Growing up evangelical, I listened to a lot of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). I never understood the whole “rock music causes demons to eat your brain” mentality. But I did understand — to some extent — their point that Christian rock music was just normal rock music with “Jesus” pasted on top. To my friends and I, that wasn’t actually an intelligent critique. It was more a joke, something we all laughed about.
Fact is, my peers and I often thought it was funny that many CCM songs appeared to be sexy romance songs where the “you” was just capitalized so it suddenly was about Jesus rather than a hot piece of man-flesh. And some CCM bands — Skillet, most of all — have lyrics that are so spiritually kinky, even actual kinksters might blush.
Since my blog post last week was me basically saying “sorry, no blog post this week’, I thought I’d make it up to you and make two posts this week.
One of things I’ve wanted to talk about here, but as of yet haven’t really, is role playing games as a medium of artistic expression. As an example, I want to share with you a story I wrote last year. I was running a Mage: the Awakening game, and as I was learning the game I wrote this short story. I didn’t get everything right (as I said, I wrote it while learning the game, not after) but I like it. I hope you do to.
Storm clouds are brewing outside the window of my office as the sun sets. It seems to have been getting dark earlier and earlier lately. I don’t just mean this time of year, I mean during the last several years. Since I Awakened. It’s a matter of perspective most Sleepers wouldn’t understand. Even during the daytime it seems dark to me, as I’m sure it does to most Mages. Glimpsing the Supernal Realms changes your perspective, and you see the Fallen World for what it is: a world of darkness.
A knock on the door pulls me from my thoughts. “Come in” I say. The door opens slowly to reveal the poorly lit figure of a young woman wearing a black trench coat. As she walks into the pool of yellow light cast by the lamp in the corner she pulls back the sides of her coat and puts her hands on her hips. Black tank tob underneath a fish net shirt. Low cut leather pants. Black boots. Black fingernails. Black hair with blond roots. Tribal tattoo around a pierced naval. I get the impression that I’m supposed to be turned on by all this.
“Are you Ronnie Masterson, the private investigator?” she says in a tone she thinks is seductive.
“Yes. And you are Elvira, the Herald for the Consilium.”
“Oh, you know about little old me?” Her voice is thick with fake modesty.
“Yes. More than you’d probably want me to know.” She starts to laugh until she realizes I’m not kidding, then awkwardly clears her throat. Before awakening and choosing the shadow nave Elvira, she was Brittany McPherson, a cheerleader from Des Moines Iowa. Then she became a Mage, adopted the whole goth/whore schtick and moved here. A lot of the willworkers in this town wonder how she became a Consilium official at such a young age, which only proves that mages can be idiots too.
“I assume” I continue, “that your here on behalf of the Hierarch? Official business and all that?”
“Yes. A cabal of younger mages were recently found dead. Murdered, actually. It looks like the work of a Banisher but we haven’t been able to find him. We heard you’re pretty good.”
I hate tracking Banishers. They know all the same spells the rest of us do, and their rhetoric about how evil magic is doesn’t seem to stop them from using it. The good thing about jobs like this though, is you can ask for a lot. Hazard pay and all that.
“Does the Hierarch know what my fee for Banishers is?” She hands me an envelope.
“Here’s half” she says, standing way too close. I count it and it’s all there.
“Inform him that I’m on the job.” She smiles, winks at me, than walks out in a way that I can only assume was meant to keep my attention on her ass. Once she’s gone I roll my eyes. Then I sit down at the desk and grab the phone. Time to get to work.
A few hours later and I’m stepping out of a cab into the rain. I got a tip that our guy might be one of the locals at a dive bar in the run down part of town. I walk in and find myself in every shitty bar you’ve ever been to. Overpriced jukebox playing loud country. TV showing a football game, turned up to blast out the music. Two drunk Irish guys at the end of the bar singing their drinking songs over all of it. Two fat bikers playing pool on an old, run down table. Hicks and yokels everywhere you look, and all of them are staring at me. A lot of women complain about men oggling them, but it’s the chicks that bother me. Most guys try to be smooth about it, but the dykes in this town have no sense of subtlety.
