by Will Hindmarch
Apocalyptic tales pit us—all of us, as a people—against great and terrible threats. Razed, which is as apocalyptic as it is post-apocalyptic, is about characters living through hellacious times, facing the end of a known world and the imposition of something new, something alien, something frightening and mysterious. It’s about how we change and how we stay the same, from the common citizen to the remarkable survivor.
It’s about civilization. It’s about civilization in jeopardy. It’s about civilization on the brink, whether it gradually unravels over the course of months or years of withering assaults or whether it collapses all at once under the stress of a single sudden and disastrous event.
Our buildings and cities may fall down, but is that the end of us as a society? Is our civilization wrapped up in our landmarks and leaders? Is it enshrined in our capitols or ourselves? Is it in us or in the relationships between us? How many have to die to ruin a civilization? How few can keep one alive?
These are questions that I’ve been considering as I develop Razed. They’re fruitful, these questions; they can spur a lot of scenes, a lot of stories. They spin off into other questions—moral dilemmas and tactical decisions—which can inform scenarios that might otherwise just be about chases, escapes, battles, and investigations.
Making these issues a part of the game text is easy. Weaving them into scenario designs is pretty straightforward, and I’ll be writing a bit more about that in the final manuscript, too. But that’s not enough. I want this theme of civilization to be a part of play, a part of the game’s intrinsic mechanisms, a part of how we express the game’s characters.
Thus we have the Civility meter in Razed.
This little device has gone through a few permutations already, and is undergoing another major overhaul right now in response to issues arising in the Razed development campaign I’m currently playing. So, with Civility back up on the workshop table, what I say about it now may not be true in the final game. Still, let’s check in with Civility as is stands as of this writing.
Civility is meant to do a few different things simultaneously. Above all, it’s an expression of a character’s societal outlook and social philosophy. That makes it a kind of alignment system, a little bit like the axis of Law and Chaos that’s such an important part of many fantasy settings and games. Thus it’s a shorthand descriptor for how a character views the world and behaves in it.
Instead of being aligned with one philosophy or another, however, Civility is about depicting a character’s changing approach to the outside world. All characters are caught between the extremes.
Civility is measured by the Civility meter, a scale that runs from Wild to Civil, with six degrees in between. Note that the meter doesn’t accommodate neutrality—there’s no balanced state. Your character is always a little more Civil or a little more Wild.
As an expression of a character’s general relationship with society, Civility works fine. It’s a simple ideological spectrum and a straightforward way to describe one aspect of a character. And in addition to describing individual characters, it describes groups of characters. Razed uses simple stats to track and define communities, in addition to characters, and each community gets a Civility rating as well. A high-Civility community is orderly, with a strict hierarchy and a codified set of laws or regulations—the higher the Civility, the more strict the structure. A low-Civility community is loose and shaky, probably with a defining leader or base, but its people take care of themselves more than they take care of each other.
Combinations of different Civilities, between communities and characters, make for a nice variety of types and situations. Ideally, in a modern society, you have Civil people living in a Civil community. Consider, though, the biker gang made up of loyal riders who adhere to their own strict code and hierarchy. They may be somewhat Civil individuals in a somewhat Wild community, upholding the whims of a dangerous and Wild leader as though his word were law. Putting different components together in different amounts—a little more Civil here, a little more Wild there—allows for peculiar and distinctive cases, which is a good thing in a narrative game, I say.
Civility isn’t a static thing. Razed is about civilizations undergoing massive change (utter destruction is one example of massive change) and characters in this game go through similar changes. As a character faces and explores the ravaged game world, her Civility changes, little by little, sometimes resulting in drastic long-term alterations.
A highly Civil police officer left without precinct and law might become a Wild, self-serving loner, out for no one but herself. An upstart citizen, modestly Wild in the days of stable civilization, might fall into lock step with guerilla soldiers battling alien invaders for the sake of Chicago’s memory. Civility isn’t meant to confine characters to philosophical niches but to create a measure against which we can appreciate the subtle or drastic shifts in a character over time.
It’s important to note, here, that Civility is explicitly not a morality system. The actions that trigger movement on the Civility meter may have moral consequences and be tangled up with questions of ethics, but Civility is amoral. Good and evil exist throughout the scale. A civilization built on exploiting non-members or united in the destruction of a hated enemy may be highly, inwardly Civil even as it sends its uniformed thugs out to commit evil for the sake of the society. A trio of Wild survivors might take just what they need to survive or even work briefly as protectors of some local enclave for a while, but they ultimately move on, perhaps to protect themselves from the entanglements of civilization.
