Friday, September 2, 2022

Review: Spelljammer: Adventures in Space (and D&D 5e)

I wasn't going to write this review.

Despite recently running a lot of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, I don't have an overwhelming urge to talk about it much here on the ol' hobby blog. I may publish the occasional piece of 5e content here, but the actual rules and the culture around the game has been analyzed to death elsewhere. The scene certainly doesn't need another voice muddying the waters and Wizards of the Coast has no need to benefit from either my praise or scorn, so I keep doing the stuff I like with or without them.

However, two things spurred me to write this review:

  1. I love the Spelljammer setting, as the tags Spelljammer and SPELLS WILL BE JAMMED might suggest.
  2. Most of The Dreaded Discourse™ surrounding the new Spelljammer release has been of even worse quality than usual.

So, this is perhaps less a review than a rebuttal. If you happen upon this review, consider this a message in a bottle: if someone on social media told you how horrible the new Spelljammer box set was and how you need a bunch of third-party content to make it playable, I'm here to more appropriately calibrate your expectations. (In short: the rules are perfectly acceptable, being neither excellent nor terrible, and you don't need anybody's homebrew to "fix" the new rules.)

However, this review will be a bit long, because it is (in my mind) impossible to discuss an official fifth edition D&D release without talking about WotC's design goals in making D&D 5e. (And you can't talk about those design goals without discussing what came before.) As such, this is a partial review of fifth edition itself. These reviews won't be especially in-depth, but they will hopefully be helpful.

If you're only here for a specific section, refer to the table of contents below.

Table of Contents

I. The History of D&D (and Table-Top RPGs)
II. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition
III. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

I. The History of D&D (and Table-Top RPGs)

If you remember your history pretty well, you can safely skip down to section II. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Conversely, if you really want to delve into the thick of RPG history, authors like James Maliszewski, Ben Riggs, Jon Peterson, and Shannon Appelcline do great work in this sphere. (Although as with so many things in the hobby, their focus is often on Dungeons & Dragons specifically, leaving some of the less-renowned-but-still-influential aspects of the hobby unexamined.)

But the short version is that D&D starts in 1974 as a game exploring site-based and event-based adventures — pulp heroes wandering into the wilderness, facing danger in dungeons, and gathering the treasures therein (typically to fund their own personal projects).

Within a decade, more narrative structure emerges in game scenarios, exemplified by the investigation- and skill-heavy Call of Cthulhu in 1981 and the Hickman revolution starting with 1982's I3: Pharaoh. Money stops becoming a vital resource and starts becoming a supplement: 1989's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e does away with XP-for-gold (although it remains as an optional rule), instead focusing primarily on fighting monsters, while 1991's Vampire: The Masquerade completely abstracts character wealth as part of the Backgrounds system and assumes it is not a primary goal.

By the end of the 1990s, the transition from site-based or event-based adventures into plot-based ones culminates in the ascendance of the metaplot: an overarching story that runs in the background of published game materials, such that collectors can read the books to put together the puzzle and players can interact with big events in the background of the setting. Many of the big games of the era have a metaplot revealed during the line's development (CyberpunkDeadlandsDelta GreenUnknown Armies, and World of Darkness all come to mind), and while D&D as a whole avoids a metaplot, most of its campaign settings have them. (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Planescape, and Ravenloft certainly all had metaplots.) The metaplot is simultaneously remembered fondly by fans as an interesting serialized story in its own right, while also being reviled as a bloated gimmick to sell books.

When TSR collapses and Wizards of the Coast takes over the game, they put their own stamp on the game by combining the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line with the BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia era-D&D line into simply Dungeons & Dragons. A few of the popular games at the time followed suit, relaunching in the early 2000s with slick new editions and largely abandoning the metaplot structure in favor of increased accessibility. However, this is an era in which a lot of games design more explicit rulesets (relying less on GM rulings), and also replace the metaplot subscription structure with a emphasis on "character builds" — the game line is now a vehicle by which to build an optimized character. While D&D 3e exemplifies this with its so-called ivory tower design, you see it in lines like Exalted and new World of Darkness.

While game lines become more bloated, desktop publishing and forums like The Forge and allow for the creation and proliferation of smaller, more focused indie RPGs. While some of these games are short-lived, as befits a smaller and more narrow play experience, a lot of them are read by other game designers and introduce more mechanical concepts into the RPG ideaspace.

After an eight-year development cycle, Wizards of the Coast finally takes what it learned and rebrands D&D again into the wildly-polarizing fourth edition. This continues a lot of the game design trends of third edition, taking them to their logical conclusion by further emphasizing combat as the focus of the game. Combat procedures are explicit, repeatable, and largely in the players' hands. (Instead of GMs making rulings on things the players want to try, most of what a character can do is located on the character sheet.) The game's encounter design also lends itself to largely linear adventure paths of straightforward plots broken only by the game's setpiece battles.

While the game still sold well, the backlash online was fairly intense, taking two interesting forms:

  1. The grognard bloggers who stuck with BECMI or AD&D during the third edition era start swapping design notes with the arthaus punk bloggers, forming the OSR largely by accident.
  2. WotC ends their contract with Paizo Publishing, the contractor who published Dragon and Dungeon during the third-edition era. Since they now have a lot of experience writing third-edition content, they make their own third-edition retroclone called Pathfinder.

The backlash and increased competition for dungeon-y, dragon-y adventure game design space results in fourth edition D&D having one of the shortest development cycles of any D&D edition. After only four to six years depending on how you count it, WotC takes these disparate pieces of information — the stuff happening in the storygames sphere, the stuff happening in the OSR sphere, and the fan response to Pathfinder — and returns to the drawing board to release "D&D Next" for the game's fortieth anniversary.

II. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition

While I read some D&D books and played a single, hazily-recalled game around 2006, fourth edition was my first edition of the game I ran and played beyond one session, starting in 2011. (As noted elsewhereI mostly ran World of Darkness before coming to D&D.) As such, fifth edition is the first version of the game that I have followed largely as it released, instead of piecing it together in hindsight. I don't know if that makes me especially qualified to write what follows, but now you understand my background on the subject.

Forty years of game design brings us to this. During the mid-2010s, I recall someone calling fifth edition, "everyone's second-favorite edition of D&D," and that sounds about right. I recently described most of the fifth edition releases as "a C+ essay." (As with most things in the universe, I often describe it as, "Not as good as the fans say it is, but better than the haters say it is.")

If you play Super Smash Bros., D&D 5e is Mario, excelling in no particular area but robust in all of them. In the immortal words of George Costanza, 5e is "right in that meaty part of the curve: not showing off, not falling behind."

In short: it's good. (But not great.)

A lot of the things that drive its popularity include its prevalence (as it acts as a sort of lingua franca in the RPG hobby), its thriving play culture, its dominance on livestreaming RPG shows, and the fact that it more-or-less does what it advertises. If you want an adventure game that lets you go on adventures about exploring strange locations, interacting with interesting NPCs, fighting monsters, recovering treasure, and becoming more powerful while doing so, it handles all these things.

