Heroes?

Today’s post was inspired, in part, by “M for Mature” by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, and calls back to some of the things I’ve talked about lately. Also, the character names were taken from this page.
 

One evening, as the last of the sun’s rays began to withdraw behind the great mountains to the east, a party of orcs made camp for the night after a long day of adventuring. The fire had been provided by Ugzod, the group’s sorcerer, and above it hung a now deceased wild boar, which was caught by the fighter Dur. Nazsnaga, a druid, didn’t approve, but chose to find some fruit for herself instead of starting an argument over it. The camp site had been consecrated by Shaksnik, cleric and priestess, and the party was settling in for a nice meal followed by good night’s sleep.

Standing guard at the edge of the camp, the ranger Dreggut suddenly picked up a scent that alarmed him. He moved quietly to the others. “Be on your guard,” he said, “I don’t think we’re alone.”

Suddenly, from all around them, another adventuring party emerged from the trees, weapons drawn and ready for battle. They weren’t orcs though. The halfing was wielding a crossbow, and had a backpack that was clearly full of treasure. The elf woman, wearing the barest of garments, held a wooden staff aloft as light streamed from it. The human, wielding an insanely large broadsword, appeared to be one massive, solid muscle clad in scaled armor. And the dwarf, naturally, had an ax.

“Prepare for death, vile creatures!” the elf shouted, “Behold the light of Corellon Larethian and dismay!” But the light coming from her staff only served to illuminate the goosbumps on her bare skin.

“My goodness,” responded Shaksnik, “do the elves really make their women dress like that? You must be freezing, you poor dear! Here, take my coat.”

As she tried to hand her coat to the elf, the human stuck is sword into her face, nearly taking an eye.

“Back, monster! I will not allow evil such as you taint our cleric!”

Shaksnik looked at him, confusion and hurt feelings mixed on her face. “But, I’m a cleric myself.”

At this point Dur felt compelled to interject. “What evil? What are you talking?”

“You, laddie” the dwarf said. “Everyone knows orcs are evil.”

Ugzod burst out laughing. “Dude,” he said, anachronisms be damned, “You’re calling us evil, you bigoted fuck?”

“Yeah” Dreggut added, “Not to mention all that loot the halfling’s carrying. I suppose you guys bought all of that, and the original owners are still alive and well.”

“Uhm…” the halfling responded.

“Enough” the human shouted “We shall do battle!”

“Let’s not,” Nazsnaga said, “We’re all adults here, I’m sure we can come up with some kind of peaceful, mutually beneficial agreement and part ways without bloodshed.”

 

The next morning, Ugzod, Dreggut, Nazsnaga, Dur and Shaksnik were dead, their bodies left, without ceremony, to the crows. And the other party were in a nearby village, being celebrated as heroes.

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Shemhamforash! Ave Satanas!

A fellow gamer recently told me about this. Apparently someone is making a film adaption of one of Jack Chick’s many anti-D&D Chick Tracts, with the aim of showing just how very, very stupid it is. I’m looking forward to seeing it, because everything Jack Chick has ever said in his entire life, as far as I can tell, is completely deserving of all the scorn and ridicule that the whole of humanity is able to conjure up.

If you don’t know who Jack Chick is, he’s a fundamentalist Christian who makes comic strip pamphlets, which he calls Chick Tracts, in which he spouts out his hateful, close minded and ignorant views on the world. Like a lot of other fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson, some of Mr. Chick’s favorite targets are homosexuals, secularism, the LDS church, feminists, and Dungeons and Dragons.

Yeah, that’s right. D&D is, according to this asshat, a direct path into the warm embrace of satanism.

This far-right Christian* hate of role playing games, D&D in particular, is perhaps the greatest example of arguing from ignorance I’ve ever encountered. The idea seems to be that Dungeons & Dragons teaches people how to perform satanic rituals, thereby making them more willing to join satanic cults.

The first problem with this argument is that the kind of satanic cults Jack and his ilk are trying to make us afraid of simply don’t exist.

The other problem is that while the real religion of Satanism, that is the religion represented by Anton LeVay’s Church of Satan, does perform ritual magic, Satanic rituals have less  in common with D&D as I have in common with a kangaroo; I mean we’re both eukaryotes, animals, chordates, and mammals, but that’s about it.

