Friday, February 20, 2009

Survival isn't everything

In many RPGs, especially D&D, survival is the main behavior that is rewarded. A D&D player will be loathe to nobly sacrifice his character in most cases because the game rewards surviving the adventure, gaining treasure, and adding experience. This causes problems when the campaign envisions noble characters who act... well, heroically. Most GMs are well aware of the players skeptically investigating the quest, asking "Well, how do much exactly do we get paid to rescue that princess?" or "So, do those undead that keep swarming out of the crypts have any good loot?" Additionally, players that are weaker role players have no guidance on how to perform better, so they tend to strongly focus on the mechanical aspects of their character, seeing it as merely a collection of items and stats.

In Campbell's heroic cycle, the ultimate hallmark of a hero is determining who he is (self-awareness/knowledge) and what he will do. Most games though have no in-character way of determining what you are.

Thus, the game needs some sort of system that gives players a payoff of some sort for ignoring their immediate short-term interests (survival). The White Wolf games do this to some degree; players can make expedient choices that likely aid in meeting short term goals or surviving, but they will pay a price in their Morality score.

Here's one such system that is fairly system neutral.

Each character chooses an archetype or value to live up to. The GM should provide a list that will give focus to the game. For example, he might ask players to select from a moral code or list of classic archetypes. For a tightly focused game, the GM might restrict the players to all selecting from one list of traits, and each player selects one or two that is their primary focus (all players select from the Knightly Virtues). For a wider ranging game with more intraparty conflict, each player might select one entire category to represent (so one player follows Pashtunwali, one follows the Knightly code, another follows Bushido).
- THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS (perhaps appropriate for an evil game!)
- PASHTUNWALI (Hospitality, Justice/Revenge, Asylum, Land/Earth, Honor)
- THE KNIGHT'S CODE (Courage, Justice, Mercy, Generosity, Faith, Nobility, Hope)
- BUSHIDO (Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor/Glory, Loyalty)
- CLASSIC ARCHETYPES (The Wise Old Man/Expert, the Child/Innocent, the Trickster)

Each player is rated from 0 to 6, and their rating is generated randomly using 1d6 (thus players will start with a score of 1-6). 0 means "absolute focus on survival" and 6 means "paragon of chosen attribute." Players must not know their rating; it is recorded secretly by the GM. Ratings can increase and decrease during play.

If a player makes a significant sacrifice for their attribute, they are entitled to an attempt to increase their rating. To do this, they roll 1d6 and announce the result. If its higher than their current rating (known only by the GM), then their rating increases by one. If the result is equal to or less than their rating, their rating remains unchanged.

It is suggested that DMs only allow these rolls in limited circumstances:
- Once every "milestone" (every other encounter or so)
- Once after completing a minor or major quest
- Once after any major, obvious act that sacrifices survival for the code (should be rare)

Alternate Rule: The GM rolls the Increase Die. Thus the player has no clue if their score is even likely to have gone up!

Sometimes ratings decrease. They gradually decay over time, encouraging players to always continue to adhere to their code. It also decreases when the player calls on their code.

A decrease roll should be made:
- Once every fixed period of time that encompasses 2-3 milestones (could be every day or every other day).
- When a player particularly flagrantly violates their code.

If the roll is lower than the player's current score, it decreases by one.

A player may voluntarily accept a decrease roll in exchange for certain benefits. A player can actually attempt to change the game world. The player states what they want to happen; it must be in-line with the code. For example, a Knight that adheres to the principle of Mercy could say, "The chief of the monsters that just captured us will decide to be merciful on us."

The GM then secretly rolls 1d6. If it is equal to or lower than the current rating, then the player's request is granted and the story world alters slightly. If it is greater than the current rating, then the request fails, but that may not be immediately obvious! Regardless, the player's rating decreases by one.

SPECIAL: If the player's rating is zero, and they attempt to cash in their code, the attempt automatically fails (although the GM should still role a die, and ignore the result). Additionally, depending on the setting, the Fates or Gods may be offended that such a heretic is imploring their aid and punish the individual appropriately.

"If you strike me down… I shall become more powerful than you can imagine.”

If a character is near death or actually dies in the service of their code, the player may declare it a Noble Death. This has several benefits:

- Their next character begins with some sort of extra benefit, depending on the system.
- If they retain their current character, they may cheat death. This means that they miraculously return from the grave, recover, or are reincarnated. Perhaps the knight was mortally wounded and left for dead on the field by his enemies. Or, a prophet is raised from the dead by his God after three days to continue spreading the word. A mighty wizard returns from shadow and flame. Mechanically, this is a "freebie" mulligan.

This only works if the character's score is 5 or 6. It automatically reduces their score to 0. If the character's score is lower than 5, then the attempt automatically fails AND the character still has their score reduced to 0.


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