Thursday, February 28, 2013

Everyone Should Role Play

I want to wrap up this month with a strong statement: Everyone should role play. It is a very fun activity, and it teaches skills and life lessons.

We learn that obstacles can be solved, but not always the way we think. We learn that just because we failed on the first attempt doesn't mean that we should give up. We learn that no matter how great we may feel, we can always grow stronger. We also learn that we are still mortal, and that sometimes we need help from our friends. Players that work in teams can specialize their individual abilities, which allows the group as a whole to excel.

We learn that anything is possible if we put our minds to it, and sometimes the best plans are the ones that nobody saw coming. We learn to be mindful of all the resources we have around us, that just because we don't own something doesn't mean we can't use it. But along with learning about out-of-the-box thinking, we also find out about out-of-the-box consequences. Everything we do has an effect that ripples forward into our future. We must be mindful of our choices, lest they haunt us around the corner.

We learn about all the kinds of people that can be out there. People in power and people with none, benevolence and greed, docile and hostile, and that each one can be approached, but requires different tactics to properly finesse.

If more people role played and did so with good GMs, we would have smarter and wiser people.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The one difficulty with getting into a role playing game is knowing that you're playing a game. There are mechanics at play and you can take advantage of them. You as a player understand things far better than your character does, and you can help your character out by using that information advantageously.

This is metagaming. It's the game of the game. And depending on who you talk to, it is absolutely essential, or it is the bane of all game creators. No matter what, though, it is basically unavoidable.

Think about metagaming like you think about characters in a story. We always criticize the characters in slasher movies for being so stupid, but that's because we know we're watching a slasher flick. It only exists to slaughter slutty teens. If you were really so rational, you would never believe that you were being haunted by ghosts or that zombies were real. Similarly, when you read a book and you say, "I would have done it totally differently", that's you metagaming the story.

It's a very powerful force. The irony is that the kind of people who are creative and imaginative enough to like playing these games are the ones who usually love planning and strategizing, and are thus most likely to metagame.

If you are the Game Maser, you then have to ask yourself how to handle it. One could be to let it go and figure that if players are having fun thinking things through, then you should be happy that they're enjoying your story. The other thought is that if they are metagaming to become as effective as possible, then you need to up the difficulty level so that the metagaming is crucial to survive.

Ultimately, it's your choice, but know that your choices are not unlimited. For example, you can't tell somebody to stop metagaming. People rarely do it consciously, so it is as effective as screaming at the wind. Pick an option that can have an effect.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dice Only Inform The Result

Considering that almost everything in these games is decided by rolling dice, the novelty of playing will eventually wear off. But what makes that worse is when people only care whether their rolls succeed or fail. Now, admittedly, when you're trying to win, you mostly care whether or not you won. But remember that this is a story; you should really be caring about what's happening.

Dice only inform the result of your actions. They say whether you passed or failed, but they don't tell you how it happened. This is where a good GM comes in. If a player tries to pick somebody's pocket and fails, why did it fail? Was the pocket too tight to get a hand in? Was the object inside oddly shaped? Did the character simply not feel anything inside the pocket?

Similarly, if somebody takes a swing at a character, and misses, why did it miss? Did it glance off of armor? Did the attacker misstep? Did the defender duck out of the way or deflect the attack? A wide range of possibilities exist, and picking one (and picking different ones over time) adds to the experience of playing these games and hearing these stories.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Games Of Consequence

If somebody asks what I love most about role playing games, I would say it is that it is like a video game where you can do anything you want. But the more accurate answer is that you can do anything you want, and you will see the consequences of it.

Did you decide to help that pauper? Well maybe he'll show you a secret passage out of town when the going gets tough. Did you decide to execute that hostage? Well I guess you'll never know what he could have told you. Did you decide to steal that fancy necklace when nobody was looking? It's going to be very awkward when somebody tries to offer it to you as a gift, only to find it in your pocket already.

Every single choice you make has a consequence. We like to think of them as either negative or positive, and sometimes it seems like things went way better or way worse depending on the situation, but ultimately, it's not so much about bad or good, but cause and effect. The decisions we make in the present change the future.

Now, a good Game Master might plan for that. They might have all sorts of scenarios set up where they know how things will proceed based on what the party tries to do. But ultimately, even if a GM doesn't plan for multiple outcomes, they're going to happen. If the players have a choice, then both decisions are possible, and only one of those outcomes will happen. From there, every possible future is based on that outcome having happened.

Role playing is a game of consequences, and nothing makes you feel more alive than seeing your choices matter.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Creating A System

There are a great number of role playing systems out there. There are more than I am even aware of. Some systems exist specifically for you to be able to make your own custom adventures with them. Still, I find that sometimes none of the systems feel right, and then you have to build one from scratch.

A friend and I wanted to make a tabletop game based on Pokemon. A major distinguishment we wanted to have was realism. A caterpillar and a giant fire-breathing dragon are in no way comparable in a fight. There should never be a way for a caterpillar to win. However, a caterpillar would be able to get into tight areas that a giant dragon could not. With this in mind, we knew that a large amount of the mechanics of the Pokemon video games would have to be tossed out.