Basically, the far-right Christian fear mongers are speaking authoritatively about the connection between Satanism and Dungeons & Dragons while simultaneously making it very clear that they’ve never done any real research into either one, such as reading the D&D Player’s Handbook or the Satanic Bible. I, on the other hand, have read both of those books, and feel very qualified to compare and contrast the two.

First of all, the only similarity I can think of between Satanism and Dungeons &Dragons is that neither one of them promotes worship of the Christian Devil. No, seriously, the Satan of Satanism is not a divine or angelic being, but a concept describing a “force of nature”, as the Satanic Bible puts it.

Now, for some of their differences:

The Satanic Bible is a religious text defining the practices and tenets of belief for a real life religious movement called Satanism. The D&D Player’s Handbook is an instruction manual on how to play a game.

The Satanic Bible discusses two different kinds of magic. The first is coincidental magic, wherein a person manipulates events to lead to a desirable outcome. An example that the Satanic Bible gives is a woman wearing perfume to attract a potential sex partner. You may recognize this kind of magic as not actually being magic. The other kind is ritual magic, in which a group of Satanists get together, wear black clothes, light candles and recite fancy incantations with the idea being that doing so will enhance and focus emotional energy to guide events to a certain outcome. The Satanic Bible is very clear that ritual magic needs to work with nature, not against it, so the effects of ritual magic tend to be subtle; for example, the inaccurately named Ritual of Destruction seeks to cause an increase in the frequency with which a specific person has bad things happen to him or her. The D&D Player’s Handbook, on the other hand, presents a system of game mechanics to determine whether or not a fictional character living in a fictional world can cause a fictional (and decidedly not natural) phenomenon to occur. Because it’s a game.

The Satanic Bible presents Satanism as being in direct opposition not only to Christianity, but to other pagan religions such as Wicca, and says some very not nice things about them. The D&D Players Handbook doesn’t take a stance one way or the other on any real world religion, because Wizards of the Coast is in the business of selling games, not religious conversion.

D&D involves a lot of dice rolling. Satanism doesn’t.

The last thing I want to say about this is that a lot of the ridiculous claims Jack and friends are making about D&D to try to scare people away from playing it are things which would actually be a lot of fun if they were incorporated into the game. Like, I’d kind of like to have a podium and a hooded cloak while I’m GMing.

*I want to emphasis the “far right” part of that. There are plenty of Christians who don’t have their heads up their asses far enough to confuse a game with actual occultism.

Mini post: Maps

I’ve got an all day music event to go to, so today’s post is going to be kind of short. (Incidentally, if any of you reading this are in the Reno, NV area and don’t already know, today is day 2 of the 10th anniversary Marianarchy, which is an awesome semi-annual charity/music event, and you should go).

Basically I just want to share some thoughts on using maps, or battle grids. They suck. They’re a pain in the ass.

Yes, they can be very helpful in visualizing the events of a combat session, and they certainly help in understanding how attacks of opportunity work. But they take a lot of time to make, they take up a lot of space, and I’ve found them to not be worth the effort. I’ve spend 30 minutes or more making big, detailed game maps for combat sessions that take 5 or 10 minutes in real time, maps that take up valuable table space which could be better used for dice, character sheets, beer and dorritos.

Uhmmm… yeah that’s all for now. Talk to you next week!

Morality Systems in RPGs Part 3: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity

So I’ve talked a bit about a couple of different morality systems, and the one common problem I’m seeing is that morality is subjective, but game mechanics are objective.

A character with a high Strength score is going to be more likely to succeed at a Strength check because the stronger someone is they better they are at performing feats of strength. That isn’t an opinion, and it’s not open to interpretation. That’s just the way it is.

We tend to thing of morality as working the same way; right is right, and wrong is wrong. But our rhetoric on morality doesn’t really reflect the truth of it. We interpret, we make exceptions, we rationalize actions we would otherwise consider “evil”. Most people agree that it’s wrong to kill other people… unless you’re a soldier in a war, or if you’re killing out of self defense, or if the person being killed really fuckin’ deserves it. Furthermore, we have degrees of how bad we think something is depending on the circumstances; we tend to think of pre-meditated murder as being worse that an impassioned or accidental killing. They’re all wrong, but one is more wrong than the others.

