Friday, 19 October 2012

The Power of Morality

I am the Warden!!

What makes us tick? 

Not physically, but morally and psychologically. What is it about a person that defines their personality and gives them reason to do what they do? How does that translate into a character and her actions?

It's an idea I'm somehow stuck on for an unnamed project and it's stuck deep. So deep that I have to turn to my blog to keep all those thoughts can be sorted out and put on record for future use. The rest of the project will have to remain veiled, not because I'm trying to being mysterious (though it certainly doesn't hurt) but because it's not ready to be revealed. (Ok, now I'm being really mysterious, so let's just move on before I get off topic.)

There have been a lot of great advancements in game mechanics with regards to incorporating character morality into the mix. From a simplified recommendation affecting only a couple of classes' choices (D&D alignments, which could affect the types of spells they could cast or cause a paladin to become a shamed fighter) to the Plot Points of the Cortex system from Margaret Weis Productions, many games are finding a way to have a character's personality give rise to mechanical bonuses, abilities, and dice. 

That's what I'm wondering about right now. How is there a way to insert something like into the Optional System? 

Mechanics of Morality

Our morality is a major part of what explains us as an individual. Our choices between right and wrong, living with the consequences of swinging the wrong way, and assuring oneself of their actions despite the choices of others when we get it right. It can push us beyond our furthest reach and kick us when we're down. How can that be a factor in a fictional roleplaying game character using the Optional System? 

We choose friends who share common beliefs and attitudes as us and make enemies with those who oppose us in many ways. Mechanically speaking, the Optional System already has that with Teammates and opponents, as do many other games where powers and abilities target enemies only. But why settle there?

There are two modifiers - Aggressive and Unfriendly - ripe for the taking in a morality-style mechanic based on allegiances. You'd just need to make sure there are qualifiers to keep players from abusing these things or at least integrating it as an essential element of a player's turn, like focus dice. You could specifically mark down an individual or group name and assign it one of these modifiers, even designate a level (minor, average, or major) as well with major modifiers requiring a career-long designation. 

Bonus Dice 
Those of you familiar with Killshot will call these "death dice," but in the original draft of the Optional System, they were referred to as bonus dice. The d4s, baby. Their purpose is to reward players for playing their character as awesome as they can. Killshot gives them to assassins whenever they kill an opponent (and future themes will offer new possibilities inspired by the theme's mood). Morality would be a perfect means of awarding bonus dice, particularly because it's an individual accomplishment. Sure, you could have awards for group effort, but there's something about rewarding the individual players in a way that encourages teamwork, game play, and good spirits. In other words, having fun. 

One of the best way to discover a character's mortality is how to apply damage to their enemies. Do they knock them unconscious, kill only those considered enemies of the state or monsters, or kill indiscriminately for petty reasons? Are there any exceptions to the norms for this characters, such as refusing to kill women and kids? Morality has a huge effect on damage. If you don't believe me, try killing a helpless goblin infant on your next dungeon crawl and see how well received it is by the rest of your group. 

The system could mimic this trait through the type of damage a character can dish out. Pretend you're playing a soldier under orders to capture a war criminal. Along the way, you encounter firsthand the horrifying experiments conducted by this person and begin to hate him. When the time comes and his life rests in your hands, while the temptation to kill this son of a bitch is strong, your morality (following orders) forces you to knock him out and take him prisoner. If you wanted to defy your morality and kill him, some form of restriction or penalty would apply (i.e. half penalties). 

This one looks like a really sweet variant for certain games, particularly superhero and other epic settings. It would match drama and trauma in one fell swoop and make death an emotion impact for both the character and a distinguishing event for the player. I like!

Morality Points
Another idea involves adding a variant pool for all characters: a morality pool. The characters have a code of ethics to follow and collect Morality Points as they continue through their career fighting the good fight or doing what has to be done. While are unlimited ways of determining how players collect those points, the central feature of tracking points is already factored into the Optional System's design and would be simple to implement. 

Measuring Morality

After identifying the sources, we have to determine how to measure morality in such a manner as to apply it during a game. There are many methods we could use to achieve this and a lot of it stemming from solid psychological research, though not all of that study necessarily equals a RPG mechanical solution. 

Opposing Values
If morality is about the conflict between right and wrong, we're talking about the pull of two opposing forces. We could just as easily go with the toss up between what we're expected to do and what we desire (society vs. individuality), creating two separate scales tracking the influence either one has over our characters. Those following society's influence could gain bonus dice by fulfilling the demands of a nation's laws or a religious code without regard for the individual's needs, while the individual can unlock bonus dice through their own convictions and interpretations flying in the face of these edicts. You could even assign different benefits to either side, such as bonus dice to individuality and bonus hits to society. 

Something like this sounds straight from the old Pendragon RPG (which I've never played, but just read about this past week). Characters distinguish scores between two opposing values from a total applied to both values. For example, you have 50 points to assign between Society and Individuality; these points can be distributed however best suits your character so long as they're not the same score and both values total 50 points. It's an option, but this path feels too familiar and specific to Pendragon's style; there's no need to "borrow" anything specific just yet. 

Triple Headers
Taking the last possibility of Opposing Values one step further and building a list of three conditions of morality is another option too and each one could be assigned a value or number of bonus dice to add to a roll whenever it applies to your character's actions. It's an idea I've been seeing in a recent playtest (not sure if it's right for me to mention it in particular, so I'll leave that up to the creator to identify him... or her... self) and it does work very well. 

The problem with using it in the Optional System is that I'm not planning on having morality play as large a role in the game as Body, Sense, and Mind - AKA my existing triple header. If I were adapting the Optional System to focus solely on a character's morality, this concept would work like a charm to replace the three stats. Piling on another trio to this system feels heavy handed and counterintuitive. 

Accessing keywords with mechanical benefits is a popular application in many story games or hybrids with a strong connection to this sub-genre. You come up with a small list of words or expressions to best explain your character and explain to your GM why they apply while describing your actions. I've played with keywords like this in Fraser Ronald's last couple of games, Sword Noir and Kiss My Axe, and they are really effective tools for choosing actions suitable to their personality and motivations. And these are not the only games with keywords, making this concept a viable possibility embraced by many independent players. 

It's another option I'd be willing to work with as it's simple and amazingly effective. The perfect combination for a setting-specific add-on.

The Verdict?

The more I think about morality affecting damage, the more I'm leaning towards using it. The problem is that it's incredibly combat dependent (which could work very well for this new project) and I'm stuck on incorporating it into non-combat scenes. But it's a hell of a start.

Thanks for listening, everyone. Or reading. Whatever. Back to work!

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