Written by Jeremy Morgan, tabletop games editor, gamer, and software developer.
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Planescape 4E - On Chaos

27 October 2011

The Lady of Pain's Crest

I know I said that the second part of Limbo was going to be next, but I’ve hit a bit of a snag with it. I was thinking through what the concept of chaos actually means and how to craft rules that support it.

Conception: Chaos Defined

Chaos is the antithesis of order; no rules, no “system”, no meaning. Usually, one models that with randomness. Randomness appears on the surface to have that element of chaos that we’re striving for, but that’s not really my conception of chaos. Randomness isn’t chaos in that regard; it’s a way of accounting for the things that we can’t (or don’t want to) describe in detail. To my mind, it’s not truly random in the abstract sense. Trying to capture that in some kind of mechanical effect, I think, isn’t possible. Even if you could do it, I think you’d end up with something unworkable at the gaming table, either from complexity or failure outside of a narrow range of effect.

So then I had a conversation with someone about it, and he helped me see that the problem is that we have to define our definition of chaos to something that we can actually quantify. We can’t really define chaos as a lack of order, as that’s a non-state state. Let’s define it as entropy. Furthermore, let’s define randomness as the agent of that entropy. Now we’re cooking with gas. (Thanks, Quinn, you rock, by the way!)

Implementation: Chaos in Motion

I talked before about randomizing the damage type of powers while in Limbo, but what if we took that to its logical conclusion. All resistances would have the same type of randomization. Let’s add in forced movement as well, slides could become pushes or pulls, and vice-versa. Now we’re getting something that looks really chaotic at the table.

Outside of tactical combat, we could add movement to the mix. After each extended rest, the party continues on the same path, but they’re no longer moving in the same direction (north has now become southwest, for example). Distance to known locations could also vary randomly from day to day.

Closing: Chaos Waning

I have two concerns with what we’ve got so far, and they both impact the DM. One is the amount of rolling/bookkeeping the DM has to do to make all of this go. Some of this can be mitigated by pre-rolling, but it’s up to the DM whether he wants to implement all of these or only some of them. Options, they’re a wonderful thing!

Second, some of this may increase the length of combat, which is already an issue for some groups. Again, DM fiat comes into play here. Feel free to use all, part, or none of the above suggestions.

A DM doesn’t even have to be consistent in either of these! He could choose to determine randomly which effects occur in which rounds of combat (first round: movement affected, second round: damage affected). After an extended rest, the DM decides whether direction or distance has changed.

Let me know what you think. Chaotic enough for you? Have I missed something obvious?


chad said:

I think the ideas are fine for representing chaos, although I’ll add that when I read them, I thought “I’d probably use these some of the time, and do something else other times, because chaos shouldn’t be predictable.”

Maybe that’s a way around your reservations — provide a few different ideas for ‘chaos effects’, and then suggest that the DM pick or adapt one of them as he/she sees fit. If the DM doesn’t want to decide, then just roll it out.

As a DM, I’d want to respond positively to players that tried to embrace the plane in some way - maybe they seek out a pocket of ice for their encounter, for example. I’d want to give them some potential upside for such efforts, but I’d also want to add a complication (perhaps stronger or weaker than the upside, depending on their efforts). For example, they seek out and find a section that’s heavily ice-influenced, buffing cold damage and reducing resistance, but the area is beset with a constantly shifting (d8-for-direction) wind that pushes creatures around and deflects ranged attacks. If they did well in their efforts to find the place, maybe the place has areas where they can take cover fro the wind; if they did poorly, then one of more of their enemies is adapt at influencing the winds, putting the push (but not the direction) under the control of that enemy.

As a DM, I’m a big fan of ‘yes, and’ - the idea that players can take efforts to try interesting things, and those efforts usually succeed, but there are often complications along the way. I think limbo is a good place to drive this feeling home.

Also, in your copious free time, I’d suggest a Limbo Shaper monster theme that can be applied to a monster to give it the ability to shape Limbo. The ‘shape the world’ ability was always part of limbo (to my memory), but it was somewhat nebulously defined both in its effect and in its availability to the PCs.

TriskalJM said:

The idea of not using the chaos effect all the time was something I intended by what I wrote, although I probably didn’t make that clear enough. I gave a few suggestions of different ‘chaos effects,’ but I really like what you’ve done as far as tying that to a location (love the ice-influenced area you mentioned). That’s something I may need to explore more of.

I also am a fan of the “Yes, and” form of DMing. It’s something one of my current DMs uses to great effect.

You’ve got my brain working on how to build a Chaos-shaper monster them. I agree the mechanics for shaping chaos were pretty limited originally. It also felt ‘bolted on.’ I’m not a big fan of systems that bolt rules on like that. I think there’s a way to do it without it feeling like it’s bolted on, and that’s what I like to strive for.

Simon T. Vesper said:

I like the idea, and want to follow-up with Chad’s comment: DMs should employ a “yes, and…” approach to Limbo and its chaos matter, else risk the ire of their players when things don’t go their way. In other words, if the DM arbitrarily chooses when to use these chaos rules, and when not to, and there’s no real pattern, it reflects chaos but can also be an annoyance to players if they feel they aren’t being treated fairly. I don’t mean to suggest an issue with player entitlement; I mean that if things are going really bad for the players, throw them something good. If they’re having a hard time figuring out how to navigate Limbo to their advantage, give them a suggestion, or an encounter with a native who’s willing to help (with or without strings attached).

Remember to pay close attention to your players while in Limbo, because you don’t want the game to sour because of too much randomness.


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