Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Aligment ... Reaction ... Asymmetry ... Faction



Alignment x Reaction x Asymmetry x Faction  PDF

This summer I wrote a series of threads about the ways that certain legacy rules, often disfavored in Contemporary Traditional rulesets like Dungeons & Dragons' 5th Edition work to mitigate tendencies towards racial essentialism (the idea that a people is defined by a specific character - laziness, rigid adherence to duty, inscrutable cunning, religiosity etc) and colonial fantasy (fantasy that replicates and uncritically includes elements of colonialism) within the game. The issues are concerning for many players who are put off by the Good v. Evil and the assumption that the goal of Dungeons & Dragons adventures is the slaughter of various humanoid "races" such as Orcs. Colonialist and even genocidal themes are certainly present in early editions of the game, and Gygax himself spoke in support of the idea that humanoids in Dungeons & Dragons could be understood as a metaphor indigenous people and that the proper form of play was to massacre them in the manner of colonial conquest.

This is obviously not something that most people want to emulate or bring into their games, and it comes up in the context of modern Dungeons & Dragons because despite overt gestures towards a more inclusive game, Wizard's of the Cost continues to use humanoids that are sometimes described in terms that echo colonialist stereotypes of non-white peoples.  This oversight is compounded by the way that 5th edition elevates combat as a solution to most obstacles, humanoid 'monsters' included, and designates most many 'races' of humanoids as wholly, irredeemably, cosmically evil.

I  see and acknowledge these trends in various of Dungeons & Dragons, along with the distasteful beliefs of Gygax and many other early creators, but I I don't believe that a game of Dungeons & Dragons must be a colonial or exterminationist fantasy.  From long play it seems to me that many of the solutions to these issues are found within the older rules in the places that they step away from simple, linear, heroic narratives and towards interrogating the morality of Fantasy adventure by offering the players themselves choices.  The mechanics to do this existed in early Dungeons & Dragons, the way the game offers players the chance to take stances and imagine actions at odds with their own morality - to weigh what evil looks like and contemplate how expedience can lead to wrongdoing, even within the simple structures of fantasy adventure gaming, is one of the types of play unique to and attractive about playing RPGs.

These mechanics are: Reaction Rolls/Morale, Asymmetrical Encounters and Faction Intrigue.

Beyond any desire not to include disturbing, uncritical echos of colonial history and subjugation
in ones game, or even for hobbyists who reject this argument (please still consider it and remember that you might not see what isn't a threat to you)these mechanics are fun and support a specific play experience. They encourage more complex roleplay, player planning and non-combat solutions to obstacles.  With these chnages classic social mechanics and design principles make for a better open world games, and generally promote player engagement with the setting because role play and negotiation themselves become paths to mechanical success, combat becomes more risky and 'fluff' or 'lore' become useful for understanding NPC/Monster motivations and goals.

Recently, Wizard's of the Coast seems to have adopted some of these principles - emphasizing, if not providing mechanics for, parleying with monsters in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything and giving various humanoid factions goals and values beyond "Be Evil" in Rime of the Frostmaiden. Morale rules (complex and and a bit of an afterthought) have always existed in 5th Edition's Dungeon Master's Guide but they are rarely if ever mentioned. These are positive signs, both that Wizard's is taking concerns about representation and themes in its game seriously and that the company open to play styles beyond linear story arcs in support of tactical combat.

I've attached a PDF of my thoughts on these legacy social mechanics: how they work, what they accomplish and how they can be implemented.

Alignment x Reaction x Asymmetry x Faction

Thanks to Warren D. of I Cast Light for the compilation and editing of these threads.


  1. Great stuff, as always.

    I don't know if this is the proper place to ask this, but if you don't mind,
    I'm curious to know how do you have assigned the difficulty of the cleric spells in your non-vancian system?