What we also found was that none of the systems really had mechanics for being a person that was potentially in command of several minions at once. Any type of minion control was also within a combat system that was utterly different than what we were envisioning. So ultimately, the best thing to do was build our own system.

The first thing to understand if you are considering making your own role playing system is that it is a massive amount of work. You have to decide on the very most basic of mechanics, even down to what dice you roll and how you determine results. Realize that a role playing system is the way that you approximate the real world. You want players to feel like they can do anything they want. How well can your system handle the zany ideas players come up with? How do you have skills or abilities that are broad enough to feel all-encompassing, but specific enough to make individual characters feel unique or special.

Do characters improve over time?  How do they do it? Do they "level up"? Do they gain points that they cash in for new skills? This seems so simple, but you can spend weeks agonizing over what makes sense.

How much should role playing affect your game? Some games have very minimal mechanics, and others are so strict that they're manual versions of a computer game.

When you look at a Player's Handbook or Core Rule Book for a tabletop game, they are often hundreds of pages long. When you are planning a system, keep this in mind, and think about the fact that people not only had to write these things, but come up with all the things they are talking about, too.

What makes the process nice, though, aside from the joy of creating something awesome, is that you are never truly building it from scratch. There is so much out there already, and many good and bad examples to learn from. There is so much inspiration that if you ever feel stuck, a perusal of books or a listening of gamers' stories can help you find exactly what you need to get you past a mental block. For example, there actually exists a pokemon tabletop game already. I completely disagree with most of its mechanics, which is why we are still making our own system, but on a couple occasions, seeing the way they handled a given situation or mechanic has inspired me to come up with my own ways to handle them.

Creating a system is a massive undertaking, but it is a rewarding one. If you find yourself with the time, patience, and drive to make one, you may find the process as enjoyable as playing with the system you have created. It will also be a great source of pride.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Non-Combat Adventure

The number one staple of tabletop gaming is combat. Many games are centered around fights and have most of their core rule books focused on combat mechanics and techniques. Of course, there are other aspects to these games, like solving puzzles or skill-based encounters, but they always take a back seat to fighting.

What makes this so ironic is that they are called role playing games, not tabletop fighters. Role playing should be considered a key component to the game, and some people definitely do get into it, but characterization tends to take a back seat, even in good games. Characters don't spend a lot of time sitting around a table talking to each other about their past and their motivations. They keep moving forward with the plot. Sure, they grow and develop, but again, it is secondary, more of a byproduct of adventuring.

Imagine, though, a role playing game that had no fighting. The whole point of the game was just to role play characters and have small time adventures. There would be activities to do, lots of challenges to use the dice on, but it wasn't about killing things to solve problems. When I first heard of the idea, I scoffed at it. It seemed so counterintuitive that I thought it was impossible. But the more I considered it, the more it made sense.

There are times when it may sound crazy to suggest writing a story that doesn't involve tons of action and drama and intense dialogue, but it's no an issue.  Many stories don't have those things, and they're wonderful. It is certainly uncommon these days, but there's nothing about it that betrays the spirit of the form.

If you find yourself the kind of person that is looking to do some pretending and some acting, somebody who maybe likes the idea of thinking outside the box, consider a non-combat adventure. It may be hard to find a lot of people into it (since tabletop gaming is still fringe culture, and non-combat is the fringe of the fringe), but it could be a great activity to try out with your friends.  There aren't a lot of systems out there, but if you're feeling bold, you may want to try building your own system. (More on that tomorrow, so stay tuned.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Open Sandbox

The opposite of a plot railroad is an open sandbox. This is the kind of setting where the players can go anywhere they want and do anything they want.

I admit that I have a personal preference for sandbox adventures. They really make me feel like I have the choices and I make the decisions. They tend to promote creative ways to solve problems, too.

If you are in a dungeon and the door to the next room is locked, you either pick the lock, break the door, or you backtrack to find the key. In a sandbox, those might be possible. But maybe you have to ask somebody to let you in. Maybe you can get the credentials to earn the key to open it. Maybe you can find an alternate entrance that isn't locked.

In a sandbox adventure, you do need to work extra hard to make the settings. You should know your people and places very well. There should be activities to do and adventures to go on, but maybe there are a lot of little things to do. Maybe a grander story becomes apparent only after digging deep into the goings on of the locale.

Most importantly, though, you need to let players make their own adventure.

When I GMed a Call of Cthulhu game, I made it be a sandbox. I had a plot, and the characters caught on and followed it, but they truly took the game in directions I never conceived of happening. Even though it could be frustrating, I let them do it. This was their game. They got to do what they wanted, and I would not let the plot railroad make any stops there.

The sandbox setting doesn't quite work outside of gaming, since it requires players to be interacting with your world. However, I do like the idea of writing a story about a character living in a city who solves problems in a non-linear fashion, visiting different places over again with new information and trying different things. It may read linearly, but from a writing perspective, it sounds way more enjoyable to make.

Plot Railroad

In a dungeon crawl adventure, everybody knows what they're getting into. They want to go from Point A to Point B. The point of the story is to do exactly that. Most stories, though, aren't so strict. Adventurers go from town to town, meet people, explore locations. They may go from Point A to Point B in terms of plot, but they will take their sweet time getting there.

