November is coming, as it does, and that means National Novel Writing Month again. I really like NaNoWriMo for what it is: a measurable, attainable, structured kick in the pants for people who want to be writers but can’t seem to write. I’ve let it kick me several times over the last decade, and I’ve actually met my goal three of the last four years. This year I’m eying it again.

I like knowing what I’m doing for NaNoWriMo by the beginning of October so I can spend the month, planning, developing characters, building the world, researching, and largely doing anything but writing. The goal is to work myself into a frenzy, wishing desperately that I could put pen to paper, so when 1 November finally arrives I can hit the ground running.

I also spend October doing whatever session planning I think I’ll need so gaming consumes as little of my precious time as reasonable. This has had mixed results.

Until recently my plan this year was to use NaNoWriMo to start a novelization of The Eight Arms and the Shadow Invasion. It wouldn’t be a play-by-play retelling of the campaign, but it would follow the same beats with mostly the same characters. I’ve been talking about this for a long time, and I got the approval of just about everybody involved in the campaign to butcher their characters appropriately.

But then we started the vigilante campaign and a opportunity arose. Now I intend to use the month to write a small rulebook for the theme mechanic discussed in that post. It’s not a novel, but it fits the “a kick in the pants to get something written” theme. I’ve also been thinking about doing something like this for years (I mean, who hasn’t?), and finally I’ve come across a topic where I see enough of a need for additional rules to be relevant. Pathfinder has an OGL like D&D has lacked for close to ten years, so I can even do it without worrying about being cease-and-desisted, and it’s a concept I’ve been missing from all D&D-like systems since it was removed between the 5E playtest and the 5e release.

By the time November rolls around I should be done with the vigilante campaign (We expect the last session to fall on Halloween, and it will be set during the equivalent of Halloween on the campaign calendar. Coincidence?!) and itching for something to do besides the Zelda campaign. There’s no word count target I would consider a “success” right now. I’m going more for the most complete thing I can have in the time frame rather than a thing of a given length, and for that I need to come up with specific goals.

This means November at DMing with Charisma will pretty much be about this rulebook, as I discuss the process, post snippets of what I’ve done, and repeatedly question what I’ve named everything. Sometime soon I’ll post a better explanation of what the specific mechanic is, and I’ll poll people to ask what themes would be interesting enough to make it in, so if you’ve ever felt Pathfinder did a poor job of letting you advance as a noble without some sort of nobility-based archetype or prestige class, watch this space.

Posted in House Rules, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Occult Adventures

Speaking of class design.

I knew I was going to get Occult Adventures as soon as Paizo announced it. I figured it wouldn’t be the same as the amazing Heroes of Horror, but I’d hoped it would be in the same wheelhouse, and I wasn’t disappointed. I have a soft spot for things just outside the known, close enough for us to us to have theories about what’s happening but where the resolution is usually a shrug and an “it’s just weird.” I like it even more in D&D, where everything’s supposed to follow the same understandable, easily-manipulated ruleset. When something happens that can’t be definitively explained by a spell or class feature it’s just unsettling enough to keep players on their toes.

Occult Adventures is a book about things that are “weird” by the standards of the setting. It’s about people who summon phantoms (which aren’t quite ghosts), people who channel energy from items (which aren’t quite magical), and people who manipulate energy (in ways that aren’t quite spells). It’s about magic that looks like known spells but doesn’t work in exactly the same way, to the point where it looks like cheating to the uninitiated. It’s about using energies that have always existed but never been leveraged before, conducting pitched battles that only exist in the combatants’ minds, and tweaking yourself and the world around you until it’s all vaguely, almost imperceptibly unsettling.

This is a book of three parts: character options, occult campaigns, and new magic (pithily: people, places, and things), and not in equal measure. The new classes and class options take 122 pages of a 270-page book. If you count the incredibly meh feats section the “people” part of the book is 130 pages. Psychic magic accounts for another 74 pages. The rest of the book is about the weirdness you can accomplish now that there are rules for it and how a DM is expected to bring it all together. Unlike Heroes of Horror OA is definitely more a book for players than DMs, but not really to its detriment.

