Friday, 23 May 2014

Psykers, Howling at the Moon, and the Paladin Problem

Recently I started listening to Knights of the Night's Numenera series after Roo Sack Gamers pointed me there. One of the party chose the focus Howls at the Moon, gaining a form of lycanthropy. Listening to the episode and thinking about the situation, I found it quite interesting for a couple of reasons. This post is loosely based on some feedback I sent them. It contains spoilers for their Numenera podcasts.

The Paladin Problem

This was an idea outlined to me by Dan. I don't remember whether it was his, or someone told him, or he read it somewhere. Anyway, I thought it was interesting.

Essentially, the idea here is that the design of the traditional D&D paladin class uses behavioural restrictions with punishing costs to counterbalance the class' advantages. They gain foe-smiting, evil-detecting, magic horsies, healing powers, and an array of generally pretty kickass stuff for being a knight in shining armour. In return, they must be good, lawful and noble, with a code of conduct governing what they can do without losing their powers.

The problem comes about because of a discrepancy in where these elements fall. The benefits of the paladin accrue almost exclusively to the paladin personally, letting them kick ass in combat, be pretty awesome in social situations, bring righteousness and justice, ignore diseases, and so on. A number of the powers can be used to help others, and should be, but all classes have some ability to help their allies.

In contrast, the restrictions on the paladin affect everyone. A paladin's moral code restricts the entire party in what course of action they can choose, because they cannot reasonably permit acts that they consider evil or unlawful. A paladin that takes a "see no evil" approach when allies are torturing a prisoner is not roleplaying well (if their morality permits torture, they wouldn't need to leave the room). This leads to the common view of the paladin as having the proverbial stick: they need to be either naive or ruthless with the rest of the party unless all are entirely selfless and law-abiding. The party may well feel unable to use deception, poisons, or sneaky tactics to overcome obstacles, if the paladin insists on a stand-up fight and always gives foes a chance to surrender. Perhaps they don't feel it's acceptable to take a reward, or demand that a quest be accepted. They should seek judgement on evil characters - and they can always tell who's evil. No pragmatic deals, no half-measures. Because of the need to maintain their code, the paladin can effectively become the arbiter of morality with a casting vote on the party's actions. They don't play well with more complex parties featuring characters with looser morals - which is just about everyone.

Howling at the Moon

In the Numenera game, Teela is an Intelligent Nano who Howls at the Moon.

Tier 1: Beast Form. On five consecutive nights each month, you change into a monstrous beast for up to one hour each night. In this new form, you gain +8 to your Might Pool, +1 to your Might Edge, +2 to your Speed Pool, and +1 to your Speed Edge. While in beast form, you can’t spend Intellect points for any reason other than to try to change to your normal form before the one-hour duration is over (a difficulty 2 task). In addition, you attack any and every living creature within short range. After you revert to your normal form, you take a –1 penalty to all rolls for one hour. If you did not kill and eat at least one substantial creature while in beast form, the penalty increases to –2 and affects all your rolls for the next 28 hours. Action to change back.

Her brother, Bosco, is the only person who she won't attack when transformed. He's also able to calm her down by spending a few rounds on that. One of the oddities Teela's player rolled was a music-and-hologram-box, and they decided it'd be cool to give this to Bosco and have it be what he uses to calm her down.

Something about Howls at the Moon seemed off-kilter to me, and after a while I think I’ve got it. It’s not just that the focus is a disadvantage for the early levels, because disadvantages can be fun. It's that it's a sort of Paladin Problem. A Howler’s transformation is mostly a problem for the rest of the party: they’re the ones struggling to contain the beast and avoid getting mauled, keep it from attacking NPCs or causing property damage, conceal the transformation from passers-by, and burning equipment, cyphers and hard work on trying to control it. The Howler has some risk of being killed during a rampage, or otherwise getting into trouble, but the rampage itself isn't a danger. When they gain some control over it (not for a surprisingly long time) it becomes an asset to the character - but remains a danger to everyone else right up until Tier 6.

Bosco’s use of the music box as the way to calm down Teela is a cool idea and a fun use of an oddity, but it does introduce an extra point of vulnerability to the calming mechanic. Whereas the default scheme calls for the right person to spend three rounds to calm the lycanthrope, now they must have the right item as well. When Teela transforms, this immediately becomes an issue; the GM makes full use of it by targeting the box, to an extent that I thought was a bit excessive to be honest, and it was nearly damaged a couple of times, which would (unless they changed their canon) have rendered it impossible to calm her down. By rules as written, it’s difficult for the GM to interrupt the soothing process because the lycanthrope can't target the calmer.

