Friday, March 6, 2015

Alignments and Tendencies in Swords & Wizardry

An optional approach to the Swords & Wizardry alignment system

Not every official publication contains official rules, and this is such a case. I’m about to outline something I’m doing in our future Lost Lands setting as a tool for that setting, not as a change or even an addition to the Swords & Wizardry rules themselves. What follows is something I use myself, and it’s solidly grounded in the very late period of 0e, both in Judges Guild and TSR products. My own interpretation of it might or might not be on target, of course, but this is my take on the parenthetical alignment notations describing good and evil “tendencies” as a modifier for Law, Neutrality, and Chaos.

Why am I writing this? I’m not trying to tinker with the game itself. I’m writing this because in the Lost Lands setting I realized that the three-point alignment system wasn’t very predictive for some of the major figures in the campaign. The actions and plans of an adventure-scenario villain are almost always quite clear; they are integral to the module itself. For the ruler of a province, in a campaign setting, however, things are much more open-ended. An alignment on the three-alignment system, without respect to human morality, doesn’t always give you enough to grab hold of as a Referee in terms of how the ruler or significant NPC might react to things, or what their rulership might look like in actual practice.

So, as was done in several of the 0e and early 1e products, in the Lost Lands Campaign I’m planning to add a parenthetical notation at the end of peoples’ alignment designation, for “good” and “evil” tendencies. Significantly, these aren’t part of the actual alignment in game terms. They indicate a moral tendency that has nothing to do with the person’s actual place in the true cosmic struggle of Law and Chaos. The best illustration of this is that spells (at least the ones in the book) cannot detect or affect a person’s moral tendency. Moral tendencies don’t rule out any sort of action, they are just a general description of a person’s internal moral compass.

Personal Morality vs. Cosmic Alignment

The Law-Neutrality-Chaos alignment system describes a battle between cosmic and divine forces, in which human values such as “good” and “evil” are either just synonyms for Law and Chaos, or else play no significant role at all in terms of the game’s rules.

The word “alignment,” to my mind, has to do with one’s position in a conflict of forces that are entirely beyond the human scope, possibly beyond the scope of the gods themselves. Humans are no more than pawns, and the gods are probably just higher-ranking chess pieces, to extend the analogy. Alignment is a matter of whose pawn you are. There is an element of destiny in that alignment, as well as the element of personal choice. Magical forces can detect whether you are one of the black chess pieces or one of the white ones, because the mark is dyed into your very spiritual essence, even though you can change sides, or perhaps commit the lesser sin of being an unreliable pawn.

A moral tendency, on the other hand, is entirely a matter of personal choice, and often has nothing to do with your standing in the eternal war of Law and Chaos. Morality is a human construct, and one that is shared by many of the gods, but it is irrelevant to Law and Chaos, which are amoral forces of preservation and ruin. That’s an important point, because it shows where I’m getting at something different than the 9-point alignment system of first edition, where things like “Lawful Good,” “Neutral Good,” and “Chaotic Good” are all different supernatural, cosmic forces. A character’s alignment can click around on that circular dial of 9 alignments based on actions and beliefs. Adding a tendency toward Good or Evil doesn’t turn the Swords & Wizardry alignment system into such a circular dial. Rather, it creates two completely separate gauges, one of which is on a scale from Law to Chaos, and one of which is on a scale from Good to Evil. The gauges have nothing to do with one another. The Law-Chaos gauge is supernatural and cosmic, indicating which side you’re on, and possibly that you’re under the risk of destinies and fates. The Good-Evil gauge isn’t magical at all, other than the fact it might make you prefer one Lawful god over another, and make them prefer you, too. It might create a faint aura, based on your past actions, and it can be used to guess how a person would react under certain circumstances, but that Good-Evil gauge is your role in human-scale morality, not your role in the cosmic battle. Indeed, it is often the reason why many of the pawns of Law and Chaos can be “unreliable,” since they skitter off on moral issues. Many players have observed that the forces of Law and Chaos are both somewhat genocidal, and I think this is a good way of portraying cosmic struggles both in swords & sorcery pulp fiction and in a game that depends on lots of excitement and combat. On the other hand, it misses the subtler sort of issues that add depth to the game (and specifically in this case, to a campaign setting). Perhaps a paladin actually has no particular tendency toward good; interesting, that’s Solomon Kane. Druids can suddenly be meaningfully divided among the ones who burn people in wicker baskets and the ones who offer kindly advice to strangers from their roadside flower gardens. All of these distinctions are still possible within the Law-Neutrality-Chaos continuum, but they become easier to handle in game terms (especially for the Referee) if there’s a label and some vocabulary to stick on that moral element of behavior.

Where it Leads a Campaign
This all highlights an interesting world-view of the swords & sorcery authors who first latched onto the portrayal of the universe on a law-chaos axis instead of a good-evil one. It means that humankind lives in a cosmos that is ultimately and essentially alien, distant, heartless, and amoral. Both sides of the cosmic struggle are relentless, and neither side is unambiguously always “right” from the perspective of the pawns. Humanity’s destiny and alignment clearly lies with Law, in the end; but individual humans can choose sides, or even decide that a personal morality requires rejection of many of the dictates of cosmic Law. Proponents of Good may know that their cause is ultimately doomed, as a final cosmic principle, but they can certainly choose to go down fighting.

