On humility

On good days, I fancy myself quite the amateur developer. It’s not my job per se, but I know my way round a language or two.

That said, I was conscious of the limitations of having learnt code “on the job” rather than out of books like they do in programming school. I could execute, and fast, but not as cleanly or as efficiently as a pro. I was happy with that.

Today I received an email from a friend who not only is a proper web developer but also a wise and entrepreneurial individual. We had been corresponding recently regarding his recruitment woes, difficulties finding experience and/or diligence in a hire. His email contained a test for candidates.

The test consisted of two pages. Ten questions. Ever the egomaniac, I took it.

By Question Five, the questions were, I thought, getting tougher. No matter; I nailed Five. Hammered Six into the ground, John Henry-style.

Then came Question Seven.

It wasn’t so much that I drew a blank. Rather, I was totally aware that my brain had never contained the information required to answer the question.

Eight, Nine and Ten were similarly humbling.

I strongly suspect that for a trained programmer, these questions relied on foundational not expert-level knowledge.

Maybe the lesson here is that I should be ever mindful of cognitive dissonance. In this case, I must reliably perceive the delusion inherent in the beliefs that:

  1. I am very humble regarding my capacity to code
  2. I am, secretly, really good

Extrapolating this, I now realise that the above is likely true for anything that fits a similar model.

Anything difficult, anything that rightly requires years of practice and education (formal or otherwise) to master, that I think I am probably pretty good at, I probably aren’t1. Which doesn’t bode well for my ability to write.

It’s akin to remaining convinced that you can do millions of “lifts”2, despite not having entered a gym for months. You try to recapture some of that athletic glory and pull a muscle.

The difference between that sort of often-public, physically-painful lesson and the private lesson I half-learned today is that my recent blast of education was private; private, and liable to erasure by my ever-protective ego.

Enough of this. Omphaloskepsis isn’t a healthy destination for the mind.

All philosophy aside, there is a better, more practical solution to the problem of getting 6/10 on a test.

Learn. Acquire knowledge. Practice.

All that sort of practical, life-enhancing stuff.

  1. “amn’t”?
  2. As they say on the Instagrams.

Roleplaying Alignment

A post on my good buddy Dan’s RPG blog inspired me to sort out my own thoughts on the subject of alignment in roleplaying games.

These days, I’m a game/dungeon master (DM)  more than a player, so the below will likely skew in the that direction. Hopefully there will be something for everyone1.

In his post on alignment in the Pathfinder roleplaying game, Dan dissects issues with alignment both fundamental and system-specific. I agree with his balanced2 conclusions and would like to explore some of the questions posed.

In this post I will aim to explore the consequences of alignment in a real-world gaming scenario3, and consider what inspiration players and DMs can take from Alignment Classic™.

Creation

Alignment is one of several useful jumping-off points when drafting a roleplaying game character (PC).

Nine options, while limiting when compared to myriad real-world moralities, philosophies etc,, are plenty. Particularly when you’ve got a million other decisions to make and the character sheet is still practically empty and the rest of the table are glowering at you, pretending to make small talk.

Simple choices are usually good choice when it comes to game design. So your wizard is Evil, but is she precise and manipulative, or a bloody psychopath. The simple choice of alignment can be a frame to weave a much more nuanced character, without ever having to colour outside the lines4.

Alignment choices are never so restrictive that a PC will have no “alignment-authentic” choices available to them in any given situation. When choices that are true to a character feel limited, and the player is faced with difficult decisions, roleplaying gets really interesting.

As a player, I relish tackling the question “What the hell would my PC do now?”.

Alignment in the wild

…which brings me to the question “What should the game/DM do when a player does not play their PC’s alignment?”.

I’m not splitting hairs here. Let’s ignore minor violations of alignment5. What should happen when a player acts in a way that significantly violates their PC’s alignment?

Some players choose an alignment solely for the crunchy benefits, to access a spell, trait etc. I’m not passing judgement on these monsters, but I don’t think they warrant special treatment or punishment.

I think the topic of alignment violation could be part of a bigger discussion about broader violations of character. E.g. the ascetic barbarian orc who is miraculously familiar with the inner workings of human religious sects.