This was a player decision, but from what they said on the recording, only those two players were involved; this raises the Paladin issue again, as it's generally the rest of the party that face the consequences of a rampage being prolonged. I don't imagine the three-point-failure issue occurred to them at all, so this is just an (interesting?) example of unanticipated mechanical effects of roleplaying decisions.

Suffer not the Witch

After a recent exchange with Dan, I'm starting to think that Warhammer 40,000's psykers are also a kind of Paladin Problem.

Psychic powers, in accordance with the canon, are very powerful in 40K RPGs. They offer abilities like controlling enemy actions, seeing the past, predicting the future, teleportation, disabling machinery (a pretty big deal in a sci-fi game) or creating miniature black holes. Their offensive powers are typically stronger than most space marine weaponry, with the notable exception of the heavy bolter. This is, as I discussed in that article, balanced ineffectually by the considerable risk of using your powers.

In practice, psychic powers are highly useful to the psyker, and pose a considerable hazard to their allies - significantly more than they pose to the psyker. If something goes wrong, there's about a 50% chance of it affecting everyone nearby, which will often include allies, and sometimes enemies. Some powers, such as the ubiquitous Smite, also risk hitting nearby allies.

Psychic phenomena may include:

  • The psyker gains Insanity points (long-term minor effect)
  • Darkness falls for a moment
  • Plant life nearby dies
  • Anyone within 5d10 metres test to avoid being knocked over
  • Everything within 2d10 metres flies up into the air
  • Nearby creatures test to avoid being deafened
  • The psyker suffers 1d5 Wounds and tests against Fear (both irrelevant to a Space Marine)
  • Everyone nearby tests to avoid gaining 1d5 Insanity
  • Machinery within 5d10 metres malfunctions
  • Everyone nearby succumbs to Frenzy and must test to avoid taking 1d5 Corruption points
  • Everyone within 3d10 metres must test to avoid being Stunned
  • The psyker gains 5 Corruption points and can't use powers for 1 hour
  • The psyker’s power is turned back on him. Resolve the power’s effects as normal, but the power targets the psyker instead. If the power is beneficial, it instead deals 1d10+5 Energy Damage to the psyker and the beneficial effect is cancelled.
  • Everyone in the area (including the psyker) must make a Hard (–20) Willpower Test or gain 1d10 Corruption Points.
  • All sentient creatures (including the psyker) within 1d100 metres of the psyker must test against Fear (3). This effect lasts for 1d5 rounds.
  • A psychic storm of howling winds erupts, and a torrential rain of blood covers an area within 5d10 metres of the psyker. Anyone within this area (including the psyker himself ) must pass a Challenging (+0) Strength Test or be knocked to the ground. If anyone uses Psychic Powers within this area, they automatically invoke a Perils of the Warp Test. The storm lasts for 1d5 Rounds
  • Reality buckles around the psyker, and an area within 3d10 metres of him is sundered. Solid objects alternately rot, burn, and freeze, and everyone and everything in the area takes 2d10 Rending damage.
  • The psyker must make an immediate Very Hard (–30) Willpower Test. If he fails, he is immediately dragged into the Warp by a Daemon, which possesses him and uses his body for vile purposes. The psyker appears on an inhabited planet 1d10 weeks later with dim memories of the horrific acts he has performed while possessed. He gains 4d10 Corruption Points, and may experience complications caused by his actions while possessed. He may receive a visit from the Inquisition if his fate becomes known to that organisation. From now on, the psyker must adjust all Perils of the Warp checks by +10 due to his body serving as a conduit for blasphemous forces.
  • With a blood curdling howl, a Daemon Prince (see Chapter XIII: Adversaries) rips into existence within 3d10 metres of the psyker. It detests the psyker and trains its attacks on the fool that unwittingly summoned it. Only its destruction or the death of the psyker will send it back to the Warp.
  • The psyker is immediately and irrevocably destroyed. He is either sucked screaming into the Warp, never to be seen again, or consumed utterly by hellfire. The GM may rule that there is a 50% chance that a Daemon Prince appears in the psyker’s place.

It's a selective list, but there is a very pronounced tendency for effects either to be ineffective against Space Marines (or be fluff effects with minimal effect on anyone), or to have consequences for the whole party. Area damage erupting in the middle of the squad, disruption to the squad's plans or equipment, alerting enemies to their presence, or indeed the summoning of a huge daemon - all have consequences for everyone.

