Dystopian Gods in RPG Settings

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Who Accumulates Power?

What kind of person accumulates power, generally speaking? A good person or an evil person? In the current context of rising inequality as well as the resurgence of vile ideologies from the recent past, we see demagogues holding onto power despite movements like the Arab Spring and rising to greater power in Europe and the United States. And while inspiring to many, movements like Occupy have done little to slow the accumulation of wealth among fewer and fewer oligarchs; similarly Black Lives Matter has yet to see significant victories as they continue the fight for Civil Rights.

It’s been said that the last person who should have power is the kind of person who seeks power out, and we can see how our political systems reward wrongdoing and make doing what’s right all the more costly and difficult. How much more so might this be true of gods, and how they gather power to themselves?

I think that in many ‘standard’ D&D campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, the good-aligned gods are too powerful. There is this sense that there should be a balance of alignments in the world, most explicitly in a setting like Krynn, and so you often have good gods facing off against their opposite number while neutral gods move back and forth in allegiance, or go off and seek their own ends.

The problem is that the balance offers too much hope. I understand, it is fantasy after all, but for me a more compelling story can often be found when the protagonists are underdogs, fighting against overwhelming odds. Add that to what seems to be true about the nature of power in the world we know, and I think that our game settings should feature more overwhelmingly powerful evil deities.

Example: Midnight

In the Midnight setting, published in a first and second edition by Fantasy Flight Games, first for D&D 3E and then for D&D 3.5, there is only one god – the Dark Lord Izrador. All other deities have been shunted out of the material plane entirely, leaving only the occasional nature spirit and no good-aligned outsiders at all. The only deity available for clerics (or their Midnight equivalent, Wisdom-oriented channelers) is a god of evil, and it is a genuinely scary thing in a game to have what is usually the most over-powered class, the cleric (especially in D&D 3.x), as exclusively antagonists. Your enemies will have supernatural healing available to them, and waves of undead at their command.

Midnight is a superb setting to explore issues of resistance against a dystopia that is not only political but metaphysical as well. Is there any hope at all against overwhelming odds? If not, what meaning can you find? Where are the places for heroism? Midnight forces these questions on players precisely because the power of the evil deity is overwhelming.

Idea to steal: the setting is monotheistic, and that deity is evil. 

Example: Call of Cthulhu

The obvious flagship setting for overpowering, terrifying deities is clearly the Cthulhu Mythos. (Even though in the original story, Cthulhu is taken out by being rammed by a ship) For the most part, there are no gods of good – they are illusions, or impotent when compared to the seething cosmic horrors gazing hungrily at Earth and its inhabitants.

The Mythos can be an example of this idea taken too far, however, because so often one of the core themes of a Mythos-based setting is helplessness. And I don’t want to go that far. I don’t think movements for justice in our world are hopeless – it’s just that they are perpetually outgunned.

Idea to steal: there are gods, but they are overwhelmed by all-powerful cosmic horrors. 

Classic Example: Middle-Earth

For almost all of Middle-Earth’s history, including its mythic history, the Valar, equivalent to the benevolent gods of a pantheon, are at worst balanced out by Melkor in influence, and if anything, Melkor has a far greater influence on how history unfolds. Similarly in the Third Age, Sauron has a much greater influence than any of the Valar, and those who resist him are always doing so as underdogs, or in secret, or as part of a desperate ploy.

Unlike the other Valar, Melkor takes up residence in Middle-Earth itself in Utumno, guarded by Angband, the Hell of Iron. The same is true of Sauron in Mordor of course (well Mordor, then Dol Guldur, then Mordor again). The caricature of Middle-Earth is that it coddles its protagonists (to which we get responses like Moorcock and Martin), but it is hard to describe a setting where the deity of evil has a physical address anything but frightening.

Idea to steal: the most powerful of the various deities is an evil deity, and s/he rules a physical realm in the world while the deities of good are distant and can only intervene indirectly. 

Un-Balance Your Gods

I think that the gods of good in a fantasy setting should be overwhelmed, limited, and in a word, scrappy. They should face overwhelming odds, always feel like they are outclassed and fighting from behind, and sometimes have to fall back on luck to survive.

Just like the heroes.

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

Image result for wish aladdin

Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments. 

Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

Image credit: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2012/11/19/at-the-core/

I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry. 

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Mister Rogers

Rev. Fred Rogers is one of the greatest people who has ever lived. Before I get into a few reasons why I believe that, here is a manly picture of Mister Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications:

No, he isn’t tearing a telephone book in half or bench-pressing a bunch of weight, but do you have the courage to testify before the Senate because of what you believe? The story behind this image, and event, is amazing, as Fred Rogers did a huge amount to sway a Congressional committee and save PBS’s budget. He does this the same way he does everything – through the kind of gentle persistence that lets water cut through stone:

It is an easy thing, to confuse gentleness with weakness. And there was certainly nothing about Fred Rogers that cut a traditionally masculine figure – singing while he changed into loafers on TV; wearing sweaters his mother knitted for him; playing make-believe with puppets. His was a kind of strength you could only see over time – the strength of integrity, of consistency of vision and character.