If you want a flatter power curve; a less number-heavy experience; something that focuses less on resource management; an experience that more consistently reflects a specific genre rather than "whatever breed of fantasy happens at the table tonight;" something that takes place in a more modern setting; an experience that actively dissuades combat; or a setting with no magic or different magic other than the pseudo-Vancian model, you probably want to look elsewhere.

As noted on this blog, I operate in a lot of indie spaces, and they tend to complain about Dungeons & Dragons at length. (So much so that allegedly anti-D&D places are where I sometimes get significant news about official D&D releases.) But those complaints are often incoherent, and clearly represent some personal issue with the game. In my mind, there are only three legitimate complaints about fifth edition D&D, and they're unlikely to change any time soon:

  1. It's corporate art. And like a lot of corporate art, it's designed to be as inoffensive as possible. It's bland and it doesn't really do anything innovative.
  2. The rules are complicated. It's very number-heavy and worries about fine details like positioning and resource management. If you have difficulty tracking a lot of variables, if you have a disability that makes it difficult to keep numbers in your head, or if tedious note-taking doesn't sound like your idea of fun, this might not be the game for you.
  3. The culture overshadows the game at the table. Strictly speaking, this isn't the fault of the rules, but it does lead to a lot of trouble online. D&D is incredibly widespread, and people are overwhelmingly likely to learn the game from a mentor. As such, everyone thinks they know what the rules are, but almost no one actually reads the books cover-to-cover. (And even if you do, the rules are complicated. Nobody can keep all of the rules in their head at once.)
  4. A phantom fourth argument that is partially true is that the game is pretty expensive. That isn't totally true: while there might be marketing pressure and peer pressure to spend money on it, the basic game is technically free. You can download the Basic Rules for free (or use the Basic Rules on D&D Beyond), use an online dice roller, and find enough free content online to run the game for the rest of your life without doing any work. I suspect the thriving community around the game and the free rules are two of the many factors that maintain the game's popularity.

But to understand why WotC has made the design decisions it made, one must understand that this represents forty years of game design and fifteen years of Wizards of the Coast corporate analysis. Fifth edition is a fundamentally reactionary edition, responding to all that came before and combining aspects from the previous eight or so editions of the game into something that tries to please everyone. The overall trend is one of retaining some of the most popular rules and incorporating bits of design from other games while also simplifying concepts from previous editions: multiple spells are condensed into aspects of a single spell, floating modifiers are condensed into advantage/disadvantage, monster stats are simplified from their third edition counterparts and all relevant information is found reliably in the stat block. (Recall that, during the BECMI and AD&D era, valuable statistical information like special abilities and spells were often hidden in the monster descriptions, usually-but-not-always in the same place.)

Also recall that, while a lot of the design of previous editions has proven quite popular, analysis suggests it maybe wasn't sustainable. Ahead of his recent book, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, Ben Riggs made a handful of posts on Twitter and elsewhere about TSR sales figures, and they paint a bleak picture. The classic AD&D 2e box sets are fondly recalled but apparently didn't sell terribly well. Likewise, we know that third edition was popular and is well-regarded by the fans, but that edition had a punishing release schedule with an enormous game line. We don't know much about WotC sales figures, but it seems reasonable to surmise that they developed fourth edition because sales were flagging.

(I would also be remiss if I ignored the fact that fifth edition is also designed around the Adventurers League organized play program and the community content on DM's Guild, which is part of the complex mélange of factors that drives the game's popularity. The game can only be but so outlandish, otherwise it would interfere with the open table policy of the Adventurers League. Likewise, any content that fans really want to see can easily be made by the community and posted on DM's Guild for pay — which per DM's Guild policy, still monetarily benefits Wizards of the Coast. That's pure passive income for them.)

In short, the unified design and staggered release schedule for fifth edition indicate that Wizards of the Coast has learned from its business mistakes. They're not constantly churning out content every month, they're not establishing expansive metaplots, they're not trying to innovate while also risking failure. (The streaming space also provides a constant stream of free advertising for the game without WotC having to put out anything new. At this point, they don't need to churn out new content every month, and it's easier to catch press for the new release when it's a big one every quarter or so.) It's all very safe, focus-tested, and conservatively-designed. Whatever else someone's opinion of D&D 5e, these trends all suggest that this was a very conscientiously-designed edition of the game. (The feedback from the ongoing open playtest of the game no doubt guides some of its development and contributes to the smooth, inoffensive nature of it.)

III. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

Which brings us to the actual point of this post.

You have a new edition of the game that also tries to be a legacy edition, supported by a continuous open playtest of the rules and a burgeoning fan community. While the original fifth edition release in 2014 focused on the popular Forgotten Realms as the game's implied setting, fans have been clamoring for old content like adventures and campaign settings to be re-released under fifth edition. Wizards of the Coast started releasing legacy content fairly quickly, beginning with an Eberron playtest in 2015 and an official release of an expanded version of I6: Ravenloft (entitled Curse of Strahd) in 2016. Fan requests for additional updates continue across social media, and WotC continues to publish it.

Hearkening back to the Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space box set, Wizards of the Coast releases Spelljammer: Adventures in Space in 2022. As with most of their other products, the production values are decent, the art is lovely, and the organization is as expected. It's a C+ essay — it promises rules for spelljammers, space-themed monsters, and an adventure, and it delivers exactly what it promised.

Interesting tidbits from the new setting include:

