Thursday, 24 December 2020

Alignment II: Complications and Excuses

Revisiting my musings on the D&D concept of alignment ten years ago, I stand by the observation that conceptually, it's a mess. Is alignment:

* A force that guides great destinies, setting mortals and monsters at opposite ends of the cosmic chess board?

* A political ethos that rules the morals of states and societies, and those who follow them?

* A style that shines through in the tactics and personality of individuals?

I made these observations about the Law vs. Chaos dimension, originally. But on reflection, they also apply to Good vs. Evil. I missed that originally because people in Western culture, raised on Western stories, will believe that good and evil nature goes through and through. Good people live in good realms and follow good faiths of good gods. Evil people likewise stick to their zone.

Good and Evil Wallpaper (66+ images)But storybook morality falls apart in the real world. Cruel and power-seeking worldly systems can and do serve noble ideological goals. A society supposedly dedicated to tearing down the universe can sweeten its appeal to the outcast by giving them kindness and understanding. Kind and power-hungry individuals can each find their place within those systems.

Yes, the three levels on the average reinforce each other. But the really interesting cases are those where the morality of ultimate ends, worldly means, and individual character fall out of ... alignment.

Think of a repurposing of the I Ching hexagrams, not a system to define characters, but a way to generate possibilities. The first three are the three levels of GOOD --- and EVIL - - : cosmic ends, worldly means, and personal character. The second three do this for LAW --- and CHAOS - -.

Using a site such as this one we first get:


Here's someone who, like most in their society, upholds a cosmic order where the strong rule and everyone knows their place. Although the gods of this order are cruel, the church and state who serve them are set up to cushion the blows as much as possible, seeing the diabolic as the only effective bulwark against forces that would utterly wreck the world. Despite their strictness in rule, the powers that be find it expedient to hire less constrained agents. Such a one is our hero, who believes in rules -- for other people -- but is otherwise good-willed and magnanimous.


Here is a harsh contradiction -- a lawful evil social order served by a chaotic good person while the order itself serves a chaotic good metaphysical cause. Can anyone believe in all three layers simultaneously? Does this example break down and force us back into the seamless view of alignment?

No, not necessarily. Consider, through the dark arts of social psychology, the many ways in which people deftly reduce the cognitive dissonance from incompatible elements of their belief system. The ease with which people go from hugging their dog to dining on pork, or the ways belief systems put qualifications around "respct for human life", prove that excuses and rationalizations are everywhere.

We can put all of them to use in our example.

  • Means-end separation. The dictator is only taking charge to preserve the dream of freedom and benevolence! When its enemies vanish then the true end state will be possible! (But the enemies never vanish, do they...)
  • Denial of responsibility. The system is too big to change, I can try to make it better from within, if I didn't do this someone worse would.
  • Advantageous comparison. Say what you will about our kingdom, over there they have it much worse!
  • Euphemistic labeling. Come with me to the Cells of Liberation where the truth will be extracted from you in the Palace of Joy.
  • Selective moral concern. Oh yes, it may seem that we are mean and oppressive, but only to subhumans / criminals / malcontents who deserve it. To our loyal people we are liberal and fair!
  • Straightforward fingers-in-ears denial. What? Nonsense! We don't torture people. I don't know what you're talking about. Those are all lies spread by our enemies.

None of these excuses are ironclad, and each of them can be toppled over time. Then you have personal evolution or a social revolution. But the fall of a tower of mutually reinforcing rationalizations should never be taken for granted. Its tensions and dynamics contain the seeds of situations much more intriguing than the storybook goodie/baddie distinctions that alignment by-the-book encourages. 

Next and finally: Everyday morality and alignment.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Alignment I: It's A Relationship

A decade ago I dedicated a number of posts to thrashing through alignment in the D&D family of games. A few complicated half-baked systems emerged in these pages. But in the actual play of games I've run since then, I've never had players write down their alignment. Let me show you how it works instead, from my online game this year.

The atmospheric "burning bridge" from Dragon Age -- looks well burnt!

The adventurers, seeking a prophecy at a Dervish shrine, had to cross a magic bridge. The span gave protection from fire through black ashes that floated up from the chasm below and stuck to the person on the bridge. The amount of ashes was in proportion to the virtue of the person. This was relevant to the next magic bridge, which roasted its passengers with flames.

