Stage 1 of Project Genesis has begun with the creation of a reasonable world map for my homebrew setting. While I am not necessary done with it, I am certain that with some modest tweaks, it will become much more dynamic (well, at least as dynamic as hex maps can get) in the future. Enjoy and feel free to critique and/or offer suggestions.
I have been using some of my free time to pencil in some ideas for a bout of world building. The old pink binder of my first homebrew world (Codename: Lanotia) has resurfaced, both literally and metaphorically, so I feel that it is time to see what I can do. Yet, the task seems monumental and paralytic, for all roads to something new and innovative lead back to previously published material. Here is a glimpse of some of the roads that I have been down thus far:
- “I have taken a lot of Latin…*Bing* Roman-themed, with a testament to political, technological, and philosophical greatness housed within a decaying empire.”
- “Wait, this seems familiar…” [Looks over at Arcanis]
- “Hmmm…Why is Dune in my queue of things to watch?”
- “…Desert Campaign World FTW…”
- [Sad Face] “I’ll guess I can call it Dark Qadim.”
- “Hmmm…Martin doesn’t have the quintessential rights to dark, gritty fantasy, right? I can do that.”
- “First off, let’s use this nifty software to build some banners.”
- [20 minutes later] “It has a lion on it…”
I am starting to wonder what new ground is out there to explore with a fantasy, let alone a tabletop setting. With science fiction, the possibilities seem boundless and fruitful for exploration, yet with fantasy, the capacity for endless combination exists, but somehow it feels difficult 1) to escape the sacred cows (i.e. elves, dwarves, and halflings; unbeatable magic; that damn starting tavern, etc.) and 2) to chart out unexplored terrain that has not been licensed (and likely Starbucks-ed). What is truly left to explore and what is truly new? It seems that new wave mainstream and indie games that are breaking new ground tend to focus on the mechanics rather than the setting, though I must say that the concepts behind Greg Stolze’s Reign do make me feel giddy. Perhaps a good moment of world building must start with a crowd-sourced question: When it comes to fantasy after a resurgence of fantasy in all forms of media, where do we go from here?
After spending a significant amount of time playing Civilization V this Labor Day weekend, I got the bug to start worldbuilding again. My own world has remained dormant for several years now and it seemed time to return to the project. The notes were scattered around, and while reviewing what survived several primary computer jumps, the history (or lack thereof) jumped off the page, and my mind centered on a question that has been bugging me for several years now during my numerous excursions through fantasy RPG land:
Why do most major fantasy roleplaying settings, as well as numerous homebrew settings, incorporate a major catastrophe, one which caused such massive destruction that it threw the world into a lengthy dark age?
Many fantasy RPGs (Pathfinder and Earthdawn are my personal favorites.) contain this idea of a significant event that eliminates the trajectory of the setting and represents some type of rebirth to an age where the game begins. This framework is quite common and is becoming more ingrained in both commercial and homebrew settings. My own setting contained a massive plague that had wiped out most of the world’s population (which is nothing like King’s The Stand) and where civilization was just clawing back to a state of normalcy. I have encountered many variations of this framework over the years, but it seems to be defined by these stages:
- Colossal Catastrophe – An event of global proportions ruins the world’s current development. This event comes in the form of a crashing celestial body (in both senses of the word “celestial”); a global meteorological event, possibly an ice age; a massive plague or illness, usually indiscriminate of fantasy race; or a magical event, often one that restricts or inhibits the ability to practice magic.
- The Loss of All History Prior to the Catastrophe – The history becomes either lost, buried, or guarded by some sentinel being or fantasy race.
- A Gaming World that Starts Numerous Centuries after this Catastrophe – The default game setting takes place at a time far removed from the catastrophe, and much of the default exposition and geopolitical systems account for only a small portion of the time being the catastrophe and the default time.
I am not going to take a critical stance on this trope, as it can be useful in fleshing out a fantasy world, particularly homebrew settings that require an extensive amount of bottom-to-top construction. My question is what aspects of setting generation and worldbuilding prompt the use of this trope. Why does it feel like a natural, often expected, convention to use when crafting ye old Republic of Old/Middle English Place Name? More to the point, has it become a required element that must be present to address the audience’s expectation or assist in the suspension of disbelief necessary to engage with a fantasy setting. I have some thoughts, but I would like to hear other opinions on the matter.