Can this be reflected in game mechanics? Maybe, but it seems difficult. As I’ve said before, game mechanics are a reflection of the physical laws of the game’s setting. A sword’s damage rating reflects the way sharpened metal of a certain size and shape interacts with flesh under the application of force. A race’s base speed reflects it’s capacity for locomotion as determined by biology. It doesn’t matter if you think you can move faster, you can’t. But what you’re character thinks about her choices and actions should matter, as should the opinions of those affected by those actions. This is an element of morality that has a tendency to get lost when cramming subjective, gray ethics into objective, black and white game mechanics, leaving players and GMs in the position of often making exceptions and judgement calls to the rules. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing that, but you’re game’s systems shouldn’t make it necessary.

The better question is, should morality be reflected in game mechanics, and the more I think about it the more I want to say no. This seems like something better left as a role playing element. Yes, a character’s actions should have an impact on her; if she begins her adventure claiming to be a pacifist but ends up slaying a bunch of bad guys, that should have an effect on how you play her. But don’t rely on a game mechanic to tell you how to play your character, the rules don’t know her as well as you do and can’t possibly tell you exactly how those changes will manifest. Does she become crazy and maniacal, fully embracing the path of destruction she’s set out on? Or does she become quiet and withdrawn, overcome with remorse over the terrible deeds she’s done?

And hey, GMs, this isn’t all on the players! Does the character described above have a chance at redemption, and if so, how can that be achieved? How will the society around her be impacted by her actions? Is she a celebrated hero for ridding the village of the barbarian scourge that plagued them, or is she seen as a war criminal who went too far? If the character’s player decided to go with the homicidal maniac archetype, how exactly does her madness manifest?  Is there a higher power in your world, and if so, how does it react to this woman’s crimes?

These are all big question that deserve more careful and in depth consideration that “make a roll” or “change your alignment”.

Bonus Post: Be nice to the lady nerds

So there’s this really ugly thing happening in the world of nerdom. I think I first started hearing about it last year, but I suspect it’s been going on longer than that; I’m kind of a nerd among nerds, and I don’t go to cons or frequent message boards or play online games or interact with other nerds who aren’t part of my immediate social circle, where thankfully this doesn’t really seem to happen much. But it is, I now realize, happening elsewhere. This thing has been on my mind a lot for the last few days, ever since I read Fake G33k Girl’s new blog. I can’t stop thinking about this, so I’m going to kind of ride her coattails and give my two cents.

(Although, if you haven’t read her blog yet, you totally should. Her treatment of this topic is so much better than mine.)

 

Back when I was in high school, the terms “nerd” and “geek” did not, or at least from where I was standing didn’t seem to, refer to cultures, but instead referred to stereotypes. Back then when someone called me a nerd they probably weren’t trying to be my friend. Back then we nerds didn’t call ourselves nerds, those names were stuck to us by others. We had a lot of common interests, such as comic books, role playing games and science fiction to name a few, but that’s not why we were called nerds. We were given these labels because we didn’t really fit in with the social structures around us. Occasionally that was a result of having interests that weren’t, at that time, mainstream, but I think more often it was a lack of social skills or other differences that earned someone the title of “nerd” or “geek”.

And of course, part of this stereotype was that we were all a bunch of lonely boys who will never grow up or get to touch boobs. Back then we had girls in our ranks, but they seemed to be a minority within our minority. They may not have actually been, I’m not sure, but that certainly was the perception, even to a lot of us nerds.

Later on we started to claim those words as our own, to wear them as badges of honor and build a real, honest to goodness, no bullshit culture around them. We held our heads high as we suffered the slings and arrows of people thinking it worthy of derision to learn Klingon, or become intimately familiar with the intricacies of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, or keep a Magic: the Gathering deck in our back pocket.

And a while after that, perhaps in part because of that, a lot of our “nerd” interests started to become popular and mainstream. Nowadays we have big budget, high quality film adaptations of superheroes and 1980’s cartoons, as well as classic science fiction and fantasy novels. Whereas people who like dressing up like characters from movies, comics and video games were once seen as weirdos and losers, now it’s a real legitimate hobby with a special name and everything! We call it cosplaying, and lots of people do it, and gone are the days where we just assume they’re jobless losers living in their parents’ basements.

Being a nerd is no longer a stigma. It’s a culture, it’s a set of interests, it’s a lifestyle. Most importantly, it’s socially acceptable. We have actual nerd celebrities, like Wil Wheaton and Vin Diesel. Yeah, did you know Vin Diesel plays D&D?

Pretty cool, right?

