Saturday, June 15, 2024

Grimdark vs. Eucatastrophe

Noisms has some interesting ideas in this post about his desire for some depth to his grimdark, and turns to Gene Wolfe and Tolkien for relief.  Now, it can be argued that he’s watering down, even spoiling his grimdark by twisting the universe to actually be caring and not indifferent.  And that’s true, but it sounds like Noisms finds the nihilism of grimdark to be hollow, all shadow puppets without depth or impact.  And I totally get that.  I don’t think his preference for a greater truth that bends the universe towards benevolence if only someone dares to reach for it is the only way to solve the issue, but it is an interesting one.

He follows that up with an elevator pitch that’s rather like something he’s done before with a dark science-fantasy twist.  And then he lays three conditions, or design pillars, on the idea: 

The task is to provide maximum campaign flexibility and maximum player agency combined with an institution-based mode of advancement.

Now, straight up, I’m not sure how I see these design pillars necessarily intersecting with this theme, and I’m not entirely certain they do.  They might only be challenges Noisms thinks are interesting to tackle in RPG design.  I certainly think they are.  

I think the core of making this work is building towards one or more eucatastrophes over the course of a campaign.  The challenge is that they can’t be random; just as Bilbo and Frodo sparing Gollum's life results in the destruction of the Ring, so do the eucatastrophes in the game need to grow from the actions of the PCs and the choices of the players.  The benevolent universe only puts its finger on the scales when courage and virtue invite it.  

There are a number of ways you could do this.  You could give the players points when they do something that invites eucatastrophe that they get to spend for rerolls or power-ups, but that feels cheap to me.  You could use Progress Clocks a la Blades in the Dark; as the PC knights exhibit virtue in the face of a hostile world, the Progress Clock fills.  Once full, Providence takes a hand, and by “miraculous happenstance” our heroes get their fat pulled out of the fire or stumble across a clue or tool necessary for their success.  

To truly make this work, I think the GM would need to keep the Progress Clock (or Clocks, as you could have one for each PC or tied to different threats or different virtues; I myself favor different clocks for different virtues) so the players would have no idea if the clocks are full or not at any time.  Heck, the GM might not know; perhaps the GM rolls each time the progress clock gets a tick to see if it’s full or not, with the odds rising for each tick but never quite reaching 100%.  

This way, the players know that acting in accordance with virtue is beneficial, but they never know quite how beneficial.  And since a full Clock doesn’t necessarily “go off” as soon as it's full, they can never know if the risk they take for virtue’s sake is actually benefiting them, or if it’s “wasted” on an already full Clock.  Which only feels right to me.

I think this is ringing for me in some part because I’m reading Pendragon 6e’s Player’s book right now.  I’d be tempted to use the virtues from the old Ultima computer RPGs, especially since those come into conflict with one another in beautiful ways, challenging not only one’s commitment to the virtues as a whole, but to individual virtues in relation to the others.

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