In a previous post, I introduced Monsters & Magic (M&M) and offered some initial thoughts on some of its systems. This post explores and extends another: Social influence and conflicting character motivation.
I’m a big fan of the swashbuckling genre, so an element of M&M I enjoy is equal mechanical support for social drama as for violent action and combat. If players wish, a game of M&M could focus wholly on intrigue, scandal, and relationship drama using the effect engine exactly as it does for more classical physical conflicts. One feature that allows such focus is M&M’s use of alignment.
While up ’til now I have disliked most alignment systems as too prescriptive of behavior and avoiding exploration of true conflicting motivations, M&M’s alignment system specifically grants freedom of behavior and shines a spotlight on character motivations.
A bit like Mouse Guard‘s use of Nature, and Smallville‘s reward for challenging characters’ Drives, players choose how they wish to benefit from their alignment either by performing a chosen Focus behavior or by performing a chosen Drift behavior. Behaving according to your Focus leads to the world increasingly recognizing you as a paragon or champion of your alignment’s worldview, while overly leaning toward your Drift leads you toward a new worldview altogether. The two cancel each other out, but consistently leaning toward one over the other will slowly change your character’s outlook. This approach puts ambiguous character motivation front and center and rewards exploration of the delicious tension between conflicting motivations and the character transformation that we crave from stories.
In the M&M G+ Community, Travis Casey offered the idea that wielding certain intelligent items or artifacts could impose the item’s influence or temptation upon a character by replacing the wielder’s Drift. This effect becomes especially interesting with powerful but chaotic or evil items like the Eye or Hand of Vecna. The extent to which I employ the imposed Drift indicates how well I please or displease the item, causing it to react accordingly.
For example, when I willingly wield the Axe of the Dwarven Lords, it may replace my Drift with something like “In recompense for ancient injustice, I will bravely assault green-skins and giant-kin (most large humanoids)” a behavior which may drift me from my Neutral Good alignment toward Lawful Neutral.
Implementing Ambiguity and Peer Pressure
In my mind, maintaining relationships with significant employers, patrons, factions, adherents, or lovers should also impact a character’s motivation. Why not let these relationships also impose and track their influence over a character by replacing the character’s Alignment Drift (or Focus)? I find player characters to be most interesting when their Focus, Drift, and Goal are not immediately compatible, requiring the character to change in some way (which is usually the basis for good plot) to resolve some or all of them. Since M&M already encourages tracking alignment Focus vs Drift, the extent to which a character leans toward one and away from the others can elicit associated reactions from connected relationships.
If a relationship with an employer, patron, bond-brother, or lover is significant enough, the GM can offer a player the choice of greater advantages from deepening the relationship (in the form of advancements and constructs) at the cost of granting the GM some control over the character’s Drift (or less commonly Focus or Goal as appropriate). The Druid character class already gives an example of a player choice guiding the tenor of that character’s Focus.
Note: Since Alignment Focus and Drift lead to a trait bonus, using Drift and Focus to represent social pressure is increasingly effective at higher levels, when any new opportunity to add your level to a check is welcomed and tempting. This makes sense, since players are likely also more deeply engaged with groups, factions, and responsibilities at the higher tiers, while low-level adventurers tend to be more footloose and fancy free.
Some Examples of Social Pressure
In this sense, Sir Lancelot’s Focus might serve his lord King Arthur, while his Drift—imposed by his love for Guinevere—leads him into treason. Likewise, the idea of a Jedi wrestling with the Dark Side’s immediate benefits presents another good example of this concept in play. Finally, when Han Solo comes back to help out at the end of A New Hope, he is definitely activating using his Drift trait, possible related to the Rebel Alliance faction, but more arguably due to a more personal relationship.
Below are still more instances where GM-influenced Drift, Focus, or Goal could come with a lucrative advancement.
- A commander may increasingly respect, promote, and empower you as you align with her ideology.
- A lover may withdraw from or reject you as he hears of you performing behaviors distasteful to him.
- A shadowy patron may bring you deeper into the inner circle as your actions prove worthy of the cause.
- Acceptance into a guild or order of knighthood may require adherence to a code of honor.
- A dynastic mercantile family may offer more lucrative employment the more you demonstrate loyalty to the family on their terms.
- A cabal of mages or elementals may offer increasing access to power and assistance as you embody or accomplish their will in the world.
