Thursday, December 4, 2008

Playing Alignments - Chaotic Evil

Chaotic Evil, I'd imagine, is not a common alignment to play. Why? Well, it's generally interpreted as "Kill anything you see all the time without any regard to anything", which doesn't really allow for much in the way of joining a party. To me, that's idiotic.

Sure, someone who did that would be chaotic evil, but not everyone who is chaotic evil is like that. Orcs are listed as 'usually chaotic evil', in 3.5. In 4e, if it lists alignments, they are probably the same. With the above interpretation, no orcs would exist, because they would be too blind with rage to even mate. Yet, orcs have functional tribes and occasionally armies. Why?

Chaotic evil just means that you care little for rules and less for altruism. A single orc, coming across a single unarmed human, with no witnesses in sight, would probably kill him. Why? Why not? The human has stuff, maybe some of it is worth something. The orc doesn't care about sparing his life; there's no reason to.

However, let's say a single, unarmed human approaches an orc tribe. He's approaching in the open, not hiding, and wearing the colors of a local citystate. The orc chieftain, or at least his advisor, would order that the human be left alone, as he is obviously a messenger. Yes, they are evil, and yes, they don't respect law with regards to killing messengers, but they are also likely self-serving and know that mercenary work can pay well, even for orcs. It's rare that someone is so devoted to creating chaos and death that he won't act in his own self interest when he can.

How do tribes of Chaotic Evil creatures even form? They form on the basis of self-preservation and greed. A big gnoll can beat up a smaller gnoll. The larger gnoll is now a leader of a tribe of two. He keeps his lesser kin in line with beatings and harsh treatment, and he slowly brings in others of his race, or other races, by the same methods. The larger gnolls in his retinue get power to control the smaller ones. On occasion, some gnoll will become powerful enough to kill the previous boss, and thus will show that he can control the group. There will be constant infighting and working to get ahead in the positions, but the tribe itself is still cohesive. Self-preservation is a powerful tool for chaotic evil races. Besides, gnolls know that a single gnoll has a hard time raiding a human trade caravan, but a pack of forty can do it easily.

What, then, about Chaotic Evil PCs? Assuming we are discussing a party of chaotic evil PCs, they are probably using the latter justification for the gnolls: power. Together, they can do more than they can separately. They can make more money, get more food, sleep with more women, whatever. This is what a good number of bandits do. Bandits are evil people, the occasional Chaotic Good Robin Hood not withstanding. They band together in order to have the combined strength needed to achieve their goals. In a party of Chaotic Evil PCs, all of the players should both be expecting the others to grab the loot and run, and planning their own way to grab the loot and run. They don't feel allegiance to their compatriots, and if they have enough money to achieve their goals, they are as likely to run off with it as to actually stay. Is this disruptive to a campaign? Yes. Does it immediately provide a possibly awesome adventure chasing down the now DM-controlled former PC, with that guy that you just met in the tavern (a new PC from same player)? Also yes. Bonus points to the PC that sets up a stronghold during play, documents it as a full dungeon with traps and henchmen, and then scampers off with the loot. Now there's an entire dungeon of enemies, topped by a suddenly more powerful and well-armed ex-PC!

What about introducing, preferably secretly, a new chaotic-evil PC into an established neutral/good party? You have to do this knowing that it will result in conflict eventually, and you have to know your players can handle this sort of pseudo-betrayal. Still, this can make for a lot of interesting roleplaying hooks.

Let's say you have a fairly typical "good" party. A Chaotic Neutral rogue, a Neutral Good Fighter, a Neutral Good Cleric, and maybe a Chaotic Good Wizard. The fighter dies in a dungeon, and does not respond to resurrection. The group, for some reason knowing that someone else exists that will join their group, goes looking and finds another fighter in a tavern or somesuch. The man seems a capable combatant, isn't a cringing sociopath, and agrees to join on for a full share. The new fighter introduces himself, talks about his past fighting injustice, etc etc. The DM perhaps requires a few secret bluff rolls, or just wings it if the party seems to believe the guy. The new fighter is Chaotic Evil, and is basically just joining up for the loot and chance to kill some things.