I look at it this way, with the intention and assumption that you’ll take or leave it in your own game, as a matter of individual preference. In the game, I see the social organization of humans as being a muscle in the “body” of the forces of Law, a muscle that pushes at the wheel of destiny, trying to shift it toward Law rather than Chaos. It’s the organization of that muscle which gives it power, not whether the muscle provides mercy or benefits to its component pieces, the little humans. Thus, a tyrant who keeps order will in some cases be preferable, from the standpoint of the cosmos, to a kind king whose realm is disorganized. This isn’t to say (again, the way I play) that tyrants are the best servants of Law; I assume that civilized, productive realms are the long-term play for Law, because they are stable. I also see the arts and sciences as part of the social fabric that provides strength to this metaphorical muscle I’m describing. However, I can see a tyranny as one of Law’s stopgap measures, or the sort of thing that the forces of Law might resort to in a desperate rearguard action for a world poised on the brink of chaos, possibly fighting a delaying action until some hero or other plan can be used to stave off utter ruin.

Here’s another interesting thought. First edition introduced a split between “devils” and “demons,” to reflect that each point on the nine-point alignment wheel is a separate cosmic force. Thus, if you’ve got a couple of evil alignments you need the infernal-demonic monsters for those forces to be different from each other. If you create that same distinction between demons and devils in Swords & Wizardry, though, you suddenly have these horrible devils who are actually on the side of Law in the cosmic battle. How interesting is that? You could also have some really nice, kindly angelic types battling on the side of ultimate cosmic ruin because they will not abandon their conviction in mercy and kindness. This really throws the universe into a morally ambiguous setting, one that’s definitely NOT standard fantasy.

A final point, since I mentioned that the gods are chess pieces like humans, albeit more powerful ones. I see many gods, although not all, as having moral tendencies as humans do, although with a longer time horizon and less passion for the details. From the Referee’s standpoint, this makes for a much larger slate of deities, and more variety, which I think is a good thing in terms of adding depth to a campaign world.

Anyway, that’s the thought for the day, and the little warning that there will be some Swords & Wizardry products coming out that have at least some mention of good and evil in them. Don’t panic, it’s not a rules change, just a campaign tool.

Good Gaming!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Red and Pleasant Land

In my opinion, A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S. is the best D&D supplement that has ever been written to date (2014).

The book is extraordinarily difficult to describe adequately, because it's based within material that has been done virtually to death in RPGs, fiction, and movies -- Alice (yes, the Alice of Wonderland fame) and vampires. Taking Alice's world and mixing vampires into it sounds like a ridiculous idea, simultaneously unworkable and hackneyed. Then, you know, if that wasn't enough, why not just set your artwork alongside John Tenniel's, and your prose alongside Lewis Carroll's. But oh holy shit. Zak's book not only works, it makes other things work: like explaining the existence of a megadungeon that's weird, rich, huge, and incomprehensible without using "mad wizard in Arthurian countryside."

Let me say, quickly, that I'm reviewing a copy that I paid for, and that neither Zak nor Jim Raggi asked me to write a review.

Just about the only part of the book I don't like is the character class of "an Alice," which is done much better than it sounds, but doesn't fit the way I like to run a game, which is why I don't like it. Members of the Alice character class aren't needed, so one can simply ignore that part if one feels as I do, or pay attention to it otherwise.

The writing is phenomenal and evocative. The underlying idea is brilliant. The art -- and I only occasionally like Zak's art for fantasy -- works perfectly. Indeed, the entire book is a piece of art as well as a gaming resource.

One other point about this book: there are a few things that some people will see as strengths, and that others will see as weaknesses, depending on how you're going to use the book. Any gaming book has to find the right balance between the "table reference" use and the "enjoy reading the book" use. As Lewis Carroll does, so does Zak mention several important points as if they are asides, irrelevancies, or afterthoughts. It makes the book read very much like Lewis Carroll (and also like Gary Gygax) to encounter comments like, "If characters in Voivodja are, in the course of any adventure in Voivodja, ever looking for evidence of any kind of misdeed and happen to kill a pudding, the proof will be in the pudding." There are any number of important facts buried in the text to be encountered chronologically by a front-to-back reader, but somewhat hidden from the at-the-table DM who needs to find the answer to a specific question. A gaming book must be readable in the first instance, for if the DM puts it down as a book it will never be played as an adventure in the second instance. Zak had to make choices, and the 6x9 format makes it difficult to meld readability with reference quality. When you run this, you'll forget important things that Zak wrote: if you think this would make you a poor DM, or an inaccurate conduit for Zak's sage wisdom, or create undue complications, you aren't going to work well in this sandbox. This book is for people who (like Lewis Carroll's characters) consider themselves quite the author's equal when it comes to interpreting the author's work.

