I’ve always found that I can get a lot of mileage out of exploring nuances, fine shades of differentiation between synonyms, when I’m looking for adventure ideas and character concepts. Sometimes I will introduce a character to do nothing but that, especially when the PCs are in the other camp – even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Logic vs Rationalism

For example, ponder the difference between Logic and Rationalism. The dictionary definitions of these terms are almost interchangeable:

  • Logic -The science of reasoning, a scheme or treatise [on the subject], conformity to its laws, the way one argues, argumentative ability, the power of convincing
  • Rationalism -The treating of reason as the ultimate authority [esp. in Religion], the rejection of doctrine not consonant with reason.

…but these don’t really get to the heart of the difference. Logic is about exploring the inevitable consequences if a set of axioms or assumptions hold true, with no axiom being set in stone as truth. Rationalism proceeds from relatively fixed doctrinal axioms (sometimes referred to as an article of faith) and proceeds from that starting point.

Before you can explore these differences in greater length, you have to determine where the PCs stand on these issues – preferably without tipping them off. In this case, that’s not a difficult question: because the Gods in an RPG are not “real”, any expression of “faith” in them is simulated by the players. That means that there is a dichotomy between the players and their characters – the characters are employing rationalism (if not absolute faith), the players are employing logic as an intellectual exercise in determining what their characters think. As the dominant authority over their characters, the players are perfectly willing to question an article of the faith and have their characters employ logic instead of rationalism at the drop of a hat.

That gives me three options in terms of an encountered character or situation that will explore these differences:

  • A character who employs absolute logic - In order to employ absolute logic, it is necessary to reject any non-logical causes of behavior. Such a character would be utterly ruthless, with no trace of compassion, no empathy, and no humanity. Given the time of year, the archetype that comes to mind is Ebenezer Scrooge. In the course of dealing with such a character, the PCs would be driven to connect more strongly with the own humanity, establishing a closer bond with their characters in the process.
  • A character who employs rationalism to reach distasteful solutions to problems - A religious zealot or terrorist who believes implicitly in the articles of the faith of the PCs. Explores the question of how you react when you learn that your faith condones and encourages acts that you find morally repugnant. There are so many examples apon which to draw, from the modern Middle East to Northern Ireland to the conflict which led to the creation of the Church Of England and how the religious faithful of the time had to come to terms with the issues raised. I like the latter best, simply because it exposes another conflict – a monarch who rules by “Divine Right” and is therefore always empowered to do as he wills, a social necessity (an heir to the throne), and religious authority which forbids the act which appears necessary. Any GM who can’t find a rich and interesting plotline in that situation isn’t trying hard enough.
  • A character who rejects both - a sensualist, or a humanitarian. Again, I like the latter, because there seems more fertile ground for a plotline there – exploring the cruelties that the faith of the PCs demands be inflicted. It’s probably worth commenting that my players are very cosmopolitan and multicultural in personal philosophy and actually find it hard to comprehend intolerance or prejudice on any grounds. I’m from a slightly older era – I understand while disapproving of such things. (I like to think that the attitudes and philosophies of people like me created people like them – a conceit, I admit. In fact, I dedicated an entire campaign – The Rings Of Time – to exploring fundamental prejudices between Elves and Dwarves, which is how I know that my players simply can’t grasp the concept. It makes them better people but not necessarily better players.)
  • A situation in which Logic gives the wrong answers, with consequences - A trickier and much more challenging alternative from the point of view of the GM. Creating such a plotline would rest on determining why Logic might give the wrong answers, finding a way to manifest that without a plot train (probably using a prophecy of some sort), and making sure the logic was both simple and compelling to be sure that the players – and PCs – get it. The consequence would be that the players start out on the wrong side of a situation in the first act, discover that they are on the wrong side in the second or third act, and have to overcome an enemy they had previously strengthened in the final act – then deal with the fallout and consequences, personal, professional, and global.

The Good Of The Many

(I’ve mentioned this example before, and will probably do so again, because it is one of the acts of creation of which I am most proud.)

I’ve always had trouble with the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number, which is the fundamental tenet of Utilitarianism because to me that always implied a disenfranchised minority who did not receive the greatest good – in fact, may not receive any good whatsoever. When I was teaching myself the Hero System, I created a character, Ullar, whose tenet was “The Greatest Good For All” as a means of directly contrasting with this philosophy and exploring the consequences in terms of personal responsibility, ethics, professionalism, society, etc. I discovered that analyzing social trends and decisions in this context revealed contrasts and exposed the flaws in many of the contemporary social trends and patterns of government.

Because I wanted the character’s involvement to create the background of the game and lay the foundations for one or more campaigns, which were to be set in recent historical eras, I chose to have him become an active participant in “historical events” in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the era preceding those. This was an era of black-and-white morality, of reducing complex questions of government to simple answers more appropriate for wartime than peacetime. It was an era in which Republicanism / Democracy / Free Enterprise and Communism clashed in an ideological struggle which would shape the world for decades. And into the mix, as a spur to such explorations, I placed a villain for this hero to battle against – a villain with a personal philosophy and goals which were as diametrically opposed to those of Ullar as possible. The Mandarin’s goals were to reestablish a totalitarianistic imperial government in China (and then the world) with himself at its head – to seek the greatest good for just one (him), in other words.

At the end of the campaign background, I wrote Ullar out, giving him a death scene in which he seemingly overcame his arch-enemy and achieved a final victory.