This was a big night for me since I had not played a D&D 4e game in years. It was a fun, relaxed game, which has been quite a change of pace given my other 4e experiences. Rather than do a painstakingly in-depth blow by blow retelling of the evening, I am going to start off with the general tenor of the story, followed by some observations.
The General Set-Up
The set-up for the game was pretty solid for a fantasy tabletop opening session. Three out of the four players were assigned to a traveling group of academics and hired guards charged with reclaiming a shrine before it succumbed to local mercenary groups. The session started rather abruptly with a rather nasty ambush from said mercenaries who proceeded to slaughter most of the guard, sans my character, and drive the PCs away through the forest in our wagon. As far as 4e combats go, this one went surprisingly fast, as it was a light introduction for those new to the system on how the basics of 4e combat worked. The sheer number of adversaries meant that we had to execute a speedy retreat, which prevented the combat from getting bogged down.
The following scenes saw our group being chased through the woods by the remaining mercenaries, whose tenacious pursuit led to the destruction of our wagon and our desperate escape into the woods. Taking as many muskets as we could, we proceeded toward a nearby campfire, where we were introduced to our fourth member, the only PC who wound up saving our collective asses. After hasty introductions, we headed off to a nearby elven village, where in the next session, we will see how receptive they will be to helping us on our plans.
The session was quite entertaining. There were a number of traditional fantasy tropes in the first session, but the homebrew world really offset them. I am usually very nervous about homebrew worlds in the wake of adventures in Greek Tragedy World, which had a degree of immersion not yet replicated in another campaign in which I have taken part, but at the same time, left me feeling isolated and disconnected from a world with so much exposition. However, in this campaign, much of the framework has been developed, but there is seemingly a lot left to pencil in throughout the campaign, allowing for more character connection. I must also add that the use of Obsidian Portal has helped me engage with the world in a more accessible manner.
My character really does not have a distinct personality yet, but that is more due to the relative lateness of my character creation and the anxiety of RPing with a completely new group of people. I modeled him a little after Dalt from the second half of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, but I am going to spend the next two weeks fleshing him out a bit more. This is also the first pure martial character I have played in quite some time, so it will be entertaining to see how I do with him.
With D&D Next creeping up from over the horizon, it has been rewarding, although briefly so, to have a chance to do more 4e. It has been a contentious issue within many of my gaming circles, as well as across the internet, so gaming with a table full of players either new to the system or supportive of it will hopefully allow me the opportunity to dig into it more aggressively and experience it more fully than previous attempts. The sheer prospect of being able to do some fast-tracking will undoubtedly enhance this feeling. The next session is two weeks away, and I am already gearing up for it.
*The wrap-up discussion at one point revolved around dog shaming, so the secondary title ties into that conversation.
I had originally planned this first article to be somewhat more aligned with discussions of gender performance at the roleplaying table, a topic with which I have much fascination, but instead it has become about one of the more problematic alignments that I have dealt with in my gaming history: Chaotic Neutral. This alignment has been the genesis of so much agony and discord at the gaming table that I often question the motivation of those who choose to play it. The problem is not so much that the alignment is tremendously difficult to play or that it does not allow for in-depth, complex roleplaying, it’s that people use it for a host of unsavory activities that end up being destructive to the table atmosphere of the game.
What is “Chaotic Neutral?”
Chaotic Neutral, as an alignment construct, defines a character much more mercurial in natures. Some editions of books have labelled it the “free spirit” alignment, as its prototypical characters tend to shy away from laws and polarizing good or evil actions. In many respects, Paizo’s definition is the most useful for this argument:
A chaotic neutral character follows his whims. He is an individualist first and last. He values his own liberty but doesn’t strive to protect others’ freedom. He avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions. A chaotic neutral character does not intentionally disrupt organizations as part of a campaign of anarchy. To do so, he would have to be motivated either by good (and a desire to liberate others) or evil (and a desire to make those others suffer). a chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random. He is not as likely to jump off a bridge as he is to cross it.
Chaotic neutral represents freedom from both society’s restrictions and a do-gooder’s zeal.
