It seems that my ability to reach the outside world has been impaired. For at least the next week I will be unable to post. This is an ongoing issue that, try as I might, I cannot resolve. My apologies to my followers; I will be back with many opinions on many subjects, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a little longer…
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[Edit] After I posted this I found my notes on alignment and realized I had made a mistake. I have alignment broken into three components(following the Rule of Three): ethics, beliefs and virtues/nature. The following information isn’t inaccurate, it’s just not up to par with this framwork.[/Edit]
In my last post I introduced the concept of Arete. It is self-knowledge, virtue and potential. It is possessed by all planewalkers and determines their limits (or lack thereof) in my Planescape game. Today I’m going to address alignment in a way, I hope, that will provide a solid foundation for a system of rules and rewards.
I want to begin by defining alignment. While I’ve written about this before, I recently came across a slightly different take. The original concept of alignment in D&D was focused on chaos and law; it grew from the factions of Chainmail. So alignment had nothing to do with philosophical ideas of morality or ethics. It was all about which side of the war you supported.
Coupled with definitions of the base word “align,” I believe the following is a good place to lay the foundation:
- The act of aligning or state of being aligned
- An arrangement of groups or forces in relation to one another
A planewalker’s alignment is a summary of her relationship to the rest of the ‘verse. It describes the values she holds most important. It explains her beliefs in simple terms. In short, my goal is to make alignment a framework which the player can use to guide her character’s actions.
To that end, I’ve decided on three aspects to alignment: ethics, religion and faction.
Ethics covers the old alignment of D&D. It is the moral and ethical outlook of a character. It’s largely general in order to allow room for interpretation. Religion applies to planewalkers who have formalized belief systems that require the presence of a central god (or pantheon). Religions seek to answer specific questions about mortal life and afterlife, and how one should live that life. They are structured around routine rituals and observances. Factions are organizations built on planar philosophies. They can be either personal or social in application. Factions address the broader question of, “Why?” in regard to existence.
These explanations are a bit rough. They’ve been flying around my head for several months now and I’ve only recently been able to narrow them down. The purpose behind this is a system that I can express in terms of dice, ranks, abilities, etc. — so that the players have the tools they need to create compelling, awesome characters. Each of these alignment components plays out in slightly different ways. I’ve only solidified a few examples, though, but some of the ideas include:
- Bonus dice or “advantage” when performing actions that reaffim your alignment;
- Expenditure of Willpower to take action that runs counter to your alignment;
- Bonus or recovery of Willpower after taking action that reaffirms your alignment;
- Bonuses or penalties when traveling the planes (as the planes themselves have alignments that may conflict with yours).
If these seem familiar, it’s probably because they exist in some form or another in previous editions. The original setting forced modifiers on magic. 3E imposed modifiers on social skill checks (mostly Charisma-based). I don’t really know what happens in 4E, since the composition of the planes changed so much. In the end, though, I’m going to try and settle for a few rules that explain how a character’s beliefs impact her actions in the Planescape setting.
Before I finish, I want to touch on these aspects of alignment with a few lists. These are my ideas for each component. They work like this: when a player makes a character, she has to choose at least one component for her alignment. She can take anything from ethics, religion or faction. If she wants to create a new component, that works; so long as the player and GM are on the same page, it’s all good. These alignment components or traits define, in part, the character’s personality. They are the character’s belief system. So a planewalker may claim to be “good;” and will note it on her character sheet; and she’ll recover Willpower when her beliefs are tested and she follows through on them; but they aren’t a straitjacket. She can decide to not be good and (at least for the time being) the only repercussion is that she won’t regain Willpower (beyond the usual method, whatever it ends up being).
So, the lists…
- Good: Compassion, empathy, honesty, mercy
- Evil: Selfishness, apathy, deceitfulness, cruelty
- Law: Tradition, honor, society, rules
- Chaos: Creativity, individualism, freedom, disorder
- Neutrality: Indifference, balance, moderation
Actually, I’m just going with ethics right now. The others are still in the works, and I’m still working out how to apply the planes to the whole system.