Metagaming, right?

I have sympathy with players and DMs who crave an authentic roleplaying experience. I can also sympathise with those who just want to have fun, character be damned.

Whatever your preference, seeing alignment as part of the problem is part of the problem.

Alignment can and should be a relatively straightforward mechanism to reward and challenge both groups. Constraints, after all, provoke creativity.

So your Lawful Good ranger just murdered that village

I’m not a fan of XP rewards for playing in character6, and certainly not in favour of XP penalties. That said, I refuse to accept that, in matters of a PC’s emotional state or reasoning, the player is always right.

Let’s look at this another way. Should the game world reward a character for being true to themselves? Should the world punish characters that violate their natures?

Does ours?

NPCs would perhaps be more willing to do business with a less mercurial personality. NPCs would be less likely to press charges against a PC involved in a crime if they have a “good reputation”.

Evil cultists may be more likely to trust a character who wears his murderous skin comfortably.

These examples are pretty obvious, but in practice how should a DM track all the various interrelationships between PCs and NPCs as the world develops? Plot points are easy to track, but underlying emotional states less so. It is the illusion of an authentic/consistent interplay between history, emotion and interpersonal relations that can make an RPG world really fly.

As a useful shorthand, the relative alignments of two characters indicates how they might interact. That doesn’t need to imply simple interactions, but it can help a DM map out interpersonal dynamics on the fly. Characters on opposing sides of a conflict may be more likely to hit it off if they share an alignment.

With skill checks, Bluff etc, PCs can, of course, resolve the challenges posed by NPC interactions. But the challenges can be easier or harder, and certainly richer roleplaying experiences, in a context where alignment means something in the game world, even if it is never expressed as a simple 3×3 grid.

What would Lathander do?

Do the gods of your game world care about the alignments of mortals? Their values or value structures?

In game worlds where deities act as the well-spring of alignments, reifying them, the gods do care about alignments. But the actions of a Lawful Good god may be incomprehensible to a Lawful Good mortal.

The Book of Job opens with a wager between God7 and Satan8. Satan argues that Job is pious only because he favoured by God. God inflicts a series of trials and catastrophes on Job to demonstrate that Satan is wrong.

Job’s confrontation with God resolves with Job9 accepting, but not understanding, God’s actions. In this game world, there is perhaps a disconnect between the rules regarding alignment as applied to mortals and those applicable to a deity.

Futhermore, in many religions, enlightenment or omnipotence requires transcendence beyond morality10. Ideas of balance and neutrality are encompassed even within the simple grid of nine alignments, providing a framework to translate this transcendence into something comprehensible by the game world and ruleset. True Neutral can mean “beyond alignment” just as much as it implies “tree-hugging druids and that”.

“The gods move in mysterious ways”

The above is not intended to invite DMs to have gods behave in whatever convenient way suits the story or situation.

Rather, I am arguing that the interaction between a PC’s alignment, that of the deities of the world, and that of the game world/ruleset itself, is not as simple as a 3×3 grid implies. These interactions offer an opportunity to explore alignment (law, chaos, good, evil) in a more tangible fashion than is possible when alignment is removed from the mortal sphere of a game world entirely.

Debunking Evil

Let’s talk about Detect Evil.

In d20/Pathfinder, the much-maligned spell Detect Evil does not empower PCs to identify every evil NPC they meet. A treacherously Neutral Evil courtier will not be unmasked using this spell.

Clerics of Evil gods will possess an evil aura, but in many cases their spells, garb or holy symbol would reveal their nature anyway.

Even where a NPC, cloaked or otherwise, possesses an Evil aura, that alone does not give the PCs a licence to kill them11. More importantly, an Evil aura does not mean that the NPC has anything to do with that gnoll attack or those murders in the poor quarter.

Outsiders et al present more of a problem plot-wise, particularly when they are disguised. There are, however, plenty of spells and abilities to account for this in game, without a hint of fudge.

In any case, these are challenges that the DM should rise to. What happens if the PCs uncover the ogre mage in the opening scene? Creativity and fun, hopefully.