When reading this definition, I am struck by the attention to “purposeful randomness,” in that the character’s actions, while seemingly unpredictable, do follow some type of system of personal ethics, however distorted they may be. What motivates the character might even be a system of beliefs not immediately apparent to the character (more on this later), but a system that he/she does not question.
Our Internet Meme Prototypes
A quick search of the internets can provide a host of demotivational graphics designed to attach a popular figure and witty phrase to the concept of chaotic neutral. For the purposes of this blog, we will select three:
- Captain Jack Sparrow (“Whose side is Jack on, anyway? …at the moment?): Ah, old Captain Jack! He is one of the more popular CN figures online, but it is important to note that one of the primary reasons for this comparison, aside from piracy as a
CECN act, is that his motives and actions are incredibly unpredictable. This is quite true in the movies, and it does stand to chance that much of his motivations are highly self-centered. But it is important to note that in the end, he still shows up to save the day and do the heroic deed, albeit a comically. His motivations often work to push the heroes forward in a very unorthodox manner. In the end, he floats somewhere between a CG and CN.
- Deadpool: Deadpool fits the category a bit more easily, though the parallels end rather quickly. His motives and actions are indeed unpredictable, and he is affront to many of the traditional traits embodied by superheroes. He will join a band of villains, only to destroy them from the inside out. He breaks the fourth wall with pithy rhetoric about comics and pop culture. If it weren’t for the fact that he is batshit insane, or least mentally unstable, he would fall into this alignment without too much problem.
- Snake Plissken (Escape from…): In my opinion, Snake is one of the better cinema examples that I have found online. Anti-establishment criminal out for his own interest, he often finds himself coerced into performing a service for his country, which he ultimately satisfies, but rewards with a final shot screwjob to the president and law enforcement. What is interesting about his character is that he represents the duality between self-interested and heroic quite well. He seems a bit numb to some of the crime and depravity of New York and L.A., but he will then save a person whose help he requires, and often try to assist that person in escaping further harm. It is this fundamental duality between heroism and selfishness that in my opinion really defines the alignment and gives the framework needed to create a character and roleplay it.
To pull these prototypes together, one can begin to see commonalities to what constitutes an imagined CN character: 1) a morally ambiguous, pivoting between good and evil acts, 2) a roguish nature, defying convention and authority, and 3) non-villainous, with the capability and possibility to do villainous acts. This definition is vital to construct because it helps demonstrate the radical difference between the invoked image of CN and its occasional use at the gaming table.
What Happens at the Table: CN=Asshole and the Tension between Players
Now, in my experience, CN comes across often in one of two ways: the player invested in exploring the duality and the player grounded in using the alignment to justify problematic table antics. The latter can become major problems in any campaign because the compartmentalize the character in such a way that they fail to see how their character actions affect the larger group dynamic. The actions, often disruptively selfish, utilize CN as a defense, with the penultimate statement that “[this action] is how my character would act.” Here are some of the major offending actions in no particular order:
- Refusing to take part in scenes that involve the major characters or acting socially aloof without a motivating reason (i.e. skulking the corner to be brooding for the simple sake of being anti-social).
- Stealing items from the party for personal use on a semi-frequent basis
- Failing to assist other party members when they are in trouble or only assist tepidly or begrudgingly in most situations
- Skulking off to do tones of shady, often “E” acts outside of the party’s view
There are likely many others,but what I find fascinating is that many of these activities have out-of-game consequences in terms of souring table relationships and promoting atmospheres of distrust. In many of these instances, the CN character, and associated player, become a force of suspicion and strife, never to be trusted as the character or as the player. I am not saying that this is an issue isolated to CN characters and players, as certain playstyles, table atmospheres, and gaming environments can often lend themselves to these actions, but there is something about CN that seems to “push” certain players to engage in disruptive behavior contrary to the original definition and provide a means of defending such actions within the scope of the game and the gaming table.
Question: What makes Chaotic Neutral so prone to problematic player behavior? Is it the description of the alignment itself? Is it a misinterpretation of cultural symbols of the alignment?
I pose these questions, because I am seeing this behavior becoming more prevalent. I am interested hearing thoughts, comments, and/or dissenting opinions.