Not only was Fred Rogers committed to improving the lives of children, he was committed to speak unflinchingly to those children about topics that most parents shy away from with their own kids. He spoke to children about death, and grief, and war, and divorce, in the same voice he spoke about what a postal worker is, or what various characters were up to in the Land of Make-Believe. I challenge anyone, man or woman, to do that, on national television, for decades.

Children sense fear and hesitation. They can often sniff out a fraud much more quickly than adults can, though they probably can’t articulate what it is that they’re seeing. When a child falls to the ground, she will often look up at an adult she trusts before she decides whether to cry or not. She can see, immediately, in the adult’s face if what happened is serious or not. And if the adult is fearful, then the child assumes something bad happened and they cry. If the adult is calm, then the child often just gets up and keeps playing.

Now try doing that with millions of children you can’t even see.

Gentle, constant pressure can leave a deep mark on the world. Fred Rogers ended his life living for the same values that shaped his career from the very beginning. He fought, in his own quiet and relentless way, for a better world. He made his own life about making the lives of others better. He ennobled others; reminded them, reminded us, of our better selves.

His ideas and his convictions are still as radical today as they were when he was alive, when his show was being watched by millions of children. The idea that people are of immeasurable value, in and of themselves, totally apart from how others view them, or how they have been treated, or whether they are good consumers, or good workers – we still do not understand what Mister Rogers understood.

We are still not the people he believed we could be.

For demonstrating, over the course of his life, the power that lies in gentleness and patience, Rev. Fred Rogers is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

 

 

Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition PreAlpha

Image result for vampire 5th edition pre alpha berlin

What It Is

In a word, interesting. This is touted as Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, coming from White Wolf instead of Onyx Path. Remember, Onyx Path has been the publisher for the Requiem materials, as well as V20 a few years ago. (There is a kind of tangled history with White Wolf and Onyx Path, a failed MMO, and some other things, but I don’t want to get into all that). Clearly, they are counting VtM Revised as 3rd edition and V20 as 4th, and they are skipping ahead to 5th. As a lead designer and writer, White Wolf has brought on Kenneth Hite, who I personally think is amazing, and a very intriguing choice that wouldn’t have immediately come to mind. His game design skills, and deep knowledge of history and the occult will serve him well however.

What I Like

The feel I get from reading the design goals written in the PreAlpha rules packet is that White Wolf is going for something of a 5th Edition D&D type of coup, drawing elements from all previous editions of the game (including Requiem, as we’ll see) into something that will resonate with all Vampire fans. When WotC said that was their goal for D&D, to take 40 years or D&D rules and mash them together in a way that made their wide variety of fans happy, I thought it was impossible.  In retrospect, I called D&D 5E a coup for a reason – they got about as close as possible to their stated goal.

They are also going for a simpler, more streamlined system that is easier to learn and play. Some choices they’ve made are along these lines, while others are not, as we’ll see.

I like the streamlining of attributes – now there are only 3: Physical, Social and Mental. Each can have a specialty, which would be one of the previous Masquerade attributes like Strength or Appearance. These specialties add one die when they apply. The system is still an attribute rated 1-5 added to an ability rated 1-5 and then rolled as a pool of d10s. The ability list is very similar to previous incarnations of Masquerade, with a few additions like Physique functioning just as it does in Fate Core.

Damage rolls and soak rolls are both out, and I approve. They’re using the Requiem system of an attack roll against a defense, with the remainder being damage applied against the target’s health. I like this – I much prefer an attack resolved in two dice rolls compared to four. And generally speaking, this idea of mixing some Masquerade with a little bit of Requiem, the best parts of it anyway, runs throughout the PreAlpha rules.

Blood and hunger will play a more central role in V5, it seems. There is no longer any blood pool. Instead, you track your degree of Hunger, rated from 0 to 5. Your Hunger has a chance to increase every time you use a vampiric ability – instead of “spending blood” the term is now “Rousing the Blood” in order to power disciplines, appear human, etc. This leads to one of the PreAlpha’s big weaknesses, discussed below, but I like this change. Abstracting blood and hunger out, while also making them central to your dice-rolls, is a strong thematic move. Instead of blood being a resource you manage, hunger is a threat you deal with night after night.

One of the things that Hunger does in this rules set is mess with your mind. Hunger afflicts different vampires in different ways, and one cool thing they have added is Clan-specific hunger afflictions. So a Malkavian, for example, might have an extreme mental illness episode due to Hunger, while a Gangrel might be made paranoid and have to obsessively see to her own security. There are general problems that Hunger could cause, and then each Clan has three or so of their own specific ones, and I really like this. Not only does it make hunger front and center, but it also brings Clan to the forefront. Both good things for a Vampire the Masquerade rule-set, I think.

The last thing that came to mind as I read through the rules was that more things are returned to the 1-5 scale. In particular, Willpower is now rated 1-5, which I like. It’s just more consistent. There is now a companion to Willpower, Composure, which like Willpower can be spent. It isn’t quite clear what the difference between the two is precisely, but I look forward to seeing more. My intuition is that they will be to similar and will be collapsed back down to one, but I could be wrong. For now, it seems that Composure is used to resist frenzy and Willpower functions a lot like it did in Masquerade.