First and foremost OA is a book about classes, and those classes are really neat. Of the six new classes I could see myself playing five of them and I really want to play four, which is about the highest praise I can give a class. Even the kineticist, which the Paizo faithful have already rejected as an uninteresting, underpowered waste of space, solves a specific problem I’ve had with D&D for close to ten years, so I’m pretty pleased all around. Occult classes are a bit light on healing so a fully-occult campaign might need to double up on cures, but I don’t see any other major problems with the classes except that a number of them are really, really hard to understand from a first read. I have a bit of an issue with themes of the classes as a whole but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The archetypes for the new classes are equally interesting. Many of them expand the classes in meaningful ways, granting new powers instead of just stealing features from other classes. The archetypes for existing classes…less so. There is some new ground, like the magus who can pull weapons out of his brain, but there’s a lot more of the feature-swapping changes. That’s great if you’re interested in the specific swaps the designers wanted, but I usually only get excited about them if they fit the character concept I already had half-built. None of them strike me as a must-have.

Spells are spells. There’s only so much I can say about them: some are neat, some aren’t, some seem balanced, some don’t, and so forth. The only major things in the magic chapters are psychic spells and undercasting. It’s possible that psychic spellcasting is more powerful than normal casting because all psychic spells are stilled and silent and casting them doesn’t have arcane spell failure. But it may be less powerful because the thought components make spells devastatingly easy to interrupt and emotion components give a large number of creatures effects that shut down psychic casters. Maybe they balance each other out. I’d have to see them at the table. Until then I can only really say it seems thematically distinct. Undercasting, however, I love. I may make it more of a thing.

Pathfinder books tend to have some sort of “and then some other stuff” chapter. OA is no exception. Chapter 5 has information on new skill uses (weird—I’m not sure how I feel about some classes being allow to use several skills better than other classes because they were published in a later book), auras (pretty neat), chakras (ugh, so much text accomplishing so little), psychic duels (great idea for story, terrible idea for gameplay), possession (because this seemed like a good place to explain the designer’s intentions on it, why not), and rituals (actually pretty neat, as long as you’re in an occult setting). Haphazard chapters like this always make me wonder what could have made it into the book if space was not an issue. If we hadn’t spent two pages on explaining possession, would we have a small section on a psychic afterlife, or a psychic version of the adept for NPC dabblers?

The last chapter of relevance is the one that covers DMing occult campaigns. Weirdly for a book so focused on players, I think this is my favorite chapter. The rest of the book is incredibly rules-dense, narratively and numerically complex (often unnecessarily so), and frequently outside the comfort zone of normal d20 because it can be. This chapter ties it all together, explaining how to present the occult not as a violation of the rules and setting but as a facet of it that’s only as unsettling as you need it to be. It’s the “why” of occult rules, the sort of thing most books put in the introduction that for some reason didn’t make it into this book until nearly the end.

In a nostalgic reminder of the 3.5E Complete Whatever series, the chapter on items isn’t substantive enough to merit discussion.

All told, I like Occult Adventures but I feel like I shouldn’t. I suppose I like the classes and DMing section more than I dislike the archetypes for pre-existing classes or the potpourri rules or the feats section (who, exactly, was really hoping for a way to modify the shape of their skull through ritual binding?). It’s certainly not 3.5E psionics, and I’m of the majority who feel that’s a good thing. There’s certainly stuff in it I want to use as soon as reasonable, and there’s almost enough material to run a full occult campaign.

But that full occult campaign is almost mandatory. There’s a theme throughout the book of persistent otherness, like the occult world is adjacent to but separate from standard Pathfinder, and I don’t like that. I don’t want a single player’s class throwing a ton of new rules, spells, world-building, plots, and theme into a campaign that wouldn’t benefit from it, but that seems to be an understood result of using anything from the book. So unless I can commit fully to an occult campaign, I’ll end up doing what I usually do: strip all the flavor away from the things I like and use just the mechanics as a skeleton to run what I really want. It’s almost gotten to the point where I’d purchase a flavor-free version of most books just to take up less room on my shelf.

So I guess I recommend Occult Adventures if you really like an occult feel, or if you’re good at reskinning, and I happen to be both. Otherwise the new mechanics aren’t worth the baggage.

Posted in Book Reviews, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

On the Vigilante

I’ve been spending some time on the Paizo subreddit since one of my players told me I was on it and, in doing so, that it existed. For the most part it’s very similar to the Wizards boards I frequented in the 3.0 and 3.5 days (40% optimization advice, 30% rules questions, 15% roleplaying/DMing advice, 10% gaming stories, 5% other) but all in one place instead of split by topic across various boards, which is…nice, I guess?