  • In contrast to the original 2e setting, there is only one kind of spelljammer helm, and it no longer requires your spell power to use it. (This last fact is even a change from the helm of the scavenger published in 2018's Dungeon of the Mad Mage.) Every spelljammer is roughly as maneuverable as any other, and there is no longer an upper limit to the tonnage of a ship.
    • Spelljammer helms can still only be used by spellcasters, though. You just don't have to turn spell energy into motive force anymore.
  • They don't include all the ships from the old material, but again, it's pretty easy to convert old material to the new system. As it stands, the new set includes a lot of old designs and adds a few new ones.
  • Spelljammers are very accessible in this edition. You can probably get one, helm and all, for about 25,000gp or so. (In 2e, spelljammers were expensive, especially the helms. While a spelljammer is a good place to invest one's loot after many expeditions, it's also fun for players to be able to buy one relatively early in the game.)
  • The phlogiston from 2e is gone, replaced with the Astral Plane. I actually like this change, as it means that even low-level characters might have the resources to voyage into other worlds: journeys are now unlikely to take more than two months' worth of supplies, as the Astral Plane doesn't require rations or air. Of course, the trade-off is that the Astral Plane is way more dangerous than the phlogiston. (Not counting the inherent risk of setting your whole ship on fire in the phlogiston, of course.)
    • Also in keeping with the Astral Plane, there are no space lanes, star systems have a tendency to move like bubbles in a sea, and you automatically orienteer in the direction of something by thinking about it. In short, they've made it easy to get around by leaving those details up to the Game Master — you don't need a map to get from Krynnspace to Realmspace, and the trip is as long or short as the GM decides it is.
  • You can never go wrong with more monsters, and the included Boo's Astral Menagerie has plenty:
    • A lot of Dark Sun monsters appear in this version, such as braxat, b'rohg, gaj, psurlons, and ssurrans. (The thri-kreen also appear as a playable race in the Astral Adventurer's Guide.) A leaked map even indicates that "Doomspace" in the included adventure Light of Xaryxis was originally going to be called "Athasspace." As it stands, Fyreen in Doomspace certainly sounds like a post-post-apocalyptic Athas. WotC also has a habit of teasing future products in current ones, although such references are just as likely to be fanservice. (But they've previously suggested that they'll do Dark Sun... sooner or later. Maybe.)
    • A couple of BECMI-era monsters from Mystara also appear, like the brain collector/neh-thalggu and the feyr.
    • In addition to some classic Spelljammer setting monsters, like arcane/mercane, dohwar, space swine, and zodar, there are also a handful of unique monsters in this edition, like space clowns and vampirates.
  • The included adventure, Light of Xaryxis, is typical Wizards of the Coast fare: a linear plot crystallized around a couple of good ideas. It's looks fun to play and easy to run, but there isn't much in it that makes me excited to run it.
    • Compare and contrast: John Battle's recent offering The Sun King's Palace is a little messier than Light of Xaryxis and looks like it might take a not-insignificant amount of preparation to run without messing up the presentation, but The Sun King's Palace is so much more evocative than Light of Xaryxis that I'm way more excited at the prospect of preparing it and running it.
    • However, in the defense of Light of Xaryxis, I thought the hook was clever: it is a deliberate homage to the Flash Gordon serials of the late 1930s as well as the 1980 movie. It even has genre-appropriate cliffhangers between chapters!

Apart from the proliferation of Dark Sun monsters and the clever design to the included adventure, there aren't any surprises here. What you see is what you get.

However, as noted at the start of this review, the impetus for this review is to clarify some of the criticism online. Most of it is misleading and represents a different product from the one I read. We'll go through a few of the recurring criticisms I have seen:

  1. "They didn't include [insert my favorite spelljammer monster or ship type here]!" This one's easy: if you're an old fan, you probably still have your books, or you bought pdfs from DM's Guild. Adapting old material is easy; Wizards of the Coast even gives you conversion guidelines. Specifically in the case of monsters, D&D 5e doesn't often publish fifteen variations of a single monster anymore. The guidelines in the Dungeon Master's GuideMonster Manual, and Boo's Astral Menagerie are pretty clear: if you want a weird version of a monster, take an existing one and give it different traits. Boo's Astral Menagerie gives guidelines for this process to make wildspace-dwelling versions of normal creatures.
  2. "They didn't include the tables for making solar systems, or the subsystems for determining orbits!" They weren't going to. Remember, a major idea behind 5e is simplification. For determining orbits, they just tell you to calculate the distance between planets mathematically. They assume that you're going to use the included adventure as inspiration for other star systems you make, rather than relying on random tables. If you want the old subsystems, they're still in the 2e books, waiting to be used. (Also, those subsystems were all optional rules anyway.)
  3. "They didn't tell you how to determine how far away you have to get from a planet to reach spelljamming speed!" In keeping with the (comparatively) more narrative focus of fifth edtion, they probably figure that's "however long the GM wants it to take." According to the old box set, on average it takes forty minutes to an hour to escape a planet's gravity well, more if it's windy, so I would use that as a guideline. I usually go with an hour; an hour is enough time for a single random encounter check, so that sounds good to me.
    • If you want a more official ruling on this, the Astral Adventurer's Guide defines the air envelope of a planet extending out to a distance the same as the planet's diameter. That's... actually about right for Earth, but that distance describes the outer edge of the exosphere, which is too thin and too exposed to space to support actual life. Chapter five of the Dungeon Master's Guide describes terrestrial life typically ending above 20,000 which is also reasonably accurate; Earth's troposphere ends at about 40,000 feet, beyond which the atmospheric density is only one-thousandth of its value at sea level. While the gravitational pull at that altitude is about the same as at sea level, "the place where breathable air ends" is probably good enough for RPG games and occult symbolism. Twenty thousand feet is just under four miles, which most spelljammers can reach in a half-hour to an hour.
  4. "The Astral Plane makes travel between systems too easy! Characters can't get lost in the Astral Sea!" I suspect that's part of the point. (But as noted above, the Astral Plane is often scarier than the phlogiston. I don't think there were astral dreadnoughts in the phlogiston...) Once you get to the Astral Plane, the GM decides how long the journey takes and what you encounter along the way, and all of this is in keeping with the procedures for GMing a game these days. If you want to make it more complicated and less certain, then do so.
    • I would also remind anyone who thinks that you can't discover something by accident that the star systems move. You can take a five-month-long return journey to Realmspace only to find that another star system has bobbed into your path along the way. Likewise, since you can only travel to places that you know exist, learning that a specific star system exists so you can fly to it sounds like a pretty good adventure hook to me.
  5. "They left out the rules for ship combat!" This is actually the critique that spurred me to write this review. Whenever I see this complaint, I re-read the "Ship-to-Ship Combat" section in the Astral Adventurer's Guide to make sure I didn't imagine it, and every time the rules are still there. They give guidelines for ship-to-ship combat, but they assume that you will remember the rules for combat, objects, and vehicles from chapters eight and nine of the Player's Handbook, and chapters five and eight of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
    • A much more valid critique is that they ought to have provided a reference reminding you of where to find the relevant rules, or have provided a summary. For example, I had forgotten the rules for object saving throws until I went looking for them. (In D&D 5e, objects automatically fail all Strength and Dexterity saving throws, but succeed on all other saves.) That's why you need to read chapter eight of the Player's Handbook for spelljammer purposes; heaven forbid they would be in the "Object" section of chapter eight of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
    • "Why are the rules for ship combat spread across five chapters in three books?" is an exceedingly valid critique. Does your game need hundreds of rules spread across several rulebooks in 2022? (Into the OddMothership, and World of Dungeons all come to mind as short RPGs that could support years of play, not to mention the hundreds of one-page RPGs floating in the digital aethers.)
    • "You need to get this fan supplement to make the rules playable!" is not a valid critique in this case (and really just sounds like someone's gimmick to sell more DM's Guild content or to bring you to their blog).
    • As always, I would recommend using the procedures as defined in the core books before deciding it doesn't work for your group and adding third-party rules into the mix.
  6. "They didn't use the expanded vehicle rules from Ghosts of Saltmarsh or Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus!" Remember, those are optional rules, and the developers have a lot of ground to cover in this book. (And again, the keyword of this edition is simplification. I suspect that they're moving away from optional vehicle rules because they weren't as popular as people on the internet suggested, or they're trying to streamline things for One D&D in 2024.) The basic vehicle and object rules are in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and they're perfectly serviceable.
    • If you want to use the more detailed vehicle statistics from Ghosts of Saltmarsh or Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus, nothing is stopping you from doing a conversion, although converting sixteen ships to the more complex Ghosts of Saltmarsh system and running spaceship combat in it with multiple ships sounds like a nightmare.
  7. "The adventure sucks!" As noted above, Light of Xaryxis has problems, but they're pretty consistent with the problems of other fifth edition adventures. (Too plot-focused, too linear, stakes are so high as to be totally abstract.) I suspect, however, that most people are reacting to the structure of the adventure, and they completely ignored the part where the authors say that it's a love letter to pulp adventure movie serials of the early 20th century. If you've seen the hokey plots and shocking swerves of a Flash Gordon or Commando Cody serial, you'll understand what the authors were trying to accomplish. (And despite the adventure's flaws, I feel like they succeeded.)