Does this new party member have to attack the other PCs? No, he doesn't have to. In fact, he shouldn't. He knows how powerful they are, and he knows that as the odd man out, he'd get slaughtered. What he wants is money and magical items. Maybe he stays on for a while, studying them, keeping track of their safeguards and their wealth. He might make a move to steal everything at some point, but he'd be sure to have an escape ready. More likely, the party would eventually see what he is, and force him out. The player signed up for this character to be lost the moment he put "Chaotic Evil" on that character sheet, but hopefully still had fun doing it.

If the Chaotic Evil fighter wasn't killing the party, how would they find out that he was chaotic evil? He's evil. No matter how hard someone tries to hide their moral core, parts of it slip out on occasion. He's unnecessarily abusive to captured monsters or people. He taunts injured foes, and takes great pleasure in dealing pain to his enemies. He verbally assaults NPCs, and occasionally runs into trouble with the city guards. Perhaps he even runs into the occasional law officer who recognizes him from some old crime, and has to talk his way out of arrest. There are a lot of things that can make for some interesting party dynamics here. The guy might even be worth keeping around after being revealed, just for his efficacy in combat.

Anyway, give some thought to Chaotic evil characters, and you might be surprised that they can be as nuanced as any other alignment. You may even consider playing one, just for fun. Game on!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

RPG Carnival - Transformations

A new RPG Carnival is up this month, dealing with "Transitions and Transformations". I intended on writing for last month's "Religion" theme, but never got around to it. Anyway, there are all kinds of Transitions and Transformations in RPGs, to be sure, and that leaves me a bit spoiled for choice.

I think I will go with a literal transformation that most RPG players are at least passingly familiar with: polymorphing. This can be either lycanthropic, wild-shape, or magically induced, among probably a thousand other varieties. I will focus on the above three. They are each fairly different processes, but I think they share enough to talk about in one post here.

More than it might seem by conventional thought, people associate with and define themselves by their physical shape. When you look in the mirror, you expect to see a certain figure looking back at you. If you notice a new pimple, or a few extra pounds, it's worrisome or at least annoying. Cutting your hair drastically or shaving off a raging neckbeard can immensely change not only your physical looks but also your self-image, confidence, and even personality, in one way or another. One of the most horrifying things imaginable would be to look in the mirror and see someone else entirely looking back. It would lead to a terrifying loss of identity, as well as any sense of permanency in your own existence.

How, then, can people take polymorphing so casually in gaming?

As a lycanthrope, the physical change is, at least in the beginning, unwelcome or even unexpected. Suddenly, your body twists and contorts, your bones snapping and reforming as a lupine or ursine shape, your flesh prickling and growing wiry fur, your teeth extending quickly and violently, your fingernails stretch and tear, becoming vicious claws. Is it any surprise, after this monstrous transformation, that your mind would tend to snap? You have become an abomination of nature and foul magics, a dangerous half-breed of animal and human. In the depths of your mind, the animal encroaches, hungry and violent. The wolf or bear in you doesn't recognize this wooden structure, filled with panicking, hairless apes and the strange, chemical smells of alcohol and lamp oil. Your human mind, with it's capability for higher reason and concepts such as reciprocity and civilization, fades in the face of this new, predatory will. No longer capable of knowing why you are here, why these tattered strips of cloth are hanging off of you, or why those apes are now holding implements you dimly recognize as dangerous. Of course you would lash out in violent anger. When you awoke after the night of slaughter, your mind and body once again human, is it surprising that the memory of your deeds would be wiped away or suppressed? You awoke in the woods, with a splitting headache and no clothing. Perhaps you just... maybe you just got drunk last night. Yes, certainly that's what it was. You would never do any of those things that you half-remember from your dreams, even if evidence is shown that points to the contrary.

