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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

REVEL AT ION

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.)

Cage

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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