So, if you happened to find this after hearing that the new rules are unplayable, I'm here to tell you that they're perfectly serviceable. They may lack a lot of the flavor that made Spelljammer so beloved in the 2e era, but they're a good starting point. If you're looking for a rehash of the Unhuman Wars; the complicated subsystems for celestial mechanics; the granular ship mechanics; and a setting line comprising over two dozen products spread across box sets, books, Monstrous Compendium binder pages, and magazine articles, you won't find it here. (And Wizards of the Coast didn't take your old books away. Use them!)

However, if you want a stripped-down, back-to-basics version of the setting for fifth edition, you get exactly what you are expecting here and not a jot more. Honestly, if you read what they did with Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, you shouldn't be surprised here: in that book, they reset the metaplot such that you don't have to follow the old books to use the Domains of Dread in fifth edition, but you can absolutely include stuff from the old books if you like. It may not be innovative game design or provocative art, but it makes good business sense: include something interesting enough to draw in new fans while leaving enough gaps and references to legacy materials to avoid alienating old fans.

Edit (September 3, 2022):

After all that talk of Wizards of the Coast attempting to make their new edition as inoffensive as possible, The Dreaded Discourse™ continues apace. In the fifth edition Spelljammer adaptation, the hadozee were given a backstory wherein they were small, lemur-like creatures who were uplifted by a wizard to be used as workers and slaves before the wizard's apprentices helped liberate them.

If you know anything about Western history in the past five hundred years or so, you probably already see the problem. (A relatively comprehensive account of the scandal appears on this TechRaptor post.) For the record, I thought the backstory was a little weird, especially given how much of The Dreaded Discourse™ revolves around the long arm of the transatlantic slave trade, but I casually assume every big company hires a sensitivity reader these days and so promptly forgot about it.

After this fact was discovered and discussed on Twitter, Wizards of the Coast has issued a statement and errata and has already altered the race's description on D&D Beyond, removing the offending sections and slightly altering the hadozee's gliding ability. (However, some users have taken umbrage with the "Hadozee Resilience" trait, suggesting that it also reflects negative stereotypes against real-world ethnicities. As of yet, WotC has not issued a change for that.)

Edit (September 4, 2022):

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Head of Vecna

A week or two ago, Wizards of the Coast released a new design for D&D's Archlich Vecna, back before he was betrayed by Kas and still had two eyes. He looks like this:

As you can imagine given the sharp cheekbones and strong chin, the internet-at-large was very normal about it.

Vecna featuring The Book of Erotic Fantasy.

Continuing with that train of thought, when Nicole saw it, her comment was, "They yassified Vecna..."

And her comment led me to create this monstrosity:

I think I met this guy at the club one time.

Which then prompted this edit of Vecna from the classic Die Vecna Die! cover:

A friend said he looks like an Are You Afraid of the Dark? villain.

And of course, since people were confused about Vecna because of Stranger Things, that led to whatever this is:

This anime protagonist needs moisturizer.

A friend also mentioned Acererak. Acererak the demilich or the regular ol' lich sadly doesn't have enough skin for FaceApp to recognize his face, and the one human picture of Acererak I was thinking about is too low-resolution for the filter to make his face look right:

He looks like a Spongmonkey.

To end this very stupid post, I'll leave you with a friend's ultimate comment about the Vecna redesign:

Happy Pride, everyone!

Thursday, May 26, 2022

It Is Finished

It is done.

After eleven years, we finally wrapped the Crux of Eternity campaign last Saturday, May 21, 2022. If you want to read the session reports, you can find the whole thing at Obsidian Portal.

It's certainly the longest campaign I've ever run in terms of the number of years. Even though there were some significant breaks, I would still estimate the whole campaign at around 800 hours, which is probably about how much we would have played if we played regularly for eleven years. (Assuming roughly once every two weeks at three hours a session.) In contrast: my next-longest campaign is the occasionally-mentioned The Imperial City, which lasted about eight years. We played irregularly, but very often — I expect we were gathering roughly twice a week at the height of that game, so in terms of hours, it likely blew Crux of Eternity out of the water. Rounding out the other completed campaigns are Bread and Circuses at just over two years and False in Some Sense at about a year-and-a-half.

I have talked about the origins of this game elsewhere, but the key points are that we started in May of 2011 in fourth edition, updating to fifth edition in December of 2015. The humble seed of this campaign sprawled into my typical nonsense: an elaborate cultic criminal conspiracy corrupts the heart of the largest city in the region, and it is poised to spread if the player characters can't stop it. I didn't know then at the time that we were going to spend eleven years fighting slavery and delving the dangerous wilds of the Sorrowfell Plains, but here we are.

Since then, that game has spawned many others and has ranged across several different systems: in addition to a couple of one-shots and side stories and budding campaigns, we have explored a tale of escaped gladiators trying to find their way in the world, a conspiracy tale about high-level enchanters doing... something, and a tale about poor wanderers trapped in a land of arctic horror. I'd love to run a proper old-school, open-ended hexcrawl with, say, BECMI or Old-School Essentials one of these days, but most of my players respond way better to concrete objectives, so we keep riding the fine line between new-school and old-school.

(Although I can't tell you how badly I want to run a BECMI campaign that runs all the way from level 1 through the Immortals box set twice until the players ascend past the Immortals tier. A massive undertaking, but one that I imagine would be very fun with a dedicated group.)

While I'm always worried that my players aren't enjoying themselves, they kept returning after eleven years, so I suppose we made something we could all enjoy. They certainly seemed to find the final battle against the Khan of Nightmares dramatic; the umbral blot was a terrifying opponent, and the Khan's personal hound turned half the party to stone before they finally managed to defeat the Khan and take over his Coliseum Morpheuon.

And then they fade into the mists of history to fulfill their own agendas and inevitably return as NPCs in some future game...

The Obligatory After-action Report

This was my first time running fantasy in general or Dungeons & Dragons in particular, and since it lasted over a decade and spawned many spin-offs, I have to assume it was a rousing success.

I have to assume the players were engaged if they stayed with this game for so long. For all my uncertainty, they certainly seemed like it; it wasn't as anarchic as The Imperial City, but every month or two, I would get a message in my inbox from someone who wanted to do something on their own time.