As I make my way to the bar, I casually cast an Unveiling spell to see if there’s any signs of magic use, and of course I see nothing. It was a long shot, but it’s good to cover all your bases. I order a drink and and try to get some information from the bartender, but I don’t really know what to ask him. I don’t know what the Banisher looks like or anything, and it’s not like I can just say “Hey, do you know a mage who likes killing other mages?” After a few minutes I give up and let the bartender get back to work. Suddenly I feel two hands come down on my shoulders, and I realize too late that the Irish guys stopped singing a while ago. A voice in my right ear says something that would sound like gibberish to anyone else. Sleepers will never know how funny it is to hear High Speech in an Irish accent.
“Your time has come.”
Fuck, must have seen my Nimbus when I cast the spell earlier. I’m getting sloppy tonight. Another voice speaks English into my left ear.
“Why don’t you come outside with us, sweatheart?”
Two of them. That’s good, that means I can charge double. If I survive, that is.
“Why in the hell would I go outside with you? How stupid do you think I am?”
“Oh, what, you don’ think we’ll do it hear if we have to?”
The guy makes a solid point. With all these people around it would be risky to cast any vulgar spells, but I doubt these guys would hesitate to do that. Outside I hear a crack of thunder, and suddenly going outside with these guys seems like a good idea. Gotta play it cool though, if I seem to change my mind too quickly they’ll be on to me. I get my hands to shake just the right way and drop my voice to a trembling whisper.
“Please, don’t do this. You don’t have to do this.”
“Oh, but we want to” one of them says, and grabs me by the arms. I pretend to be too weak and scared to struggle and let them drag me out back. The rain is really coming down know and I can see flashes of lighting in the distance. Best part is, not another soul around. I couldn’t have planned this better.
They throw me down to the ground and are suprised when I stand up laughing. I’m never unarmed in a storm. I hold my hands up like guns and point at them. I drop my thumbs like hammers and call down the lightning. But as soon as I do I can tell something went wrong.
The next thing I know I’m in a hospital bead with a tube down my throat. The drugs make the room look much darker than it is and I can barely see the nurse on the side of the bed. She tells me I was struck by lighting. She tells me the guys they found me with were killed by it. She tells me that I’m lucky to be alive.
Ok, maybe I could have planned that better.
Morality trats: are they useful? Are they effective? Should a character’s morality be tracked with a stat, or simply left as a role playing element? Can morality be objectively quantified? Let’s look at some systems. This will be a multi-post topic, and we’re starting with the most well known morality system, D&D’s alignments.
As in all things D&D, I’m most familiar with 3.5 edition. In that version, an alignment has two parts, Law vs. Chaos, and Good vs. Evil, with each part having a neutral option. This gives us nine alignments, Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, True Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, and Chaotic Evil. Even if you aren’t a D&D player, you’ve probably heard these terms thrown around on Facebook; whether it’s a meme picture showing the alignments of characters from a franchise, or a quiz that tells you what your alignment is.
I almost never agree with these conclusions. For example:
The good and neutral examples, I suppose, make sense, but as far as I’m concerned all three of the mentioned Sith here are Lawful Evil, especially Palpatine. Why? Here’s how the alignment is defined in the 3.5 players handbook:
Lawful Evil, “Dominator”:
A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises. This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds.
Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains. The scheming baron who expands his power and exploits his people is lawful evil.
Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master. Lawful evil is sometimes called “diabolical,” because devils are the epitome of lawful evil.
Lawful evil is the most dangerous alignment because it represents methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil. (3.5 Player’s Hadbook pg. 105)
If you know your Star Wars EU, than you know that Darths Sideous, Maul, and Vader are all part of Darth Bane’s Rule of Two, a thousand year long tradition of having only two Sith Lords at a time, existing in secret, working to destroy the Jedi and conquer the Galactic Republic. These three (plus Darth Tyranus, a.k.a. Count Dooku) are the culmination of a plan that results in the formation of the Galactic Empire. There’s nothing Chaotic, or even neutral, about anything these guys do. Palpatine is the epitome of “dominator”, and all of them ” represent methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil.”