People often forget that the point of tabletop gaming is to have fun and be creative. If a GM feels like the players are highjacking the plot, then the plot railroad may be employed. In simplest terms, the plot railroad means that nothing that isn't planned goes on. The GM basically tells the players what to do, and if the players try to do anything else, they either get severely punished or outright told that their plans won't work.

"Plot railroad" is always a negative term. Stripping people of their freedom is the surest way to promote insurrection. Players either find themselves really fighting the GM, or just quitting out of boredom. When you only have the illusion of control, then the only point of being there is rolling the dice.

This is a major illustration of the difference between role playing games and non-interactive stories. As a reader of a novel or watcher of a movie, you know that you have no way to change things. But as a player, you are writing the story with the GM. If you read about a character in a situation where everything they tried to escape a situation failed, then you might interpret it as the author showing powerlessness. If the GM puts you in an inescapable situation, that's just being a dick.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dungeon Crawling

As a writer, one question you have to ask yourself is what kind of story it is you want to tell. A GM has to ask the same question. In both cases, it depends on the audience. There are several kinds of adventures one can take, so let's start with the simplest one.

Dungeon crawling is a term to describe the simplest kind of adventure. It involves the players exploring a dungeon or cave or some other expansive locale, either going from room to room or floor to floor. In each new area, there are monsters to kill, treasure to acquire, and experience to gain (not to mention a path to the next area).

There is nothing wrong with a dungeon crawling adventure. Everybody loves a good action story, and it's usually fun to grow stronger and beat things up. And just because the premise is simple does not make it a boring story. Ask yourself what brings the characters there. Put interesting antagonists in it. Give them hints that indicate larger treasure or a mighty beast to slay lies further ahead.

Much like simple hero-beats-villain stories, dungeon crawls are also great for beginners. If you don't know anything about role playing, or the system the game is being used in, a dungeon crawl adventure is a great introduction. You learn the mechanics of things, and you find out what you can do and how to do it. As you get more comfortable in role playing and other non-combat aspects of the game, you can try other types of adventures.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Separating Players And Characters

In role playing games, it is very important to distinguish between players and their characters. The player is the real life human being sitting next to you, and the character is the person in the story they are pretending to be. They are not one and the same.

I prefer playing in circles that have the etiquette to distinguish between the two depending on the situation. I don't mind being addressed by my character name when I am playing my character. But if somebody needs to talk to me out of character, using my real name puts me in the right context off the bat.

Within the game, players also should strive to keep themselves and their players separate. This entails a number of common issues. First of all, if two characters are having an argument, the two players should not let it spill over into real life. Second of all, if a player is privy to information, but the character was not around to hear it, then the character should not be able to act upon or call up that information.

In a sense though, you can never truly separate players and their characters. If you have a naturally charismatic player, they will likely try to make their characters give speeches or persuade others to do their will, even if they are playing a dimwitted brute. They will take penalties that lower their chance of success, but it would still feel out of character for them to be even trying.

One could say that the easiest fix is to have players make characters that match their personalities. One might instead simply disallow excessive out of character actions. But I would say that both of those fly in the face of the spirit of this game, which encourages people to try anything they can think of. Instead, I would say that nothing should be considered out of character, and the players and GM should try to find ways to explain why these actions actually are in character.

Monday, February 18, 2013


The best part of role playing games is that you never know what's going to happen next. Once I started playing tabletop games, I realized that this is what I had been seeking for years. Video games bore me these days because they are so painfully limited. The story is determined. The path is often linear. And the ones that boast their multiple endings don't give you real choice; they give you different sets of hoops to jump through. You can see this truth by realizing that most games now come with achievements for doing 100% of the possible things in the game.

The most beautiful thing about a good role playing game is that you can interact with anything. In a video game, you may see a building, but if you aren't supposed to go into it, then it's really just a giant painted brick. You can't open a door or break a window. In a role playing game, it doesn't matter how trivial a building might be, if the players want in badly enough, they're getting in.

This leads us into the subject for today: improv! I often say that the GM creates the world and the cities and puts all the people in it, and they do, but that doesn't mean they've planned for everybody before the game starts. Because the players have complete autonomy, and because the Dice Gods favor no mortal, some incredibly unpredictable situations often arise.

Both as a player and as a game master, you need to be able to improvise. Think on your feet when you're in a bind. When a direct plan fails, come up with an alternative. Pay attention to every detail you're given in case you might be able to make use of it later, and ask if something is around if you have a plan that is missing one piece. And as a GM, let practicality be your guide. A castle is likely to be adorned with fancy paintings and pottery and statues. A bar is likely to be filled with gullible people. You may not have placed them in their when you came up with the scene, but if it would make sense for them to be their, then say yes when the players ask about it.

In improv comedy, the first rule is to always say yes. In role playing, that rule does not hold true. However, the more that players and GMs can work together and agree that a decision is fair (even if it's not favorable), the better the time everybody has.

With good enough improvisational skills, disagreements should be kept to a minimum. But if a player and a GM cannot agree on something, then let the dice make the decision. They are always the great equalizer.

