Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Karma in RPGs

In my experience, bad things happen to bad people.

Not always, perhaps, and certainly not right away but in general the universe has a way of meting out punishment for our transgressions. There are laws of cause and effect, and there is a cosmic balance to life as we know it…and if we aren’t balancing our own debts, it seems (to me) that some unseen force helps us in doing such.

Now that doesn’t mean “bad” things don’t happen to good people…good people suffer all the time. Part of our lives on this plane is learning and developing as human beings and we set ourselves up for tests and trials that teach us and help our own spiritual growth. But people who act in ways that are out of synch with the universal have a tendency to need more and harsher lessons, hopefully in aid of getting “back on track.”

This is what I call KARMA, though some might refer to it as the law of “cause and effect” or the consequences of one’s actions.

Is there a place for karma in role-playing games?

Here are my two, semi-related thoughts on the subject:

1) RPGs try to include mechanics that model “life” (even a fantasy life) in an imaginary setting. As with religion it feels like this particular aspect of the human experience is most often left OUT of the game mechanics.

Even should one ascribe to the idea that “real world karma” will take care of “in-game karma” (for example, poor dice-rolling will eventually provide someone with their just desserts) more than a few RPGs prescribe GMs “fudge” poor dice rolls in favor of players…in effect CIRCUMVENTING karma.

RPGs often allow characters to do “bad things.” Shooting and stabbing and robbing and strong-arming people are “not cool” things in the eyes of the universe…and many “adventure” RPGs feature scenarios where players are proactively seeking to do just this.

Not that it’s necessarily “out of divine alignment” to take the fight to evil giants that are plaguing the civilized lands…but often in the course of executing justice, player characters will step over certain moral boundaries. And under the terms of the game system (“hey, I’m Chaotic Neutral!”) this is perfectly acceptable and justifiable.

But should it be allowed without repercussion?

I just think of my recent re-reading of the early Shadowrun novels, in which fortuitous occurrences happen to “good characters” and “bad characters” have a habit of suffering for their sins. Of course, this is a literary conceit…while the books are based on an RPG they are not RPGs but rather scripted stories (like any film or work of fiction). In this medium, the author is free to give bad guys their come-uppance…and is generally expected to do so in most action-adventure stories (see Star Wars and Indiana Jones for examples).

But how many times have I seen the adventurers in role-playing games perform unspeakable acts on nameless NPCs? I’m not just talking blatant torture or murder of helpless prisoners (though this is a common enough occurrence)…what about tasking your nameless henchman with walking point or testing the unknown potion? What about killing unarmed women and children (even orcish women and children?)?

Of existing RPGs, there are only two I can think of that have anything akin to actual karma mechanics (and, no, Shadowrun is NOT one of these, despite calling its experience points “karma points”). These are the original Marvel Superheroes RPG from TSR and Amber Diceless Role-playing.

Marvel characters tally a resource called Karma that can be used both as an advancement/development mechanic and as a save-your-bacon/metagame mechanic. Karma is gained from performing tasks one would normally consider heroic or “good;” not just beating up bad guys but making sure you help your sick aunt around the house, show up for work on time, or make that dinner date with your sweetie. You also LOSE karma points for failing to do good work, for performing crimes, or for killing ANYONE (the penalty for the latter is loss of ALL karma).

Now, while the carrot of good karma will certainly encourage PCs to act heroically, there’s really not much of a stick to the flip-side…after all, if your (randomly generated) stats are good enough, you may not need karma to save your bacon all that often. Why not kill villains who are a pain in the ass? Likewise, once you’ve lost ALL your karma, what’s to stop you from killing ANYone, or completely blowing off the people that are counting on you. With the Rules as Written, one’s Karma score never sinks below 0…when I was a kid, all bets were off once you hit the big zero (and THEN you got to play your character like any “normal” miscreant D&D adventurer).

Amber is a bit different. All characters have a score called “Stuff” which will be either positive (Good Stuff) or negative (Bad Stuff). Depending on the particular group, the amount to be considered “a lot” of Good or Bad Stuff is totally subjective. The GM is supposed to use a character’s Stuff rating as a guideline for determining whether or not things go in favor of the character.

For example: the character falls off a cliff and tries to save himself by grabbing a ledge on his way down. The guy with a lot of Good Stuff manages to land on the ledge and save himself with only some light bruising. The guy with a little Good Stuff lands on the ledge but probably gets the wind knocked out of him or twists his ankle in the process. The guy with “zero Stuff” manages to grab the edge on the way down, but needs to take some new action quick before his grip slips. The dude with a little Bad Stuff misses the ledge completely (“Aaahhh!!!”) and the guy with a LOT of Bad Stuff smashes himself up, breaking bones before continuing to plummet to his doom (“…”).