It’s been a long time since anyone has called me a nerd or a geek in a mean, hurtful way. I’m no longer worried about sharing my geeky interests with strangers. People are cool with it. I no longer feel like I’m being excluded. That’s a good thing.

So why the fuck do I keep hearing about geeky ladies being treated like shit by nerd guys? I mean, of all fucking people, nerds are excluding women from their culture? This whole thing about “testing” women to confirm that they’re “real” geeks. Slut-shaming women who cosplay, or accusing them of doing it just to turn on their boyfriends. Talking to women in online games in such an objectifyingly, obscene way that many female gamers try to pass themselves as dudes just so they can play without other members of their community demeaning them. I even hear tell about threats of rape and other forms of violence because a woman has the gall to try to be a part of this scene we’ve created.

Nerds are doing this? NERDS ARE DOING THIS??

A true nerd knows the pain of exclusion. A true nerd knows the fear of being attacked, literally and figuratively, because of one’s interests. A true nerd should be grateful that all kinds of people, including women, are talking an interest in the things that we love. I remember being afraid of scaring women off, whether or not I was trying to “get with them” or just hang out, by talking about my nerdy interests. Part of that fear stays with me today. When I see a woman wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt or reading an RPG manual, I’m delighted. I’m overjoyed that the line between us outcasts and them cool kids is blurring. I’m glad that, whatever other social shortcomings I have, I can talk to these people because we have common interests. I’m glad that geek girls are a thing. I want all people to feel welcome in our geek culture.

 

So, y’know, don’t be a dick, huh?

 

P.S. I’m talking about misogyny here, but for the record I’m also against homophobia, racism, and any other kind of bigotry. These things have no place in nerd culture, and we all need to put a stop to it.

Morality Systems in RPGs Part 2: Morality in the World of Darkness

Greetings fellow gamers! I hope you all enjoyed last week’s analysis of D&D Alignments. Today I’m going to continue my ramblings on morality systems by talking about the Morality system in the Storytelling System as presented in the World of Darkness Core Rulebook.

Before I talk about this system, however, I’d like to address some things I’m not talking about. First, I’m not talking about the new Integrity system that has officially replaced Mortality as of the God Machine Chronicle rules update, and the reason I’m not talking about that is that while I understand the mechanics of Integrity, I’m not very clear on what those mechanics represent. I understand the difference between a character with a Morality of 7 versus a Morality of 5 (i.e. the latter is ok with behavior on par with arson, while the former isn’t), but I don’t really get what an Integrity score actually says about a character. So I’m sticking with the original Morality.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the alternatives to Morality in the games that share the World of Darkness setting. For example, while the mortal characters that the WOD book focuses on keep track of Morality (a measurement of how good of a person they are), the characters in Mage: the Awakening keep track of Wisdom (a measurement of how responsibly they use their magic). Mages, Vampires, Werewolves, Changelings, Prometheans, Geists, Mummies, and Demons all have their own traits which reflect concerns other than morality that are important to them. These alternate traits look a lot like Morality, but represent something different, so this discussion is focusing on Morality that matters to normal people and minor supernatural types, such as psychics or ritual magicians.

Ok, that shit’s out of the way, let’s talk mechanics!

If you’re not familiar with the Storytelling System used in the new World of Darkness games, the core mechanic is that your characters traits determine a pool of d10s that you get to roll. Each die that is an 8, 9, or 10 is a success, and the 10s get to be re-rolled for extra successes. The more successes you have, the more successful, you are. Most actions only require one success, but that’s not always the case.

A WOD character has a Morality rating from 1-10, with the average person having 7; in fact 7 is the starting value of the trait. You can increase Morality through experience points, and you lose Morality by committing “sins”. When your character does something bad, the Storyteller (i.e. GM) compares that action to this list found on page 91 of World of Darkness:

 

Morality    Sin

     10         Selfish thoughts. (Roll five dice.)

        9         Minor selfish act (withholding charity). (Roll five dice.)

        8         Injury to another (accidental or otherwise). (Roll four dice.)

        7         Petty theft (shoplifting). (Roll four dice.)

        6          Grand theft (burglary). (Roll three dice.)

        5          Intentional, mass property damage (arson). (Roll three dice.)

        4          Impassioned crime (manslaughter). (Roll three dice.)

        3          Planned crime (murder). (Roll two dice.)

        2          Casual/callous crime (serial murder). (Roll two dice.)

        1          Utter perversion, heinous act (mass murder). (Roll two dice.)

If the sin is at or below your Morality rating, you roll the number of dice listed for the sin. This roll is called a degeneration roll. If the degeneration roll succeeds, you get to keep your morality the way it is. If it fails, your Morality drops by one, and you have to roll the number of diced listed for your new Morality to avoid gaining a derangement; a mental or behavioral flaw, such as depression or suspicion, or maybe even something more sever like melancholia or paranoia.

