Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Alignment Check: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 48

In this week’s episode of Play on Target we wrestle with alignments, morality, and the ethic of GM intrusion. Maybe our discussion isn't grand as that but it feels like a big issue in some games. What happens when players and GMs disagre on what a particular alignment mean. That axis of evil/good concept’s been around since the beginning of D&D, though as I mention in the episode in weirdly different forms. For an over-the-top example of alternate old-school approaches to this, see Lizard’s Gaming Blog discussion of alignment in Arduin, . If you like close read-throughs of highly weird early gaming stuff, work through that whole series. Note that alignment, like many other concepts, didn’t become concrete until Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax’s effort to codify and create one correct version of D&D. Despite that novel system (and the various alignment guide meme posts it spawned) those descriptions remain a point of contention.

Throughout this post I will shorten “I Was Just Playing My Character” to IWJPMC

Usually when GMs talk about alignment in games, they’re dealing with problems. They've hit the point where the game's gone off the rails. That can look like some version of Sam’s example in the episode, leveraging alignment picks for advantage, or even using it to create interparty conflict. GMs often struggle to find a good way to apply consequences to those players. Or put more roughly, to punish those characters for bad behavior. That creates several problems.

First, as we say in the episode, alignment draws lightning because it speaks to player behavior- or at least player choice. While most GMs want players to have freedom, all players want that. Gamers react badly to perceived unfairness or limits to autonomy. Given that alignment reflects internal and personal choices- restricting that can seem supremely unjust. And if a player’s sincere in their choice, then judgement about that behavior can be a real world judgement. "That’s a crappy and evil thing your character’s doing" translates into "You’re a bad person."

Second, there’s the question of “punishment.” If the GM assigns a penalty via the rules for an action based on a player’s choice, then that’s a system-regulated consequence. But the grey area of moral choices means that interpretation can appear vindictive. On the GM side those arguments may look more like players trying to game the system. IWJPMC comes across as an insincere excuse. Both parties have to be careful about how they frame those discussions. They can escalate quickly.

Third, GMs have to be careful where the hammer falls. It may seem like an easy solution to make the players police themselves. Collectively punish and cause problems for the group when an individual character gets too far out of line. But that can create real tensions between players. Fellow players rarely buy into IWJPMC with any good grace. A couple of times I’ve seen groups blow up over this: sometimes when players fight and sometimes when the group resents the GM shoving things onto their plate. Consequences for alignment breaking or alignment “justified” behavior need to begin with the acting character. Where possible you have to minimize the fallout to the rest of the group.

That’s why over the years, when I run games with Disadvantages, Flaws, Drawbacks and whatever the system calls them, I’ve limited them. For example Lone Wolf’s a disruption, justifying players not working with the group. Things like Stubborn, Vindictive, Jealousy, Casual Thief, give players an excuse to be crappy to one another. It’s worse if players want to have those disadvantages secret. Then they can feel wounded that IWJPMC and no one got it. By default I make players share these elements during character creation. 

Other disads suggest they'll create problems for the PC, but more often create greater disruptions for the group. For example Bad Temper and Berserk mean players can justify their character smarting off or killing NPCs who irritate them. Usually the player gets the satisfaction of having done that, while the group suddenly finds themselves having to clean up the mess, fix their rep, or get out of dodge. That’s not always how that falls out, but it’s a short step to get over the line. The same thing can happen with something seemingly innocuous like Codes of Honor .

I notice here that I’ve expanded alignment to more broadly consider “behavior justifiers.” That’s seems like a reasonable jump to me. But it may be far enough away from the original topic that it doesn’t apply.

As we mention in the podcast, both Sam and I have done villains games. That's a fairly common trope these days, especially in Supers where you can see Necessary Evil and Better Angels trying something new with the concept. Of course there's the evil PC book from D&D 3.5 which I've forgotten the name of. I skimmed it once and put it back on the shelf. In any case, Villain games never end well. I base that on my experience and multiple conversations with GMs, including a seminar at Origins. 

These campaigns can fail for multiple reasons. Sometimes the GM realizes they don't really enjoy running villainy. Heroic choices are often difficult and require sacrifice. Being evil is the easy road. Being awful rarely means hard choices. In other cases the freedom of an evil game leads to massive and drastic interparty fighting. Villains might get along for a while, but once some portion feels shorted or slighted, the knives come out. I ran a villainous Rolemaster campaign for a long time. The players held it together, but then two of the players began to resent another player's leadership. So they killed him. The victim's player didn't rejoin our games for about four years. Even then his enthusiasm for play had been killed as well. 

Villainy can seem sexy and that itself can veer the game towards destruction. I joined a Supervillain late, a few months into play. The PCs were awful and did indirectly horrible things, but worse it seemed the players themselves had no idea how bad they were. They laughed off things that made me cringe. I briefly tried to bring the implications to their attention, but ended up getting mind-wiped by my fellow PCs. I quit after that. Some games have built-in sexy bad guys, like the Scorpion Clan in Legend of the Five Rings. We had a player who loved being the sneaky, secret, potentially backstabbing character from that clan. He reveled in it. But then we had a session where he had to do truly awful things, embracing the racism, absolute loyalty, and superior attitudes of the Scorpion. He was ordered to cut down a family of Ratlings who had assisted them. The player ended up furious that he'd been put in that position. He made it clear that I'd been unfair as a GM to make him have to consider those implications. 

So, yeah, I don't run villain games anymore.

Play on Target: Character Behavior and Alignment
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