The Dice Gods

Some people take role playing very seriously. In a sense, it becomes a cult to them. Their holy symbol is the D20 and they pray to the Dice Gods. As an outsider looking in, it is silly and ludicrous. As an insider looking around, it makes sense.

The dice represent everything. They show us that everything in life is random. They show us that things do not simply succeed or fail, but there is a wide range of possibilities. Part of that range includes critical success, and critical failure, both results beyond our expectations. And they show us that even the things we take for granted can be done very well or very poorly.

So who decides our fate? It has to be some kind of god, right? And since their will is expressed through our rolls, they are the Dice Gods.

Any rational person knows that it is pure chance. The whole point of using dice is that it is the only fair way to get random results. But it's different when it's happening to you. When you roll three natural 20s in a row during the most crucial part of the game, and it single-handedly allows you to escape from the jaws of death and turn the tide, you feel like the gods are smiling upon you. And when you summon forth the most powerful ability you have, that one that you've been saving for only the most dire of situations, and you botch the roll, you definitely feel like it is something beyond mere coincidence.

No matter what activity people get into, they lose a bit of rationality about it. People wear lucky socks or make sure to leave a door slightly ajar or flip a coin before making a decision. They may even tell people that they know it doesn't do anything, but in their minds, it makes a difference.

The Dice Gods bow to no mortal, but if you can do something to curry their favor, you'll do it when you need to.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Game System Is A Framework

It is convenient in these discussions to see the GM as the author of a story and the player's as the audience. Already we see that they are not flawless analogies, but they work well enough to keep them up. However, there is a third aspect of tabletop gaming to consider, and that is the system that people use.

As I mentioned in the beginning, role playing needs some amount of randomness to represent the uncertainty of life. They need ways to determine what characters can and can't do, and how well they can do a given task. There are more systems than I am aware of, but I want to give a few examples.

Dungeons & Dragons is a D20 system. That means that all the chance in life is determined by a 20-sided die. When a character tries to do something they are skilled at, they get to add a modifier number to the result that the die gives (a negative modifier can also be given to skills that people would struggle to do). The total number is put against a certain Difficulty Check, and if the result  exceeds the DC, the action succeeds. Players generally do not know the Difficulty Check they need, which adds a lot of mystery and excitement when the GM announces what happens as a result of the roll.

Call of Cthulhu is a D100 system. This is very similar to a D20 system in that a 100-sided die (or two 10-sided dice) is used to determine the success of all actions. A major difference between the two is that the D100 is checked a character's personal skill ability. For example, if a person wanted to break into a building, they could try to pick the lock on the door. If the character has a 30% lock picking skill, then they would have to roll 1-30 on their D100 in order to succeed. This can make a very different experience for characters in that they always know if they succeeded or not, which can take away from the excitement. However, it makes for a simpler system as far as math goes. And if you compare Call of Cthulhu, which is all about normal humans investigating paranormal happenings, it is a much more sensible system than Dungeons & Dragons, which is all about heroes of legend acquiring increasingly potent items and abilities, and therefore focuses a lot on modifiers that affect any given circumstance.

World of Darkness is a 10-Again system. In this case, characters have a pool of 10-sided dice that they roll when they attempt to do something. The number of dice they roll depends on a number of factors, including how skilled they are at the task. Any result of 8 or more is a success and an action needs five successes to work. If any die lands on 10, then they reroll the die, keeping the original success of that ten. This system doesn't care about modifiers to roll results as much as it cares about how many dice you get to roll. It becomes a great study in statistics in that regard.

The reason I explain at least the basics of these systems is that we must understand that the game system is a framework. Sometimes the story we tell depends on the game system we're using. Sometimes the game system we use depends on the story we're telling.

The closest analogy to this is picking the right format for your story. If you have an idea, how long is it? Novel? Novella? Short story? Flash fiction? Poem? Does it need visuals to go with it? Should it be a comic book or graphic novel? Does it need audio as well to turn it into a movie? What about a stage play?

Choosing a medium to deliver your story in the most effective way is an important step (or picking a story that works well with the medium you wish to work in). The same goes for your chosen game system. They are frameworks that you build your story in and around.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The GM's Experience

To carry forward from the player's experience, the GM's experience is completely different. The game master is the author of the story, and is very much the true god of the world. If you are a regular reader, you will know that this is exactly how I describe being an author of any story. You need to know everything that's in your world, all the people, all their back stories, even if most of it never comes up, it affects things in one subtle way or another. The more deeply you understand your world, the richer the experience of exploring that world is.

I want to first say that what I am talking about here is from first-hand experience. I could parrot what other authorities have said on the subject and probably sound really convincing, but no amount of words can describe the experience of DMing your own game. I started role playing as a player. My friend is the GM of our Dungeons & Dragons game and he and I discuss the game and the experiences regularly. But it wasn't until I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu that I truly understood all the things he and others would talk about.

The GM knows more than just the people and places in their setting; they know every possible future that could happen within that setting. For example, let's imagine that a small party is on an adventure, seeking a kidnapped child. They find themselves in a small town, which it seems the child had been through. There are a few houses there, an inn/pub in the center of town, and a smattering of shops. What will the players do? Most players would try to talk with the townsfolk and find clues that would lead them to the next step. Some players may think the town is insignificant and walk right through it. Others may think the town would be a good place to do some looting.

