The lonely road stretched before the band of adventurers. Impenetrable forest lined either side of the road, dark and ominous. Before them the bulk of an airship blotted out the sun, unmoving, a ladder dangling down from it in silent invitation for the adventurers to climb aboard.
“I want to go through the forest.”
“We’re not getting on that thing. We’re going through the forest.”
“Dude, no. I just said the forest is impenetrable. Get on the airship already!”
This is paraphrased from an actual gaming experience. We argued with the DM for 5 minutes as to why we didn’t want to get on the ship, and we had good, solid reasons for why our characters wouldn’t go. Problem was, the adventure was on the ship, and if we wanted to get on with the gaming and roll some d20s, our asses needed to get on the airship. So our characters did. As gamers, we understood that if we wanted to participate in the game, we’d have to run with the DM’s plot, even if it was out of character for our characters to do so.
You may have a fabulous adventure planned for the characters in your story, but they need to have a reason to go on it, one that will seem logical to your readers. In the Quest, Reward and Ninjas! discussion, I talked about how George Lucas got Luke Skywalker out the door. Luke Skywalker, simple farm boy, is presented with a quest: rescue the princess and become a Jedi. But he doesn’t take it. Instead, he offers to help old Ben Kenobi get as far as Anchorhead, because he has responsibilities to his home and family that he’s not willing to abandon. Luke isn’t motivated to get involved until that family is murdered. Once the Empire’s evil becomes personal, he’s ready to go to war.
If you want your characters to participate in your plot, they need reasons to do so. They’re not going to hop on the plot bus without something personal that makes them get on board, something that makes sense for their character. Thus beginneth my Storyteller Side Quest: Know Your Alignment.
Okay. I didn’t talk about character alignments in the character creation section for reasons I can’t remember, but it fits in here fairly well too, because your party’s alignment often determines what kind of quests you can go on. Team Good probably isn’t going to be down with summoning demons for fun and profit. Team Evil doesn’t want to save the kingdom, they want to conquer it. In most RPGs, alignment breaks down like this: Good, Neutral, Evil. And it breaks down further into Lawful (sometimes called Orderly), Neutral, and Chaotic. These things should go without saying, but I’ll explain them anyway.
- Lawful Good: This is your typical paladin. He’s unerringly on the side of law and order, and will enforce said laws to see justice done. Problem is, he make your party’s life hard, because if you want to do something even remotely underhanded or shady, he’ll shut you down. In Blood, Smoke and Mirrors, Lex is lawful good, because guardians are like paladins.
- Neutral Good: Most people fall into the neutral good category; they do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. They’ll work with the law, but won’t mind breaking it if the results help someone. They’re just nice guys.
- Chaotic Good: Want to join the rebellion? Damn the man, save Empire? (Empire Records, not the galactic empire, get your movies straight.) Then chaotic good is right for you. This is Robin Hood. This is Malcolm Reynolds. (Big damn heroes, sir. Ain’t we just?) Chaotic good breaks every law and regulation in sight to do the right thing, especially if someone’s being oppressed. Freedom fighters all the way.
- Lawful Neutral: Lawful neutral is also very law and order, but unlike lawful good, lawful neutral won’t lose any sleep over things like social injustices. They’re all about tradition and order, and not as concerned about whether those traditions are good or evil.
- True Neutral: This is the law of the jungle alignment. Buildings burn, people die, bad things happen, but that’s life. In my gaming experience, a lot of people want to play true neutral characters and few people can pull it off. The wiki I linked above lists Han Solo as an example, and as an ex-Star Wars fanatic I’m ambivalent about that, but it works for the Han Solo we first meet in A New Hope.
- Chaotic Neutral: I hate this alignment a bit, because I’ve often seen it as an excuse for gamers to get away with stuff that’s bad for the party, like stealing from the party. Chaotic neutral is kind of a jerk. They do their own thing and are selfish and self-centered.
- Lawful Evil: This is my favorite flavor of evil. Lawful evil has a plan, a cunning plan, and knows how to work the system to his or her best benefit. They’re most likely to be an evil overlord. Magneto is lawful evil. In Blood, Smoke and Mirrors, Harrison is lawful evil (for now, anyway).
- Neutral Evil: Neutral evil is the Diet Coke of evil. They’re evil…just because. They’ll kill you if they have to, probably betray you, but it depends on what’s in it for them. The above-mentioned wiki says Sawyer from Lost is an example, but I’ve only seen the first season and really all I remember is that he looks good without a shirt. (In fact, I have a picture of him as my Lex inspiration, rawr!) ;) You’ll have to comment on whether or not you think he’s a good example.
- Chaotic Evil: If chaotic neutral is a jerk, chaotic evil is a raging asshole. You do not want this person in your party. It’s really best to kill them on sight, and if someone wants to play one in your game, throw dice at them until they change their mind. Chaotic evil makes for a hard to understand villain, because your reader is constantly wondering what the fuck just happened.
Here’s an example of alignments and how they work. Right now I’m playing Dragon Age on our Xbox 360. I’m playing a Good character—she fights evil without promise of reward, and she just wants to save everyone because it’s the right thing to do. In my party I have Team Good: Wynne, Leliana, and Alaistair (omg, squee, I <3 him 4evar!). They approve of the Good things I do, like helping lost children and punishing criminals. They get pissy and disapprove if I say anything bitchy or refuse to help people in need. I leave Team Evil at camp—Morrigan, Sten, and Zevran—because while they’re perfectly helpful in combat, they get pissed off when I made Good decisions. I’ll work with them during my next play-through when I try an evil character.
If you’ve created Team Good in your story, they’re not going to want to do Evil plot, and vice versa. They’re also going to make the kind of decisions that Good characters make. If the villain calls and says he’s got a bomb on something important somewhere and will only disarm it if the hero shows up alone at his hideout, and he’ll kill everyone if the hero calls the cops…the hero’s going to show up alone at his hideout without calling the cops, no matter how much you yell at the TV that it’s a bad idea. Think about it. How often in TV/movies does the hero do the dumb thing because he believes it’s the right thing? Team Good plays by the rules in a code-of-honor kind of way, which is the inspiration for my favorite line from the movie Spaceballs: “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”
I’ve gotten some criticism for Blood, Smoke and Mirrors saying that Cat is TSTL (too stupid to live)(which is like a dagger in my heart)(seriously people, don’t use this phrase lightly, it makes authors cry, and a kitten dies every time an author cries, so please, think of the kittens) because of events in the second half of the book. To this I say Cat is not stupid. Cat is Good. If the book were a RPG, making any other choice would probably change her alignment, and despite her many flaws, Cat is on Team Good.
Next week I’m discussing what happens when your adventure gets away from you, which happens quite often in RPGs. ;)