It's a very different incarnation of the Paladin Problem, because rather than restrictions on the party's activities, the psyker's downsides are simply danger posed to the party, just like the Moon Howler. But I think it's worth considering in the same sort of place.


Essentially, an issue shared between these three "classes" is that they impose significant costs on the character, but these costs fall equally or even more heavily on the rest of the party, while the class offers only limited or indirect benefits to their allies. Of course, a character being better at their job is generally in the party's favour, and so there's an argument that trading off one character's fighting excellence against sporadic damage to the rest of the party is acceptable.

On the whole, I feel the paladin remains the glaring problem because of the discrepancy. The benefits not only accrue primarily to the paladin, but are largely direct and game-mechanical. The costs are largely non-mechanical: while Falling as a paladin is a serious mechanical problem, they're unlikely to allow this to happen. Instead, the paladin will almost always restrict their actions in accordance with their code of honour, which obliges the rest of the party to fall in line. Thus, mechanical IC benefits are largely counterbalanced against roleplaying restrictions that affect the other players in a sort of metagame OOC level of what kinds of things they can do. Short of actively deceiving the paladin, which is problematic in itself, they are liable to end up as mere associates of the paladin, obliged to follow their moral code and abide by their judgement, rather than as equals.

In contrast, the Howler and the Psyker impose mechanical costs on their allies to balance the mechanical benefits they personally gain, some of which also aid their allies. While this can be annoying, as other classes don't tend to penalise their allies in such a way, it affects the characters rather than the players, and personally I find this more acceptable. In both cases, there are also mitigations that allies can apply to alleviate the problem - sometimes as simple as "stay away from the psyker" - whereas there's not much you can do to get around an ally's moral code.

A tangent: Howling in practice

Having read about Howling at the Moon before, I was curious to see how they would handle the lycanthropy. The KOTN group seem to be keen on character exploration and were unlikely to just handwave an opportunity like one of the party sometimes turning into a bear. Logically speaking, an uncontrolled lycanthrope is a danger to the party and you'd need a pretty good reason to keep them around. Either you want very strong bonds of trust and affection that survive in the face of very real danger, or you want a very significant practical benefit that outweighs the risks to a calculating mind. Unless you want to play a rompy dungeon-crawly adventure, where the lycanthropy happens offstage except when you want it to, the focus places quite a lot of responsibility on everyone to establish plausible behaviour.

With a group of basically strangers, this is a tricky one to handle. What is the etiquette of announcing your lycanthropy? Well, you probably want to start by breaking the news early: it's respectful, giving people a chance to get away from a serious threat. You should discuss the situation and suitable countermeasures. Knowledge generally makes people more comfortable, whereas uncertainty is stressful, so the more you can explain, the better. And while it's bound to be a sensitive subject, bear in mind that you are the problem here, and it really is your responsibility to respect the others' position.

What actually happened in the KOTN game is this:

Note: this is not an attack on KOTN, their gaming style or how they chose to do things. I just found it interesting as an illustration of the problem, because this is probably not an uncommon example of how things play out in practice.

You head out on an unwanted mission with a bunch of randoms, including an odd couple. Way out into the desert, shortly before moonrise, the man announces that his sister’s a werebear, and your only chance of survival is to stay right here and trust him and his magic music box to control her. It’s fine – he’s completely safe from her!

Someone suggests that either she or they should head away at once. The problem is, she can move faster than the others, so she'd have no trouble tracking them down again and attacking. It's safer to keep her in sight, apparently, so the brother can control her. You tie her up as best you can, and hobble your animal so it can't run away either.

At moonrise, the bear bursts its ropes, swipes the msuic box out of his hand even though he claimed it couldn't attack him, and tries to eat everyone else. The box seems entirely useless, several people are injured in the struggle, the aneen nearly breaks a leg in its panic, and the other nano's attempt to mentally stun the bear backfires and frazzles him. Several ciphers are expended trying to stop her. Eventually she does calm down, but it looks more like the effect of a calming cipher than the oh-so-powerful music box – and you’re out of those ciphers.

In the characters' place, there is no way I would want to keep this couple around. Knowing that Teela presented a serious danger to these strangers, they kept it secret until the last possible moment; this was disrespectful and gave them no chance to escape the danger. There was very little time to plan, or to carry out more labour-intensive plans that might have worked better than rope, like building her a pit.