In this case, the GM can never be certain what to expect from their players, both in the broad sense like I mentioned above and in more specific cases as well. A GM could make it unavoidable that the party runs into the local authority, but even then, there is no guessing what the players would do in that encounter. The players might be civil or they might have a chip on their shoulder. The GM might figure that the authority figure would show up, say just enough to make the party start asking for more information, which would lead to a shocking reveal, but just because the GM thinks it is obvious doesn't mean the players find it equally obvious.

Players might think that the authority figure is a bumbling hick instead of a concerned person. They might also assume that he's actually part of the problems in the area or is hiding something sinister (paranoia is a troublesome occurrence in role playing games). So in trying to "outsmart" the GM, or in simply misreading a situation, they can make very unexpected decisions.

This does not mean that the GM is unprepared. That is what makes tabletop gaming so much more exciting than a linear story. When you are writing a story, you have to figure out which thing you want to happen. In tabletop gaming, you have to be aware of every possible thing that could happen because one of them will happen. However, as a GM, you see paths shut down as new ones open up. It is very much like looking at a tree, never knowing which branch will keep on going and which will peter out.

It is a surreal experience when it happens to you. Personally, I felt like a 5-dimensional being, simultaneously seeing all the possibilities of a situation, but never knowing which one is actually going to happen until the dice stop spinning. What is most beautiful about it, though, is that as the GM, you come to understand that there is no right or wrong path in life. Some paths are more common than others, and some simply don't turn out the way we hoped they would, but no matter what happens, as long as you're still breathing, the story keeps going on.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Player's Experience

A role playing game is basically an interactive story. What makes it more exciting than other interactive stories is that basically anything can happen. So the players in a story are basically the audience, and the Game Master (GM) is the story teller. Naturally, their experiences are very different.

A GM has prepared the story. They have made the setting, placed the characters, planned the events. The players start the game knowing these things have happened. They know that there will be puzzles to solve and they know that danger can lurk behind any corner. So they must venture forth to experience the story, but do so carefully so they can live to see the ending.

As a player, there is a certain amount of guessing we  must do. Much as the audience always wonders what will happen next, we wonder what is up the GM's sleeves. But when we finally know what we are dealing with, we switch gears into problem solving mode. If you ever read a story where you think to yourself, if I had been there, I would have done things completely differently, well now you can.

That leads into how to play a role playing game. And the easiest answer to give is: try to imagine that you actually are your character and you actually are in this setting, then go and interact with the world.

The player's experience comes down to two thoughts: what am I supposed to do, and what can I do? Players who wish to follow the story are trying to figure out what the GM wants the player's to do. Player's who treat the setting as their personal playground (Chaotic Neutral) are finding what they can do and get away with it.

This is the only kind of story where you get to affect in a real way what happens next. Every roll of the dice is like a new page, which is unwritten until you see what number comes up.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Alignment Shift

I have spent more than a third of Tabletop Gaming Month talking about alignment. It seems excessive, but it truly is necessary. For one thing, when role playing is literally the name of the game, it is crucial to understand the role that you are playing. For another thing, it is a concept that is equally as important to tabletop games as it is to writing. And finally, it is one of the most hotly debated aspects of role playing games, so it demands a certain amount of time.

The greatest debate of alignments is what they are for. Some people say the one's alignment is the framework that dictates their actions. If a Neutral Good character wanted to abandon a child in a burning building in order to pull out a treasure chest, the player should be told that it is completely against alignment. The problem is that, since one of the key aspects of gaming is that you can try literally anything you want, one should never be told that they can't do something.

This leads to the other side of the debate, which is that alignments are a description of a character's actions. So once a character has made enough actions, they will have an alignment that sums them up. The problem with this is that it's useless. Alignment becomes a label that has no bearing on gameplay or characterization.

In reality, the best answer is between these two. A character's alignment should matter. It should be considered either a framework or an ideal. Whatever the character thinks is right or is acceptable, at least on a basic level, should be contained within the alignment they choose. However, it should never be a cage for them. A character should be able to shift alignments.

If the Neutral Good character lets children die to acquire gold, they should first be warned that this is not a Good action, but they should still be permitted to do it. However, after they go through with it, they can no longer be considered Neutral Good; they have crossed the line into Neutral Evil.

Alignment shift should not be terribly common, and when they do happen, it should be monumental. Much as in real life, people can change. They can change drastically. And there is usually one moment where their conscious thought changes. That is when they have changed alignments. The world doesn't suddenly become different, but the way the character sees the world has changed. That will also change how they treat the world, which will change how the world treats them back.

When you consider alignment as ideology, it solves a lot of the problems that come up with some of the stricter interpretations of it, while still giving it a meaning within the game and the story. Role playing, more than anything else, is a game about consequences. We can do as we please, but we will reap what we sow for it. Anything that stifles that weakens the game and lessens the playing experience.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

True Neutral

The final alignment to discuss is neutral on both axes, which we call True Neutral. This alignment is also one which often confuses people. If you think about neutrality as an axis that a character doesn't care about, then True Neutral characters care about nothing.