Now, obviously, wild shape is pretty far removed from lycanthropy. As the form is assumed intentionally, and through communion with and understanding of the natural world, the transformation itself is less violent and painful. Simply put, you might be human one moment, feel a tug as your body shifts, and then become a bear the next moment. Now, as a druid in wild shape, you generally maintain your own mind. Still, with your new shape and power, certain effects have to manifest. Imagine, as a human, being mugged by some punk in an alley. You're under his power, in a sense, as he holds a knife to you threateningly. Suddenly, you triple in physical strength, grow to twelve feet tall, gain claws and teeth capable of tearing flesh nearly effortlessly, and lose your ability to speak, cutting off diplomacy as an option. His knife is no longer a threat of any real scope. Certainly, your new and powerful position makes you feel a bit feral and violent. Power corrupts, and physical power is included in that. Of course it would be easy to bat the mugger thirty feet across the street, then jump after him and maul him to death. As a human, you would never bite into another person's flesh, but after changing, it just feels... natural. So, as a druid, think about how powerful being a bear would feel, how fast and nimble you would be as a cheetah or panther, or how invisible you could be as a fly on the wall. Put some thought into your animal forms, and how you act within them.

Compared to wild shape, Polymorph as the spell is simply a matter of scope, as are variants such as Shapechange. However, they are also a different sort of approach. Druids can become animals due to their connection with nature. They already empathize with the creatures, and becoming one physically is just an extension of that. As such, their minds are likely easier to recover when they shift back. With magic, you are bending the rules of the world, changing yourself physically and possibly mentally (if mental stats are changed by the given spell) into another creature. Instead of growing to twelve feet and gaining claws, you suddenly go from a physically weak, wiry human to a colossal Red Dragon. Your senses are a dozen times more acute, your slightest movement shakes the ground itself. With a breath, you can devastate huge areas of the landscape. Your very appearance causes terror and fear all around you. Your mind expands to that of an ancient beast, and the most difficult concepts and theorems for humans to grasp suddenly become child's play. Your mind, to an extent, begins to know the lust for treasure, for the glitter of gold and the tinkling of coins, that all dragons feel. Your greatly expanded size shows you that your former companions are just ants. They are only playthings; petty nothings before your great might and ancient power.

If a shift to a dragon would be so powerful, a shift to an outsider would be even more disruptive mentally. Consider changing into a Balor for the purposes of combat. This requires Shapechange or the like, a ninth-level spell. Extremely powerful magic, challenging the gods themselves with your control of reality. Anyway, you still have all the changes of a physical variety, but also something a bit more disturbing. In your new form, in every beat of your six hearts, with every twist of your warped muscles, and with every thought in your wracked and altered mind, is geared towards evil and malice. You have dozens of powers and talents now that exist solely to destroy and torment. Without any conscious effort, your hands twist when you strike, adding extra tearing to any wound, causing excess pain and blood loss. Holding back and trying to take prisoners becomes difficult, if not impossible. Treating a prisoner humanely is beyond your imagining. He is weak. He should suffer. All mortals should suffer, and you finally have the strength, intelligence, and supernatural powers to make them do so. It should be no wonder that wizards are known for going mad with power. Who wouldn't?

This post is just intended to get you thinking about transformations as more than just skill and ability changes. Think about how different you would feel and act if your entire form were suddenly changed to another. Think about the animal or magical influences on your mind, whether lycantrhopic, animalistic, or supernatural. Make transformations such as these more interesting your campaigns, and it will pay off in your roleplaying.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Handling Human Encounters

Humans, it would seem, would be the easiest sort of encounter to handle. Certainly, everyone who plays D&D with any real capability is at least human in some regard, feykin and furries included, if it's that sort of group. I mention folks like fey and furries because I want to illustrate that humanity has a great range of people. Any characteristic of a dwarf could be that of a human. The same goes for elven, fairy, halfling, pixie, draconian, and just about any other racial or animalistic characteristic outside of physical ones. Humans are generally the only race in most settings that are described in any way other than a monoculture, and I look at that as a statement towards the variety they are capable of.