Redemption and Corruption

If a player’s character does significantly violate their alignment, the DM could inform them of this out of game. Alternatively, this breach could be communicated in-game by a change in the way NPCs interact with the PC.

Following the killing of an ambiguously-guilty NPC, perhaps the townsfolk are more wary of the PC, less inclined to join them for a drink. A cleric may sense a diminishing in the divine presence.

These changes are particularly effective if alignment has an impact in NPC interactions generally, from the game’s start, as discussed above.

If the breach is significant or repeated, the DM could inform the player that their PC’s alignment has changed. Time to update that character sheet.

And why not? A player whose PC warrants such a change, if they believe their choice of alignment to be sacrosanct, should have that belief challenged just as any other element of a PC can be challenged.

In a world where characters can transform into dire badgers, lose their minds, and even become gods, PC should not feel any aspect of their beloved character is permanently warded against the winds of change.

But what about indie RPGs?

Eff ’em.

But for serious, I prefer a diet of both crunch and fluff12, and have not played enough indie RPGs to explore in any depth how they treat alignment.

Indie RPGs are generally simpler in mechanical terms. Due to a fashion for more “realistic”, less restrictive choices in both big RPGs and indies, alignment is frequently dropped in indies altogether.

I would argue that whether dropping alignment is a valid decision or not depends on the nature and purpose of the game.

Given how significant that ethics and morality have been for much of human history, alignment as a focus for an indie RPG seems an obvious choice, not a weak mechanic to be sidelined.

In conclusion

Hopefully this article provokes a reconsideration of alignment in roleplaying games. In writing it, I have certainly developed a few thoughts I’d like to develop in my game sessions.

In many cases, simplification is a matter of necessity. As stated above, simple choices are also frequently better ones13. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the reasons for making a choice, for making a cut.

Try reintroducing alignment into your game, even Alignment Classic™.

Properly implemented, I think alignment can make for a richer, more consistent game world, deeper interactions and, ultimately, more fun.

Huzzah! It’s Free RPG Day!

  1. Everyone, that is, who owns a dice bag.
  2. True Neutral?
  3. That is to say, a make-believe-game-played-in-the-real-world scenario.
  4. Mixin’ those metaphors, there.
  5. A juicy topic in its own right.
  6. Isn’t that just, you know, the game? Again, a whole ‘nother juicy topic.
  7. True Neutral
  8. Lawful Evil
  9. Lawful Good
  10. “Just as one driving a chariot looks down upon the two chariot wheels, thus he looks down upon day and night, thus upon good deeds and evil deeds, and upon all pairs of opposites. This one, devoid of good deeds, devoid of evil deeds, a knower of Brahma, unto very Brahma he goes.”, Kausitaki Upanisad 1:4
  11. The players will be able to conjure enough other reasons, some more creative than others…
  12. Yet another topic to explore.
  13. The length of this article notwithstanding.

Nextbox

I don’t have a tech journalism hat, but if I did, I’d put it on.

So I finally decide to sell my last-gen console (plus games) and what does Microsoft do the very next day? Like a cosmic troll, it announces backwards-compatibility. The rub is that you need to own the 360 games in order to sacrifice them to the voodoo magic1 of emulation.

One ebay edit later and the choicest picks2 are removed from the “games chucked in” section of the listing and back on my shelf/floor – ready to be forgotten about all over again on a whole new platform.

Pip-Boy Bulletin

In other, entirely related news, there’s a Fallout 4 collectors’ edition that includes a real Pip-Boy.

That is to say a Pip-Boy shaped thing that you put a phone in and the phone runs an app and it’s a real Pip-Boy and when the end comes and some lonely wanderer happens across my desiccated Vault Dweller-cosplaying corpse slumped in front of the rusted husk of a television wearing said Pip-Boy they will drink deep of that heady environmental storytelling brew and it will be fabulous.

 

  1. Offensive? Of all the maybe-religions to upset, Voodoo isn’t the most sensible target. Still, Baron Samedi already knows I wrote that, so there’s no point in editing it now.
  2. Mass Effects, Fallouts (3 & Vegas), Skyrim et al.

eXbox

The decision to sell my Xbox 360 should have been harder.