That’s just one example. Almost any discussion by gamers over what alignment a given character should be is going to end up being a debate. The alignments are confusing and difficult to wrap one’s head around. Why is that? Basically, it’s because their bullshit. The alignment system is designed to be used in a fantasy setting with black and white “morality” that basically comes down to which side of a conflict one is on, and not what one actually does or thinks. I mean look at Paladins. They’re required to be lawful “good”, but running around smiting “evil” creatures left and right. Smite Evil is a level 1 class feature. How does someone who’s job is to kill people (orcs and goblins are people, and don’t you dare deny it) get away with being called good?
More importantly, any realistic summary of a person’s alignment will lead to true neutral, as almost nobody fits into one of the extremes. I took one of those alignment tests floating around the internet, and it told me I was lawful good, even though:
“Law” implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people
can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should. (3.5 Player’s Hadbook pg. 104)
For the record, I’m an atheist and an anarchist (kinda, sorta, it’s complicated). I think traditions are stupid, and I find the very concept of authority offensive. I find most of our laws to be at best pointless and at worst terrible. I consider myself very open-minded to different kinds of people. I certainly don’t think adhering to laws makes a society in which people can depend on each other, I think a society like that comes from people choosing on their own to be dependable.
Ok, I don’t want to get too off topic here, I wasn’t intending to make this a political post. My point is, why did this test peg me as lawful when I clearly am not? I think because the test asked a lot of questions about family, like “do you include your parents’ advice in decision making”. Things like that, which I do agree that my saying yes to makes me sound kind of lawful.
But I’m not. I’ve talked to some gamers who describe themselves, not their characters, but themselves, as Chaotic Evil… even though they have a personal body count of exactly zero. But they’ll insist, because, sure they aren’t “destroyers” (see 3.5 PHB pg. 106), but they are misanthropic, perhaps even nihilistic, or maybe even some other words encapsulating concepts more complex than what these nine alignments represent.
So basically what I’m saying is that D&D oversimplifies the whole morality thing. Can it be done better? Next week I’ll talk about the mechanics from my favorite systems, White Wolf’s Storytelling system.
I have an ever-increasing list of games that I want to run someday. They’re not always games I want to run right now, but someday. A recent addition to this list is the World of Darkness game Changeling: The Lost. I’m a late comer to Changeling; I never paid any attention to the original Changeling: the Dreaming, because at the time (“the time” being my narrow-minded, ignorant early 20’s), I didn’t see how fairies fit into horror, so I can’t compare the two. Also, I didn’t get around to reading C:tL until late 2013, even though the game was released in 2007. But now that I have read it I find it very intriguing, because it’s a great example of using a role playing game to explore real life issues.
In short, Changeling is a game about surviving abuse.
In this game, a Changeling is a human who was abducted by one of the True Fae. Now keep in mind, this is the World of Darkness, so these aren’t your modern, Disney-fied Fae. These are old school, Grimm fairy-tale style Fae. They’re monsters. They come into our world to kidnap and enslave humans in their world, called Arcadia. The boundary between the two worlds is called The Hedge, and it tears away at a human’s body, altering it and making it more Fae-like. In Arcadia, Changelings are subjected to abuse, emotional, physical, even sexual. Some Changelings manage to escape and return to the human world. They’ve become Fae-like, though they aren’t completely Fae, but they aren’t fully human anymore either. They usually find that they’ve been replaced by a duplicate called a fetch, so they weren’t even missed. They’re unseen absence and altered nature makes it almost impossible for Changelings to resume they’re old lives. They’ve also gone through terrible experiences that few humans would even belief and no human can relate to. As such, Changelings have their own societies which are basically large support groups. They are a culture of abuse survivors, banding together for mutual support and protection, should their abusers return.