Civility is a descriptive trait, not a prescriptive one. A character’s Civility reflects his behavior, and informs the ways in which he interacts with the outside world, but it never limits behavior. A character at the Wild end of the spectrum can always take an action that benefits society at his own expense and a Civil character can always turn on his civilization. Civility is a context that asks the player to consider decisions through a dramatic lens by reminding us that choices change how the character interacts with the outside world.
How, exactly? Razed is a game with lots of dials and sliders for adjusting the stakes and incentives in play, and Civility is part of that. In some campaigns, the incentives for remaining Civil may be high—free equipment and security from society at large—while in other campaigns the civilization (and thus incentives) may be scant and, thus, the characters either trend toward the Wild or remain Civil just to keep the fires of civilization burning in their hearts. That is, sometimes Civility is a tactical gameplay choice and sometimes it’s a dramatic choice of how best to express the character’s journey.
Civility-changing incidents are, as of this writing, a part of scenario design in Razed. Part of the GM’s job is to create scenes that dramatize the characters’ Civility and put their place on the meter to the test. It’s her task to ask the other players, “What does your character do in this situation, and does that make him more or less civilized?” (Some players will call for a more formally systematized method for rendering these dramatic questions in the game rules, and I’m not indifferent to that—development continues.)
Civility is also related to that GUMSHOE staple trait, Stability. Instead of lost Stability leading to mental illnesses, though, as it does in horror games like Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu, Stability loss leads to shifts on the Civility meter. When a character’s Stability reaches zero, she shifts one step on the Civility meter in reaction to whatever has caused her Stability loss (whether it’s a traumatic experience with alien captors or an ambush by rival human survivors). When Stability hits –6 and –12, the character shifts on the meter again.
Sometimes the direction of the Civility shift depends on the nature of the Stability loss but—and this is important—often the direction of the shift is up to the player. Stability loss triggers a dramatic change in the character but it doesn’t necessarily signal how the character changes. The player still makes that choice. Thus, as the character changes Civility over time, the player can either depict a narrative arc for that character (“This is how Sandoval turns into a civilized person.”) or the player can reaffirm the character’s inherent identity by just moving the meter back and forth between two numbers. Both are legal expressions of the character’s identity and philosophy.
To give shifts on the meter some real substance, though, we need consequences for being Civil or Wild. Some of these consequences are fixed and some are variable based on the specific campaign.
First of all, Civil and Wild characters do not respond the same way to the same Interpersonal investigative abilities. The Bureaucracy ability has no foothold in a Wild community or with a Wild individual, and neither does Civil Discourse. To interact with a Wild character, you want to use Intimidation or Flattery, even though those same abilities might seem crass or rude to a Civil NPC.
And, of course, different individuals might still react in different ways. A Wild warlord might see Flattery as an implicit statement that your character respects her authority and will submit to her rule—it might be a sign of respect and weakness at the same time. Select the Interpersonal abilities you use on each NPC carefully.
The difference between Civilities matters, too. The closer two characters’ Civilities are, the less expensive it is to use Interpersonal abilities. Civil characters dealing with other Civil characters can gain clues from each other without spending points, as normal. To get clues from characters on the other end of the Civility spectrum, however, requires a character to spend a point or two.
Finally, we have a new aspect of Civility, which I’ve just brought out in my current development campaign. With this mechanism in play, Civility interacts with Stability differently at each end of the spectrum. Characters on the Wild end of the spectrum have the freedom to act as they wish, without pressuring themselves with all of civilization’s mores and strictures. Survival is paramount. Reciprocity is never implied. These characters face the consequences of their own actions directly, with all the Stability tests that come with them.
Characters on the Civil end of the spectrum, however, can diffuse their Stability losses over society at large. The soldier who commandeers supplies from the citizenry can pass the responsibility up the ladder to his superior. The police officer who kills in the line of duty can pass some of the Stability loss on to the community at large. At the same time, however, the Civil character is subject to Stability losses for the actions of the community. When the local civilization commits an atrocity, all subscribers to that civilization are potentially impacted by it, however slightly.
These small Stability losses are important. They add up. In the blasted landscapes and ruined cities of Razed’s future, Stability is slow to return. You get it where you can.
So, that’s what Civility looks like right now. I could have some breakthrough idea tomorrow that’ll renovate the whole system again (ask me sometime about the prescriptive Civility I experimented with earlier), but for now, this hybrid alignment system is what’s happening behind the scenes on Razed.