It’s time to Ramble On.
As I sat in a comfy chair last night, wearing my free Dragon Age t-shirt acquired at PAX ’07, and playing through the opening scenes of Mass Effect 2 (my Mass Effect t-shit was, unfortunately, in the laundry) I cringed as a notice popped up about earning +4 to my Renegade rating. I stopped for a minute reviewing the conversation I, or rather Commander Shepherd, just had. I didn’t recall saying anything particularly “bad.” I let the moment of sick panic pass and pushed onward secure my good deeds would erase whatever slight misstep I had taken.
You see in every Bioware game I’ve ever played I’ve always been good. Multiple play-throughs of Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, etc. All good. I’ve tried to play evil. I have, really. But something always stops me short. A sick sensation in the pit of my stomach as I lie, cheat and extort. A cold sweat that breaks out as I exploit the weak or turn my back on the downtrodden. I always abandon the efforts, returning to my goody two-shoes tendencies. With Mass Effect 2 there is a faint curiosity that pulls me towards the glowing orange of the Renegade. Part of it is a function of story. I died. I was brought back. Two years of my life are gone. The world around me has changed. But, have I? Distrust still exists amongst the various races. The Alliance left me for dead but Cerebus, whose scientists I slaughtered as a Spectre, brought me back. The Council sits on its hands unable to act while humanity is threatened. They’ve turned a blind eye towards the threat the Reapers represent. Did my old tactics of cooperation and open handed assistance even matter?
I repeat, I’m only three hours into the game. Maybe it’s nothing Bioware did. Maybe it’s me. But I find myself, more than any other game recently, involved on an emotional level with what’s happening. But I find myself wishing that Bioware made it harder to know precisely how my actions will affect my “alignment.” Perhaps it’s a holdover from earlier games but more so than any other time I could remember I wish the game would let me just choose without the knowledge of precisely what the nature of those decisions might be. Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade alignment system is fascinating but the foreknowledge of how your words and actions will affect that scale robs me of a certain level of investment in the preceding. The system is visible, allowing me too much leeway to telegraph my actions to reach the outcome I desire. The decisions don’t really feel like mine.
I still don’t know why I can’t be evil. You see. If you have ever gamed with me at the table you might be surprised to learn about my inability to be even the slightest bit mean. Scratch that. You would definitely be surprised to learn that. Truth be told, you might even refuse to believe me at all since absolutely none of my tabletop D&D characters has ever been GOOD. Ever.
While pen and paper RPGs have alignment systems they have always been reliant on the player’s ability to see and make decisions. For all my experience in playing virtuous goody-two shoes types it turns out that playing those types of characters are only possible, for me, when the decisions and actions I can take are prearranged by a third party. Simply: Outside of video games I have no idea how to play a typically good character. Nowhere has this become more evident in my own tabletop gaming experience.
Running over the list of D&D characters I’ve played amongst them I found none that are the paragons of virtue my video game tendencies might indicate. A brief list of the favorites:
Tek, the angry kender who hated everything around him and who kept up a constant verbal barrage of insults against the sorcerer’s mother.
Kar, the arrogant halfling-come-goblin (long story) who tried to kill his foster brother’s girlfriend because….she annoyed him.
Sojourner, the beleaguered priest of the Celestrian who rochambeued a guy to death (this way).
The tiefling paladin of the Raven Queen who was constantly trying to get himself killed and cut himself every time he spent a healing surge.
Misanthropy. Angst. Rage. Self-mutilation. If someone were too analyze the pysche of the characters I play in order to get a better handle on me they’d probably end up having me committed. As a gamer at the tabletop I’m an instigator. If there’s a button that says DO NOT PRESS and I’m left to my own devices for a bare second I’ll probably end up pressing it (or you know, blowing it up or maybe setting it on fire). Hint at the possibility that my character can make something explode? I’m there. Probably before you realized that was even an option.
We started a new campaign recently. Having noticed all this, my psychotic characters at the table and my paragons of virtue on the screen, I decided to play a lawful good paladin of Pelor. Luckily most of the people I play with trend towards the chaotic side but it seems this time out everyone decided to walk on the side of right. In fact the whole gaming group decided to be “good.” Only one of us is particularly sneaky. None of our characters are particularly smart. None of us, as players, are practiced at making decisions that follow the law or that don’t involve murder, death or fire. And, perhaps most amusing, the best liar out of the bunch is my paladin. So far there has been much bumbling. It turns out I’m not the only one who struggles with the whole “good” thing. We’re working on it. Slowly.