- Being named successor to the throne, the family, or a command rank may require greater demonstration of particular kingdom values than all your competitors.
- Escaping the City of Brass without violence requires making a deal with a powerful djinn
As an example, an ambitious character in my last campaign sought power, knowledge, and partnerships from diverse and sundry morally ambiguous individuals, all with the good intentions of wielding his aggregate power responsibly and for the sake of the good. He performed jobs for vampire overlords, made deals with mind flayers, and played factions against each other in a gloriously fascinating and dangerous political game and often against his allies’ advice and wishes. Using M&M, we could have mechanized the tensions and rewards of such split loyalties by offering custom Drift, Focus, or Goal behaviors as the cost for the benefits he enjoyed from deepening each relationship. The player now gets to wrestle with choosing carefully whom he serves, and how intensely, because now such relationships may change his character’s very soul.
When and How to Use Alignment for Social Pressure
The nice thing about M&M and many games’ social dynamics is that pressure doesn’t have to be mechanized to be narratively effective. “Follow the narrative” is the guiding credo for knowing how and when to apply the rules or just intuition in the name of an optimal story. So when should a GM look to use alignment to drive home the social pressure of a relationship and when should it remain in the narrative alone?
What does M&M already provide? Player characters in M&M already have a clear current alignment, as well as an alignment that tempts them in a new direction. Other characters and factions in the world can just as easily have alignments of their own (in fact many classic creatures are assigned an alignment simply due to their race). Furthermore, M&M also encourages GMs to consider significant characters and villains’ motivations, goals, and steps toward those goals. Using both these elements, adding social pressure through adjusting alignments is a snap.
Whenever a player character pursues a deepened relationship with a significant individual or faction—let’s say it’s a new patron—compare the alignments of both.
Match Made In Heaven
If their alignments match, consider offering a greater benefit at the cost of requiring the player character to shift his or her Focus behavior to something the would-be patron values. The benefit may be access to more unique or otherwise unavailable advancement option—like The King’s Elite Bodyguard trait, a potent special effect, or even a custom sub-class (reminiscent of prestige classes)—or perhaps a higher level construct than would normally be accessible at the character’s current level (perhaps command over a regiment of soldiers at adventurer scale rather than heroic). Of course, different characters in a party may face different benefits and different alignment changes from the same patron.
The drama from this option comes from tempting players to lose their advantages and preferment with certain social circles if they don’t adhere consistently to certain values. Knowing players, chafing against a single set of values will be inevitable before long, and if it doesn’t, the player character gets to wrestle with losing individuality and freedom by being someone else’s pawn or lapdog.
Running with a New Crowd
In the same sense, if a patron’s alignment varies from the character (which it likely will), then offer a benefit at the cost of shifting the player character’s Drift to something the patron values, tempting the character toward the patron’s alignment. Progress in the relationship or the patron’s pleasure with the character is as easy as tracking use of the Drift trait vs Focus.
Very rarely, a significant relationship may offer a player to shift a goal, but often that should remain under the player’s control.
Making it Interesting
Shifted Focus or Drift traits aren’t very interesting unless they conflict with the players other alignment trait and goal (or other players focuses, drifts and goals), so don’t be afraid of putting them at odds. Keep in mind that this level of play is modular an completely optional; players ultimately get to choose whether they want to enter into such internal drama dynamics. It won’t be forced on them by an overly angsty GM. If players aren’t interested, they can just leave the patron’s wishes in the narrative without affecting the mechanics. Plenty of times people prefer to keep their gaming simple: hack ‘n slash delving, exploring, and looting without consideration of layers of motivation.
Maybe I overemphasize shades of gray or ambiguity about who is friend and foe in my games (which is why Eberron is among my favored settings), but such dynamics allow campaigns to engage meaningfully in intrigue, politics, and drama-based plots more than any version of D&D that I’ve seen. I like stories where characters are slowly changed by their experiences, in more ways than simply swinging their sword better and failing less often.
For some groups, adding this component is a benefit, for some it’s a drawback; what’s nice about M&M is that these sorts of options are modular and thus applicable to taste. By the end of my campaign mentioned in the example above, each character had strong and often subtly conflicting motivations, values, and growth trajectories such that the plot practically wrote itself. I’m hopeful M&M’s alignment, construct, and trait systems encourage a similar outcome.