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Compassion in Roleplaying Games

Using Empathy as a Game Mechanic in Odd Soot, by Alex Greene

Most people probably associate RPGs with violence rather than compassion. Here, RPG writer Alex Greene takes a look at how empathy can be used as a game mechanic in Odd Soot.

Odd Soot is a unique setting and environment which provides opportunities for a different kind of roleplay, one based on compassion rather than combat.

Odd Soot works best when player characters focus on investigation and self-reflection, rather than fighting and killing. One core mechanic makes life worse for player characters who indulge in lethal combat. Soot sufferers face a rapid downward spiral if they exclusively pursue lethal options.

In the setting's early stages, Odd Soot focuses on investigation as the player characters study how The Soot spreads and try to identify what The Soot actually is, as well as self-reflection as they wonder what they may become as The Soot takes hold. Further books will reveal mysteries and agendas currently hidden, and culminate in a frantic race to find a cure for the worsening disease ravaging their own bodies and minds.

At first, The Soot seemingly has no cure. Nonetheless, player characters have an opportunity to discover, early on, that compassion could prove to be essential; and mercy could save not only their own lives but ultimately all sentient life in Comae Space which is at risk from The Soot.

Compassion in RPGs

Game Effects of Compassion

Compassion cannot eradicate The Soot. Mere kindness does not make cancer, Hansen's disease, or clinical depression go away. Compassion does make sufferers' lives more bearable. Eye contact and conversation, or willingness to sit with a sufferer and listen, can make a huge difference.

If killing opens a channel between the killer's and victim's souls for The Soot to come through, compassion can seal that channel, even if only temporarily.

At the Gamesmaster's discretion, an act of compassion can benefit both the recipient and the compassionate character.

The player must declare their intent to perform an act of compassion towards someone, preferably somebody who is hostile to the character or to people the character cares about.

Compassion can be extended towards a non-player character suffering from The Soot, a Rival or avowed Enemy, or a sympathetic member of the player character's negative Circle. Even an alien from a species known for hostile individuals such as Eldirerrr or Crisg'tu can be the recipient of an act of mercy.

Such actions include, but are not restricted to:

  • Attempting to treat the injuries of a hostile
  • Attempting to rescue a hostile from a hazardous situation
  • Performing some act to attempt to alleviate a hostile's sufferings from The Soot

The act of mercy must be significant and affect the chance of a positive resolution of the scenario or campaign. The player character must also risk harm or even death from the recipient of their mercy.

Example: Millicent Vansdottir, having been kidnapped earlier and having escaped from captivity, has spotted smoke coming from the windows of the building where her kidnapper Mikal, a Soot sufferer, now lies unconscious. Aware of the possibility that he may come around and hurt her again, she dives back into the now-burning building to bring Mikal out, reasoning that The Soot may have driven him to commit his crime. Despite the risk, she drags Mikal out to safety.

At the Gamesmaster's discretion, depending on how much risk was involved and how much compassion the character actually shows, acts of mercy can include the following game effects:

  • Alleviation: The Gamesmaster may make the next Soot check one grade easier, or even waive their next Soot check altogether. It does not go away, but it won't get any worse.
  • Lightening The Load: The next Peculiarities check is made one grade easier, or the Gamesmaster may declare that it automatically succeeds. The character hears its siren call, but finds that they can ignore it this time.
  • Luck Point: The Game Master bestows a free extra Luck Point to the character, which expires at the end of the session if not used.
  • Androcles' Reward: If the hostiles are members of negative Circles or low-grade Soot sufferers who still retain their humanity, the Gamesmaster may withhold rewarding the character until later in the scenario or campaign, where the rescued hostiles then repay the kindness with acts of mercy of their own. Eldirerrr, Crisg'tu and late stage Soot sufferers might be too monstrous to repay kindness.

Compassion In Later Stages of a Campaign

Further in the series, all the secrets will be revealed about The Soot. Late in the Odd Soot campaign, earlier acts of mercy might have huge beneficial consequences, when those who received mercy early on may step forward to aid the characters, or to lend their support to characters seeking to find that final cure for The Soot.

The player characters are destined to find a cure for The Soot and save Comae Space. Their compassion during play can and should be rewarded well by the Gamesmaster.

Alex Green is an RPG writer and has worked on several titles for Mythras, Odd Soot and Traveller. Make sure you check out his new book 'Fioracitta', to be published in early 2020 by Design Mechanism.

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