It was there I learned Paizo had a system that allows players to playtest rules before they’re officially released on a book, which I think is a really neat idea as long as you can get past the “I loved this feature in playtest, and now it is gone, ruined forever” tendency. I am disappointed in the length of the playtest, though. Each round of testing lasts for a month, which isn’t long enough to get a feel for a class. I normally play in/run ongoing campaigns where I can’t build a new character, slot them into the campaign in place of my current character, and adventure with them at various levels to see how the class grows. It’s like the playtest is designed for a campaign where people can play more than once per week, with different people and parties each time, in a way that doesn’t require an ongoing storyline so characters can sub in and out at will and the DM doesn’t oh I just got it.

Still, when I saw there was a vigilante class playtest I jumped on it. After reading over the class I commented to one of my players that it felt like a class that seemed separate from the normal D&D party system. A vigilante really wants to be a lone wolf, hiding behind their persona socially but also charging first into combat but also casting spells and so forth. When a vigilante is in a party with other character it seems like an obvious Law #4 violation. Her reply was “then why not have a whole party of vigilantes, so they all do things the same way?”

So our all-vigilante campaign starts this weekend. And during character creation, we got seven people with various levels of media background and system proficiency together to pull apart the class and put it back together again, and then a month to process between session zero and session one (late July / early August is a terribly busy time for growns-ups). We’ll be too late to participate in the playtest, but we have formed a couple of opinions on the class.

For one, the vigilante has a lot going on. It gives a player two identities, one of which requires one of four specializations (one of which requires a further specialization), and each identity has an independent set of talent trees. This is spread over fourteen pages of text with no art and few paragraph breaks. There’s no “glance at the vigilante to see if I want to play it”. It’s more “sit with with a coffee and get ready to understand a lot of moving parts.” Before even reviewing the abilities themselves it’s clear this is not a class for new players.

But while the whole of the class is overwhelming, parts of it can be anemic. Here is the full and complete talent tree for a vigilante’s social persona:

  • Renown
    • Safe House
    • Loyal Aid (L3)
    • Feign Innocence (L5)
      • Subjective Truth (L9)
    • Great Renown (L7)
      • Incredible Renown (L11)
        • Instant Recognition (L13)
  • Social Grace
  • Many Guises (L5)
    • Everyman (L11)
      • Any Guise (L17)
  • Quick Change (L7)
    • Immediate Change (L13)

At fourteen items it doesn’t look that bad. But a vigilante gets one of these every two levels. He’ll end up with ten of these fourteen items, which doesn’t leave a lot of options. Also, look at it level-by-level. At L1 he can take renown or social grace. If he took renown at L1 he can take a few things at L3. If he instead took social grace, now he can take renown and only renown. A vigilante who doesn’t want a reputation doesn’t exist. It took us a few minutes to piece this together; the talents are sorted alphabetically and visually scanning for “must be Xth level” wasn’t helping us. Eventually we gave up and made a tech tree like this just to make sense of it and realize, yes, if you want to avoid a specific talent the rest of your build is largely hard-coded.

Speaking of hard-coding, the vigilante only has a few mandatory features. A vigilante must have two identities: vigilante and social (a nitpick: if you’re going to have two halves of a character, don’t give one the same name as the class. You might as well name them “primary” and “ancillary, don’t worry too much about it”.) A vigilante must inflict fear when he attacks an opponent unaware of him. That’s it. Everything else is controlled by talents, specializations, talents within specializations, or talents within specializations within specializations. While this means that class has a lot of variation, it also means its identity is weak. It boils down to “you have two names and people are scared of you”, which is any class that can use skills.

The optional features are all over the place. Some of the vigilante talents are a feat with an additional benefit (Fist of the Avenger: Improved Unarmed Strike, but your fist and gauntlet attacks deal an extra level/4 damage). Some of them are far better than this (Mad Rush: full attack after a charge, which was an epic feat back in my day). Some are so good they’re almost mandatory (Arcane Training/Divine Power: Gain a new level of spells, and in fact it’s the only way to gain any spell slots at all). Some grant features from other classes (Evasive: …evasion). On the bright side this means you can have a campaign of vigilantes without similar builds. But it also means there’s no way to balance them all, and what we’ll actually see is an influx of the most mechanically viable vigilantes and a whole bunch of unused features taking up space.

We still haven’t discussed the first thing I said about the class: it’s not for parties. A vigilante’s job is to do their own thing and hope the rest of the party doesn’t mind. The class’ core mechanic, the social/vigilante split, is built around NPCs not knowing both personas are the same character. Well, when the townsfolk see a fighter, cleric, wizard and Jim Johnson enter town, and a fighter, cleric, wizard, and the Vermillion Mask saving orphans, they’re going to put two and two together. Unless the character disassociates at least one persona from the party their core mechanic and flavor buy-in is shot.