Judging this strange place was uncontroversial. Everyone remembered the characteristics that had emerged over by then six months of weekly play. Some characters had shown benevolence and moral prudence, attracting a full coating. Others had shown the deficient magnetism of their moral compass by constantly urging mayhem, torture, and murder. Sparse were their ashes indeed! 

And this discrepancy set up one of the more touching moments of the campaign. A virtuous lizardman sun-priest embraced a questionable armadillo-folk* entertainer, and this act of compassion transferred half of his protection to the sinner, allowing both to pass scorched but alive.

Indirectly, my example illustrates the first and most useful point about alignment. It is not a rule, but a relationship.  I treated the rewards of virtue as judgement from an implied spirit of the bridge. The spirit had total access to past deeds, and its own concept of sin and virtue. Would a different spirit have decided differently? Possibly!

Do you, the GM or designer, sometimes need to make benefits or malisons depend upon player behavior? You can avoid the many pitfalls of a universal rule by stepping into the role of a supernatural judge with its own agenda. For example, if you feel the powers of a paladin need a limitation on behavior, you can make level advancement conditional on a "performance review" with an angelic tutor. Play it out as you would for any other non-player character in a mentor role.

Alignment in the environment is another story. You can have spells that detect, defend, and attack the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. But only by becoming a lich or a saint can a player-character register in this world of essences.

This brings me to two ideas from my earlier musings on alignment. They have endured in my game-running, not as rules, but as principles, lurking in the background. I'll cover them in the next two posts.

Alignment is inconsistent - but so is morality

Neutrality is everyday morality

Saturday, 27 June 2020

One Page Dungeon Contest 2020: Stela Obliterata

In these pandemic times, I have summoned seven redoubtable players from my previous one-shot games and campaigns to join in a weekly online game, following the path of least resistance to Roll20 and the well-supported, and still world's most popular, 5th edition D&D. For this year's One Page contest I thought I'd work-up an area based on the campaign.

Here I must ask my current players to look no further!

The campaign is set in a region of Mittellus, far away from where eight years ago the Game of Iron campaign began. It is a desert-ringed land, culturally combining ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruling empire a torpid and death-obsessed metropolis amid concentric canals that divert its life-giving river. There is more promise in the vassal kingdoms. The campaign began at the edge of one of these, Wahattu, which had recently seen its neighbor Dulsharna fall to incursions of gnolls.

My principal goal was to make this campaign last longer in game time than previous ones, which had compressed three or more years of real-time play into less than a game-year. To this end, characters would spend months between levels training up. I also wanted to give the players more of a stake in the land by having them sponsor and economically improve the last bordering village, Alakran.

After about 12 sessions they have had some outdoor and social adventures, and run through two adapted scenarios I placed in the map (Jason Morningstar's Khas Fara from Fight on! #2, their introduction to Alarkan; and following a newly dry streambed to relieve a family of flying camels from drought, they found it had been diverted to feed the fell doings of the Sinister Shroom, whose Pod Caverns lay below).

I might have more to say about this low-level economic game, and about 5th edition in general. later on. But right now, here's the entry ... wherein the players have only ventured to, and been soundly thrashed in, the bronze cedar tomb.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Some Odd Experiences

Although my current RPG campaign is on hiatus I got two chances recently to introduce novices to roleplaying using Chris McDowall's Into the Odd. This is not a review so much as a breakdown of what works and what doesn't work for me.


Character generation is simple and yields perfect shabby-Victorian protagonists for this weird industrial setting, more punk than steam. Starting equipment is derived super quickly, balancing out poor stat rolls with better stuff. All magic resides in things (arcana) and nobody is extra at anything. You are only as good as your starting rolls, your stuff, and later your levels which let you survive better.

The Oddpendium is a fabulous gaggle of percentile tables that let you quickly generate info about characters, places, and things. It conveys and embroiders the setting.

New players love the quirky characters and the quick dive into action. There are real Every-beings without super-powers or fancy tricks. The system forces low cunning and inventiveness to get by.


Behind the screen (well, the uptilted book) I was sweating a little. The system outright omits some features I am used to in judging adventurous events.

No skills, just saves vs. ability scores. I guess this makes a statement about the replaceability of characters and importance of possessions in an industrial world. I found it more fun and characterizing to roll a random former profession and give an extra roll, or "advantage" in 5e terms, on saves related to it. And "saves" can be proactive, covering any player action that is unsure to work. New players really need all the hooks for character they can grab.