The old dear provided many, many hours of entertainment. Together, we had saved universes, broken economies (both post-apocalyptic and fantastical)1, and driven on miles and miles of pavements. Good, bloody times.

Despite all that, with the Christmas miracle of an Xbox One and too many PC games to be getting on with2, the 360’s time had come.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I backed up a host of save games to USB before wiping the thing. But wiped it was, and without a tear shed.

“Why did you do it?” asks no-one.

That enigmatic member of the 21st Century pantheon, Productivity, has coaxed me into adopting a variety of strange behaviours. The ‘decluttering habit’ is one I don’t regret welcoming into my life.

Today, though I am an inconsistent, even lapsed, declutterer, I am still capable of small votives. Taking the form of ebay listings, giving away, or just straight binning stuff, these offerings are hopefully sufficient to please the Mistress of Post-Its3.

The Cult of Productivity is a seductive form of fanaticism, with the god’s herald, Lifehacking, asking at first nothing of you but a little attention, a click or two. Before you know it, you are journalling about journalling and anointed an authority on coffee trends. I draw the line at glamour shots of my EDC, but many don’t. It’s too late for them.

Fortunately, I am naturally disorganised.

Anyway. I hadn’t turned the thing on in months, and irrespective of multiple part-playthroughs, wasn’t likely to. It was right for the Xbox 360 to go.

I don’t regret it.

Not at all.

  1. Sell everything you find. Everything.
  2. Damn you Steam! STEEEEEAAAAAM!
  3. Productivity has many names. The Five-Minute Ruler, the Beast with One Thousand Tabs, the King in Moleskine. May your cables be always tidy.

The 40’s Hero with a Thousand Faces

Decent progress is being made on the arbitrary 2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge. Smashing through 15 books in 5 months is impressive for post-student me.

That said, I’m struggling with this one.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been on the list for a long time. The Lego blocks of myth have always held a fascination for me, particularly the somewhat spurious idea that we repeatedly build the same things with them, that there’s something meaningful behind the similarities between the myths of disparate cultures.

That said, I’m as interested in why someone desires there to be a transcendent connection between us all in the first place. Confirmation bias is a fascinating thing to watch unfold.

To balance out the scepticism, I was also wanted to read Campbell’s opus for the sake of the Community connection. Dan Harmon, creator of Community (the best US TV comedy of the modern age), often cites Campbell’s work as an inspiration1. Given how well-structured the show is, and how eloquently Harmon discusses story structure on his podcast, I was eager to drink from the well of inspiration myself.

I’m greatly enjoying the deep, apparently well-researched comparative studies of different cultures’ and religions’ myths and folktales. Campbell is a deft hand at unfolding and analysing multiple narratives over the course of a chapter, revisiting and picking up the threads of stories to develop his argument.

But the text is dreadfully of its time. By that, I suppose I mean that it is not of now, nor even of the later 20th Century. His writing is drenched in psychoanalysis, pages and pages of dream recollections. These theoretically-illuminating dreams are drawn from sources both recent, in the form of psychiatry papers, and the classical. Campbell’s work, and much of the surface analysis and conclusions2 feel old-fashioned, built with half-discredited tools in a fashionable, rather than timeless, style.

It is hard going, and I’ve already refused the call twice, interrupting to read instead Borges’s Labyrinths, then the excellent, recent Peirene translation of Raymond Jean’s La Lectrice. Reader for Hire was the perfect distraction from the pseudo-/actual academical slog that The Hero… had become.

Despite the difficulties I’ve had wading through the psychobabble, the underlying premise of Campbell’s book, the monomyth, is a profound and compelling fiction. His macro-analysis of the stages of the hero’s journey is similarly beguiling.

The book definitely rewards digestion and reflection, and there are ideas beneath the surface that feel tantalisingly enlightening in their truthiness. Reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I might not be a convert, but I do feel that I’m starting to understand my own beliefs about myth, culture, religion and stories with a little more clarity.

Writing this, I was struck (belatedly) by how similar my experience of reading this book has followed Campbell’s depiction of the hero’s journey, which is frankly terrifying.

  1. As does George Lucas, the Star Wars man.
  2. Thus far, anyway. I’m about halfway through.