There are a few ways that a person could care about nothing. One is to be a total nihilist and simply think that nothing matters and that there's no point in life. Another is to be a paranoid coward, afraid to do anything or to trust anyone. One could be a zen master who cares not for the futility of struggle in life and accepts that things come and go and that nothing is more special than the other.

If you think of neutrality as level-headedness, then True Neutral characters are the calmest, most rational people you can meet. They will waver between the two ends of the spectrum for both axes, never really reaching any of the extremes.

They are pretty harmless dudes. That said, the one thing I might expect them to stay strong about is self-preservation. It's easy to accept and justify death in general, but it's harder to willingly let your own come to you.

There reaches a point where a True Neutral character can be pushed to do something extreme. But that moves into the subject of alignment shift, which is a subject for another day.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Chaotic Neutral

The most loathsome character you will ever have to deal with is not any form of evil, but Chaotic Neutral. These people are agents of chaos. They do things neither for benevolence nor for greed. They break the law for shits and giggles. These people are worse than evil; they're clinically insane.

In terms of roleplaying games, what makes Chaotic Neutral so awful is how common players choose it for their characters. For whatever reason, people love being psychopathic miscreants. They may go through the story to acquire treasure and power, but every city they leave will be burning to the ground.

All the characteristics that make Chaotic Neutral protagonists frustrating also work to make Chaotic Neutral antagonists horrifying. Consider The Joker from The Dark Knight - he is the living embodiment of Chaotic Neutral. And the saying used to describe him, "Some men just want to watch the world burn", holds true. These antagonists are totally unpredictable and their motivations are unreachable. Their only downfall is that they are emphatic in their desire to cause trouble, so a cunning protagonist could set a smart enough trap to foil them.

These characters are masters of indiscriminate destruction. They make any serious story more complicated, but they are pretty decent at making situations more comical. Because they tend to not take anything seriously, their antics can break tensions and make for pretty amusing stories. The only catch is that those stories are in the "I can't believe anybody would actually do this" column.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Neutral Evil

Neutral Evil is going to read very similarly to the Neutral Good character. This is a person who cares about themselves more than anyone else, but isn't fanatic about it. They'll break the law, but only if the reward is worth the risk. If they can get out of trouble through a loophole, they'll definitely take it, but they aren't looking for the loopholes and may not be committing crimes just to use this trick.

Much as a Neutral Good character is one we could see ourselves being under the right circumstances, we can easily see ourselves becoming Neutral Evil under the wrong ones. Casual greed defines so much of our culture, and it is only a small step down the path.

Evil works so well for antagonists that this is also an alignment that is interesting to see from places of low and high power. An average Neutral Evil person may coerce people to give him things; he may find a lost wallet and take the money before leaving it in a lost and found box. A Neutral Evil character in power may falsely charge somebody with a crime to extort a bribe, but would actually release that citizen and leave them alone if they paid up without causing any trouble.

The lack of conviction, or the swaying between lawful and chaotic actions, makes these characters difficult to read, and harder to trust. By not being extreme, they become far scarier in tense situations.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Neutral Good

The Neutral Good character cares most about people. They're not generally looking for trouble, but if they need to cross the line for the right reasons, they'll do it.

This is the character that really shows how neutrality is simply part of the spectrum. Both Neutral Good and Chaotic Good characters care about people, and both are willing to break the law to do it. The only real difference between the two is how eager they are to break the law. Where a Chaotic Good character might be willing to start a riot over a minimal injustice, the Neutral Good character may try to go through the proper channels to solve a problem before considering it futile.

Neutrality is often seen in one of two ways: disinterest or levelheadedness. The above example of the character who tries to do things legally before choosing to break the law is levelheaded. A disinterested character would help people and not know if it was against the law or not. I tend to not like the latter concept because the difference between Neutral and Chaotic would become minimal.

Where the Chaotic Good character makes for a great action movie hero, the Neutral Good character makes for a more believable hero. They are more down to earth and they are more relatable. While you may not fantasize about how awesome it would be them, you could much more easily imagine yourself being them.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Lawful Neutral

With the extreme alignments covered, we move into neutrality. One way to think about Neutral alignment is that the people exist somewhere in the spectrum between the two extremes. A simplified way to think about it is that neutrality negates that part of the axis.

So for a Lawful Neutral character, what matters the most to them is obeying the law. Whether the law helps us personally or helps the people collectively doesn't matter. It's the law, so it must be followed.

These characters can come in as many varieties as you can think of reasons to follow the law.  Some may be cowards, and feel like the law is their shield in life. Anybody who doesn't follow the law gets in trouble and taken away, so it keeps the coward safe. Some people are tools. They blindly believe the law should be followed for reasons of honor or pride or tradition. Some people are fools. They simply have never been exposed to any negative aspects of following the law, so the idea of the law being a bad thing hasn't crossed their mind.

The question here is, what does a Lawful Neutral character think about Good and Evil?  The short answer is: not much. An individual character might have feelings about people, but they are more likely to go on a case-by-case basis. They don't believe that all people are worth helping, nor that all people are contemptible swine. People are just people. And the ones who follow the law stay out of trouble.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chaotic Good

The Chaotic Good alignment is usually defined by the character who believes that nothing is as important as helping people. Helping people is always worth more than breaking the law.

