Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque recently posted a critique of "powers checks" in Ravenloft. Jack describes the premise of a powers check, then listed his two key complaints.
"The idea behind the powers check mechanic is committing evil acts triggers rolls to see if your character is warped by the powers of darkness until they ultimately become a villainous NPC. Along the way, a character gains strange powers and finds their body and mind twisted and corrupted."
"The mechanic mostly serves the purpose of enforcing 2e AD&D's sense of morality. The Realm of Terror box set is explicitly clear that powers checks are intended to make players play the game the right way. You can almost hear the beleaguered sigh of the camp counselor as they tell you kids to knock it off or nobody will be allowed to go swimming after lunch."
"If a player wants to lean into the idea that their character has become tempted by evil or corrupted by darkness, the mechanic punishes them for playing in that mode by eventually taking their character away. The road down into the abyss also has a tendency to cripple your character in one way or another."
After reading that, it occurred to me that I'd accidentally introduced a powers check into a game I'm refereeing. In a recent session of my Wizard City campaign, my players found a badass Hell Gun that's supposed to immediately send the gun's target to Hell (and condemn the gun's user to go there after they die too). I loved this idea, but it seemed kind of disproportionately strong compared to the other capabilities of a GLOG character, so I added one more stipulation, a 1-in-136 chance that the gun's user is dragged down to Hell immediately.
The boring way to describe this is to say that the player had to roll 3d6, and their character would be killed on an 18 ... but the cool way to describe it to say that they had to roll a d666 and would be doomed on 666. I assume the original Ravenloft powers check was also something boring like a d100 roll.
So let's convert my impromptu mechanic into a full on powers check by adding two other possible results. Let's also give it a better name, like the Hell Roll, or something. Any time a character invokes a dark power, the player must roll three 6-sided dice:
- on a 6, the character gains a new dark power
- on a 66, the character is corrupted by the dark power
- on a 666, the character either dies instantly or becomes a servant of the dark power
That seems cool, but the nature of Jack's critique wasn't really that d100 rolls are a thematically boring way to represent the exciting danger of using Hell powers. His first point is that he thinks the check is used to force the players to make their characters act like heroes by punishing them if they try to do anything villainous. His second is that instead of cultivating morally-ambiguous heroes who are tempted by the seductive power of the Dark Side, the "powers check" mechanic discourages you from flirting with supernatural evil by making it feel too risky.
To address Jack's first critique, we need to rethink when to make a powers check or Hell Roll, or whatever. In Ravenloft, it sounds like you have to make a powers check when you perform evil deeds like killing people and taking their stuff, which in previous versions of D&D was treated as ... playing D&D. (Sometimes it almost feels like we shouldn't look for moral guidance from a game where you portray murderers, burglars, robbers, and thieves?)
But I would argue that this kind of mechanic is much better if we don't attach it to notions of sin, and instead attach it to ideas about contamination or taint. Without going too deep into theology or philosophy, I think we can draw a distinction between a mechanic that makes it dangerous to perform evil actions and a mechanic that makes it dangerous to get in too close proximity to evil objects.
We can imagine sin as something that accumulates when people perform certain acts. Two notable features of sin are that it can be repented and forgiven, and that it only accrues based on what you do, not the tools you use to do it. This makes it a poor fit for this game mechanic for a few reasons.
A sin mechanic doesn't put much constraint on player actions if they can remove it at will by claiming that their characters feel genuinely sorry and are prepared to spend their next downtime action praying. (Especially if your received ideas about sin come from a version of Christianity in which it's enough for forgiveness to come from God, even if the victims of your actions won't - or, because they're dead, can't - forgive you.)