Having played both extensively, I vastly prefer fifth edition to fourth, and ultimately think it's a decent game. (As with most things, it's better than the haters claim it is but not as good as the fanatics seem to think.) It's certainly more suited to the sorts of games I like to run than some other editions, and not as focused on combat as third or fourth edition. If I could have run this entire campaign in fifth edition, it definitely would not have been as linear and structured.

However, I also tend to prefer old-school play to new-school play. As noted above, I wish I could have done more what I did with Of Kith and Kin: start the characters in a town, seed a couple of adventures, and see what direction they go. Some players respond better to that than others, but I preferred the sprawling, open-ended game Crux of Eternity became rather than the plot-driven quest it was at the start.

The game went largely as I expected, for better or worse, although we had a couple of side-quests that took me by surprise. (The battle against Kiaransalee and the Khan of Nightmares were both largely or wholly player-driven activities.) We've also done enough world-building that this game will no doubt spawn several others for as long as I care to run fantasy games and my various gaming groups care to play them.

My only regret is that we didn't have a more open table. We had a handful of guest stars over the years, but I like the energy that new people bring to the table. A possible consideration for future games. (Then again, I'm thinking of eventually following this up with a West Marches-style Blade in the Dark game, so then I can accommodate a truly sprawling number of players.)

And Now: Some Advice

This game has been marked by me becoming more active in the RPG internet hobby space, and so I see lots of comments, complaints, and critiques about long-running games. (Or trying to organize games in general.) Mainly, prospective Game Masters seem mystified as to how to get a group together and to keep them interested. I find that getting a group is the hardest part, especially if you live somewhere that's a trifle remote, but keeping them around and engaged isn't especially challenging. Trawl hobby spaces, be active, talk to people: the usual stuff you do to make friends in this wide world of ours. Beyond that, contemplate these tips:

  • Don't get discouraged if your player group isn't interested in playing your favorite RPG. Compromise is part of life, and the rules typically aren't as important as the culture at the table. If you build a rapport with your group, you can eventually convince them to play any game you like. But you have to put in the work first to build trust.
  • Be excited. Even if you're, say, a Monsterhearts GM who is stuck running this vanilla fantasy D&D game, put stuff you like into the game. There's plenty of room for queer romance and interpersonal drama even in the hardest sci-fi dogfighting game. I cut my teeth on World of Darkness and fell in love with Unknown Armies, so my D&D games are full of secret societies, Gothic horror monsters, obsessive wizards, moral ambiguity, and de-emphasized combat. There is a lot of room to explore the sort of stuff you like; traditional games usually have room for all sorts of campaigns in them, so there's room for the stuff that excites you.
  • It's pretty easy to challenge high-level D&D characters: give them real stakes, follow through on your threatened consequences, and put them in impossible (but open-ended) situations. The real magic is when players surprise you. (This is good advice for any game, by the way. Most traditional sorts of pen-and-paper RPGs assume characters become more powerful as they age, so there's likely a "high-level" option for your favorite RPG, as long as it isn't too esoteric.)
    • One of the reasons why good published high-level adventures are so rare is because high-level games seem to grow logically out of the consequences of your players' actions. Also, what might be a suitable challenge for one group might be too easy, too boring, or too difficult for another. The variables are so great that it's difficult to predict that sort of thing.
  • Don't punish the players for good ideas. Throwing a bunch of qualifiers at them or making every outcome negative really hurts player morale. Every character choice is a vote for what players want to do and be good at doing in a game, and you shouldn't invalidate that.
  • The players are the stars of the show, and what they choose to do in the game is a vote for what they want to see. If they fall away from certain challenges or characters, don't force them to interact with them. If they hang out with certain NPCs more than others or gravitate toward certain places, encourage them to do so.
    • As an example, I'm not a romance-heavy GM, but my games often include romance because many of the players seem to enjoy exploring it. Give the people what they want.
  • Make the players' choices matter. Good or bad outcomes are less important than agency, and the players are going to remember the puppy they saved or the tavern that was named after them more than the big, epic set piece battle with the Dawning Lord of the Nine Suns. Saving the world isn't half as cool as when the tavern server remembers your drink order.
    • Although you can make saving the world matter when the world reacts to it. If people tearfully thank your players for saving them, or hide them when they're in trouble, then their choices mattered.

Final Thoughts

As I write this, it still hasn't really hit me that it's over. Admittedly, it's not really over for me: I have a session of Of Kith and Kin on Sunday, so my head is still very much in the Sorrowfell Plains.

In a very real way, this blog only exists because of this campaign, so if you've ever enjoyed anything you have read here, you can thank this sprawling epic and the dedicated players who saw it through to the end. I learned a lot from running it, and those lessons will hopefully inform whatever happens next.

I'll hopefully also have more time to curate the blog and write stuff as some of the existing campaigns wind down. That's always the dream, anyway.

Be seeing you.

Thursday, May 19, 2022


I've learned a lot about myself during this ongoing pandemic of ours. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was in ten role-playing games, and running six of them.

I've learned that you should never, ever do that.

(These days, I'm at a more reasonable six games, and only running five of them. You should never do that, either. I suspect I'd be happiest running two or maybe three.)

I've also learned that I'm not a big fan of running one-shots. They're fun to play, but I find it takes roughly as much work to craft or prepare a one-off game as it does to start a campaign, and then I might as well just run the campaign. (An endless series of one-shots requires roughly the same effort every time, but campaigns have a break-point where what I get out of them vastly exceeds the work I put into them. Plus, most games are complicated enough and many players are addled enough that there isn't really time for character creation and a game session, meaning a one-shot is two sessions, or I have to make the characters, which adds to my planning load.)

Of course, the track record among my circle of friends probably speaks to that. I have a modest number of completed campaigns under my belt, but to date, I have only played in one campaign to completion, and even then the GM scrambled to wrap everything up before he lost interest. Campaigns otherwise usually fall apart, or the GM gets bored, or the character sheets get lost, or whatever.

I vastly prefer to run RPGs than play them. (But you probably guessed that from the content on this blog.)

Most importantly, I think I've learned what my ultimate, Platonic ideal of a campaign would be.