When I moved from the rules document to reading the playtest scenario, I found another blood-related rule that I thought was interesting: blood from different mortals will have slightly different effects on those who feed from them. Feeding from a drunk person might give you a penalty, while feeding from a baby (I know) might make it easier to appear alive in the following scene, giving you the blush of health. Feeding from an anxious or athletic person might let you activate Celerity once without having to Rouse the Blood, and most of the benefits were along these lines – letting you use a Discipline once without having to take the risk of increasing Hunger. I like this idea, but I also note that it will involve yet more bookkeeping for the player, which is a weakness. Something they can fix, or work around, but there it is.

Not So Much

One change is a pet peeve of mine in RPGs. For the love of God, don’t make dice-rolls into coin-flips. This PreAlpha pack places the target number for all d10 rolls at 6+, meaning every die-roll is a 50/50 chance. Since they also remove the rules that 1s subtract successes and 10s can be rolled again, the d10s literally become coins. The only remaining reason to have d10s at all is legacy – they lose every interesting element as dice. This is always a design choices I dislike, even in games I otherwise love, like Mouse Guard.

I mentioned the Hunger/Rousing the Blood mechanic above as strong thematic move linked to a serious problem with the system. That problem is that in what should be a move to simplicity, the Hunger mechanics as written actually add a huge amount of bookkeeping to the game. Every time you use an ability that Rouses the Blood in a scene, you note it. At the end of the scene, you roll d10s equal to the number of marks you have, and that determines whether your Hunger increases. First, this will mean that Hunger will be increasing pretty much every scene, which means that frenzying and hunting will happen much more often in V5 than in previous editions. Second, this is an incredible amount of bookkeeping that will constantly take players out of the moment. Each scene has to end with accounting before you can move on. This is just a poor design choice, but again, this is a PreAlpha playtest rule-set, so presumably they will have tons of time to fix this.

Unfortunately, V5 takes it’s inspiration from Requiem’s version of Potence, which was terrible. You still have to ‘Rouse the Blood’ every turn that you use it, making it an incredibly expensive discipline. The reworking of Fortitude is actually similar to Fortitude from Mind’s Eye Theater, which I think is a good move compared to Masquerade and Requiem Fortitude, which is by far the most boring Discipline. But Potence was the only Discipline that stood out to me, as it does in Requiem, as something I would almost certainly never spend experience on. (And, like in Requiem, that’s easily fixed with house rules)

In Conclusion

I keep reminding myself that this is a PreAlpha playtest document. It is far from done. And I haven’t mentioned most of the Disciplines or some of the other things that are in the Appendices because, for the most part, the Disciplines seem very similar to previous versions of Masquerade, with the exception that activating them always requires that you Rouse the Blood. Again, I can see how this might result in a frenzy-fest with so much less room for error in the Hunger system, but we’ll see.

Overall I like the direction they are going – taking things from Requiem like simplified combat rolls and working to simplify and to place thematic elements like blood and hunger in the center of the system itself. I imagine it might result in more monstrous vampires who are less like blood-fueled dark superheroes. (I would not be surprised if Ken Hite was central to this move)

This is a strong showing, and if this is their new direction for V5, I’m on board.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Neil deGrasse Tyson

I thought it would be interesting to use, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s manly picture, an image that he brought up while being interviewed by Joe Rogan (as well as in other instances) from his time as a heavyweight college wrestler:

…in part because I don’t necessarily think of Tyson as…swole. But there you have it. He was an undefeated wrestler and team captain in high school, and went on to wrestle as an undergraduate at Harvard. On the list of astrophysicists you wouldn’t want to fight, Tyson is probably at the top. He may also be the only name on that list.

But it’s been a while since he last wrestled. Obviously, I need to look at Tyson as a scientist, educator and public figure, and for the purposes of this profile, I’ll be looking at the second two.

He founded the Department of Astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History in NYC in 1997, and has had his position as director of the Hayden Planetarium since 1996. He visited the Planetarium as a kid, and that visit was a big part of what got him initially interested in astronomy and astrophysics. Neil deGrasse Tyson is gifted with an amazing voice and eloquent mind, and he was an excellent choice to take over as the personality behind the remake of Cosmos, following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps. He is an effective communicator and educator, with that combination of presence and his enthusiasm for what he has to teach that makes a person compelling.

Tyson has become a public figure primarily through debates over science and religion over the course of the past decade or so. I’ve watched him in debates a number of times, and one thing that stands out to me is that he doesn’t take crap from anyone. He isn’t acerbic or self-absorbed or unnecessarily harsh; he is direct and clear and uncompromising. He is able to acknowledge and speak about what some might call the spirituality of science without leaving room for anything he feels lacks sufficient evidence to justify belief. That is, he can talk about the numinous without having to refer to the divine, nor even leave grey area where others might want to reference god or the supernatural. For Tyson, the natural is more than enough.

For being uncompromising while remaining gracious, for serving as an example of more than one kind of strength, and for being someone who has become a public figure because of his intelligence, eloquence, and integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.