In other words, you're going to have to read it, assimilate it, and then be willing to make up all kinds of stuff once you start running it. It's not a module, it's a campaign setting, so it can no more be played out of the box than the old World of Greyhawk folio. It's about as user-friendly as the original JG City State of the Invincible Overlord, which is to say, it isn't very. You simply can't have something that is both a perfect reference tool and at the same time evokes a sense of wonder. Check out the Cetology chapter of Moby Dick for an evocation of this tension. Zak had to make some choices, and some readers will applaud the same decisions others deplore.

A couple of other points. (1) I haven't read it as an editor, but I have not spotted any typos in this book. Not any. (2) The physical quality of the book is stupendous.

If you absolutely can't stand Zak's art, or if you simply can't consider a gaming product well-written if it leaves gaps, then you might not like this book. However, I strongly suspect that ARPL will actually show some people what "old school" writing looks like in the modern gaming age, why it was written like that in the first place, and how it is a valid contrast with more modern, codified, game-writing.

If you want to read what OD&D looks like in the year 2014, it is A Red and Pleasant Land. My hat's off to you, Zak, this is a masterpiece.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Marching on to Chapter 11

Having finished Chapter 10 of the Cyclopean Deeps, I move on to Chapter 11, which already has 21,000 words written. Mainly it's a matter of filling in some gaps with the one exception of still having to write the "boss monster" as it were. So, hopefully, I'll have the chapter finished by the end of the month and be rolling into the last chapter (which is also mostly complete).

Source of art:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Post-Completion Confusion

I just finished writing Chapter 10 of the Cyclopean Deeps. I tell you, when you finish writing an adventure module (which is what each chapter is), there's a period of time afterwards where you're a bit like a gaffed fish. "Is there something obvious that I missed?" "I should be working on ... wait, no, it's done." I need to send this to someone to read it, to make sure it's tight and organized. Yes, that's our editor, Jeff Harkness. Poor Jeff.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

3 days left on Quests of Doom Kickstarter
I'd like everyone to take note that I refrained from posting a "What is the OSR" entry during the (most) recent flap about what the OSR is, was, should be, and isn't. I have something more interesting, which is the old-school-rules version of Quests of Doom, a book of 18 adventures. The authors are definitely old-schoolers, although there's a slant into authors of the late 1e and early 2e era more than the classic 1e or earlier. However, the rule set is Swords & Wizardry (0E) (click format to pdf for free copy of rules), and the mission statement is to produce adventures that fit the 0E/1E mold (avoiding railroading, too-strong NPCs, etc.), and there are strong authors with non-2e chops (me, Bill Webb, Casey Christofferson, and Michael Curtis, to name 4)

The list of authors is: Matt Finch (Swords & Wizardry, Tome of Adventure Design), Ed Greenwood (The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, The City of Splendors), J. Collura (Caverns of Thracia Reloaded, Chaos Rising), Michael Curtis (The Dungeon Alphabet, Realms of Crawling Chaos), and Casey Christofferson (The Tome of Horrors, City of Brass). Throw in a few D&D long-timers like Steve Winter (Tyranny of Dragons, Murder in Baldur’s Gate), James M. Ward (Gamma World, Pool of Radiance, Castle Keeper’s Guide), Skip Williams (Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, The Rod of Seven Parts), and Bill Webb (Rappan Athuk, The Lost City of Barakus).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Can a Dungeon Master Cheat?

I saw this question somewhere on the web a couple of days ago, and I can't find it anymore. Incidentally, that's my biggest problem with social media as opposed to blogs and message boards, but that's a topic for another day.

Can a DM cheat? In other words, does the DM so completely rule the game that there is no recourse under the rules themselves for a player?

It's an interesting question when you get into it, partly because when you try to break down what "cheating" means, there are many different possibilities, and it's all mixed in with the fact that the DM certainly is in a position to make rulings. But to break rules, is that simply a "house rule" or a "house ruling" when the rule snaps in two?

I would tend to say that while a DM can't cheat, there are certain things that are "cheap shots." Depending on how you run the game, some things might be cheat shots at one DM's table, but not so much at someone else's table where the base expectations of the game are different.

The "killer DM" isn't cheating, but he's taking cheap shots that will ultimately destroy his game. Still, I am so much in favor of the word "Referee" as opposed to "Dungeon Master" that just the mental vocabulary tells me that somewhere ... I think a DM could be accused of cheating. Hmm.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Map Challenge - Domes of the Serpentfolk

Okay, so here's a map in response to Erik Tenkar's challenge. Everyone is supposed to post some maps. So ... this is my original draft for the map of the Domes of the Serpentfolk, appearing in Cyclopean Deeps vol. 1, Chapter 5. The version that actually shows up in the book is Robert Altbauer's rendition of this draft.

The idea of the thin stone wall between the domes, filled with secret corridors of different serpent-folk societies developed while I was drafting the map. It originally just has three domes in a big cavern, and that was kind of boring, so I worked with it until I stumbled on the idea of having not only 2 caverns (that was idea #1), but to have the wall be thick and filled with rooms (that was idea #2). I'm pretty happy with the result.