Combat is simple and safe-till-it's-deadly; being in combat means you score a die roll's amount of damage which is taken first from hit points, which high level characters and monsters have more of, and then from Strength. Each wound to Strength requires a Strength save or you are incapacitated, and dead if not tended to. Advantage and disadvantage in combat means using a bigger or smaller die. Armor can only reduce 1 point of damage, or more for certain monsters.

I like the limited armor - that's in-setting - and randomly deadly wounds. But -- I find there's something you miss by not having a hit roll or the possibility of defense in melee. There's firearms, so taking a long shot seems particularly poor to model and not well covered by the disadvantage idea. You can try to flee when your hit points are zero, but they'll always be able to "hit" you as you run.

At a minimum I suggest: To get a shot in at long range with a ranged weapon, save Dex at disadvantage. Medium range, just save Dex. Automatic damage at close or point blank range.

In close melee, damage with fists (d4) or short bladed weapon (d6) or claws/teeth is automatic. With surprise, damage is also automatic. At swords' length, each attacker saves vs. Dex to hit, and each defender gets one Dex save against one attacker to parry or evade. To speed up a fight you can take Disadvantage on the attack to force the defender to do the same on the defense. If a successful hit is met with a successful parry, both sides roll damage and the difference is applied to the loser.


Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Failed Monster Designs

Although I have written about bad monsters in RPGs, you can identify another type I have sometimes written about: the failed monster, whose basic idea is OK but whose mechanics are off. Either it's too weak or too strong relative to expectations, or just not a good join-up between concept and implementation.

Some examples, from AD&D first edition, with my writings about the first three:

  • Ghosts are super-powered, with “zap” effects like aging and possession, but aren’t really true to the variety of their source material. It's a similar failure to golems. There should be lower-level hostile living statues (as in Basic D&D) and lower-level hostile hauntings.
  • The gelatinous cube as a 4 HD bag of hit points just doesn’t, er, gel.
  • Piercers can be much improved. 
  • The carrion crawler with eight attacks is an overpowered paralysation machine. It hits plate and shield on a 14. Good luck!
  • The slithering tracker is an undescribed, underdeveloped monster – really, more of an effect -- of consummate unfairness.It tracks you invisibly, paralyzes you in your sleep, and kills in six turns. There is no way to set watch for it unless you're willing to prod sleeping comrades every hour for a reaction.
  • AD&D dragons are borderline failed. Certainly their implementation in 70’s-80’s D&D, with fixed HP and breath weapon damage, substitutes “special” for “scary,” and has been repudiated by every edition since and even some retro-clones.
  • Harpies are mixed-up with sirens. There should be just normal shitbird harpies. Charm-harpies should be more powerful than they’re given credit for, with squads of charmed minions.
  • The oddly specific horror story of the night hag is hard to use in actual adventuring. Like the Fiend Folio’s penanggalan and revenant, the hag’s description is focused on her threat to a lone civilian. It's assumed the party is supposed to barge in upon and rectify the haunting and draining by the hag, even though the victim by definition has to be exceedingly evil.
A common theme in these and other failures: indecision about combat encounters. There's a desire to make monsters about more than a line of stats, to make fighting them a matter of strategy and decisions as well as lining up and whaling on them. But these work better as rules than as haphazard monster effects. That way the strategy can generalize, and be inverted, working for both sides. Just some examples, some of which I've written on:
  • Monsters can be scarier, and true to life, by coming into close combat where your weapons are less effective.
  • Little monsters can, and must, climb you. You can also, and must also, climb big monsters.
  • Flying monsters should be annoying as hell.
  • Immunity/resistance to weapon effects. No flesh, can't slash. Nothing hard, can't bash. No vital points, can't pierce.
  • Monsters with that one weakness. Puzzle monsters, in a word; murderous locks with murdering keys.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Gloriously Water-Logged Mines

In writing adventure material, nothing pays off like primary research. Look into the lives of rats, and you find that they are purblind and communicate subvocally. Pay attention to stone, and you find that at the juncture of limestone and granite sometimes grows a layer called skarn, laced with gold, copper, and gems. Architecture, chemistry, botany: as much as they constrain design with realism, they also open up intriguing possibilities with the ring of reality to them.