Arete ( /ˈærətiː/; Ancient Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.
Sometimes translated as “virtue,” the word actually means something closer to “being the best you can be,” or “reaching your highest human potential.”
While browsing Planewalker.com, I came across these documents – a conversion guide for Mage: the Ascension. They were a perfect find because I’ve been working on a storytelling system approach to my Planescape game. I’m drawn to its simplicity. Attribute + Skill = Ability. Roll the total number of dice and check for successes. Get enough successes, and you accomplish your task. And like any good roleplaying system, there’s enough room for additional complexity or customization, as evidenced by the plethora of games produced by White Wolf Publishing (the creators of the system).
So I downloaded the Mage conversion documents and looked through them. I have to say that, while the author did a good job of adapting the old Mage game to Planescape, the end result falls short of my expectations. I’m not saying it’s a bad product; I’m just saying that I wouldn’t use it. But it helped me to realize what I want — no, what I need in my version of the setting.
Most White Wolf games have stats or attributes that are unique to that particular version of the system. One in particular seems to define characters from that game in a way that makes them unique – Scion has Legend; Mage has Gnosis; Exalted has Essence. They are almost like class and level rolled into one, but with fewer restrictions. Man, that’s a terrible description. Think of it this way: Gnosis determines how much mana a mage can spend in a turn, or how many ranks she can have in her Arcana skills; Legend and Essence provide similar limits. These are attributes that are tied to the basic concept of these characters. Magi have Gnosis, which is basically secret knowledge of the inner workings of the universe. Scions have Legend, which is divine influence at work in their bodies and minds. Exalted have Essence, sort of similar to the soul. Without these, the characters cannot exist. At the same time, they aren’t really limiting. They let the character “break” the standard limits in the game. So as a mage advances her Gnosis, her potential increases and she can acquire more ranks in Arcana, for example, or she can spend more mana each turn and thus use more powerful magic.
This is where I’m going: I want my Planescape game to be based on the storyteller system, and I need an attribute that applies to all planewalkers, that defines their existence and that lets them be more powerful than your normal planar (but not as powerful as a proxy; at least, not until they hit the higher “levels”). That’s where the Mage conversion guide (link above) comes in: Mr. O’Rance uses the term “arete” to describe something very similar to Gnosis. Now, I’m not going to design my game around Mage: the Ascension. I think that’s too limiting because I like the idea of warriors, rogues and priests (after all, Planescape was an AD&D game to begin with). So I started thinking about what arete means. Then I remembered my philosophy classes, and since Planescape is all about philosophy, I figured the term would fit perfectly.
Arete: Virtue. Excellence. Reaching your highest potential. Self-knowledge (thanks TriskalJM).
Arete represents how well a planewalker knows herself. It’s how in-tune she is with her own existence. This self-knowledge enables her to grow beyond normal boundaries. With a high Arete, she can advance her attributes and skills to six or more ranks (the normal limit is five). Arete determines how much mana a planewalker can spend each turn (to power special abilities or spells/prayers/talents). I intend to find a link between Arete and Belief or Alignment (more on those in another post). Arete is the trait that defines planewalkers.
So at this point I’m starting to see another project: a .pdf of Planescape: Storytelling System, or something like that. It’s a shame I can’t find someone to pay me for this…
Here’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time, but have never implemented in a game: outer planar creatures have no physical bodies.
Planescape’s cosmology is organized something like this:
I understand that you’re probably familiar with D&D and the Great Wheel; these images aren’t intended to inform, but to illustrate. First, they serve as a partial example of the point I made in my last post: there are many ways to organize the planes, and it’s not about their physical relationships to each other, but about their metaphysical relationships. Second, the classic arrangement suggests a series of wheels-within-wheels, meaning the inner planes are literally nested inside the material plane, which is nested inside the outer planes.