Serious, Stupid, Spooky

You need the mix of all three in roughly equal proportion. To keep things interesting, the tone needs to drift over time. Perhaps an example will explain what I mean. My ultimate game would go something like this:

The player characters are trapped in a town during a zombie outbreak. (Did they arrive during the outbreak? Were they in town and the dead rose? It probably doesn't matter, although the latter makes more sense.) It's the standard zombie setup familiar to Romero fans and Resident Evil players: the town is under quarantine, zombies are wandering the streets, easy escape is unlikely, and help isn't coming. The zombies are scary: there are a lot of them, they never sleep, and maybe there are a few variants and mutants here and there. Even if the players are hardened horror fans, you can still overawe them through numbers and graphic description. [Spooky]

There are a lot of residents, and they all need help. And you can meaningfully help them, should you choose to do so. (What I mean by this: while choosing to help someone in the middle of a natural disaster is a difficult choice, it shouldn't backfire. You probably only get one guy in the opening act who is secretly nursing a zombie bite, and you don't get any tricks like "the PCs escort the NPCs to the safe haven but it's full of zombies and everyone dies." Your choices should be difficult, but meaningful.) People need food and escort to safe havens, disparate family members want to be reunited. Not everyone is going to survive, and the player characters will likely fumble their plans a couple of times, but the meat of the scenario is the tense character drama as the player characters interact with NPCs and argue with each other. [Serious]

Also, for some reason, there's a talking dog. The dog is helpful, but is mostly there for comic relief and so I can do a silly voice in an otherwise grim scenario. Apart from being able to talk, the dog isn't supernatural in any meaningful way. He can probably do a couple of useful things if asked like find lost objects or sniff out zombies a block away. The PCs probably think the talking dog is weird at first, but they probably grow to love him. [Stupid]

Then we boil the frog. Change the parameters of the test over several sessions until the campaign looks like this:

The player characters are pretty inured to the zombies now, so you tend to play them for dark comedy more than anything else. A zombie wrapped in a chain link fence who can't get free. One pinned under a car, snapping its jaws at the PCs' approach in the most amusing way possible. They don't stop being a threat, exactly, but you start playing up the slapstick elements. Zombies make weird noises designed to disarm the tension. [Stupid]

Of course, zombies aren't the real threat anymore. It's the people. (Maybe it always was.) It's been A Week™ for everyone in town: a week of raw terror and shattered nerves. Nobody has had a hot bath in that time, or a hot meal. Tensions are high. People are starting to get desperate and make bad decisions. And most importantly, the player characters aren't doing enough. As the campaign continues, the townsfolk become angry at them. You're the most capable people here. Why haven't you solved this yet? It probably doesn't take too long before some townsfolk reach the only logical conclusion: the "heroes" engineered this crisis. They're manipulating us. The torches and pitchforks emerge soon thereafter. [Spooky]

Towards the climax of the adventure, the talking dog dies. It's probably very heroic. The dog's body is recoverable. [Serious]

I could never run this as described, of course. Most of the elements I enjoy are things that emerge naturally over the course of a campaign. I like to be surprised.

It's a collaborative medium, and determining too much in advance spoils the fun. Even if I'm running an "adventure path" for real '90s-style traditionalists, the path is just an outline. If the players go somewhere else, that's fine. The surprise keeps me as an engaged player, too.

But the above scenario describes all the things I like in the course of a campaign. There should be something dramatic and sad, a tragedy the player characters can possibly prevent or solve or just watch unfold as they pursue their personal interests. Vampire: The Masquerade drew me into this hobby, and it still represents a lot of the things I like in stories and RPGs. If possible, I like to include a nerve-wracking and horrific threat. (I also lump thrillers in with horror, so sometimes the "spooky" element is simply the hidden: a mysterious serial killer, a lurking mastermind, an "ally" who knows too much.) And finally, I like there to be something a little dumb and fun to act as a release valve when the other elements are too much. Something with a silly voice, or some harmless eccentric as a bit of local color. My Unknown Armies games include a handful of scary wizards among a sea of obsessive (but ultimately friendly) weirdos. My arcane thriller about a secret wizard cabal has a ninja turtle in it.

While I can't usually plan the twist, those sorts of things happen naturally. Characters introduced as bits of color become important, central characters. The mood shifts as the player characters become more competent and their investment in the world changes. Things that were once threatening become mundane as greater or hidden threats emerge.

You know, the usual stuff.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Artifact April 2022

Seven years ago, I posted Artifact April, a month of theme posts whereby I posted one magical item every day in April across various RPG systems. I was hoping to do that again this year, but it never materialized.

However, some Artifact April is better than none Artifact April, so here's a selection of seven magic items. I'm running a lot of fifth edition D&D these days, so stats (where available) will primarily reference that edition, but I'll provide some notes on other editions because I convert material with abandon. Anything here should be easy to convert to your game system of choice.

(But just to make everything more confusing, Hekanhoda's Bane and Straight Razor are both made for Dungeon Crawl Classics.)


It probably looks something like this.

This sapient blade is a greatsword, appearing as a scimitar sized for a giant (or an efreeti, in this case). It is always warm to the touch. The black iron blade bears glowing runes in the language of fire elementals, while the shagreen wrap on the handle bears binding spells in the language of dragons. The pommel is a small, black iron cage in which a single red ember floats.

That red ember is the efreeti noble Padishah Nurhan Solak, bound in the blade. (He bestowed that title on himself, so he's likely not as powerful as you think he is.) When he speaks — and he often makes demands in imperious whispers — his voice emanates from the ember as it glows and crackles. The ember flares when he is angry.

Trapped in his own sword by a vengeful wizard, the sword now has the statistics of a luck blade. (Interested parties can also find 3.x statistics. The AD&D version of a luck blade gives +1 to saving throws and contains 1d4+1 wishes according to the Encyclopedia Magica.) This particular blade contains 3 wishes, powered by the bound efreeti. When the last wish is cast and the blade loses the Wishes property, the efreeti is released. He almost assuredly returns to the elemental planes and begins plotting his revenge against every previous owner of the blade, whom he has perceived as exploiting and wronging him in some way. (However, he may be gracious to an owner who uses their first wish to release him from the blade, possibly even offering them a free wish. As a lawful evil entity, however, any wishes he offers are of dubious quality.)

In true It Follows fashion, Nurhan probably works his way backwards, starting from the most recent owner until he eventually plots his epic revenge against the wizard who bound him in the first place.

Unlike most sapient swords, Cage cannot initiate an ego battle as the sword is the genie's prison. However, nothing prevents the Padishah from talking, constantly trying to convince the sword's wielder of the benefits of using a wish in this particular situation. Since he wants to escape the sword, he's even less capricious than a typical genie, fulfilling the spirit and letter of any wishes he grants. (At least for the first two wishes. He probably perverts the intent of wish number three as a final "fuck you" to his wielder before he leaves and plots his vengeance.)

If this sounds a bit like recommended Shadowguiding techniques from Wraith: The Oblivion, then you know exactly how to play the Padishah.

In addition to the standard properties of a luck blade, the sword's wielder can speak and understand the language of fire elementals while they carry the sword, and they are unaffected by extreme heat. (Up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. That's about 49 degrees Celsius if you use metric.) The user can use a bonus action to cause the ember in the pommel to brighten, shedding bright light in a ten-foot-radius and dim light in a further ten-foot-radius.

The sword loses these properties if the genie is released, although it keeps the bonus to saving throws (and to-hit and damage for 3e and 5e versions and the Luck property in 5e).

Although it can't initiate conflicts, the sword's statistics might still be useful. It is lawful evil; has an Intelligence of 16, a Wisdom of 15, and a Charisma of 16; can hear and see (with darkvision) out to 120 feet; and can speak, read, and understand Common and Ignan.