    I ask this because i'm homebrewing something to uso in my table and I'd like some fickle gods like the Spirits of the Deep or the Ancient Imperial Gods. My original thought was around a 2D6 casting, borrowing some elements from Necropraxis' idea, but it started getting too clunky to my math impaired brain, and besides, your 1D20 + mods vs Casting Target sounds more simple and elegant.

    1. Fernando,

      Generally they are all based existing spells, I try to make them at least one 1st level spell with a 11 - 13 rating, and then for each more powerful spell keep it in the same range 10 + Spell Level + 1-3 based on whim (direct damage,lower failure cost, multiple uses all get a few more points)

      So something like Storm of Steel from the list for the Quiet Empress is obviously Blade Barrier, a powerful 6th level combat spell. The target is 19 - a base of 10 + 6th level + 3 more because its a messy direct damage spell and a mean-spirited deity. Likewise "Holy Wrath" from the same list is a Bless spell with some downsides and higher combat bonuses, a 1st level spell, core to the deity's identity and not that generally useful - so 11. I try to include a variety of spells, and at least one that's absurdly potent, dangerous, and something a low level PC might try in a pinch. Summoning the God is always good.

    2. Thank you for the help.

      As a way to follow your advice in faction play, I'm planning to introduce these non-vancian spell mechanics through factions, as the players stumble upon cults of strange gods, "unlockin" new and questionable options as a reward for exploration.

  2. Lots of good stuff in these documents; thanks for sharing.

    I recently started up a new AD&D game with my kids and have completely ignored alignment (for the time being). Because it’s AD&D it doesn’t have the same colonial vibe that B2 and Karameikos has (we’re playing U2 which feels much more like a long-existing landscape than new expansion); still you give me a lot to consider going forward.

  3. BTW, I can’t ever recall Gygax citing humanoids as a metaphor for indigenous peoples; do you remember where you saw that?


    1. It's not exact, and one may attribute different levels of significance to it, but I'm of course referring to the somewhat infamous 2005 Dragonfoot "Q&A with Gary Gygax, Part II" and its references by Gygax to notable genocide enthusiast John Chivington and the "nits make lice" justification for Lawful Good killings of "Evil" prisoners.

      To me Gygax's approving citation one of the more reprehensible killers and massacres (never punished due to a post civil war amnesty) during the conquest of the Western United States cannot be separated from a violent colonialist legacy and the "evil prisoners" he's discussing clearly, maybe even largely, include the humanoids he so routinely placed in his adventures. The Western influence in early D&D is as pronounced as the fantasy one, and the role played by humanoids is too much a parallel of the one played by native Americans in mid-century Westerns for me to let it slide.

      Now I don't think if you'd asked Gygax he'd have embraced genocide, but like many white men of his generation I suspect he had a warped and romanticized view of the "Old West", one where native peoples often played the role of 'savage' antagonists. I don't really want to suggest that Gygax was some kind of bloodthirsty exterminationist, but the themes are there, and at best we can say he was unconcerned with them and the obvious conclusions.

      Of course in Gygax's defense I would also say that early D&D includes a sort of inoculation against these ideas in its mechanics. Only when alignment plays a significant role and there's no room for player choice does it become untroubling that the characters are placed in the role of violent settlers on a frontier filled with exotified others. I firmly believe this is part of its mysterious appeal - it gives one the freedom to behave badly, and allows play to investigate the consequences (usually leveling and fame - but then that feels rather true to life).

      I also want to make clear that I never use alignment - faction reputation, but alignment, even when its concievably important isn't worth having an entire subsystem for (unless you're picking army lists).

    2. Interesting. I'll have to read those old Dragonsfoot posts (one of these days). Knowing Gygax to be well-read, I doubt he would have used the reference in ignorance. He may have meant it in jest, but that's extremely poor taste (unless he was trying to make a point that LG ironically represents a different kind of evil...and knowing his stance on good and evil, I'd doubt that).

      [sorry, I'm not bothering to comb through pages and pages of forum posts, so I'm making guesses at the context. Not trying to be an apologist here...]