The game book gives many examples of the kinds of histories and back stories Changeling characters have, and they’re all heartbreaking. If you remove the fantasy elements, odds are you probably know someone who’s gone through what these characters have. Not just the abusive acts themselves, but the ramifications; being afraid to talk to people about the experience, knowing that they won’t understand and may even judge the victim, and the impact such experiences has on who a person is.
Now to be clear, there is more to Changeling than the abuse angle. Much of the content of the core book deals with magic, Changeling politics, and the day to day lives of Changeling characters. I don’t want to give the impression that this game is singularly focused on abuse. There is genuine fun to be had, and not all Changelings are emotional wrecks whose entire lives are defined by their trauma (which I believe is true of real life abuse survivors as well). But this is the aspect of the game that stuck with me the most; in a hobby that so often seems to focus on slaying bad guys and collecting loot*, Changeling: the Lost is a game that tackles complicated and important issues in real life in a mature, sophisticated way.
*Just to be clear, I’m not knocking on games like this, I’m just saying variety is nice too.
I haven’t said this before, so I’ll say it now: don’t expect this blog to be topical. I talk about what’s on my mind, not what’s new.
To that end, this week I’m going to share my thoughts on something that happened a few years ago, the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and specifically why I want nothing to do with it.
White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade, as well as the other World of Darkness games it led to, always had an apocalyptic bent to it. Vampire books usually had something to say on the subject of Gehenna, when the first Vampire, Cain, would return from his ancient slumber and all manner of horrible shit would happen, resulting in the end of the world. Similar prophecies existed in other games, like Werewolf: the Apocalypse, and the apocalyptic themes were especially prevalent during the Revised Edition run of the games. Then in 2005 White Wolf announced that it was finally going to happen. They then released a series of books called The Time of Judgement series which definitively brought the World of Darkness to an end. I bought the Vampire book Gehenna, which began with a superb bit of fiction about the Camarilla’s most ardent Antediluvian denier watching the literal rebirth of the Antediluvian Set.The book then blows the top off of pretty much all the secrets of the world’s meta-plot, including the fate of all 13 Antediluvian, and gave us three end of the world scenarios for a Storyteller to choose from, one of which was explicitly stated to be canon: Cain wakes up and his return brings about all the horrible shit the Noddists always said it would, so stick that in you’re Camarilla pipe and smoke it.
After releasing these books, White Wolf wiped the dirt of their hands and told us “yes that really happened no honestly we’re not kidding we’re not going to take it back the World of Darkness you all know and love is really over no really we mean it.”
“But don’t worry” they continued, “here’s an all new World of Darkness for you to sink your teeth into!”
And sink my teeth into it I did! I pre-ordered the World of Darkness core rule book, as well as the core book for the new Vampire game line, Vampire: the Requiem, so as to get them as soon as possible, and once I had the books I immediately fell in love with the new setting, as well as the streamlined game mechanics, and came to view the whole “reboot” as an overall improvement over the original. Turns out I like having more localized politics which make my character more important, and makes the title of Prince more meaningful then a mere rung on the ladder of bureaucracy between expendable neonates and what was basically a vampiric Illuminati. I like vampire clans that actually look like vampires, not other things disguised as vampires as most of V:tM’s clans were.
And then, a few years after I wholeheartedly embraced this new world, in what really seemed to me like an attempt to pander to fans who won’t shut the fuck up about how much they miss the old WOD, White Wolf pulled a 180 and said “Ha ha, nevermind, Gehenna didn’t happen after all, and those years of building up to it were for naught, because here’s a new edition of Vampire: the Masquerade!”
To which I replied “FUCK YOU, I’M NOT PLAYING IT!”
I’ve moved on, White Wolf, and the reason I moved on is because YOU FUCKING TOLD ME TO! Bringing your own game world to an end was a bold move, and I wish you’d had the balls to stick to it. And if you were going to flip flop it’d be nice if you didn’t spend the better part of a decade getting me hooked on your new world first.