Lack of research also shows. How many lost mines, dwarven or not, have been written up for adventures? How many of them have been glommed together from the residue of Moria-sublime (halls, chasms, demons) and Wild-West-banal (railcarts, lifts, ingots)? The one thing that's certain is that horrible things from the deep have been unleashed and are now running around in the place. But can we do better in setting the scene?

Waterwheel-driven pump
Even cursory research turns up one detail of deep metal mining, in medieval Europe or any other civilization, that presents enormous challenges. Below the water table, mines tend to flood. The simplest solution: dig a drainage channel, or adit, to lower ground. But this presumes your mine sits on higher ground from somewhere. Deep mines don't have this luxury.

So, pump the water out. At first people pass buckets hand to hand, then as craft deepens, machines use hand power, mule power, water power to lift out the groundwater using buckets, screws, suction pipes and tubes. All these latter solutions need keeping up, and once the mine is abandoned, the lower levels partly or fully fill with water.

Flooded floors, concealing pits and swimming monsters; flooded tunnels, requiring magic light and water breathing to have any chance of mere survival. Or, another way: get the old pumping machinery working again and see how much you can clear out, and what treasures lie in the murk.

All this assumes a pre-industrial European level of technology. But a fantasy world also has dwarves, that people of notably precocious craft. Indeed, one solution only they might reach comes from the computer construction game Dwarf Fortress, whose worldbuilding is as complex as its graphics are crude. The game simulates groundwater by having some settlements sit over an aquifer level, whose water floods and ruins all construction beneath it. The way past the aquifer requires one of many complicated engineering solutions, including rapid pumping, opening a shaft to cold air that will freeze the water, or dropping a "plug" of dry stone into the wet level and boring through it.

Dropping the "plug"

Although Dwarf Fortress simplifies the geological reality of seepage, the plug idea suggests that dwarves might have the skill to locate the source of groundwater and simply wall it off with non-porous stone. Maybe the water is controlled and channeled into a reservoir, for drinking and industrial use.

Allow a certain amount of magic in mining, and the pumping operation can be helped in a dozen ways. Maybe the dwarven priests have deals with elementals, or maybe these solutions are found among other underground peoples, like the dark elves. Golems can be set the task of working the pumps. The miners themselves breathe water in flooded galleries. Magic freezes flooded caverns so that ice tunnels can be dug through. A portable hole, or elemental portal, does the work of an adit in draining off water. And what might come through the portal the wrong way?

Another difference: human metal production historically had to be distributed over several sites, because the material for processing ore -- water, wood, and aboveground oxygen -- was not present within a mine, and not necessarily plentiful close to it. Dwarves, though, live entirely underground. Their mine dungeons necessarily include areas for crushing ore, then sorting and filtering the metal-bearing compounds through the action of water. They need to smelt ore in the heat of a furnace, creating liquid metal. If steel is being made, the fuel needs to infuse the raw iron with carbon. Most likely for dwarves this will be mineral coal rather than the medieval-era charcoal. Why not have the facilities for shaping and working metal objects right there to hand as well? A whole complex suggests itself. The only limit is availability of fresh air and water, which architecture or elementals need to supply. And Dwarf Fortress gives another idea: using the earth's own magma to power fierce furnaces.

In short, thinking about realistic logistics can take you places in design your unconstrained imagination never would. It can insert unforeseen challenges into mundane mines, or underwrite the need for a thematically varied industrial site in the more fantastic variety.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

(Rise and Decline of) The Third Reich

The full title of this post belongs to a legendary board wargame of World War 2 in Europe, published by Avalon Hill in 1974. I owned it, and played it solo obsessively, as a teenager. Some of the finer points I only picked up following forum posts on BoardGameGeek last decade.

The partial title belongs to a novel by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, one of many works published only after his untimely death in 2003. The protagonist is a champion player of the boardgame, among other titles. Impressively, the game's play is described in accurate detail throughout the novel, and plays a major part in the plot. To my knowledge, this is the only literary work to treat a hobby game in this way; I'm not talking about the haze through which a number of mainstream writers have rediscovered their teenage Dungeons and Dragons days recently.

A combination of an intensely familiar game, and an intensely recognizable setting for me (a seaside tourist town in northeastern Spain, similar to the one half my family is from). You would think it irresistible. But, probably as intended, the short novel left me ambivalent as it ended.