Ramifications in the 60s

The first real campaign (i.e. one with real players) set in this game world was the story of the Ultras, set in the 1960s, a time of counter-cultures in conflict with that black-and-white morality and in which the consequences of the “us-versus-them” mentality, carried to its logical extreme, played out. The “white hats” were shown to be capable of dark deeds – Watergate being perhaps the ultimate example – and allied involvement in the Vietnam War was being openly questioned by youth culture. At the same time, it was an era of great idealism and optimism. Since I was a child of the 60s, surrounded by these events, this was a natural era for me to explore. I brought the same villain back from the dead (again – he had a habit of doing that) and set the PCs within the counterculture movement – something they were ideologically content with, being mostly reprobate hippies themselves. As an added layer to give the whole thing depth, these were escapees from an Imperialistic culture in which they had been enslaved – so, once again, there was an immediate conflict between them and the villain of the piece. What I had not expected at the time – I was still learning my craft as a GM – was that the legacy of Ullar and his philosophies would underpin the entire campaign. The gulf between the ideology espoused by this (to the players) shadowy figure and what was now being done by the authorities that he had supported created a four-way conflict and exposed the flaws in the player’s own personal philosophies. One of them later told me that he had felt directly challenged to examine the foundations of his own beliefs by the game and stepping out of his personal “shoes”, making him a better person – something to which I was quite proud of having contributed. That campaign ended with the PCs defeating the villain – again, apparently for good – and the PCs returning to deep space on a life-long quest for exploration, having come to the decision that earth society held no place for them – a bittersweet moment for them, and a poignant moment for certain NPCs who realized that the PCs had done more good than harm.

Ramifications in the 70s

At almost the same time, and running concurrently with it, I started the “third” campaign set in the 1970s of this game world, and it is this campaign and its immediate successors that has lasted to the present day. Once again I brought back the great villain to oppose the new PCs, and once again that villain brought the full weight of the legacy of Ullar with him. This time the contrast was between Free trade and Socialism, between big business and the welfare of the ordinary citizen – and once again, the flaws in both these ideologies was exposed by the spotlight of the Mandarin-Ullar contrast. Ultimately, the team defeated Mandarin by thinking outside the box, and finding a world in which his Imperial Rule was the lesser of two evils. This turned him from an implacable foe into a neutral party, even a sometime ally. At the same time, Mandarin was being softened by a personal relationship that had developed between himself and the sister of one of the PCs – a sister who was ardently women’s lib and a full convert to Ullar’s philosophies, and who therefore challenged Mandarin’s thinking on almost every level. The combination made Mandy an enlightened monarch – still capable of total ruthlessness, but a monarch who had the best interests of his subjects at heart.

Even then, the exploration of the difference between “The greatest good for the greatest number” and “The greatest good for all” wasn’t done. One of the PCs – who had fallen out with the other members of the team and split off into a concurrent solo campaign – decided that the world (and the team in particular) was losing its way. An exponent of the philosophy that wealth was the enabler of personal liberty, and that government best served by creating universal opportunities for wealth amongst its citizens – a very 1970s Commercialism viewpoint – the character found a way to bring Ullar back from the dead, assuming that he would agree with her implicitly, take control of the team, and steer the world back onto the right course.

If Ullar had been any other character, that’s what might have happened – but I knew the character like the back of my hand. He pointed out the flaws in her philosophy (there are some harms that cannot be recompensed by wealth and that these harms curtail any prospect for personal liberty, and that a functional definition of “all” must include future generations yet-unborn – in about as long as it took you to read that statement – and then went his own way. Sometimes he agreed with her, more frequently he opposed everything she did as “shortsighted”. Eventually, he – along with his arch-enemy, The Mandarin, and the Mandarin’s daughter – Ascended to become the new Lords Of Creation in the course of Ragnerok.

Ramifications in the 50s – redux

But the exploration of this particular nuance was STILL not concluded. With the Zenith-3 campaign, set in an alternate-world 1950s, a single event changed the entire paradigm of the character. There is an absolute ruthlessness implicit in the phrase “The greatest good for all” – the unspoken, “whether they like it or not”. A single seminal event in the campaign background had pushed Ullar into becoming a publicly-known figure rather than a behind-the-scenes manipulator of events; and another – the reawakening of Mandarin from several centuries of amnesia – then pushed him into becoming a hero. That reawakening could, in turn, be traced back to the shockwave of Ullar’s extragalactic FTL craft first materializing in the local space-time. Delaying both by a single day meant that Ullar became a villain, not a hero. The entire first Zenith-3 campaign was the story of his exposure and ultimate defeat – and (in a sharp turnaround) exposing the flaws in his personal philosophy.

In a nutshell, I got thirty years worth of gaming out of this one Nuance, this one character. Which is why I consider him one of my greatest creations, of course!

In search of Nuance

Roget’s Thesaurus is full of nuances that can be explored, and more are being added all the time as words evolve in their meaning. Nothing so shallow as the obvious changes in meaning for the term “Gay” in the course of the last century, but beefy subjects for introspection and fascination such as the difference between Faith and Belief.

But I have learned, through the “Ullar Experience”, that context also matters a great deal, setting the framework within which the differences are to be explored. Change the context, and the answers may well come out differently. For that reason, I have found the media to be a better source than the thesaurus.

How often have you watched a news report or TV show and someone has used a term that doesn’t sound quite right? if you are sufficiently attuned to the nuances of language – and you should be, they are amongst your primary tools as a GM – you will notice them all the time. Each such is the revelation of a Nuance that may make fertile ground for a character or an adventure. What is the difference between Liberty and Freedom? Between Dogma and Doctrine? Between a promise, an oath, and a commitment?

Finding the answers is sometimes not easy. You will need to get inside your own head and understand your own beliefs and philosophies – and will sometimes confront gaps in them. You will often challenge your players to understand themselves better. But these potential real-world benefits are secondary to the real objective – the shadings of nuance, amplified and exemplified, make for great stories, adventures, encounters, and characters. And every game benefits from those.

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