If you're using 5e, Cage is a legendary magic item that requires attunement.

Dunce Cap

Nobody makes kids wear these anymore, right?

A standard paper dunce cap, albeit decorated with strange writing on the inside. While worn, it makes it hard to think but also makes the wearer less noticeable as a threat: people tend to ignore the wearer, and enemies target them less often.

For fifth edition, I'd probably give advantage on Charisma (Deception) checks to seem unobtrusive and Dexterity (Stealth) checks to remain hidden. The downside is that this item grants disadvantage on Intelligence checks, attacks, and saving throws.

This is likely a rare item that probably requires attunement. Assuming it requires attunement, it grants disadvantage on Intelligence rolls while it's attuned, but only grants the bonuses while it's being worn. Tricky, eh?

It's paper, so it folds away easily but is also easily damaged. If you'd like, maybe it's made out of something more durable, like leather.

Green Sash

A gift from the Fair Folk always comes with strings attached.

You probably know this one already. Lady Bertilak gifts such a sash to Sir Gawain for his confrontation with the Green Knight.

There aren't any tricks with this one: the wearer gains immunity to slashing damage, but a critical hit from a slashing weapon cuts the sash, dealing full damage and rendering it useless. (If your system of choice doesn't include critical hits, assume it is cut on a natural 20. You might also decide a called shot can sever the sash, but you should make that decision based on your system of choice.)

While there aren't any tricks with the item itself, it is a sash of fairy make. There is a possibility that having the sash itself causes trouble, such as in the case of Sir Gawain.

For the fifth edition crowd, this is another legendary item requiring attunement, although I think it's a more interesting item if it doesn't require attunement.

Hekanhoda's Bane

It looks a little something like this.

If you've read Intrigue at the Court of Chaos, you already know Hekanhoda, Lord of Grotesques. (I believe Hekanhoda also appears as a patron in the DCC Annual.)

Hekanhoda's Bane is a powerful sword of Law dedicated to slaying Hekanhoda. However, this sword has great ambitions, as it has plenty to do before killing the Chaos Lord.

This Lawful +1 long sword has Intelligence 11, and can speak and communicate telepathically. In addition to killing Hekanhoda, the sword also wants its wielder to uphold the Law. It has several banes:

  • Thieves: the wielder gets a +1 bonus to attacks and damage against thieves.
  • Wizards: any wizard successfully struck by the sword is banished. The wizard must make a Will save against the sword's roll of 1d20+10 or else be banished back to its native plane or lair.
  • Earth Elementals: the sword detects any earth elementals within 100 feet, even if they are invisible or concealed. The sword can overcome magical defenses with an effective Will or spell check of +10.
  • Dragons: as with thieves, the wielder gets a +1 bonus to attacks and damage against dragons.
  • Sphinxes: the sword acts as a spotter, making it easier for allies to attack. Allies can fire into melee between wielder and bane at no penalty and with no chance of hitting the wielder, and allies attacking bane with missile fire within 100 feet of the sword receive a +1 attack bonus.

In addition, the sword has several powers. It can detect gold within 1d8 × 10 feet, it can locate object twice a day, it can shed light in a 20-foot-radius at will, it drains 1d4 XP with every blow in addition to its other damage, and the wielder heals 3 points of spellburn each night without rest, or 6 points each night with rest.

The Princess' Ring

Using magic from lost kingdoms is like unearthing uranium.
It could power or destroy a city, and there's only one way to find out.

While the origins of this ring are lost, the story attached to it is that the princess of a lost kingdom owned this ring, which she used to sneak around the castle and even beyond its walls. This is often told as a cautionary tale, as she was executed or exiled for witnessing something she ought not to have seen. Others say that the magic in her ring somehow destroyed the kingdom. Some even say her ghost haunts the ring, providing an unpleasant surprise for anybody who uses the ring's magic.

This item is simply an ornate ring that, when completely covered by the hands, transfers the user to the Ethereal Plane as per the etherealness spell. Depending on the tales, you can either use it three times per day or as often as desired, but it does require the user have both hands free. As such, it probably takes at least an action to use it.

If you're doing the full 5e thing, this probably works as a very rare item, although it likely doesn't require attunement. Watch out for thieves! (You might want to make it legendary if the wearer can use it at-will. Then again, you might feel that being able to do nothing other than hold the ring is balancing enough. It's ultimately your choice; I'm a blog post, not a cop.)

Straight Razor

It looks similarly impractical.

Diametrically opposed to the monument of Law that is Hekanhoda's BaneStraight Razor would see civilization reduced to rubble and ash. This Chaotic +1 long sword has Intelligence 10 but only communicates through simple urges. It seeks to build a monument to Chaos from the rubble of civilization and to punish interlopers and those who interfere.

The sword hates water elementals, sending its wielder into a berserker fury against them. When facing water elementals in combat, the wielder must succeed on an Ego check against the sword or else gain +4 Strength and Stamina for 2d6 rounds, and then become exhausted at -4 Strength and Stamina for 1d6 turns thereafter.

On the other hand, Straight Razor grants its wielder the ability to speak and understand thieves' cant, and it can shoot out a tongue of flame once per day. The flame jet is shaped like a cone, 40’ long and 10’ wide at end. All within take 2d6 fire damage and may catch on fire. They can avoid this damage with a Reflex save against the sword's roll of 1d10+10.

The Widow's Ring

Just what I always wanted: a ring that hates me!

Old tales speak of the maedar, the male versions of medusae. One particular tale speaks of a maedar who found a mate very late in life, but was as devoted to her as any other maedar is to his wife. In fact, he was so devoted to her that he ensured he would never leave her.

When he felt his life coming to an end, he undertook the ritual that maedars sometimes undertake to become a glyptar, a maedar's consciousness remaining in stone. Maedars are said to go mad if they become trapped in gemstones, but this particular maedar willingly projected his consciousness into amethyst so that he could remain with his wife until the end of her days, and could continue to guide and protect future generations of their family. Before death, he made arrangements to have the amethyst fitted into a ring, delivered to his wife, so that they could spend eternity together.

And so the glyptar spent generations with his descendants, at least until some group of adventurers murdered them and took the ring.

As you might imagine, the glyptar is very displeased with this state of affairs.

Any medusa can use the widow's ring to gain a burrow speed equal to her walking speed, even allowing her to move through solid stone. Three times per day, she can turn stone to flesh, either ending the petrified condition on a creature or turning an area of stone as large as a 10' cube into meat. (If you're using an older edition with a proper stone to flesh spell, just use that instead. If you want the classic glyptar experience, old-school maedars can technically use their stone to flesh power every 30 minutes. In AD&D, the spell mentions turning stone golems into flesh golems, but since 5e stone golems cannot be altered in such a way, we'll skip that particular detail.)

