Thursday, 29 April 2010

In Defense of Good and Evil

This is an extended response to Episode 28 of Here Be Gamers. I didn't really want to flood their comment page with an essay, so here's the 12" remix of my comment there.

Good and Evil as part of the cosmic fabric.
Although in the actual world (the one we're in now), good and evil are seen as moral values that we superimpose over actions, there's no reason to insist on the same model for a fictional world. One of the questions that is typically asked when a GM is creating a world for the campaign is "How does magic work?" We don't have any problem with a magic system based on emotions, so how about a magic system based on morals? Take the Star Wars universe. The Force isn't neutral, it has a light side and a dark side. George Lucas has created a universe in which Good and Evil aren't perspectives, they're interwoven with a fundamental force of the universe. Although gravity and electromagnetism are neutral but fundamental forces, the Force isn't. Good and Evil interact with it. By taking them out of the Star Wars setting, you lose that aspect of the story. In that kind of fictional world, we shouldn't reject the dichotomy of Good and Evil just because it works differently to the actual world, we should embrace it. It's part of the ontology (as the philosophers say) so it should be part of the story. The same is can be said for D&D. If there are alignments, and there are items (weapons, artifacts, etc.) with alignments then Good and Evil are part of the ontology of that world. So embrace them by making them part of the story.

The Monstrous is Evil because Evil looks Monstrous
Yes, that's a tautology. However, that's one way that the monstrous features in fiction. We embody our fears and apprehensions into the monstrous because it is so radically different to what we know. One way to read a book like Frankenstein is to see it as an embodied fear of science and technology. At the time it was written, medical science was deconstructing what we thought we knew about the human body. Suppose it proved that the human was just a biological machine? No soul? No death? Of course this is monstrous! It's terrifying and can be treated that way. By making the fearsome thing (the evil thing) monstrous, it clearly distinguishes it from the kind of being that makes up the audience. The audience is human, and shares a fear of the monstrous Thing. When it appears more inhuman, it is distanced from humanity while at the same time becoming more tangible as a thing to be located. Once located (in the body of the monstrous) the audience and other characters can relate to it.

These kinds of fictional worlds aren't morality tales about the misunderstood beast (unlike Beauty and the Beast), they're about a clash between what we know and the neverending onslaught of the unfamiliar and the alien. Protagonists look like the best that humanity can offer (brave, strong, beautiful, etc.) whereas the antagonists are misshapen beasts which are so far removed from even the worst that humanity can offer.

Conservatives and Revolutionaries
So let's leave ontology and fictional functions alone for this last one. Suppose the fictional world is like the actual one, and suppose also that Good and Evil don't affect appearance. The dichotomy of Hero and Villain seems amiable enough. Still, with the examples from the podcast we might be better to say Conservative and Revolutionary. The conservative hero wants society to develop organically, slowly, all together; whereas the revolutionary wants sudden change now! One will use the political process whereas the other will use force (or threats of force). The difference in these kinds of stories is really about what the character will accept as the means of change and the pace of change. It seems out of place for a D&D game, but totally appropriate for Burning Wheel or a superheroes game.

To take Good and Evil out of an RPG simply because it doesn't align with what we understand about the actual world is a mistake. If these strong ideas are out of place with the fiction, then remove them by all means. However, if these ideas are part of the universe itself then leave them in. The decision should be based on the fictional world of your story, not the actual world of the gaming group.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Stories and RPGs

I had the chance to catch up on a lot of TV recently, and I noticed a lot of things that just don't seem to be features of most RPGs I've played over the years.

Most scenes have only two characters. Even if there are background characters, the scene is about the relationship or interaction of two characters. Of course there are scenes with more than two, but they don't make up the majority. Compare this to RPGs, in which the whole party is always present, all the time (and often with all their stuff in pockets and backpacks).

Most scene transitions don't care about travel. If a scene needs a character who was on the other side of the city just a moment ago, the character just appears in the next one. Sometimes it's represented by a knock on the door, or something similar, but the travel itself doesn't usually matter. And this applies to a wider range of things, not just travel. We need to remember in RPGs that we can skip some details without adversely affecting the story. Even if you want a William Gibson story, he leaves out the unnecessary details especially when he includes what seems to be atmospheric details. Only keep what you need.

Violence is a small part of TV shows, even action shows. With the exception of in media res, action is always preceded by lots and lots of talking, all of which builds to the tension that seems only to be resolved by violence. Most TV characters don't use violence as the first choice for solving problems, but in RPGs, it's a huge part of the game. See Rob Donoghue's Some Space to Think: Children and Tasers for more about this perspective.

And so on and so on. I think that game designers, GMs and players need to think about what they want from an RPG and play accordingly. Although, I think that if you really want all action all the time, you'll probably feel better playing a miniatures game than an RPG or story game.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Trust and Sympathy

After a lot of reflection, it's apparent to me that I need a Sympathy or Trust mechanism in Siege. There has to be something that measures the current status of the relationship between characters.

I want the measure to help the game in several ways. It should be asymmetrical, because Amy might trust Brian a lot, whereas Brian has no sympathy for Amy and is intentionally deceiving her. It should also be descriptive, so that it invokes a narrative feel to the game. Lastly, it should affect the actions that characters will perform and, in turn, affect the direction of the story.

I think I can learn a little from The Mountain Witch to start with. But what other games should I check out?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Siege Playtest

Last month at Go Play Brisbane I ran a playtest of Siege with three willing guinea pigs. Thank you guinea pigs. It was a good experience and one I should repeat. Overall, I got some interesting feedback. These are two of the nuggets worth sharing.

I need to ensure the Hostage has motivation to stay in the story. Typically, a Hostage is imperiled and would like to simply escape. That makes for a dull story and uninspiring participation by the Hostage player. So I need to create some hooks that lock the character in for the duration.

By changing the dice, the story can be an hour episode from a TV show (d4), a feature-length film (d6), or an extended edition director's cut (d8). Nothing else needs to change in the rules except the dice you use. I like this a lot and will be sure to include it in the rules text.

Everything else? Maybe you can be in my next playtest and find out.