Tobold's Blog
Sunday, April 03, 2016
 
RPG story complexity

I started playing pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D 1st edition) in the early 80's. The target audience for the game was clearly teenagers and young adults, with the D&D box saying "for age 10 and up". As a consequence the stories told by the adventures frequently had rather simple plots, like "go into the Tomb of Horrors and defeat the lich Acererak". Players were encouraged to play characters of good or neutral alignment, with the story frequently featuring an arch-villain of evil alignment. Even at higher levels the enemies just got more powerful, without acquiring a more complex personality. The challenge of the game consisted of beating the dungeon with its traps and monsters, not figuring out who was the bad guy. Even more complicated adventures like the original Ravenloft left very doubt who the arch-villain to beat was.

Compared to that, the Zeitgeist Adventure Path is far, far more complex. We are in the middle of the second adventure, and the group has no idea yet who the arch-villain is. Adventure one had "a" villain in the form of Duchess Ethelyn, the king's sister, but she was killed at the end of that adventure. Instead the campaign features a whole panoply of conflicts: Adventure one was about the conflict between those in Risur who like the king want to modernize the nation with technology against the conservatives in Risur who prefer to stick to old ways of druidic magic. It also features the conflict between Danor and Risur. These two conflicts still feature large in adventure two, but the group already got into a battle between different criminal gangs, and came across a social conflict between workers and industrialists. And as the adventure and the campaign progresses, the group will come into contact with more and more different factions and power groups and individuals.

I completely removed alignment from my Zeitgeist campaign, as it isn't really needed for the 4E ruleset, and isn't really adequate for the setting. You can't simply label one side in a conflict between conservationists and technologists as "good" or "evil". I insisted from the start that every player character needs to have a fundamental loyalty to the king and kingdom of Risur, but that doesn't mean they don't have leeway to navigate between the different power groups. They are currently gaining a favor with a skyseer who offered to broker a negotiation between them and the "eco-terrorist" they are tasked to arrest, but I have no idea what they will actually do once they encounter her. The campaign is designed to give the players the freedom to choose sides in various conflicts, without any of those choices leading to a standstill.

While the complexity, the maturity, and the freedom of choice have many obvious advantages, there are also a number of disadvantages. One is to get the group act as a whole, without a single player spoiling the freedom of choice of the others. For example the discussion already started in the previous session, and will have to continue in a future session of how the group should react when they encounter the eco-terrorist: Will they attack on sight, or ally with her, or at least hear her out and then choose? It is situations like these where one player saying "I attack on sight" can negate the choice of everybody else.

The other problem with complexity is remembering everything you learned about who is who. I don't know if you have the experience when for example watching the first episode of the next season of Game of Thrones, having watched the end of the previous season months ago. It always takes some time to remember all the plot-lines going on and how all the characters are connected. Even for me as the DM it is quite a task to know everybody in the story, and for the players who just play no more than twice per month and don't get to read all of the background information the complexity is even more daunting. I am currently playing as a character in another D&D campaign and I am experiencing the problem of being in the middle of a story I don't understand first-hand.

So right now I am wondering how much complexity I need for my campaign. Of course many of the factions and characters in the story are necessary for the campaign to make sense at all. But there are also a bunch of characters and locations that are pure fluff, designed as filler for the role-playing enthusiasts: Two-page descriptions of various characters in a location that the players will only visit once and that will only give them a minor clue towards the main story. I am very much tempted to cut out some of the fluff, seeing how many players in my group are more interested in the tactical wargaming aspects of D&D than in elaborate role-playing. In the end I need to tailor the campaign towards what is fun for the players, and getting them completely confused and lost isn't really the way to go there.

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You could always recycle some of the fluff they never encountered in one location. AFter all, they'll never know that it was meant for someplace else.

 
Alignment is a very good tool for roleplaying, and I think not including it makes a campaign somewhat worse. My more fond experiences DMing was when I had a somewhat mixed-alignment party in a Ravenloft campaign, which also included a Paladin. Eventually both the setting and the other party members wore him down so much, that he eventually lost his faith, making opportunities for some excellent roleplaying from him.

In one instance in particular, he realised he was willing to let the rogue potentially die (Caotic Neutral) and that was the trigger to have him lose access to his spells (as he fell from 'Lawful Good'). But then again we were playing a Ravenloft campaign, and the entire setting it out there to corrupt even the purest of souls. In the end everyone remembers those adventures very fondly, and that one player made for some very memorable sessions.
 
The problem is that *all* the stories about alignment in D&D revolve around some paladin, because that is the only class which is some editions (not all of them) loses access to powers if he doesn't follow the lawful good tenet. What impact did alignment ever have on a warrior, rogue, or wizard? Isn't a character with a background that makes him a progressive proponent of technology ultimately more interesting than a "lawful good" character?
 
I don't know if you recall the "people" maps in some of the old Vampire 1st edition products like "Chicago by Night", but they had relationship maps that were enormously helpful for this sort of campaign. Since then, I've found that pictures / names of NPCs put onto a piece of paper with arrows pointing at nearby relationships with single word descriptors on them help my players a bunch.

The maps they get only show the obvious or well known pointers, of course. But they really help center people quickly when we get back together again after a month.
 
Sorry Tithian, I have to agree with Tobold here. Pretty much every "moral choice" system that revolves around good vs evil only involves very simple, over the top decisions. Do you save this person or murder them? There is no moral dilemma here, nothing for players to weigh or consider. Pretending you are giving players any real choice at all is a farce, you are really only telling them to "press A to proceed." The combat equivalent would be simply asking players, "do you kill them or let them kill you?"
 
