19 August 2011

Split Personalities

When I was in college, we experimented with playing Shadowrun instead of our usual D&D game (2nd Edition, Skills and Powers, for those who are keeping track).  Our GM, who is a fantasy writer by trade and a phenomenal storyteller, learned enough of the rules to manage the game, and we set out to raid a corporate stronghold – a decker or two, a mage, a street sam, a rigger, and a couple of other supporting cast whose classes are lost in the mists of time. 
The raid went well, relatively speaking; as well as a Shadowrun ever goes, really.  We all got out alive.  The base was still standing.  The Matrix was fantasy-themed with kobolds for guard programs and dungeons for data storage, but that was sort of nice flavor.  When we were done, none of the electronics worked and something horrible had happened to the guard bots and most of the employees of the stronghold, and I do remember taking over a security cannon at one point and just opening fire randomly while I worked out the controls, but we got what we had come for and got out alive again.  We were expecting to get paid – maybe we did get paid – and we bought new things with our hard-earned cash: cyberware and new deck parts and explosives and such. 
And then Bad Things started happening.  Deck parts were booby-trapped.  Cyberware blew up.  Explosives did.  Our net for the entire Shadowrun was negative.  And we as players complained: we had bought these things with our reward money.  Why were they being taken away?  And our GM shook his head and said “I can’t reward you for what you did.  It’s just not right.”
Lesson learned: When playing under someone with an epic fantasy background and a strongly developed sense of literary justice, stick to epic fantasy.  Don’t be bad guys, because bad guys will get it in the end.
Compare this with the conscientious amorality of Hollowpoint (“Bad people killing bad people for bad reasons.”) and its positive delight in antisocial mayhem of all kinds, and it got me thinking about my own tabletop game (Pathfinder, for those keeping score) and the interplay between player and character morality.  It’s an ongoing game, and I know I have players who read the blog, so I’m not going to spoiler anything that shouldn’t already be adequately clear, but the current campaign arc deals primarily with big questions regarding alignment, actions, and their effects on one’s character.
My players are old friends: many of us have known each other for more than a decade, and some of us have been gaming together that long.  Some of us are married, and several of us have children, so our sessions are planned around work and graduate school and babysitting duties.  Many of us attend church together, so Sunday afternoons when everyone is in the same place anyway are an ideal time to game.  These days instead of pizza and Mountain Dew, we potluck or put things in the crockpot; we drink homebrewed beer or IBC from the bottle.  We have dice trays that were hand-turned by one of our players.  They are my friends: people who I know spend their time teaching youth and making families and working for social justice and being Good People. 
And they are playing characters whose moral spectrum rages from Vengeful Crusader to Ravening Sociopath.  Case in point: Party reaches next destination along the path to their end goal.  They discover that the inn in question has been burned to the ground and its inhabitants butchered; the scene is designed to engender maximum outrage.  I know my players pretty well by now, so filled with outrage they head off to the nearest town to track down the perpetrators of this particular heinous deed.
Turns out that the perpetrators in question are a frighteningly zealous cult purporting to follow the Lawful Good god, and one of the main instigators is the high priest.  He’s arrogant and obnoxious and unlikable and claims he’s doing his moral duty by exterminating evildoers in the realm.  He is absolutely certain – and even states he’s found proof – that the philanthropic organization the party is working for is actually a nest of evil.  So the party kills him, raids the treasure chest, pillages his memories and sets out to mop up the rest of the raiders. 
One of the party members has one of those one-off artifacts that get thrown into campaigns because it seems like a good idea at the time.  This particular one siphons memories: the last hour before death.  It is an evil thing and a corrupting thing which I give to parties periodically just to see what they will do with it.  Sometimes they destroy it.  This party, or at least the party member who has it, uses it – and frequently – to serve in lieu of interrogation.  At one point, he sat down next to a prisoner, tied and bound, and just rambled off all the keywords he knew of for twenty minutes or so before performing a coup de grĂ¢ce on the poor man and then taking the next twenty minutes to sift through the information provided. 
Thus armed with information that once again indicated that the Zenith firmly believes the Phoenix Dawn is an agent of evil, and in possession of actual holy symbols of evil taken from the destroyed inn, the party proceeded to hunt down and exterminate all of the ringleaders of the raid, one at a time, in a night of terror.  Their only concession to justice was to ask a teenaged boy whether he regretted what he’d done before cutting him down.  When I mentioned that there was an infant child in one house they were plotting to burn down, I was treated to actual groans of irritation from my players that I’d dared to stand in the way of their fun. 
They stopped about two-thirds of the way down their list because they were running out of nighttime, hijacked a boat, and took the captain out onto the lake.  There was some debate about how far out to sail before dumping him overboard, at least, but the faction that wanted almost too far to swim seemed to win out.  As I was narrating the poor man’s swim back to shore, I was interrupted: “I cast Daze on him before he’s out of range.”  Very thorough, this band of vigilantes. 
This is probably the sort of behavior I am not supposed to condone.  But this sort of behavior is so very interesting to see, which is probably why the campaign is built around grey moral areas and dilemmas with no good answer, and why I let them run rampant without artificially imposing the rule of law on them.  After all, there is a curious symmetry to what the party have done to the Zenith, in light of what the Zenith did in the first place.  It’s more dramatic to let them figure that out all by themselves than to make someone explain it to them.
Besides, they were having so much fun.

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