So, a character with Morality 7 who commits murder must roll two dice to maintain her Morality. If she fails, her Morality drops to 6, and she must roll three dice to avoid gaining a derangement.

This systems has pros and cons. One pro that I think this system has over other morality systems, like D&D alignments, is that instead of putting morality into neat little boxes, Morality is present more as a spectrum. A character whose Morality is 6 isn’t a pinnacle of virtue, but isn’t a monster either. It’s a much more detailed, and I think realistic, approach than saying “good, evil, or neither”. It also takes into account that good people sometimes do bad things. Sure, my Morality 7 character stole that car, but it could have been out of necessity (e.g. I’m running from a really fast werewolf and I need to move faster). That single act doesn’t necessarily mean he’s become a worse person; if he succeeds at his degeneration roll, it means he hasn’t accepted burglary as an acceptable action. I also like that higher Morality characters have a harder time maintaining their Morality; a Morality 10 character has to make degeneration rolls every time she has a selfish thought, which is really hard not to do.

One of the biggest cons with this system is that it’s vague. We’re only given ten examples of what constitutes a “sin”, and when a character does something that seems wrong but isn’t on the list, it can be tricky determining what level of Morality that action falls upon. This is complicated further by the fact that a lot of sins can believably fall on multiple levels.

For example, lets say your character rapes someone…

Hey, don’t look at me like that! The “darkness” in World of Darkness doesn’t just mean the literal absence of photons! Exploring the more fucked up sides of humanity is half the damn point of playing this game. World of Darkness is not a game for the squeamish, feint of heart, or immature!

Anyways, your character rapes someone. Where does that fall on the hierarchy of sins? It’s an act that is certainly born from selfish thoughts (Morality 10), it causes injury to another (Morality 8) and it’s an impassioned crime (Morality 4). So clearly a character with Morality 4 or higher needs to make a roll. But does that mean a character with Morality 3 or lower can commit rape without facing consequences in terms of game mechanics? Could in not be argued that rape is a heinous act, one of utter perversion (Morality 1)? I would agree with that, but I don’t know if I’d agree that rape is on the same level as mass murder, which is the example given for “utter perversion/heinous act”.

Maybe you do think that rape and mass murder are on the same level, and that’s certainly a valid perspective. But it illustrates another big problem with the Morality system, it doesn’t account for the subjective nature of morality. Now the rape thing was an extreme example, but where does infidelity fall on this spectrum? Compared to other kinds of sins, like rape or murder, cheating on your significant other may seem like a minor selfish act, and at Morality 9 that means the average person doesn’t face possible degeneration or derangement. But when viewed in terms of the emotional impact that act of infidelity had on the person being cheated on, it starts to seem more like injury to another (Morality 8). Ok, still not a threat to the average person. But could this not also be called an impassioned crime? Sure, but is it on par with manslaughter? Because those are both Morality 4.

One other con is the connection to losing Morality and gaining derangement, a system based on Victorian (i.e. outdated and bullshitty) views on mental health, and it’s one of the reasons that Morality was eventually replaced with Integrity.

In summary I’d say that this Morality system had kind of the right idea, but could have been executed better. I think it’s better than D&D alignments, but it’s better in a way that, to me, really puts a spotlight on the difficulties inherent in trying to quantify ethics in a game mechanic. I’ll be doing another post on the topic of morality systems next week.

Thanks for reading.

A shout out for a (not really) fake geek girl

A very dear friend of mine, Cheyenne Leigh,  just started a new blog. It’s called Fake G33k Girl, and it’s off to a great start. The name, if you can’t tell, is ironic; Cheyenne has more nerd cred than, like, three of me. The inaugural post is beautiful and you should read it right now, especially if you, or someone you love, is a female nerd.

As an aside, if none of the people you love are female nerds, I strongly suggest that you remedy that. They’re pretty awesome.