Thus, human encounters can be a great deal more difficult to handle than, for instance, dwarves. When a PC approaches a dwarf, he has a general idea in his mind about how the dwarf will act. A dwarf is a dwarf in most settings, after all. He is probably a stoneworker of some variety, and if he isn't, he is probably a metalworker. He is probably either drinking now or waiting until his next drink. He's probably a bit gruff, but trustworthy in general. Avoiding such monocultures might be another post.

Now, when a PC approaches a human, what can he assume? Basically, a PC expecting to talk to a human in a D&D setting can expect that the human speaks common. That's about it. Humans don't tend towards law, or towards chaos. Towards good or evil. They don't favor one class over another. They can be abject liars, sociopathic killers, saintly priests, or demonic servants. They don't necessarily favor living in any particular environment, aside from the concerns of comfort and survivability. One human may cherish the natural beauty of the forest, while another may look at that same forest and see nothing but thousands of gold worth of logging to be done. In OD&D, humans are also the only race capable of the highest levels of power and advancement. Humans are always shown as adaptable as well, thus meaning that the same human might not act anywhere near the same way from encounter to encounter.

How then to handle them realistically? Be a human. Don't just be yourself though, but become the NPC. Think about his or her circumstances. Think about his or her history, even if it's only fleshed out so much as "A farmer born near Woodvale." What does a farmer, used to defending his home against bandits and raiders in these troubled times, think when he sees five heavily armed adventurers approaching, backed with a dozen hired mercenaries/porters? I'll tell you what he's likely to do. He'll shout to his family to get into the house and lock the door, and he'll run off to ring the town bell. If an alarm system is too far away or not present at all, he'll pick up his father's old sword and ready it. He will be tense at least.

What if, instead of a farmer, you have a nobleman? Well, put yourself in the nobleman's shoes. He probably defines himself by his title. Let's say this guy is a Count, currently being visited by the PCs in his estate. A Count holds a very prestigious title, and a great deal of land. He was almost certainly, by necessity of his rank, born into his nobility. This man has never done a day of work in his life. He dismisses peasants and other callers as unworthy of his presence. When told that his vassals have no bread, he suggests they eat cake instead. What then when a group of commoners, having the gall to call themselves adventurers, approach his estate for a meeting? Well, if they aren't called for, they won't even be allowed in. If they are called for, they won't be allowed in with weaponry of any sort, and not in armor either. They must show proper respect, to the point of not speaking unless spoken to, keeping their head and eyes lowered, kneeling in respect before being told to rise, and other such humilities. The Count will likely speak with a haughty, apathetic tone, and be extremely incensed at what might be considered a very minor faux pas to those of lesser station. By no means would he allow contradictions of his statements by commoners visiting his hall. Secondly, he holds awareness that if he had his guards kill all of the visitors, no one would ever question his word that they had caused the fight in the first place. To the players' advantage, he might respond well to obsequiousness, or perhaps respond even more so to a commoner with a knife at his throat. Deprived of guards that are able to save him, he will likely be very compliant with attackers, as he has no capability of defending himself.

What about a foreigner? A stranger in a strange land? Perhaps he would identify in a way with the adventurers, as both of them are outsiders to the common people around him. Perhaps he speaks common with an accent, or a heavy dialect that makes him difficult to understand. Perhaps the lingua franca in his land is Orcish, due to centuries of oppression. Maybe his society puts less emphasis on personal liberties and the accumulation of wealth, and he finds the adventurers' "be mercenaries; kill and loot" policy to be completely abominable. Maybe in his culture, people go to great lengths not to show any of their flesh aside from their eyes, and he is extremely uncomfortable with the women parading about in their pauper skirts that are little more than rags. He may think little of lying for personal gain, or he may see it as tantamount to murder in severity. It's possible that in his country, carrying weapons in full view in the middle of a metropolis is common practice, and he is unnerved by having his sword taken from him at the gates. Perhaps his nation is at war, or has a history of war, with the nation he is now visiting. A PC approaching an obviously foreign-born NPC has no idea what to expect, and that can be an important part of the encounter.

