GMing: Paragon/Renegade, or the Ethics of Mass Effect


What is it?

The first encounter I can recall with this bit of digital game-design was a BioWare title, Knights of the Old Republic, a CRPG belonging the Star Wars game franchise. In that case, it took the form of the “Light Side/Dark Side” mechanic: actions taken resulted in accumulation of positive (light) or negative (dark) points to an overall total score for each character. The balance between the two had an effect on how the character was reacted to by other NPCs, and even had a physical “cosmetic” effect, in that the more the character favored the Dark Side, the more pale and haggard he would appear. Mass Effect, also by BioWare, included a similar mechanic using what was referred to as “Paragon/Renegade,” which differed from the former in that the virtues represented less of a “Good vs Evil” flavor, favoring something more like “Nice vs Mean.” Though less black-and-white and harder to judge the quality of a given action, it did mean that the Hero™ could favor one or the other and still be considered a “good person” in the end. I preferred the new mechanic. Naturally, I wanted to find a way to bring it into GURPS. Accumulation of Paragon/Renegade points can be a meta-system mostly independent of the rules; the GM can evaluate a PC’s actions and award points as he sees fit. However, there’s not much point to it unless there’s some tangible, in-game benefit, which is where the game-system gets involved.


How I’m doing it

I’m already using the official-alternative Impulse Buys in (most of) my campaigns, and have been, in some form or another, since 3rd Edition; details on my website. My first thought—which I’m currently planning to implement for the first time in the Inception campaign—was to allow the accumulation of Paragon/Renegade-specific points for this purpose, spendable only on actions that can be properly justified according to the associated virtue. In addition, currently, my plan is to allow the current balance between the two types—that is, the number of points by which one exceeds the other (FREX: Paragon 5 and Renegade 3 = balance of Paragon 2)—to be used as a sort of limited Reputation, positive or negative based on the situation (FREX: a Paragon Rep would be positive toward “do-gooders” folks and negative toward “mavericks”), the limitation being that the subject must witness or have witnessed the character’s behaviors, or at least, “read his file.” Gaining of such points in either direction will be evaluated on an action-by-action basis, and will be limited to one point of each per session. It is my opinion (not specifically backed up by my digital inspiration) that gaining of a new point in either direction should require an escalation—if a character gains a Renegade Point for stealing candy from a baby (in the name of justice, of course 😉 ), then to gain another the next time, he’d need to steal the baby’s blanket too—or maybe the whole baby. Spending of such points will be upon request, and also limited to one of each per session.

Other Means

I also briefly considered using Talents (B89 and Power Ups 3) to represent a Paragon/Renegade score; it could provide a bonus to a number of specific, appropriate social skills, and would have a built-in limited “reputation” similar to what I wanted. It would probably work well enough, but it would be a bit more complicated to employ—I opted for the KISS method. One could also treat Paragon/Renegade Points as a limited-use Higher Purpose (B59), applying its bonus only to ethically-appropriate actions; a score of more than one Paragon/Renegade point could be available as a combined, single bonus, or limited to +1 for an equal number of uses. Either of these would be suitable replacements if you aren’t using Impulse Buys or some similar meta-system.

My work on the Inception campaign has renewed, to my great relief. I’ll be sure to write about how this mechanic works out in play once it finally occurs.

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