Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alignment II: The Backpedaling

Well, that didn't take long.

Last night, after a long and satisfying Call of Cthulhu session, I came home with my brain firing on all cylinders and realized yesterday's post about alignment in basic D&D had some flaws. Foremost of which was that it wouldn't work.

Specifically, I'm talking about the very strict definitions I devised for Law and Chaos. While they make sense on a purely structural level, they're pretty much garbage as far as being used as motivations for characters to act upon. I mean, you could do a game that's about guys that like eternal permanence fighting guys that like absolute entropy, but it lacks a certain oomph. There's no real way to get involved in such a conflict, because neither side really stands for anything. They're just forces. It'd be like Gravity vs. Electromagnetism, or something. You could have it as a backdrop, maybe, but it'd be hard to get excited about either side.

So, yeah. Unless I can come up with something more workable from an RPG standpoint, I'd be better off just sticking with the original "Law good, Chaos bad" version, or just dropping alignment altogether, I think. Still, I guess it was a valuable avenue to explore, if only because it made me realize that the alternative I came up with wasn't the greatest.

Move along, nothing to see here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Redefining Alignment

Thanks to my recently acquired copy of the excellent Stonehell Dungeon, I've had "basic" D&D - be it the Moldvay/Cook edition, the BECMI boxed sets, the Rules Cyclopedia, or Labyrinth Lord - on the brain a lot lately. Basic D&D uses a simpler set of alignments than AD&D or its descendants. You have three options: Law, Chaos, or Neutrality.

The lack of a Good/Evil axis makes things problematic or interesting, depending on your point of view. Personally, I like the implications that spring from that starting point. What I dislike is that Lawful beings are described as believing in "truth and justice" and "the greater good", and Chaotic ones tending "to act in evil ways". What this ends up meaning is that Law is Good, and Chaos is Evil.

I understand the reasoning here. Making Law vs. Chaos the same as "good guys vs. bad guys" isn't such a bad move. It's simple, it's easy to work with, and as so often is the case with easy, simple things, after a while it gets boring. I'd like something a bit more interesting. So, I've been toying with the idea of redefining the alignments, and in so doing, I find that I've been thinking about redefining alignment itself.

Instead of using alignment as a descriptor of a character's philosophy on life or moral code - something I think it does pretty poorly, by the way - I want to use alignment as an explicit setting element. I want a game where beings that have an alignment have literally sworn themselves to furthering the causes of either Law or Chaos. What are those causes, you ask?

LAW: Stability, permanence, rigidity, predictability.
CHAOS: Flux, entropy, mutability, randomness.

Needless to say, most thinking beings don't swear themselves to abstract concepts such as these. (In truth, even the most fervent adherents of Law and Chaos cannot embody either principle in a truly pure fashion.) The vast majority of people are "neutral" in that they do not attempt to live their lives purely by axiom, or subject themselves completely to the whim of chance. Neutrality, however, is not an alignment; not a principle to which one aligns oneself. Rather, it is the lack of an alignment.

This sounds a little half-baked right now, but I'm going to run with this idea and see what happens. I realize that I've made something that sounds a lot like Allegiances from Chaosium's licensed Moorcock game, Stormbringer. Nevertheless, I like the way I can warp some of the assumptions inherent in D&D with this scheme, so I think I'm okay with that. I like the idea of a setting where "good" and "evil" are more subjective than they are in vanilla D&D, and where a more stringent application of the "Law vs. Chaos" angle might alter some of the old, traditional setup, which I'll examine more in future posts.

(Did Gygax lift the alignments from Moorcock in the first place? I think I've read that he stole the good Law vs. bad Chaos angle from Poul Andersons' Three Hearts and Three Lions, but surely he read some Elric, too.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I was flipping through my copy of UK2: The Sentinel the other day and found a post-it note (complete with workplace logo) stuck on the inside back cover.

I only dimly remember drawing this guy.

I always thought the drawing of the xvart in the Fiend Folio was kind of cruddy. Looks like I took it upon myself to reinterpret it.

He's got kind of a bat thing going on, which I guess works okay, and it looks like he's having a pretty good day. Not sure about that earring, though.

(For comparison, I've also posted the original Fiend Folio version. It's not the worst piece of art in the book, but up against the Russ Nicholson illustrations it definitely suffers... I don't know if mine's any better, mind you. You can see I did try to incorporate some of the more notable features, though.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Puzzle Question

For several months now, I've been running a forum-based (PBP) campaign of Dragon Warriors.

Since the game was published in the mid-80s, I'm sure many proponents of the Old Ways (TM) would decline to describe it as a true "old school" game, but as it resembles nothing so much as a British version of Basic D&D, it counts as one for me. This being the case, I've done my best to run it in an old-school fashion; which is to say that I take published scenarios, tweak them to fit my tastes, and then let the players muddle their way through as best they see fit.

Much like Basic D&D, DW lacks systems for searching, spotting, outwitting traps, solving riddles, and the like. The GM is expected to ask players to describe what they're doing with a given obstacle, rather than asking for an attribute check or skill roll. In this way, we are told, old school RPGs become more a test of player skill than they are a demonstration of character skill. Players used to tossing some dice to find out if they notice a loose flagstone (rather than having to declare that they're looking for it) can find it difficult to adjust.

The scenario I'm currently running for my players is The King Under the Forest, the first adventure written for Dragon Warriors. Having been published before the setting of the game, Legend, was even fully conceptualized, it is considerably different in tone from the gloomy, mysterious scenarios that followed: in this adventure, the players investigate what would best be described as a magical puzzle dungeon. There are traps and riddles and enchanted fountains and rotating wands and a room with an honest-to-god dragon in it.

Now, with a group largely unaccustomed to the old-school mode of play, tackling the dungeon in question would be a time-consuming and frustrating process even if we were all sitting around the same table. Trying to run it in the often-sluggish play-by-post medium, especially when two of the players live in different time zones from the rest, has proven to be what I think could fairly be described as a quagmire. Some players expressed disgust with the nature of the dungeon as soon as they divined it, others are just having a hard time figuring out what to do. Frankly, I am unsure if I'd be able to do a better job of running it if we were all in the same room. At any rate, for now I'm throwing out a lot of hints, and am using the Stealth/Perception mechanics from the game as written to govern "spot checks", but I'm a little uncomfortable with that.

I know others out there, including self-proclaimed "leader of the Old School Taliban" James Maliszewski, have some experience with running old-school dungeons via play-by-post. Is the issue I'm running into something others have noticed?