This may sound like a hypocritical complaint considering my very last post was about how splitting the party is okay, but it’s actually another side of the same coin. The vigilante wants to always split the party. That’s not a storytelling tool, it’s a power grab to control the narrative spotlight. I’ve had more than my share of “separate the party so only I get to act” players, and a class whose hook is to facilitate and encourage that sort of behavior rubs me the wrong way. That said, it is definitely possible to run a vigilante in a normal party, even when he goes lone wolf. I’ve also had plenty of “separate the party to make things more entertaining for everybody” situations. But it takes a certain kind of player, group, and DM to do it effectively. Without a “this class is for intermediate gamers” warning the vigilante is asking for trouble.

I kind of feel like the vigilante shouldn’t be a class, but the Pathfinder version of a theme (re: the first link in this post). That is, a character has two advancement trees: class and theme. The class works like normal Pathfinder. The theme tree instead covers advancement in a profession or other secondary characteristic, and characters only advance in it via quests. It’s a lot like mythic tiers but significantly less game-breaking. When a player does enough vigilante things, they get to choose a new vigilante talent and built their second identity, or get a lair, or strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, etc. This strips away most of the vigilante, gets it down to a couple of pages, and lets players have the mechanical benefits of being a masked crime-fighter without giving them an overly complicated class where they don’t even get to read 60% of its options. It would requite a new theme mechanic, but you can’t convince me a player wouldn’t jump at the chance to have her own day-in-the-limelight quests while advancing her secondary career as a superhero, or a government official, or a magical sage, or royalty. Heck, I might just write it.

I won’t be able to have a complete opinion about the vigilante until I see how it plays, and even then I’m only going to see how a specific group of players handle L8 vigilantes (and a couple of L4 vigilantes/L4 something else, because why not) in a specific environment. But the first step to playing a class is reading it and the second step is building a character with it, and if we have seven people all agreed that the vigilante has problems in the first two steps I’m not sure how many times the final product will even get to the table.

Posted in Game Design, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Splitting the Party

I have a guilty pleasure when it comes to DMing. In fact, I probably have several, but one came up recently as I was browsing the Pathfinder Reddit: splitting the party.

Splitting the party is generally considered A Bad Thing™. The Reddit denizens (Redenizens? Renizens? I’ll workshop it.) are against it almost universally, impressive for any online community. TV Tropes agrees (…usually). I could swear it was one of the taglines for D&D 4E or Pathfinder promotional material, though I don’t have too much of that lying around. People have even written songs about it.

Why is splitting the party bad? A few reasons, all related:

  1. It divides the party’s abilities. In an archetypal party, splitting in two means only one side has a healer, or a slashing weapon, or something else. Characters form parties specifically because each member offers something the rest of the group doesn’t have, and splitting the party negates that advantage.
  2. It breaks the power balance. Most adventures are designed for a group of X people, each with a certain number of actions per turn and a certain set of resources. Charging into a battle like this with only X / 2 players is a good way to run into a TPK.
  3. It divides player attention. When the game is focused on group A, group B isn’t doing anything. The players are watching other people game and waiting for their turn. It’s boring.
  4. It divides DM attention. Now he or she has to remember two groups, their progression, their location, and what the world around them is doing. Multitasking like this leads to slower, more confused play and frustration.

Reading them in a list they seem like good reasons: splitting the party leads to a bad gaming experience. But I’m not convinced these are problems with splitting the party as such.

  1. Resource consumption is going to happen whether the DM intends it or not. Eventually the cleric will run out of healing, or the ranger will shoot her last arrow, or the fighter will go unconscious. That’s why characters have backups (a wand of cures, the rogue’s quiver, a summoned monster to hold off the enemies for a few rounds). One of the DM’s responsibilities is to make sure the game never gets to a point where it’s impossible to advance, and part of that is not basing survival or progression on a specific player having a specific resource at a specific time.
  2. Power balance in combat design is mutable, almost to the point of being unbreakable. If half the party stumbles into a room where a DM planned to have six orcs, she’s well within her right to change it to three orcs. Only the DM really knows how many fireballs the enemy wizard has left, or where the pit trap is, or whether the cult leader has Dodge or Toughness or Skill Focus (Perform [oratory]). A TPK isn’t any more likely for half a six-person party than it is for a three-person party when the challenges are in flux. Only the most rigid DMs can’t handle any change in their plans.
  3. The nature of having specializations means that as some point somebody is going to sit out. If the party is fighting undead, the enchanter can’t do much. If the party needs to disarm traps, only the rogue gets to play. If the party is talking to NPCs, the face of the party is doing it, whether that’s the actual party diplomat or the de facto diplomat by way of being the player most comfortable with it. That’s built into the game, and we’re not even getting into situations where a player simply isn’t interested in what’s happening at the moment. If everybody is acting at all times, you don’t have a tabletop game, you have a shouting match.
  4. The DM’s job is to manage monsters, NPCs, plotlines, maps, settings, the players, etc. all at once, and do it in an entertaining, engaging way. If the players split up, the cognitive load of trying to handle two rooms at the same time isn’t going to drive a DM to tears and force him to start killing PCs to lighten the load (which is, and this is true, an actual consequence that players legitimately discussed on the above Reddit).
There’s a trend here: the DM should be able to handle a split party. If he or she can’t, that’s not the players’ fault.*

