Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Vow

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

V is for Vow; an oath or promise not taken lightly.

In our 21st century world, we sometimes forget the power of words. Or perhaps “forget” isn’t the right term; “respect” might be more apt. Part of this has to do with the sheer amount of information (words) with which we are constantly inundated. Look at blogger…the touch of a button and I can reach thousands of readers with my paltry words, scribbled thoughts that went straight from my brain to the keyboard. And I am just ONE blogger; there are hundreds more out there, just like me scribbling on the same topics and posting every day; personally I read many of ‘em…not to mention the regular news sources (newspapers, television, internet), books, etc. Information is available in the millions of pages and words per day. And when you’re constantly surrounded by words, they can lose some of their luster. When words are commonplace, how can they have special meaning?

The OTHER part of why words seem to have lost the mystic power over time is our general lack of veracity, accuracy, and integrity with what those words say.

For purposes of this post we’ll skip anything regarding veracity and accuracy (there’s a lot of misinformation and half-truths floating around) and concentrate solely on “integrity.” For MY purposes:

INTEGRITY is doing WHAT you say you’re going to do WHEN you’re going to do it.

If I tell my wife that I am going to “do the dishes before I go to bed” (or some other household chore) and then fail to follow through, that displays a lack of integrity on my part. If I blog here that I am absolutely, positively going to have my book published no later than February and don’t get out till September, that’s the same thing. And while I acknowledge that I am in fact a “big slacker” and that EVENTUALLY I get around to doing those dishes or finishing the book, it doesn’t change the fact that NOT doing what I said I was going to do when I said I was going to do it makes MY words a bit weaker than the person with more integrity. A LOT weaker than the person with absolute integrity…something we don’t see as much these days as we might like.

In the “olden days” people TALKED less and DID more. Being a “glib” talker was not a compliment; often it was considered a character flaw. One did not need to be wordy to be eloquent…people admired you more for saying what you meant and following through with what you said. These days…well, we live in a different world…communication and lingos are complex and we find various ways to say things hoping that SOMEthing we say will be understood by our target audience, and that what we say will register and resonate the way we want, which is to say “in such a way as to not give offense” (more often than not).

But worrying about the appearance of the word, the cloaking of it, doesn’t negate the need for integrity to strengthen the thing. If I say

“I am going to do my best to do X, Y, and Z (not necessarily in that order) providing it doesn’t interfere with the feelings of persons A or B and provided it doesn’t get reprioritized due to circumstances 1, 2, and 3…”

You’re giving yourself a ton of “outs” (i.e. excuses, justifications for failure) rather than just saying:

“I will do X,”

…and then following through, dealing with the consequences of X if and when they arise.

It’s tough. We are told often enough that our world isn’t “black and white” but it kinda’ is. I mean, Jesus didn’t say, “It’s okay to kill SOME people…you know, just the BAD GUYS, like people who might have an itch to hurt you and yours…and, yes, sometimes collateral damage happens…that’s OK, just long as you’re defending your homeland or Right of Life, Liberty, etc..”
Nope, he didn’t say that. He said, “If someone slaps you, give him the other cheek; if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt, too.” That’s pretty black and white.

But, these days, we’re all about the CAVEATS and the EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE and the JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE (well, maybe we’re not “all about” that last one…). It’s not often we Keep it Short and Simple. We have made our own society a complex one with complex rules and our communication reflects this complexity.

In the “simpler, primitive” fantasy world, such complexity need not exist. And in a GAME (of course) we are allowed to make our own rules.

The vow or oath is a formal pledge and declaration, a promise that one is going to DO SOMETHING come hell or high water. Basically, it’s a statement of integrity and commitment to that statement.

A vow is not something to be taken lightly (and even today, we have few “formal vows” and all are considered serious commitments) but in the fantasy literature that is the basis for Dungeons & Dragons, vows are fairly commonplace: a hero gets all worked up about something and swears an oath to do something or die trying…whether that’s to seek revenge or protect an individual or defend the Alamo it doesn’t matter.

I like vows in D&D…I think it adds something to the game for a player character to make this kind of formal declaration. For one thing, it is completely a product of role-playing…there is no mechanical pay-off to making a vow in the game. For another thing, it’s a commitment to action…a character that has taken a vow KNOWS what he has to do and ain’t going to be hemming and hawing and looking befuddled. That’s game motivation pure and simple.

In last Thursday’s game, Josh’s new character was another archer…the father of the archer that had died in the goblin caves the week before (yes, Josh reads my blog and was playing on last week’s offspring post). He decided that the father (whose name was also Fletcher) was determined to bring back his son’s remains, whatever the cost (in fact, Fletch Sr. was only 1st level compared to his adventuring 2nd level son, so this was a fairly bold promise). When a (negotiated) encounter the lizard man tribe led to some treasure being offered in exchange for aid, Fletch got the party to turn it down as he wasn’t interested in any action until he’d discovered the last resting place of his child. Although, no formal vow was made by Josh, his character acted as if one had been, forswearing rest until his child was avenged and laid to rest.

[Fletcher did not recover his son’s body, but did find his son’s gear in the treasure hoard of the goblin chief after the party had put an end to the monster. He took his son’s equipment back to the Keep and had the Curate burn it on a funeral pyre to lay his son to rest…also giving the church a share from his loot. Having done this, he accompanied the party back to the lizard man camp site to complete the mission offered by the scaly humanoids]

Vows like this…of vengeance, or protection, or commitment to a cause or quest (think the Fellowship of the Ring)…are cool and add an extra oomph to the role-playing experience. At least they do for me. While I don’t like and don’t hand out XP for “role-playing” (why not? Because it’s too arbitrary and subjective to be a behavior-shaping reward mechanism), I AM sorely tempted to give some sort of bonus for taking a vow and seeing it through to the end.

What kind of bonus? Well, that depends a bit on the vow and how much integrity one takes in acting on it. Vowing to loot a million gold pieces or vowing to level up are hardly what I’m talking about…vows should be things that are somewhat of an inconvenience or that side-track you from other adventuring goals (for example, Fletch Sr. may not have been quite so keen to go back to Goblin Town after the party had been over-run the last disaster…he could have opted for “easier pickings” – like Kobolds! – before trying the caves again). Even if the vow IS in line with your goals (Fletch would have gotten around to the goblin caves eventually) such an oath should curtail or restrict one’s action (one-track mind)…at least in order to maintain INTEGRITY with regard to the vow.

For those who can fulfill their vow immediately (and through normal adventuring hardship…I’m not talking about vowing to “build a house by next Tuesday” or something!), I’d recommend the character receives enough bonus XP (on top of the adventure XP) to advance to the next level. Note: this is only for MEANINGFUL, PERSONAL goals: avenging one’s kinfolk, rescuing one’s (captured) loved ones or family members, saving one’s home town or place of residence. The vow must have PERSONAL MEANING attached to it; otherwise, it’s just a promise of aid.

For vows that cannot be fulfilled immediately (for example, a marriage vow to protect one’s spouse, a vow to defend one’s lawful dominion against all invaders, etc.) I’d recommend an on-going +1 bonus to saves and attack rolls ONLY when acting towards the wording of the vow. If a fighter pledges his sword to do his liege’s bidding, he receives the bonus only when on actual missions of import for the lord, NOT when doing his own adventures (and NOT when side-tripping during the liege-lord’s adventure/mission!). If these vows are not taken seriously, the DM has the option of removing the bonus…for example, if two PCs marry each other and then go fight a dragon together, they shouldn’t receive attack bonuses; protecting one’s spouse means not taking him/her to the dragon’s den at all!

Anyway, just an idea to add a little integrity to your game.
: )

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