Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application

Now, after I made a list of the kinds of behavior I want to encourage in players of the Ancient Lands in the second post, the next step is to think about what elements would be required or very vulnerable to risk,  in achieving that. In a way, this is defining the Purposes I’ve been talking about in the first post. You don’t necessarily have to start with an idea for an element and then find a place for it to fit. Particularly in the early stages it makes s lot of sense to consider what roles there are that need to be filled.

As I outlined in the previous post, I want players to be suspicious about authority, stand up to their convictions, and question established structures, yet accept their limitations and coming to terms with doing things they are not proud of. How is that done in the works I mentioned as references? What makes those characters develop in the direction that they do?

In Aliens, Ripley has no intention of helping the corporation in any way. But they confront her with the fact that they already went ahead with their plan and the worst case scenario already happened. Now Ripley can either refuse to cooperate, or try to help saving at least some survivors. It’s the right thing to do, even if that means helping a villain at the same time. Very similar situation in Mass Effect 2. To note here, both cases are sequels, in which the villainy of the ally had already been established in the previous story.

In Princess Mononoke, the people of the iron foundry use highly questionable methods to get their raw materials, causing large scale environmental destruction. But they don’t do it to get rich, but to enable a somewhat normal life for those who have been cast out. You can hardly demand the foundry should be torn down and all the lepers and homeless be chased into the wilds. Similar thing can be said for the allies in Mass Effect 2, and the soldiers who risk their life where nobody else would come to help are all very decent people, regardless of the people above them.

In Blade Runner, the villains are basically slaves on the run, who are hunted because they are highly dangerous. But the main source for their violence is the fact that they know they will be killed on sight. It’s not the protagonists call to make and he can either try to see it done quickly, or risk other people unnecessarily put into danger. He’s not proud of what he does, but does it anyway. In The Witcher, Geralt sometimes is called upon to kill a monster, though it turns out that his employer is much more at fault for the existence of the monster and its deeds than the creature itself. But the monster still poses a threat to innocents who don’t have anything to do with the whole affair. In one story of Ghost in the Shell, a man forced to work for a robot manufacturer programs his creations to kill their owners so the police comes investigating and can discover the horrors that take place in the factory. The victims were all horrible people, but didn’t know anything about the creation of their new special robots.

At one point in the Mass Effect series, billions of people would die, but the only way to stop it involves the killing of millions, who would have been the first victims anyway. The choice is obvious, but that does’t make the whole thing any easier.

In one episode of Ghost in the Shell, a murderer goes free because his lawyer puts the blame on the officer who tried to prevent it. The episode ends with one member of the team telling a secretary that one of their cars needs to be deposed off, while there’s a story on the TV about a lawyer and his client being killed in a hit and run accident. In one part of Mass Effect, you need to help covering up an old war crime, because you can’t afford your new alliance to break up if the truth comes out.

These are all scenes that I would love to see happening in my Ancient Lands campaign. So what circumstances force the characters to make these descisions and act this way?

  • Everyone has a difficult past and dark secrets. Nobody can really claim the moral high ground.
  • Often justice is not in the best interest of the people who decide about it.
  • In the end, people don’t really care for the truth. Alliances and truces are too important and too vulnerable to risk, and exposing things won’t change things that already happened.
  • There are always multiple overlapping and conflicting interest in any crisis. Often more than one side has a legitimate claim.
  • Allies and superiors sometimes do things without the PCs approval or against their explicit wishes, forcing them to deal with the fallout of things they never wanted to happen. (Though this works both ways. PCs can take actions to force others to go along with plans that can no longer be stopped.)
  • Villains are not one-dimensional. Some of the things they do benefit many people, and some might depend so much on them that they would suffer greatly if he were removed.
  • Sometimes good people try to do the right thing, but could greatly damage things that go on behind the scenes, but can not be allowed to become known.

Some of these items seem to have a lot more to do with preparing specific adventures than with writing a campaign setting. But they can be worked into the world as well. I make no secret of thinking that Mass Effect has the best written setting of all time, and a great deal of it is the fact that lots of major conflicts had been woven very deeply into the fabric of the setting very early on. All the backstory you really need to know is that the Humans had a short but violent war with the Turians at first contact, Humans have had border skirmishes with the Batarians ever since, the Quarians fled their homeworld after an uprising of their robots, and the Turians and Salarians dropped a bioweapon on the Krogand. And about 90% of the fights you get into can be traced back to these four events, which left a lot of bad blood.

I have had some ideas for cities, cultures, and organizations for the last three years. But now that I’ve reached the point where all the external parameters are in place, I have to start nailing them down and giving them a proper writeup. And I feel that these notes I collected here are going to be immensely helpful. Organizations are going to have multiple goals, which directly conflict with those of others, but might occasionally lead to alliances out of necessity. Settlements and roads don’t simply stand on an empty field, but are of value to someone. Major NPCs have personal grudges, but also obligations and weaknesses that can be eploited. These are things that are not necessary to have in any good setting. But I feel that making them part of the Ancient Lands will help greatly in creating those situations that steer players into the direction I envision.

2 thoughts on “Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application”

  1. My favorite part of the article is the second to last paragraph when you describe Mass Effect. You can weave this extremely complicated scenarios together, but having the base of those four first events in the game gives players something to always lean back on. No matter how diluted and complicated the plot becomes as the campaign drives on, they always have those initial events to drive them.

    It seems, at least for Ancient Lands, you are encouraging gray characters. Do you think there is also a benefit to making certain characters black and white in the campaign world, including NPCs that might be very important? Something to ponder, at the least.

    (For example, having a very sinister evil henchman working under the complicated archvillain, and the first few sessions of the campaign are dedicated to defeating that henchman before expanding the campaign world into the more complex parts)

  2. NPCs who are clearly evil and need to be removed, or others who are clearly working hard to achieve something that will benefit everyone should be relatively common. But I think even those should never be all perfectly evil or all perfectly good. That’s just not how it works in the real world and I think most stories become a lot less interesting when their characters are designed that way. I love stories in which the characters are faced with problems that have no clear answer, and have to work hard to come up with a solution that at least satisfies their own convictions of what is right and wrong. Especially when that means accepting that some people won’t like the outcome. I don’t think this can be done if the antagonists are pure evil, without any ambiguity of how much force is appropriate to stop them.

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