Friday, October 30, 2015

Criticizing the Brushstrokes #1 - Alignment Languages

Important Disclaimer - 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a masterpiece. It is still one of my favorite RPGs and is one of the most important games ever published. Because of my love for the game, it would be too easy for me to come up with 101 things I like about it so I am challenging myself by trying to come up with that many complaints about it. This does not reflect any animosity toward the system, rather the opposite.

#1 Alignment Languages

I might as well start with the lowest hanging fruit, an by low hanging I mean so low hanging that it takes a shovel to pick it. Alignment languages are described as being "the special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos." (DMG page 24). It is described as being "a handy game tool [. . .] not unjustifiable in real terms." (Ibid.)

Even the two examples given in the DMG, thieves' cant and the Latin of the medieval Catholic Church, are highly flawed examples of secret languages that might be similar to alignment languages. First there is the obvious problem that these real world examples were connected to occupations and not alignment giving them logical ways to be learned (e.g. during apprenticeship or initiation). No one has ever in fantasy or real life apprenticed to be Chaotic Evil. And, of course, these real world languages had no alignment restrictions. If a priest had a change of heart and stopped being good, he would not suddenly forget Latin. Also neither language, especially Latin, ever kept completely secret.

With no comparable real world examples, we must try to come up with a reasonable explanation of how such languages would be acquired. Parents could not teach their children because children often grow up to have a completely different ethos than their parents, who may not themselves be perfectly aligned with one another. Apprenticing for an alignment or being initiated into one might make for an musing short story, but is too absurd for a game or novel (the willing suspension of disbelief on goes so far.) This leaves only the "will of the gods" or some other other deus ex machinato save this hopelessly irrational concept. Unfortunately, there is no reason for gods to magically intervene and cause every person of a given alignment to speak that alignment language. The languages' uses are limited at best and assassins ability to speak different alignment languages (PHB page 29) undermines even them. Why would deities go to the effort of instilling this language upon some, but not all, members of an alignment for an alignment that can't be spoken in public without repercussions nor used elsewhere unless one is already certain of the listener's alignment? (DMG page 24). And the DMG strongly implies that this is not how it is acquired (ibid.).

So without any logical reason for alignment languages existing in a game would, there must be some indispensable game function such as balance for them, right? Unfortunately not. The most obvious uses might be to test the alignment of a possible recruit or to give commands in combat. The first is allowed, but the fact that assassins can speak alignment tongues makes it untrustworthy and the latter would not work because the vocabulary of alignment languages are limited to "the ethos of the alignment in general" (ibid.).

Even if they were useful and had a logical way of existing, I would still not care for them. They take something that should be abstract and subject to debate and place a layer of absolutism on it. Players should know their characters' alignments but he characters probably should not. Even paladins should likely consider themselves to be "good" and not say "lawful good." It's just that they consider the lawful good ethos to be pure good and any deviation toward either chaos or evil to be less good at best.

So let me reemphasize how much love first edition and respect its creator before positing that alignment languages are not just one of the worst ideas of any edition of D&D, not just one of the worst RPG ideas not in F.A.T.A.L., but easily one of the top 1% of bad ideas in imaginative literature. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Coco - New Monster

A nearly complete rough draft of a "new" monster.

Frequency:              Rare
No. Appearing:       1
Armor Class:            2
Move:                        12"
Hit Dice:                   3
% In Lair:                Nil
Treasure Type:         Nil
No. of Attacks:         1
Damage/Attack:       1-8
Special Attacks:        Fear aura
Special Defenses       +1 or better to  hit
Magic Resistance:    Standard
Intelligence:              Low
Alignment:               Lawful evil
Size:                          M (see below)
Psionic Ability:        Nil
   Attack/Defense Modes: Nil
Morale:                     14
Source:                      Latin American Folklore

One of several monster types that can lay claim to the children's term "boogeyman," a coco is a natural shapechanger that was first created by a sadistic demon lord to inflict suffering on lawful and good parents. This typically human sized monster is usually covered in loose fitting, hooded robes that cover most of the creature's face. In this form, only glimpses of the its face are ever seen, nearly always a human or horse skull. Whether this is its natural form or a preferred shape to inflict terror is unknown.

This shapeshifting, child killer is bound by a strict set of rules. It can only attack children who have misbehaved recently or are in the process of misbehaving. Being lawful, it interprets "misbehaving" as breaking any rule set down parents or other adult authority. Being evil,it delights in punishing the slightest infraction, regardless of rather there was any intent to break a rule. And being of low intelligence, it often confuses halflings and beardless gnomes with human children.

It is this last tendency that is most likely to bring it into conflict with adventuring party. If it observes any halfling or beardless gnome "disobeying" what it perceives to be a parent (any adult human, dwarf, elf, etc.) it will attempt to kill and consume the "child." If possible, it will attack when its target is alone, but will attack its prey even in the middle of a crowd if necessary.

While the Coco can shapechange, this gives it neither advantage nor disadvantage in combat. Only if it changes into something large size will there be any effect and then only if the gaming system allows different weapon damage on large creatures. Its reason for shapechanging is to inflict additional fear. Any creature hunted by a coco or coming between it and its prey must save vs magic or be subjected to a fear spell.

A coco has no lair, forming out of nothingness as the sun sets each night and fading into nothing at the sunrise. It cannot be permanently killed as killing it only causes it to fade away and reform the next morning. However, characters need not fear it seeking revenge as it never remembers the past day. It exists only to kill and consume disobedient children and has no treasure. It will those that get between it and its prey but will not consume them. A female coco is called a coca, but is in all ways identical to its male counterpart.

All monster statistics are Open Game Content, including, but not limited to, the stat block from “frequency” through “source.” All references to spells, and other preexisting open game content referred to in the text is Open Game Content.