I know. The plane of fire does not lie in the center of the universe. But this arrangement can be used to garner insight into the nature of the planes, their inhabitants and their relationship to the Prime Material.
What do we know about the inner planes? They are the origin of all physical matter. Natives do not have souls; most barely have the mental capacity that primes possess. When an elemental dies, its body merges with its surroundings. We may postulate that elementals do understand religion, or that they do not possess emotions. I’m not convinced that this is the case, but I understand the logic behind it.
The opposite view, then, is that outer planar natives (petitioners, planars, proxies and powers; more on these later) are non-physical. See, the outer planes are the cornerstone of belief. Each plane represents a philosophy (or a group of closely linked philosophies) that is so ingrained in the collective consciousness of the multiverse that they’ve become (for all practical purposes) permanent places. I want to focus on the idea, then, that the outer planes are built purely from belief. They contain no physical matter.
There are many roads leading from this point. Are the outer planes like a virtual reality simulator, a place where you plug your mind in, ala The Matrix? What happens to a prime’s body when he travels to the outer planes? How do planars, like demons and angels, appear in the Prime Material if they have no bodies? I don’t want to address all of these; I just want to talk about how my game would operate, and how your game might benefit, under these rules.
First, I don’t know how primes will travel to the outer planes, or what happens to their bodies when they do. This might be an explanation for why so many primes either get trapped in the Wheel (their minds are locked away while their bodies whither to nothing back home), or just happen to be really powerful (they have the magic and/or training to physically leave the Prime Material behind). Either way, I’m assuming that the players are primes that have overcome the metaphysical barrier of the Wheel, or they’re planars.
Sidebar: there are four categories of outer plane natives: petitioners, planars, proxies and powers. They’re better defined in the Planescape Campaign Setting, but briefly: peititioners are the souls of prime material inhabitants; they’ve died and gone to heaven, loosely speaking. Planars are born and bred “mortals” of the planes. Proxies are generally the immortal variant of planars (and include demons and angels in their ranks). Powers are deities of all size and shape.
A planar’s physical form is determined by a few factors: 1) race, 2) plane and 3) power. Race is fairly simple; a bariaur is a ram-like version of a centuar, while a tiefling is a human with daemonic influences in his bloodline. Following this example, then, if a bariaur from Ysgard (home plane) travelled to Acheron, he would experience some sort of physical change. This represents the near-sentient nature of the plane exerting its influence over a non-native. Finally, if the bariaur is powerful enough, he may be able to negate Acheron’s influence on his body.
This standard would be the norm, then, for player characters. Petitioners are too limited, being little more than extensions of their plane, while proxies and powers are another breed altogether. But for the purpose of discussion, I’ll cover them: petitioners would never change form beyond what their plane normally prescribes (some petitioners “evolve” over time into more or less advanced forms); while proxies and powers would have more control over their bodies while travelling the planes because of their inherently powerful natures.
Interestingly, this approach would generally limit who can travel effectively through the planes. By “effectively” I mean that a planar would probably limit his travel to those places that do not conflict with his nature; and if he were to travel beyond that, he’d probably be fairly powerful himself. So when player characters meet a bariaur in Acheron, it stands to reason that the bariaur is not someone to be taken lightly. It also helps to explain why these planes have held their shape for as long as they have. The inhabitants are shaped by the plane’s philosophy and they, in turn, help strengthen the plane. When outsiders travel to a plane, they are “assaulted,” after a fashion, by the plane itself, as well as its natives, until the intruders are repelled. This generally prevents a plane from being overrun by beings who would otherwise cause its philosophy to shift.
As I read what I’ve written here, I realize that I’m probably not clearly explaining my thoughts. If that’s the case, and you’re so inclined to seek clarification, please leave a comment. Or if you generally disagree or otherwise want to discuss the topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I apologize if my writing is too vague; I really just wanted to the get these ideas on the page so I could work them over. I’ll probably revisit them in future posts, in relation to other subjects.