Sigh. Some of the 'occam's razor' solutions that come to mind are mostly impractical.

How to prevent losing track? Run more sessions, closer together for longer?

Sounds like something I'd have been best off exploring during my teen/early-20s university years, where I had endless free time and loads of friends who had the same.

Scheduling was never a problem, let alone a virtual impossibility.
 
@Tobold

The problem is that *all* the stories about alignment in D&D revolve around some paladin

You're oversimplifying here. The issue with alignment comes about with focus solely on the DM, not the intent of alignment itself. Granted, I haven't played in quite a number of years, but even Forgotten Realms had a very specific mandate that all divine spellcasters (which includes paladins, rangers, druids, and of course clerics) must have a patron deity whose alignment is at most one step away. However, I remember of nowhere where it states that players have to recognize only -one- deity. Who in their right mind would step foot on a boat without saying a prayer to Valkur, or attempting to appease Umberlee somehow..all regardless of alignment? The point with this is that the RP elements associated with alignment are very important to players. The DM derives his/her power from the expectations of the players, who expect that the DM will apply the rules of the game as stated at the onset of the campaign.
 
The point with this is that the RP elements associated with alignment are very important to players. The DM derives his/her power from the expectations of the players, who expect that the DM will apply the rules of the game as stated at the onset of the campaign.

Well, the rules of the game as written in earlier editions of D&D kind of suck. You basically are telling a specific sub-set of players that you as the DM can take away their powers if you don't like the way they play their characters, while the same rule doesn't apply to the rest of the character classes.

Furthermore it leads to very bad role-playing. The player doesn't defend a moral position because he wants to, but because you threaten him with loss of power if he doesn't. I find voluntary identification with a set of values far more conductive to role-playing than rules-enforced one.
 
@Tobold

What Chris said is also the point you seem to be missing, IMO. You're oversimplifying it if you think "alignment = just some paladin story". The same story could be replicated with a Good-aligned generic and spell-less warrior that decided to let a party member die, the whole point was not that there was a mechanic tied to the decision, but that it created dynamics between the players themselves, the setting and the story.

Haven't you seen how in Star Wars people "fall to the Dark Side" or "redeem themselves in the Light"? Pretty much the same thing and it makes for good storytelling, as is evident by the highly popular multi-billion franchise.

And in the end, even if you don't want to tie your players with preset "morals" and mechanics that don't fit your campaign, it can still be a good guideline on how a character would actually act in a fantasy setting. Without it, I've found that a lot of people usually end up roleplaying as a fantasy version of themselves, which completely defeats the point.

"Isn't a character with a background that makes him a progressive proponent of technology ultimately more interesting than a "lawful good" character?"

No, apples and oranges. One does not exclude the other, wouldn't a lawful good character that is also a proponent of technology conjure even more opportunities to roleplaying? Wouldn't his 'alignment' define how he does research, at what ends he would go to get new tech or how he would seek to profit from his inventions? What if he's also a highly religious member of a paladin order?
 
It is situations like these where one player saying "I attack on sight" can negate the choice of everybody else.

Why is that?

If the player group didn't have to stick together for RL social contract reasons, then it was the other PC's choice to have such a hot head on the team.

Though granted atleast in a drama a team member might step in front of a hot head to block them - and RPG's tend to lack this sort of mechanic. Perhaps add a mechanic where other PC's can declare they stand in the way, but the hothead can as a free action shove the other PC - possibly knocking them to the ground. Ie, the hothead PC has to, to a small extent, betray his group to continue his attack.

Really if the group has to stay together for out of game reasons and can't kick a hothead member before an encounter then THAT took away the choice of everybody else.
 
it makes for good storytelling, as is evident by the highly popular multi-billion franchise

The draw of the dark side in Star Wars is that has less restricted power. I'd play a D&D version where a paladin "falling to the dark side" is gaining a different set of powers. But most D&D paladin players when threatened to lose their powers will simply choose not to fall to the dark side, and continue playing in what has frequently been described as a "lawful stupid" way. If you punish people severely for making a moral choice, they will more often or not simply not make that moral choice.

What if he's also a highly religious member of a paladin order?

Have a look at the real world history, and the "highly religious members of a paladin order" during the crusades. Imagine a RPG campaign re-creating the crusades: Wouldn't a version *without* alignment be closer to reality and more interesting to play than a version *with* alignment, in which everybody who tried to play with a bit of historical accuracy would be immediately stripped of all his powers?

The thing is that alignment is a restriction. You can play every story you want, including good vs. evil, without using alignment. But as soon as you introduce alignment-based rules, many story options go out of the window. Not just the crusades, but also all sorts of adventures where the group is tasked of finding out who the villain is, and suddenly can solve that problem by casting a detect evil spell.
 
One thing that has always bugged the life out of me is why, in D&D, that Deities are viewed by some DM's as religious figures with some sort of "moral" assignment, instead of "monsters" with a certain number of HD?

IMHO the alignment issues arise from a lack of understanding. I think most players and DM's have a basic understanding of the concept of good vs evil, but in my experience players and DM's illustrate that they know fu&% all about anything when it comes to the relationship between the Law/Chaotic component of alignment, and this is, in my opinion, where the problems with alignment come from.

However, I think that 5e has done it right. If alignment is removed, then class alignment restrictions should also be removed. If alignment -is- used, then one would expect the DM to enforce class alignment restrictions.
 
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