At one level, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich is a slogging game of economic warfare waged on the basis of the all-important Basic Resource Points (BRPs). These are gained from territory conquered and held, and spent on waging offensives and replacing units lost to the game's bloodthirsty combat tables. Abstract submarine war and strategic bombing rules allow direct attacks on enemy BRPs. Diplomatic events offer minor yet consequential variants on the strategy of the game, which usually follows the ebb and flow of actual events.

But the stolid economic game fuels a demanding, knife-edged combat. Disaster always looms through encirclement and the catastrophic capture of a major capital. Armor, airborne, and sea invaders can ruthlessly exploit inor mistakes in placement. Further enablers of catastrophe: a low-probability combat outcome that spells disaster for an attacker who hasn't piled advantage thick enough, and the feared moment when a change of initiative based on underlying economy gives one player two turns in a row.

These strategic features come through blurrily in the novel, but the details of the game are all described extremely correctly, suggesting that Bolaño is either a fan of the game or consulted one extensively. The only few mistakes are probably errors in translation from Spanish to English. An uninitiated reader would still get the idea: this is an astoundingly complex game of skill and chance for nerds, played on the stage of world history. What's brought across most visibly is the Axis player's chance to overcome the weighty accumulation of economic destiny against them -- first Soviet, then American BRPs -- through lightning conquest and skilled tactical play.

THE NOVEL (revealing plot points)

The Third Reich is one of those novels (like Iris Murdoch's The Bell) where the author builds suspense along several lines of menace and desire, only to shrink away from fulfilling the crude expectations of the genre, delivering an anticlimax that is so very literary.

Our German narrator, Udo, is taking his weeks-long holiday in a Catalan seaside town. An emotional cipher, he never shows the passion for his girlfriend Ingeborg that he does for the solo Third Reich game he has set up in their room to plan out a strategy article. They socialize with another German couple, Charlie and Hanna, without much enthusiasm, and rub elbows with local lowlifes who are less sinister than they appear.

While the supposed driver of the plot is the mystery of Charlie's disappearance in the sea one day, there is more underlying drama in the way Udo's solo game gets replaced with a head-to-head contest. The live opponent turns out to be the local character El Quemado, a mysterious South American man with ugly burn scars who works and lives on the beach. He learns the game with surprising speed, taking the Allied side. As in history, Udo starts out in a winning position, but El Q turns things around surprisingly and drives back the Reich. As it's later revealed, he has some help, being coached by the hotel's reclusive German owner who has been sneaking into Udo's room to study the game.

I wish the ending was something worth spoiling. But as I've said, there is no real climax on any "front". The game ends peacefully, a corpse doubtfully similar to Charlie's washes up, a romantic intrigue never goes past first base. Having overstayed well into September, Udo returns to Germany (Ingeborg, and hs job, both long gone) to resume his hobby.

THE NOVEL AND THE GAME (more plot reveals)

For non-gamers, the game is still an effective literary device, an arena of alternative history. Through it, Udo gets to dream of winning the war, playing his own country, pursuing a strategy in which he invades Spain to get to Gibraltar. There's an obvious irony in the parallel reality of the German vacationers "occupying" Spain though peaceful means.

Udo tries to square his national self-esteem with the moral abyss, disconnecting bravery and technical skill from the aims of the Nazi Party. Udo knows each German corps counter by its general's name, a list he recites for us at one point in a narcotic litany.  Near the end he has visions of the brave, great generals looking down from the heavens and approving his efforts, doomed as they all may be in this instance.

El Quemado is not having it, and through Udo's unreliable narration we see glimpses of what the game must mean to someone who, it's implied, has survived a South American authoritarian regime. As the cardboard war's tide turns, Udo's opponent hangs photocopies of Nazi documents on the wall, a reminder of the moral facts that Udo would rather forget. As Udo's defeat becomes certain, El Quemado begins to mutter about war crimes trials, preparing us for a violent dénouement that never happens. Instead, Udo resigns himself to technical and moral defeat, the opponents hug it out late at night, and he has to return to his boring job and content himself simply with Germany being the peaceful, economic master of Europe.


As I said, there isn't another novel out there that uses gaming in this way, as a living, adult hobby that becomes a vehicle for deeper meaning. It's worth reading, and probably a better introduction to Bolaño than his mega-novel 2666 which I started but had to put down at the point where the exposure of misogyny via the murders of women in Mexico became a relentless, voyeuristic supercut. No matter what you think of it as a novel, The Third Reich is a rare treat for the literary-minded gamer.