I’ll admit to having a bit of a formative experience here. In the first session of one of my earliest campaigns as a player, we split up to explore an absurdly spacious sewer and look for…something. Along the way, half the group stumbled upon bandits, and these bandits promptly squashed that half of the group. The fracas alerted the melee-capable members of the party who ran to the rescue in time to save us from dying. I distinctly remember the DM complaining about it the next week, completely nonplussed that the party (who had all met twenty minutes ago, who’d by that point only taken a walk and killed a spider together, and who hadn’t shared both their first and last names with each other) would do anything but walk joined at the hip, trusting each other with our lives in a place where we did not believe lurked any immediate danger.

First off: never tell the players dying (or nearly dying) was their fault. Wait for them to say it first. More relevantly, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of my love for splitting the party came from this. That is, if a bad DM DM we didn’t like was adamant that splitting the party was bad, maybe it was good when handled by a DM we did like. I ended up with a lot of opinions from that campaign, some of which I still hold and all of which came from watching this DM and doing the opposite. So I probably feel more strongly about this than is wise or adult.

Still, I’ve managed to split the party several times over the years, and for the most part they’ve been great successes. I am aware of the above problems (even if I think players over-inflate them, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist), and I try to counter them like so:

  1. Divide the party across very specific lines, or let them divide themselves, so the most necessary resources are split appropriately. If I tell the party “you’re splitting into two groups of three”, they will make certain both sides have somebody capable of healing. If I give them more information, like “group A will be protecting the stationary teleport crystal while group B will be sneaking through the catacombs to find the source of the corruption,” they can specialize even further, and usually in a more helpful and character-relevant way than pushing the whole group into one or the other.
  2. Design for the half-group. Often I leave myself some wiggle room in the encounter design. For example, whichever group has the wizard gets a bunch of minions thrown at it while the other gets fewer normal guys, and the group with the fighter gets attacked by her mortal enemy while the other gets a summoned devil. A little change like that gives both groups different encounters while staying within a balanced challenge range.
  3. Switch at meaningful points. If one group is entering combat, I try to time the other group to hit combat at the same time. Then we run a single combat, just spread over two maps, and the only time somebody’s out of action is at the very end when one group has finished. If there’s no combat to be found I jump at dramatic times, the same place I would put a commercial break to increase tension. Every once in a while I have a player run an NPC so they have something to do during another player’s turn, and almost every time it’s amazing. But in general players are mature enough to know not every thing that happens must involved them, and as long as I don’t test their patience they’re unlikely to revolt.
  4. Know what’s happening. Usually I can keep track of all the players and their actions, but if I get lost, I just ask where we were. My players aren’t the sort who would lie to me for a game advantage, and sometimes hearing their version of what’s going on creates a new path for the following scene. The extra cognitive load isn’t so frustrating that it outweighs the joy of giving every character and player a chance to show off, do what they want without putting it through a party vote, and explore the setting in a more personal, dynamic way than they would as a group.

Splitting the party isn’t for everyone, or every session (looking at you, every story game ever). Certain campaigns and DMs handle it better than others. It’s almost always a good idea to stick together in pull-no-punches situations like Lair Assault or the Temple of Elemental Evil. A hardline simulationist DM would never tweak the setting to match the situation; if he’s decided the lieutenant never leaves the general’s side, the druid who stumbles across the general is going to have to deal with the lieutenant because that’s what makes sense. And no matter what, dividing a group takes some tweaking and a certain amount of thinking on your feet beyond a normal session. D&D is a game about parties, it’s written with that assumption, and usually it works best that way.