These tend to be the most popular characters in our stories. They are the ones who are fundamentally good, which makes us relate to them and feel comforted by their presence, but they are willing and able to break the laws to do it, which makes them exciting and rebellious. They are safe heroes.

What makes a Chaotic Good character squirm is being powerless. These characters are often heroic because they know what needs to be done and damn the consequences. No matter the results of their actions, they know they did the right thing. But this only works when they have the power to fulfill those actions. To be locked in a prison or stripped of their tools is the cruelest thing you can do to them.

The best example of this is Dark Knight Rises. Batman, the ultimate Chaotic Good character, is stuck in a prison and forced to watch the people he cares about suffer. Truly, it is the only thing that could make him feel pain anymore.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Chaotic Evil

Chaotic Evil is probably the most common alignment you will ever come across in stories. Every antagonist of simple stories is Chaotic Evil. These are the most despicable people on earth, to the point that you don't want to call them people.

These people have no respect for anything or anyone. They care only for themselves and will do anything they can to satisfy their whims.

We feel almost compelled to make antagonists this reprehensible. It makes them easy to hate, which makes us all the more excited for their eventual downfall. But this is only one way to express the alignment.

Start by imagining a Chaotic Evil protagonist. Their chaos makes them willing to break the laws and the evil makes them self-interested. Well, that totally describes a professional assassin, and people freaking love assassins. There are so many famous assassins that it would blow your mind. (It also should remind you that, in our culture, if a character is cool enough, it doesn't matter how loathsome they are.)

The other thing to remember is that Chaotic people don't have to go out of their way to break the laws - they just don't care if they do. Similarly, Evil characters don't have to be trying to hurt others - they just don't care if others get hurt as a result of their actions.

You could have a friend who is perfectly happy and sociable, but will hunt a stranger down and brutalize him with a baseball bat for cutting him off in traffic. He may even tell you about it later that day and say he really "hit it out of the park" and laugh over the tasteless wordplay. This character has never done anything that didn't make himself feel good and he didn't care if other people thought it was wrong. Sometimes those things were wrong, and other ones they weren't. But this character is undeniably Chaotic Evil.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lawful Evil

As I continue on with alignments, I will jump around a bit. Showing the extremes of a spectrum make it easier to understand how different things can be, and how neutrality is in between those extremes.

Where Lawful Good may be considered one of the most common alignments, one of the rarest is Lawful Evil. We generally think of laws as good things, so anyone who follows the laws must be good. You certainly can't do evil things if you follow the law.

Except that you totally can. In fact, we see it every day. The stereotypical evil CEO doesn't have to break the law. They find every loophole that exists within the law to do whatever they want without facing any punishment.

This hearkens back to the question: whose law? Or in this case, who makes the law? A character who gets to make the law can make any activity legal or illegal. Murder and theft can be legal. Singing and dancing could be illegal.

Tyrants often become lawful evil in that they never break the rules (sometimes because they change the rules right before doing it), but they also stop doing things in the best interest of their people. They care about themselves above all others. A king's adviser (like Jafar in Aladdin) is also classically lawful evil because they convince the king to make laws that act in the adviser's favor.

Evil alignments make easy antagonists, but they also can make interesting protagonists. Smart ones can make very compelling speeches to people. They can be master lawyers or salesmen (or con men), convincing people to do what they want, but having the people think they did a great service instead of assisting a shyster. It may not be pleasant to have a comrade who is always looking out for himself, but when he uses his abilities to help out the whole group (or protagonists), and knowing that he never technically broke the law, it can be hard to stay too angry at him.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lawful Good

Beginning the discussion of alignment, let's examine the ultimate goody goody: Lawful Good. By the established definitions, lawful characters do things for the benefit of others, but they do so within the confines of the law. And as I said before, every alignment can express itself in many ways.

The most iconic Lawful Good character is the Paladin. These are holy warriors of benevolent gods whose role is to smite evil. They tend to be incredibly zealous about their religion and are utterly intolerant of those who would stray from their own system. Groups with Paladins in them often have trouble staying together when there are some ruffians or scoundrels traveling together.

What makes the lawful aspect of alignment complicated is the one question: whose laws? Is it the laws of your hometown? Is it the laws of whatever region you're in? Is it the laws of your god or your boss?

There is no answer to that question. It is up to the individual characters to determine. The same is also true for the goodness. There are situations where the sacrifice of some may be necessary for the benefit of many.

Not every Lawful Good character has to be a boy scout. A person who came up from a poor family might do whatever he can to feed his brothers and sisters. He doesn't want to break the law for fear of going to jail, and would rather clean toilets than go hungry. This would be a simple character, not nearly as glorious or as self-righteous as a Paladin, but equally concerned with helping people and not causing trouble.