[being a diceless game, there are no mechanics for “skills” or “ability scores;” characters have traits that they can compare to each other to see whether or not they succeed in direct conflicts and everything else in negotiated or narrated through an arbitrary (i.e. GM fiat) drama mechanic]

The Stuff score reflects a character’s basic attitude (positive or negative), how people see/interact with him, and his overall “Divine Favor” (i.e. his store of good/bad karma). However, Stuff does NOT fluctuate in play…it is set during character creation and may or may not change during an advancement phase that only happens at infrequent intervals (after many sessions of game play)…also, IF a character’s “Stuff” changes, it is due only to advancement choices, NOT as a consequence to any in-game actions of the character.

Anyway, as you may be able to tell, I find both these approaches to “karma” less than satisfying. And I’m starting to wonder if NO approach to karma may be completely unsatisfying.

I suppose it all depends on how you use role-playing games (your particular group’s approach to the table). Usually, the only “karma” that I see occurring is a gruesome death as a result of a hasty action or un-wise decision. But there are times when it would be nice to have actual rules that enforced “divine justice” for players that insist on using their characters as throwaway avatars of violence and hedonism. The current game design for my space opera RPG discourages malefaction only by rewarding certain positive styles of game play. But I wonder if I need a stick in addition to the carrot.

Maybe I’m just tired of people at my game table acting like asses and saying, “hey, I’m Chaotic!”


  1. Karma is felt in how the universe responds to the actions of the PCs. Mister "hey I'm chaotic" likely doesn't want to live in a chaotic universe where everyone else goes...hey I'm chaotic or even in a settign that reflects the actions of the character. Make the character deal with the chaos they create and the lack of stability it creates.

    Gee, the lawful goody goody church doesn't want to heal the Mr. Chaotic, at any price. Imagine that.

    Demons want to tempt an corrupt Mr. Chaotic so he becomes Mr. Chaotic Evil.

    The innkeeper has no rooms for rent.

    The town guards will not let the ravager of the realms through the front gates...I wonder why?

    Powerful Mary-Sue NPCs hire bands of adventurers to deal with Mr. Chaotic.

    Karma can flow from just good sense and a universe that responds.

  2. I don't know about that JD. Sometimes the universe just rewards assholes.

    Errant RPG actually has a stat called Karma, but it is different from the concept of Karma laid out here, it is more like in Fallout where it is a positive/negative measure of general right-ness with the universe.

  3. I want the universe to function karmically the way JB describes, but I think Greg is right: A lot of times, jerks win. Exhibit A: Ben Roethlisberger.

    I am not a fan of alignment systems, but I think D&D has them to address some of these concerns. If we believe his writings, Gygax enforced alignment in a heavy-handed fashion: in the DMG, he wrote of striking stubbornly errant characters with thunderbolts. The Fiend Folio featured the aleax, an almost unbeatable alignment-enforcing creature.

    Alignment fails as a vehicle for karmic enforcement not just because characters can choose repulsive alignments, but also because DMs and players often disagree about how to interpret alignments. (Example: In a one-off, I once had a DM sic an aleax on me because my chaotic good elven mage killed some crabmen who had attacked him. He argued that I'd violated my alignment because the PH said chaotic good characters "value the life and welfare of each individual.")

    That's why I like JD's logical consequences approach to karma. It feels less arbitrary.

  4. I think that I'd play karma as a part of the web of relationships that the characters build (that is, a character is an ass to some npc, the npc's friends and relatives become hostile to the character, and the like). I don't like an arbitrary mechanic for it, especially since I think that any "law of return" consequences will already happen through the roll of dice.

    Further, like Greg says, sometimes the universe rewards assholes. Bad things do happen to good people, and good does not always triumph. Since I'm particularly interested in presenting a nihilistic universe, à la Lovecraft's Cosmic Horror, I'd definitely avoid karma mechanics. I might be in favor of a system of Heroic Effort, which rewards swashbuckling attempts at derring-do with success bonuses, but only for more cinematic games than I generally prefer.

  5. @ JD: Mmm...I prefer this kind of thing to be supported by the rules, rather than just hosing someone for making a legitimate character choice. But I can certainly see this kind of action as a good house long as you're up front with your players.

    @ Greg and Brian: Yes, yes...karma isn't always "instant" and sometimes justice isn't always served the way we'd like (I'll deliberately made zero football references, guys!). I HAVE used "bolts from the blue" in the past (as a kid)...but that feels a bit heavy-handed these days. I will check out the Errant RPG (never heard of it).

    @ Faoldah: "Karma in regard to relationships" is an idea I've actually been exploring for a few years...especially with regard to past-life relationships, and bringing that karma forward into new (character) lives. This was for a supplement for an existing RPG (and this particular supplement had the express approval of the game designer), but it's a pretty ambitious project that's been on-hold since I got into writing the "old school" stuff.

    Now what do you think about having a Nihilistic game that incorporates both karmic consequences AND heroic effort...basically, the characters are living on "borrowed time," burning every last bit of "good will" they've saved up in an attempt to accomplish SOMEthing before going down to a flaming doom. Fun!
    ; )

  6. The nihilistic game you describe sounds too much like my life.

  7. @ Brian:

    Ha! Well, perhaps it's no laughing you own a dog?
    : )