Saturday, 17 May 2008

Shakespearian Aspects

I was recently inspired by this discussion on regarding the use of Spirit of the Century style "aspects" to generate a mechanical bonus to playing in accordance with alignment in D&D games. (It is a concept which vivsavage intends to incorporate into his "real 3rd edition D&D" game Orcs and Ogres.) It's a fine idea, but as soon as I read about it I immediately was reminded of the concept of Belief Points as mooted in the original Planewalker's Handbook (created for the Planescape campaign setting). Belief Points worked on the basis that a character had a set of beliefs - usually more than one and less than five - which were so pivotal to their being that they gained tangible benefits from acting in their name. (One has to remember that, in Planescape, belief was powerful enough to shape reality.) It was a really interesting alternative to the age-old, dried-out and dessicated alignment system, and a way of reinforcing to players that although alignment was a useful indicator of behaviour, characters were much more than that in terms of their opinions and judgements and what they held dear.

At the same time, I've recently been re-reading a lot of Shakespeare plays in an effort to assuage my guilt at not being familiar enough with the Great Bard's work (despite having spent more hours than I care to remember studying his tragedies while at university). Probably because Shakespeare has consequently been bubbling away in my subconscious, these two cognitive threads (Shakespeare and "aspects") somehow became entangled in my brain and I've now managed to convince myself that it would be a great idea to use lines from Shakespeare as illustrations of beliefs/aspects in a D&D game. Examples I used in the thread were:

  • For a skeptical True Neutral: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
  • For a blood-crazed Chaotic Evil: Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!
  • For a secretive True Neutral: Demand of me nothing. What you know, you know.
  • For a vengeful Lawful Evil: If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?
  • For a holy-avenger type Lawful Good Paladin: When the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of a tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with a hard-favour'd rage!
  • For a nihilistic Chaotic Neutral: Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
  • For the purest Neutral Good: In simple and pure soul I come to you.
  • For a miserly Neutral Evil: Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

How would this work, in theory and practice? Well, first things first, while I like FATE aspects, their purpose has always explicitly been the creation of a cinematic atmosphere - and this isn't quite what I want in a D&D game, despite the theatrical nature of the source material. (Pulpy high-jinks have their place in the world of RPGs, but introduce them into D&D and they always seem to turn the thing into the kind of unsympathetic Hollywood pastiche that makes my face cringe as if I've swallowed a lemon to even think about.) What I want is something more in keeping with D&D's history, atmosphere, and distinct flavour - a simple mechanic that will shore up and do something interesting with one of the most frequently criticised but at the same time most important cornerstones of the game.

Planescape-esque Belief Points will work better. Awarded on an ad hoc basis whenever the player does something really in keeping with their "aspect" - especially when the action flies in the face of what logic or reason dictate - they can be spent at a later date to gain automatic success on one dice roll. Simple to remember, easy to keep track of, and quickly adjudicated. The name "Belief Point" will have to go, of course. We're not talking necessarily about beliefs here, although they may come under the umbrella of the rubric. We're talking really about Dynamic Facets of a character, which unfortunately isn't as snappy either as "aspects" or "belief points", but will have to do. For now, we'll settle on the name Dynamic Facets, although this will be subject to change as soon as I can think of something better.

Some examples of what I'm talking about might work best to illustrate the concept:

Alaric, the Lawful Good Fighter, has the Dynamic Facet
"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." One day, the adventurers find themselves retreating from a fight with a gang of hill giants; badly outnumbered and outfought, they are rushing pell-mell down a mountain pass, nursing wounds and without spells. Suddenly, from up ahead, a new threat emerges - two of the hill giants have overtaken them and are now moving to head them off further along the pass. Alaric, wounded though he is, immediately launches himself at these attackers, buying enough time for the rest of his comrades to flee. He has been valiant in the face of cowardice - he gains two DF points from the GM (if he survives).

Durkheim, the Neutral Good Dwarf Priest, has the Dynamic Facet "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." He puts his people and his home above all other considerations, even when this forces him into making great sacrifices and taking great risks. He will even go so far as to persuade his king to ally with the tribe of hill orcs who killed Durkheim's family, in the name of fighting off the greater evil of an attack by a necromancer's undead horde. He gains a DF point for doing so.

Gwen, the Chaotic Good Ranger, has the Dynamic Facet "
There is some soul of goodness in things evil". After a particularly ferocious fight she and her comrades find themselves with three captive gnolls. The rest of the party want to kill the monsters. But Gwen argues that they should be spared and released, and addresses the creatures in their own tongue, trying to convince them to abandon their brutal ways in return for freedom. She gains a DF point for making the effort.

The important thing to remember as a DM, I believe, is that you should only award DF points when something out of the ordinary or expected is involved. For example, if a character has the Dynamic Facet "thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat", he does not get DF points merely for picking an argument with the local innkeeper. But he might get one if he argues with the Queen of the Storm Giants over her judgement of a criminal which he considers unfair.

I'll be foisting the idea of Dynamic Facets on my players at some point over the next few months, whenever we get a new campaign up and running. Watch this space for details.

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