One character I play with is a Paladin for a group of political assassins. She considers herself to be Lawful Good because she is following the laws of her god, which allow her to kill evil leaders that are treating regular people harshly. And she is good because the people are being set free of their tyrannical rulers. So although nobody would think of assassins as lawful or good in general, these circumstances happened to work out in a way that allowed her alignment to work within this situation.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Alignment

So if you are playing a roleplaying game, what role are you playing? You need to create a character, and as a writer, this shouldn't be terribly difficult. You are used to making up people through any number of possible ways. You can get a feel for personality and desires and motivations of this character. In terms of motivations, one of the major questions is that of alignment.

Alignment is a rule of thumb for how your character will treat the situations they find themselves in. Traditionally, a character's alignment is determined by two axes: Good vs. Evil, and Lawful vs. Chaotic. Each axis has the two ends, and a Neutral level in between. Three spots on each axis makes for nine possible alignments. I will go into each one in depth subsequently, but I want to explain the concepts in general.

Good and Evil, as I've mentioned before, is kind of ridiculous. Nobody really considers themselves evil. The beauty of so many stories is seeing how the most despicable-seeming characters honestly thought what they were doing was justified. People we call evil often do the same kinds of things that people we call good do. The only difference is whose side they're on.

But consider a different definition of good and evil. People we generally call good do things that help people. Good individuals are selfless and are interested in the greater good. Evil people tend to be self-interested; they do things for the benefit of themselves, often at the cost of other people's well-being.

Lawful and chaotic also often get confused, mostly due to a misunderstanding of chaos. The simplest way to say this is that chaos is the opposite of law. Laws are created by leaders and enforced by some sort of police. Chaos is the lack of laws at all, or the lack of any police to enforce the law.

Characters who are lawful generally will submit to the law of the land, wherever they may be. Lawful characters believe in the order and function of the laws, as they are the backbone of society. Chaotic characters, then, have no respect or interest in the law. They don't necessarily want to go out of their way to break the law, but they don't care if their actions are or aren't legal. Chaotic characters are not without scruples, either; they have their personal set of ethics and rules, which they keep close and are as unlikely to break as a lawful character is to break the law.

Of course, alignments should not be considered strict. Goodness and lawfulness are spectra; there are limitless varieties that we can all be. Part of the understanding that they are spectra are the Neutral categories. These show that you can be somewhere in between the extremes. Although real life is more complicated, this is a good starting point.

We should also note that characters should not be bound by their alignments. Characters are people, and people can change. Revelations, personal growth, and sometimes just gradual change over a long period of time. As such, a character's alignment can be changed, but this is a reflection of the character's change. As adventures go on and characters have more experiences, they will change in many ways. Their outlook on the world may be one of them.

Tomorrow, I will start discussing each of the alignments in more depth. You will see that some combinations are for more common than others, but all nine are distinctly different from each other. The most amazing thing to me, though, is that, despite how obvious the characterization of any alignment may be, each one of them can express themselves in nearly limitless ways. With each alignment, I will give a number of examples to illustrate this.

Stay tuned for more. And in the mean time, ponder where you think your own characters would fall in the alignment grid.

What Are Tabletop Games And How Do They Work?

In order to talk about tabletop gaming, I first need to explain what they are. And the simplest definition is that they're games that are played on a tabletop. In general, though, they refer to roleplaying games. These are games where the players create characters that all live in a fictional world, which a Game Master (GM) crafts and rules over.

Tabletop games have a narrative. The GM creates a story that the players will interactively experience through their characters. Like any good narrative, there will be twists and turns and obstacles that the players must overcome to progress.

Different games have different rules, but in general, the most important quality is autonomy. Whatever the players may come across, they can interact with it however they want. As such, there must be procedure for how to do that.

Like in real life, not everything we try to do succeeds, not is every success equally good. There is a lot of randomness in life, and the way most games use to express that randomness is with dice rolls. The most popular is the 20-sided die, also called a d20. This provides a significant amount of randomness without being excessive.

So typically, any activity players try to do is accompanied by a die roll. This random result is then modified by certain factors that will increase or decrease the result.

Roleplaying games are beautiful to me because they seek a certain level of reality, no matter how crazy things get. There are always consistent rules within a universe, set up by the rule book beforehand. And yet, despite the reality of a system, it is still a means of storytelling. It's one where the audience takes part in it and can make it go wherever they choose.

There is far more to it, and it shall come in future installments. Next time, we shall discuss alignment - arguably the most critical character attribute ever.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tabletop Gaming Month - Intro

About six months ago, a friend of mine got me into Dungeons & Dragons. I had never played the game before, but I had always wanted to try it out. I'd heard so much about it, and actually knew a lot of nerd jokes that revolved around it, so I really wanted to experience the real thing firsthand.

We amassed enough people to get a game started and have been playing regularly ever since. It has been an amazing experience, and there have been a tremendous amount of things to consider and discuss as a writer and storyteller. I've been holding off on going into the subject of tabletop gaming, partly because I feel like it needs an introduction to prime people who are coming to a writing blog to understand where role playing games come in.

But now I feel as though I have a good handle on this information myself and have enough to talk about it for a month at least. So that's what I'm doing. February of 2013 will be Tabletop Gaming Month, and every day will talk about the subject in one form or another. I suspect it might bleed over into March, and no matter what, I will be using roleplaying games as examples in regular blogs, but I wanted to start with a bang.

So tomorrow, the festivities shall begin.