      As I wrote in my original comment, I simply ignored alignment when I started up a new campaign (2 weeks ago). This was a deliberate, conscious decision, but the intention was "just to see where it goes;" i.e. I figured I could always "add it back" as necessary. So far, it hasn't been necessary and I really haven't missed it. Instead, my NPCs' motives and actions have all been based on...well, normal human motivations. Though without an underlying motivation of "evil" my kids have been a bit torn (at times) about how to approach encounters. Even though they were tasked with hunting down (and killing) an "evil skulk," does this justify the invasion of a lair of goblins who A) were already driven out of one home and B) weren't actively seeking to attack or kill the local villagers? The PCs are starting to feel the answer is 'not really;' they're being faced with the moral ambiguity of their choices even as they strive to be "good" people.

      Very interesting stuff. Very interesting game.

      [and just in case anyone's wondering, we're playing through the old UK2-UK3 modules...though I'm treating them as a sand box rather than a railroad]

    3. Those Gygax statements were pretty off putting when I read them myself - to some extent it seemed like he was being cantankerous and intentionally trolling, but I'd say being flip about the Sand Creek Massacre is kinda like telling Holocaust jokes -- it says some pretty ugly things about the jokester. I also certainly don't expect you to go hunt it out, Gygax doesn't really have much interesting to say in the interviews anyway. He wasn't an ignoramus, but like his use of words and neologisms - there's a certain mark of the autodidact about his attitudes and I think there's this larger oversight among a lot of wargamers to a degree.

      I'd call it the "Strumgeshutz and Sorcery" problem (from the article in the 5th issue of the Strategic Review that pits an SS patrol against D&D monsters), where the horrors of history recede as one replays them - a balanced contest between 'sides', and because of the nature of the game there's no need or even space for moral judgment about the right and wrong of the causes represented. WWII becomes Sherman v. Panzer, the US civil war just becomes Blue v. Grey, and the Sandcreek Massacre becomes 'Cowboys & Indians'.

      Anyway - enough dolorous maundering by me. Personally I find it more interesting to acknowledge the failings of a game or its designers (and really Gygax's failings aren't especially severe for a Midwestern guy born in 1938), interrogate them where necessary and see how any negative effects on play they might have can be mitigated.

      Your game sounds pretty great, and precisely the sort of thing I'm thinking about. I always remember playing Caves of Chaos when I was 8 or 9 and the moral quandary of the noncombatant orcs and goblins. Another player who was younger got teary eyed about them and we spared them (against my bloodthirsty child instincts). It ultimately wasn't to our advantage, because orcs grow up fast and they were very angry (understandably) that we'd killed their parents. I think this was the right choice by the GM -- being good or evil is not always met with some sort of karmic balance. That I still remember it though, and that a group of kids 6-12 grappled with this sort of moral question while playing D&D sort of speaks to the profound power of the game. I think I learned more about ethics, more viscerally, in the Caves of Chaos then I did taking a graduate course in professional ethics.

      I have a suspicion (allow me to walk you to my wall covered in scrawled notes connected by red string) that a big part of the parental and conservative/Christian unease with RPGs was that freedom to play in moral spaces, to examine "What do you do when the devil wants to deal?" Of course also a lot of teenage boys likely played as terrible edgy anti-heroes.

      I look forward to hearing how the UK module AD&D game progresses, the UK stuff was always interesting.

    4. The game HAS been pretty great, for a number of reasons...more than I can fairly enumerate in this comment, I'm afraid. However, I do intend to blog more about my "AD&D" experiences in the near future; coming back to it - REALLY coming back to it - after so many years (30+) and after so many other other RPG experiences (including alternate editions of D&D) has really given me some new perspectives on the edition.

      I'd also like to blog more about the UK2-UK3 series specifically...how I've used them (i.e. without railroad or implicit morality) and how are sessions have turned out.