Moreover, the very first time this happened, it was a disaster. Bosco's claims about calming her down seem deluded; he was totally ineffectual. A lot of energy and resources were wasted, people are hurt, it was a very unpleasant experience, and it could have been even worse. What if it happens somewhere more inhabited, or when the situation is already bad? The event undermines any confidence in what they say, and any idea that it might be safe to keep them around.

Since it's so early in the game, there's no existing bond of trust between the characters. Teela and Bosco have not yet proven their worth to the others, either practically or emotionally. They haven't lived through a number of lycanthropy events that went off without trouble, which would have helped reassure the others that it's a manageable problem. So far, 100% of experiences point in the other direction. At best, they seem naive and reckless. At worst, they seem duplicitous. Are they spies, saboteurs, or perhaps just predators on trusting strangers? They'd be a decent combination as brigands, killing off fellow-travellers with lycanthropy and then looting their stuff. Angry, injured or mistrustful characters might well want to kill them on the spot. At the very least, it's hard to swallow anyone charitably shrugging it all off and keeping them around without hard feelings.

What happens, because it's a game, is that everyone does in fact shrug it off and they carry on with the mission. Them's the breaks. It was a fun game to listen to and it's probably the only way to keep the party together at that point.


  1. On Howling:

    The real issue I have here is the GM targeting the music box. Obviously mileage varies, and people have very different attitudes to this kind of thing, but I have a nigh-unbreakable GMing rule that you should *never* penalise a player for something that they only take as flavour text. Doing so actively discourages players from being flavourful and actively encourages them to do everything with one eye on their mechanical advantage.

    On Paladins: I actually think Paladins have the potential to be okay as long as you're a bit more flexible with your definition of "Lawful Good". Basically you need to make certain that your interpretation is "Lawful Good" and not "Uptight Stupid". There's a big difference between a character who draws the line at torture (perfectly acceptable in a non-Evil game) and a character who refuses to countenance stealth, deceit, or in extreme cases ranged weapons.

    I agree that "see no evil" and its related, more dickish cousin "by any means necessary" are cheesy ways to circumvent the code, but I think you can have a reasonable stab at playing a 'din who abides by a strict code of behaviour that *doesn't* include "harass your party members while they're trying to play the game".

    1. On Howling:
      I would tend to agree. As with the players, I don't particularly think the GM had consciously registered how it interacted with the Howling, only that the music box was a thing that could be affected. Since oddities are somewhat game-mechanical anyway it's a slight step away from flavour, although it's role in Howling is not, so that probably muddies the waters. On the whole though, the impression I get is that the KOTN group is less concerned about that kind of thing - they talk a fair bit about making stories and so on, I think they're more interested in events that are narratively interesting than in mechanical advantage, so they may well view it as a plus that a flavour decision had mechanical consequences.

      What strictly happened what that the bear rolled a 19 to break free of the ropes, which called for a minor effect, and the GM ruled that either the snapping ropes or flailing arms knocked the music box away. It's tricky because the bear isn't exactly Teela; I suppose it was technically in the bear's independent interests not to be calmed, but it wasn't in Teela's, which an effect is supposed to be. Once was a little eyebrow-raising, but then then she almost fell over onto the dropped music-box and he had to roll to snatch it away. Then she got hit with a sort of web-shooter cypher and bust out of that with a 20, and he had the webbing gum up the box so another cipher had to be used to clean it up - I'm really not sure what they'd have done if they didn't happen to have that. Personally I found it got old fast and felt rather pointed, but I think it's just that he mentally locked onto the music box and other stuff didn't occur to him.

      Again though, they were doing a one-shot and someone deliberately took lycanthropy, so the feeling I get is that they wanted to explore being an unwilling lycanthrope and its consequences, so not having her go on a rampage would perhaps have felt like a damp squib to the KOTN.

      On Paladins:
      True enough, and I don't think Paladins are unplayable or anything. Game-annoying moral codes can apply to any character. It's the mechanical reinforcement of Falling that turns the heat up, I think. As you know, I do think Paladins are an unsuitable class in general, but that's a different issue.

    2. Ah, that makes sense.

      I think this is a low-key problem I have with those kinds of systems actually, where a particular random event mandates something "interesting" to happen. If the GM is forced to improvise a random consequence for a werebear rolling well on their "break out from ropes" effect, it's pretty much inevitable that they'll target the "stop the werebear" device.

      But yes, I suspect that I would have found it quite tiring, although of course mileage seems to vary.