Red and is no longer a child (she is currently 23 and their marriage was non-sexual until she was an adult) and is looking forward to being the figurehead of an empire while most of the real work is done by her friends in the Alliance.  The Alliance was all about democracy, plurality, and choice.  But they were also brutal, and many members had a biological need to destroy many, Many, MANY functional structures and upend the Maunder civilization that would cost millions of lives.  And that is assuming they would all manage to keep moving in the same direction rather than stall out or implode.

            In addition, each side had sub parts, The Empire had 12 different regions, each under siege from some other threat (Yuan-ti, Demons, Undead).  The Alliance had different racial factions (Catfolk, Humans, Goblins), and there was a half dozen smaller satellite countries that had pro-Empire and pro-Alliance positions within each (and I based all of those countries off real life countries).  There were also monstrous powers, churches and cults, and criminal organizations, all of these were exploiting the chaos of the war to push their agendas.  My creativity went into bloated and complex overdrive.  My players couldn’t keep up and became less interested in seeing any nuance.
            The party never even thought that joining the Empire was an option.  Even though one of their first and greatest allies was a Colonel in the Empire and that most of their crew and allies were educated in the schools and colleges of the Empire.  And this really comes down to my fault I guess.  I did the same thing “Skyrim” did and had them start off in an island prison run by the Empire called The Salt Box along with a bunch of other political dissidents.  They escaped the facility, destroying it utterly in the process, and became a group of mercenary adventurers with a crew of political dissidents.  KIND OF HARD TO LOOK AT BOTH SIDES WHEN THE FIRST IMAGE IS OF THE WORST PART OF ONE SIDE.

            I tried to keep the idea of working with one side, then the other, but ultimately it proved a bit fruitless.  The party committed to one side completely, so much so that one player COMPLETELY ignored a major plot that I had designed specifically for his character.  He didn’t think it furthered the interests of Empress Jessica enough and he was playing things Lawful Stupid.
            That issue with his character kind of percolated into why I dislike the traditional alignment system so much.  Because his version of lawful as being so inflexible and single minded and my conception of lawful as being flexible enough to act without direct orders but be conflicted about it were so at odds with one another that it killed the story dead.

Next Time: My Favorite Solution
            I should have kept to a golden rule, “Keep it Simple”.  But “Simple” is the issue I have the problem with.  I like complex, my mind gets off on seeing the linking parts and contrasts between actors in a story, and while I did resent that my player did not take the quest hook I kind of resent that his behavior up to that point hadn’t keyed me off to what he would do when I offered it to him.
            There is no perfect solution here.  But I do think that there is a better system that Wizards of the Coast already has, and has already put a lot of thought into.  So next entry (and perhaps the last on alignment) will be the system that I wish they had just integrated into Dungeons and Dragons back in 4th Edition.
            WHAT COULD IT BE!?


The Beg for Attention:
            If you venomously disagree with me, please tell me why in the comments.  Feel free to leave links to your own blog on the topic or articles that you have found helpful.  Or write your own counterpoint to all this (or parts of it) and come back and post a link. 
            Maybe you had some kind of knee jerk visceral reaction to my bad mouthing of “Fallout 3/4” maybe you would like to air your grievances in the comments.  I actually do read the comments, maybe even respond.  Sometimes I think about them for a while, ruminate on them, and then perhaps integrate them into my thinking and grow as a person.  Not often of course the vast majority of internet comments and culture is toxic waste and really needs to have been spanked more as children.
            Alignment is the most debated thing in Dungeons and Dragons because, as I wrote, we all have personal values.  So share your feelings much as I have and experience the glorious indifference of the internet.
            Have Fun!


            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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