      Of my kids, my daughter is the more "teary-eyed" though generally only with regard to NPCs (she still really misses "Fred," a 0-level merc who got wiped out several sessions earlier). She is also MORE likely to attempt to parley and negotiate with monsters; last night, working solo (she split off from the party) she successfully negotiated a truce with a 60-strong tribe of goblins and their shaman leader. This was not based on "good dice rolls" but on actual role-playing and cleverness. It didn't net her any x.p. (and even cost her some treasure) but it helped both her and the party meet their goals/objectives of the adventure...and will quite possibly save them from trouble and/or death down the road.

      RE Gygax, distancing ourselves from horror, etc.

      I think there's a way to evolve our gameplay in a way that includes perspective and compassion while NOT detracting from wild and wooly adventure. I can understand folks not having a lot of patience for the effort that might take...I'm fairly lazy myself (and as a privileged white male it costs me little to be intellectually lazy in this regard). And the older I get, the lazier I become ("I don't have time to care about past transgressions!" etc.). But it IS important to point these things out and acknowledge our failings. The world benefits when more people (especially the intelligent types that gravitate towards RPGs) are more thoughtful. IMO.

    5. [that should read "...and how OUR sessions have turned out." Sorry]

  4. Late to the party here, but I’ve been thinking about this exact issue lately as WotC begins to grapple more openly with it. It’s max ironic that in this era of actually addressing those founding colonialist urges (conscious or not), we’re presented with a version of D&D that requires them more than ever.

    Half the problem is, as you noted, the focus on combat mechanics and character builds, most of all the tying of XP to combat—which of course makes every problem look like a nail. The other piece is the long-standing preference among publishers for “adventure path”-style campaign books that attempt to shepherd the players through a more-or-less linear story. Combine these two and you have a play environment where the opposition MUST be objectively evil, because the players have to defeat them and will almost certainly do so via murder. Cue bending over backwards lore-wise to make all humanoids avatars of evil gods and so forth, so it’s okay to kill them up.

    The (well, a) solution is of course to drop the players among a number of powers and factions and let them set their own goals. Here, nobody is good or evil—but at the same time, nobody MUST be killed or otherwise overcome. Suddenly goblins, orcs, kobolds, gnolls etc. are free to just be people, the same way humans, elves, dwarves etc. are.

  5. Just found the blog, am quite enjoying it. Much thoughtfulness, which the world could use more of.

    The real difficulty re the colonialism issue is the children. It's arguably acceptable to slaughter adult combatants. It even might be OK to slaughter adult non-combatants who are defending themselves, in the context of a pseudo-medieval world with raiding and violence at every turn. It is very difficult to figure out what to do with the crying goblin children whose parents you just killed. None of the historical options really fit well with heroism or most D&D worlds. If there were lots of fostered goblin children kicking around Greyhawk, fair enough. There's definite colonialism issues with killing people and raising their children as your own, but it has enough historical precedent on both sides of colonialism that I think it can be seen as OK-if-done-in-a-game. But there aren't. Hell, there aren't even lots of orcish or goblin slaves. Implictly, violent genocide is the order of the day.

    As an aside, there is a moment in one of the Avernum CRPGs where you have the opportunity to destroy an evil lizardman hatchery. You do not have to do it. But you can. And it is an absolute gut punch, because this stuff is glossed over so often, and more games should actually deal with the issue. Though, annoyingly, "tell the local friendly lizardman tribe about all these kids who need adopting, bolstering their numbers while weakening the insane demon-worshipping enemy" is not an option.

    I think the answer to some extent lies in either going hard toward them being people (and so you damn well should negotiate with them/they should surrender and withdraw/you or a friendly local group of the same species can adopt the survivors) or hard toward them NOT being people (i.e. the Tolkien/Games Workshop model, where literal magic makes them unremittingly evil and also they don't have children to worry about, so these moral questions literally cannot arise). Anything in between is...messy.


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