But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that the party should never, ever split up, any more than it’s a hard and fast rule that goblins can’t be bards. Some of my favorite sessions have come from splitting the party, sometimes without their consent and sometimes for far longer than they expected, and not once has a player told me it led to a negative play experience. It’s as good a storytelling tool as any, and we need to stop rejecting it out of hand just because it takes a little finesse.

By the way, if you’re in my upcoming campaign, feel free to treat this post as foreshadowing.

* — Unless the DM flat-out says “Guys, I don’t want to / don’t feet like / can’t handle splitting the party right now. I really prefer / suggest / need that you all stick together”. That happens sometimes, and often it’s a legitimate request. If the players ignore that and split up anyway, then it is their fault.

Posted in DMing | 1 Comment

On Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules

After I spent all that time gushing about the variant alignment systems for Pathfinder, it’s only fair to point out when Wizards does something similar. The latest Unearthed Arcana (not to be confused with Unearthed Arcana or Unearthed Arcana) dropped, and it includes an alignment system that’s different but still really neat.

There are other rules in the preview, but we’re going to ignore the “players roll all the dice” options that’s exactly the same as every other system for the same thing but with more confusing language. We’re also going to leave alone the variant hit point system that drastically increases on-the-fly math during play, adds more bookkeeping to every character and monster, creates more precarious combats, and exacerbates the problem it purports to solve. Not that there’s nothing to say there, but I feel I’ve already beaten that horse.

Instead we’re looking at “custom alignments”. What’s interesting about this is that it’s exactly the same alignment system D&D already has. We’re not throwing out the three-by-three (-by-three, if you’re in my campaigns) alignment grid. We’re just changing the labels. Instead of good/evil and law/chaos, this system create new dichotomies specific to the campaign and world.

For example, imagine a campaign setting where an ecological crisis engineered by a cabal of necromancers threatens to transform the world into a dead wasteland. Forming one alignment path are the opposing forces of life and death. Like the choice of good or evil, this conflict defines the setting, and you would expect most player characters to be aligned to life or at least neutral with respect to their support for the necromancers’ plans.

Dear person at Wizards who creates these rules documents: you put tabs between every word. Last time you put newlines between every word. This is not how text happens. Is this because you are using Microsoft Word’s function for converting a file to PDF? Do you need help with text formatting? Please call me.

Now, this alignment system does specifically say “create one axis where all players are on one side and all enemies are on another, and another axis with some freedom.” The story of 5E is that there are bad guys and there are good guys, and all good guys are good and all bad guys are bad and there is no room for bad guys who are sometimes good or vice versa. If we ignore that and jump straight to the “gritty” variant, we can make two alignment axes where players can fall anywhere within them.

What we’re doing is changing one of D&Ds fundamental metrics (and no matter how much the designers say alignment is a “handy label” or “quick summary”, as long as the rules leverage it we have to treat it like any other stat) to something specific to us. The world isn’t about good versus evil, it’s about Montague versus Capulet, or Britain versus France, or orcs versus elves, and neither side is objectively the heroes. It could be that good and evil aren’t tangible character traits, or that they’re too mutable and subjective to work as they do in normal D&D, or that we simply don’t care whether somebody is good or evil because that’s not as important as the side they’re taking in the central conflict.

But this gets really neat when we do acknowledge that D&D has rules for alignment. We don’t have detect evil any more, we have detect Capulet. We don’t have angels (or if we do they’re on both sides), we have monsters or characters with the orc subtype. If a paladin fails to act in the manner dictated by her oath to France, she loses all the magical powers she had as an emissary of the country. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds awesome.

This also brings us out of the Saturday morning cartoon alignment trap. We have two opposing sides. Both regard the other as a moral enemy, both see the world in terms of their fight, both are convinced their side is noble and righteous and destined to win because the other side is evil, and both are probably very wrong. With this we can tell a deeper story, as the players double down on their cause and fight on, see the errors in their own side and either resolve them from within or join the enemy, or acknowledge both sides have faults and seek a middle ground. It’s exactly the sort of story the current alignment system avoids.

Again, this is what I want out of Unearthed Arcana (the web series). I want rules, options, variants, and features that add to the game. The “rename good and evil, but otherwise leave everything alone” variant doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a reskin. Calling a scimitar a khopesh is well and good, but we don’t need a book for that. We can do it on our own. But seeing Wizards acknowledge the possibility that there are players, campaigns, and characters left out of the current rules and working to correct it isn’t just encouraging, it’s the point of publishing new material at all.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 5th Edition, House Rules | Leave a comment