Humanoids and other folk might be able to use the ring's powers as discussed above, but they have to convince it of their intentions first. The original adventurers who stole the ring probably won't get it to cooperate, nor will any adventurer who kills a medusa and lets the ring know about it. (Even hearing a rumor that the wearer killed a medusa might be enough to prevent the widow's ring from cooperating.) In fact, such users find the ring is basically cursed: the glyptar will attempt to take control, leading the wearer into suicidal situations. However, wearers who seem sympathetic to medusae and are willing to help local medusa populations will likely receive the ring's aid. (Although it might just ask for them to deliver it to a proper medusa, unless it thinks it can better aid medusakind by staying with the current wearer.)

The widow's ring is lawful evil; has an Intelligence of 12, a Wisdom of 13, and a Charisma of 15; can hear and see (with darkvision) out to 120 feet; and can speak, read, and understand Common. (If you're using an old-school system, the ring can also speak the languages of medusae. It also has the equivalent of a Labyrinth Lord psyche around 15 or so, to give you an idea of what sort of Ego rating you should give it in whatever system you're using.)

For 5e, this ring is probably legendary and definitely requires attunement.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Grousing About Alignment

I've been ruminating about this for several days. (A month or two, maybe?) I expect it was sparked by some passing discourse or other, but who can say?

But first, a word about personal bias: As noted elsewhere, I believe it's important to understand an author's inherent biases, so here is one of mine: I don't believe in an objective, explicit, cosmological idea of morality, sin, or evil. If you reduce all energy and matter in the universe into the finest dust, past the level of atoms or quarks or superstrings, you will find no modicum of good or evil in your sieve.

Good and evil can exist as personal concepts and frameworks, but not as large moral structures.

As such, I tend to disagree with The Dreaded Discourse™ about how alignment is problematic and ought to be excised from fantasy games. For me, alignment is the goofy, escapist fantasy. The universe is ethically grey and politically complicated, and sometimes it's nice to imagine a world where moral issues are (comparatively) simple. (I say "comparatively" because invariably every Game Master throws in a weird, moral conundrum independent of alignment. Sometimes, people do good things for bad reasons or bad things for good reasons, even in objective moral systems.)

I know it is not an escape for everybody — and more power to you if you excise it from your games! — but for me, alignment is one of those things that only makes sense in a fantasy world or as a learning tool. And, gee whiz, wouldn't it be nice if the world were simple sometimes?

Hopefully, this nearly explains why I don't typically worry about alignment as much as some Referees do. I suspect a lot of people conflate in-game moral assumptions with real-life moral assumptions and invariably talk past one another.

At any rate, we have now come rather far afield of the main point I wanted to make with this post. Ask me to elaborate on my thoughts about morality sometime if you want to get into a long, boring conversation about it.

And with that aside complete, onto the main post:

While my engagement with fantasy class-and-level games is comparatively recent, the arguments about alignment have existed since the beginning of the hobby. It's the standard problem: art creators have certain assumptions that everyone has the same background, the subculture around the art grows, the background conditions change, and almost nobody has the originally assumed commonalities anymore.

Growth is often painful.

But I suspect the problem with alignment isn't so much a disagreement as a lack of common definitions. (As with most problems, this issue is broadly applicable to life outside table-top role-playing games.) When people talk about alignment, they are often discussing one of three related concepts:

  • Alignment-as-personality: I suspect this is what most modern gamers think about when they're contemplating alignment. When you make a D&D character, this is probably what you're putting on your character sheet: an alignment that represents your fictional character's moral center. In this regard, it is similar to Nature and Demeanor from World of Darkness or Virtue and Vice from Chronicles of Darkness or Obsession from Unknown Armies — it's a phrase on your character sheet so when you're stuck and wondering, "What would my character do?" you can reference your sheet and maybe get an idea. It's not a rules thing so much as a reminder to yourself.
    • Incidentally, this is where some of the thorniness over "what constitutes acting within your alignment" emerges. Right and wrong operate somewhat independent of morality — an immoral person can do the right thing, and a moral person can make stupid decisions. So it is with law-vs.-chaos and good-vs.-evil: you can probably make a case for any given individual action with any given alignment. However, you can probably make a reasonable expectation that a character's actions over time will more obviously cleave to one side or the other.
    • This can also be confusing because individual players might consider this more subjective or objective depending on their preferences. Being "lawful" might constitute literally following the law or just having a strong personal code. Being "chaotic" might mean might-makes-right or being a free-spirit or just being random. That's something you might want to discuss during character creation.
  • Alignment-as-affiliation: This is more of the classical, Moorcockian view of alignment you might expect from earlier editions of D&D. (Cynical readers might also consider this the default for people who, say, preach certain moral frameworks to which they do not abide.) In this schema, alignment is less of a personal moral framework and more of a political affiliation (or sports team allegiance, if you prefer that analogy). The black hobbits described by Ken St. Andre and Jeff Rients also reside in this paradigm. (Weirdly, 4e also asserted this as the "default" moral framework for that edition, although I don't know how many people used it.) Characters using alignment as a political affiliation might have any sort of morality, but they throw their support behind a particular cause. Anybody who is "just following orders" could probably be seen to have this sort of alignment. If you have ever been baffled by someone who seems very nice but holds weird, backwards views about the world outside of their narrow band of existence, you might have encountered someone with this sort of relationship to alignment. As in real-life, though, I expect that if you follow a particular affiliation for long enough, you'll begin to adopt its values, sooner or later. (And probably sooner.)
    • This is another source of confusion, because it's possible to imagine someone whose views are initially incompatible with their alignment until you dig deeper. The nice little old lady next door who supports the Dark Lord because he makes the trains run on time could easily have a Chaotic alignment even though her life and outward demeanor is seemingly orderly.
    • In a lot of ways, this is the most alien form of alignment to those with heavily-internalized, cultural Calvinism, because "good" is always bound with "right" and "evil" is always bound with "wrong." It is difficult to imagine someone who hypocritically holds both, even though most of us do it all the time. (We just don't like to examine it too closely.)
  • Alignment-as-physiology: This is the realm of the supernal and the extradimensional. Angels and demons are always going to be Lawful and Chaotic, respectively, and changing their alignment probably changes the base creature. The long tradition of supernatural creatures in mythology and literature means that this is the easiest to understand and also the least morally challenging component of alignment: zombies are mindless and always antagonistic, so there is no moral challenge or consequence to killing them.
    • Of course, this causes a lot of the confusion in the other categories as people conflate this type of alignment with the other two types. Detect evil and good often only detects supernatural forces rather than someone's personal alignment, for instance. Likewise, this is where a lot of the debate about "always chaotic evil" creatures arises, as people assume game designers mean this (orcs are evil and always will be no matter what their environment is like) when they often mean one of the other two things (orcs are Chaotic because most of them have thrown in their lot with Sauron and were never given a moral choice, for example).

So there you go. The next time the inevitable alignment debate arises at your table, you now have a framework to start interrogating what the players mean. Do you think the alignment is a fantasy Meyers-Briggs type, or your political party, or an inherent and unchangeable thing?

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