An interesting peculiarity to human encounters is that they may not be human at all. Humans are by far the standard, most populous race in most fantasy worlds, as well as the most naive. If a doppelganger, changeling, were-whatever, dragon, angel, demon, or any other sort of camoflagable race were to fake being a particular core race, it would probably be human. How can one non-magically sort demons or dragons faking being a foreigner from a violent society from the actual humans? One might not be able to, which allows for even more variety for 'human' encounters.

So give some thought to how humans react in your games. They shouldn't be blasé, mechanically helpful, or generally bland and boring. Every human is an entire person, with his own hopes, dreams, culture, upbringing, moral core, and dozens of other characteristics. Make each person a person, and your world will feel more true and alive.

Monday, December 1, 2008

ODnD Searching and Traps

It's been a few weeks since that OD&D game that seems to have caused a huge, albeit temporary, flush of traffic to my oft-neglected blog. I don't doubt that RPGBloggers and an apparent link in a OD&D forum helped as well. Anyway, this post is an exploration of something that caused a bit of confusion for me, as DM, in that OD&D game: searching and traps.

The problem, stemming no doubt from my D&D 3.0 roots, is the matter of searching and the efficacy of such. I get that in OD&D, having a room with traps that exist as part of the room is important. Rather than "roll to disarm", the party should have to figure out a more physical and 'real' way to disarm the trap based on logic and reason. That's fine and dandy. The issue is thus: In 3.x, 4e, and possibly other earlier editions, you roll to search for traps. Rogues in particular, and others to a much lesser extent, can search a room for traps by rolling a die. "I search for traps, I get a 18+8 for skill, so 26". Then, you compare 26 to some DC, and there you go. They found it or didn't.

In OD&D, there is no such mechanic. How then to respond to "I search for traps"? The primer, linked in the previous post I believe, suggests requiring very specific things to look for. "I search for traps" is then insufficient, requiring something more akin to "I search for a tripwire across the hall" or "I look for cracks in the floor which might be indicative of a pit trap". The problem that arises from that is twofold: One, the players, if sufficiently paranoid/trained to expect traps everywhere, will spend hours in each room, checking every brick and cobble to be certain that flaming death doesn't await them. The second is that players will feel cheated if they search a room and miss something that they feel should be obvious. "What? How could I miss a tripwire? I said I searched!"

How to remedy this issue? Well, firstly, it might not actually be an issue that isn't already solved. Part of my reasoning for writing this post is to hear other people's rules on such things. Do you just list traps as part of a room's decor? Do you accept "I search for traps" and list them then? Require ever more specific phrases to be able to find better traps? Improvise/houserule/steal a mechanic to handle it by a die roll? I'm curious to hear your ideas.

For me, sans any exterior input, I think I will continue making traps effectively invisible unless a player specifically searches for that type of trap, or is searching a sufficiently small object, such as a chest. Searching an entire room "for traps" is laughably difficult, with a clever enough trap inventor. Hell, there could just be a poisoned barb on the back of the door handle to the next room, that a casual adventurer would grasp and pierce his hand on. Who would even think to look for it? A chest, however, is small enough and simply operated enough that one can search for trigger mechanisms at the least. Trapped chests, of course, are almost reason enough to devise some alternate method of opening them than just standing in front and kicking them open like one is Link.

The issue is that, from a 3.x/4e/videogame aspect, these sorts of decisions seem like DM arbitrary damage. Those rules effectively only exist so that the DM can't just "Rocks fall, everyone dies". If there are search and disarm rules, then it's less based on the DM's fiat, so that players don't take umbrage when they are injured. In OD&D, by design, the DM is the final arbiter on everything, superseding rules when desired. How do you avoid looking like you are just smacking the players around? If they search for tripwires, and you decide that they miss one, or miss another kind of trap, how is it not just you smacking the players around?

Anyway, sorry for the post with fewer answers than questions, but it's something I'm curious about and would like to hear the gaming community's opinion on.