A sin mechanic also appears to punish players for the very same actions that other game mechanics reward them for. This in turn calls for an explanation of why the same actions are only sometimes sinful. I suppose you could put your players in a position where they're doing bad things to bad people for good reasons, and where shouldering the weight of the sin that comes along with doing that is just part of their heroic burden ... but that's not really how Ravenloft used the mechanic. Claiming that doing bad things for good reasons accrues no sin is troubling in its own way though. Trying to justify why killing this type of sentient creature is a sin that requires forgiveness, but killing that kind of sentient creature is a righteous action that pleases the divine starts you walking down a mental path that leads somewhere very ugly very quickly.
Suppose though, that we feel satisfied that this monster really is evil. It does bad things to innocent people, and will continue doing so unless we kill it. Slaying this particular monster is an unambiguously good act. Great! So then why would it be sinful to bite the monster with vampire fangs, or slash it with werewolf claws, or shoot it with a Hell Gun? Maybe others won't see a conflict here, but the version of Christianity that I was exposed to as a child seemed to be filled of stories about how a person with a pure heart can't be made unclean by evil. The evil deeds of others might harm your body, but they can't sully your soul, only their own. If impaling Dracula is good, why should I accrue sin points if I stab him with Jack the Ripper's scalpel rather than a knife that came from my kitchen drawer?
For gaming purposes, if player characters are going to roll dice to avoid being dragged down by supernatural evil, I think it's better to imagine it as a kind of spiritual pollution, or radiation, or poison. For gaming, I think it's better to imagine contamination rather than sin. This kind of evil is like a toxic substance, and it gets on you just by coming near it, moreso if you handle it or use it.
You get contaminated or corrupted by wielding evil weapons, using evil super powers, casting evil spells, reading evil books, invoking evil spirits. Basically, if you could imagine replacing the word "evil" with "radioactive" and have everything still make sense, it's probably okay to roll some dice to try to avoid it.
In fairness, I think this is already the most common way that the risk of being consumed by evil gets used in gaming, aside, apparently, from Ravenloft. Changing the conditions under which player characters accumulate corruption points makes them far more palatable to award during the game.
I would add one final condition as well - players only make powers checks as the result of voluntary decisions. You don't need to roll the dice because a vampire bit you or a werewolf scratched you. That gives you a power, but doesn't put your character's soul at risk. It's only when you use that power yourself that you risk contamination.
(The real-world implications of either of these perspectives on evil can be quite troubling, depending on the situation they're applied to. Imagining that some inner purity or righteousness absolves them of blame for the harm caused by groups that they're members of or benefit from, allows a lot of people to ignore that harm and even contribute to it - in a way that they might not if they perceived themselves as tainted despite their ignorance or good intentions. Similarly, if we apply the logic of contamination to almost any form of abuse, we arrive almost immediately at a very ugly form of victim-blaming. Frankly, this has been quite a lot more thinking about the nature of evil than I really intended to embark on at the start.)
Jack's second critique of the powers check is that it serves to restrict player choices in a couple of undesirable ways. For one thing, it's an attempt to enforce a particular play style using an in-game rule when some sort of outside-the-game mechanism would be better. If you'd prefer to pretend to be dissolute grifters and ne'er-do-wells rather than heroic monster-slaying world-savers, then, idk, maybe don't play the game that says it's about slaying monsters right there on the box? And if your players want to pretend to kill animals and torture villagers for fun, you don't need a game rule to stop them, you need new players, and quite possibly to question the life choices that led you to sit down at a table with that last batch.
The other potential problem is that the powers check might discourage a character behavior you want to encourage - namely pretending to be the brooding sort of hero who fights monsters so long that they begin to risk becoming a monster themselves.
This trope has two components. The first is a kind of evil that it's tempting to give in to. The second is some motivation to resist that temptation. The first component should be supplied by evil powers that are really cool, and substantially more powerful than the available non-damning options. Like, you're not going to use Blackbeard's accursed single-shot matchlock pistol if you've got a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun as part of your starting equipment. You might risk your soul though, if there was a dracolich bearing down on you and those power levels were reversed.
Some of the motivation to resist temptation can be supplied by the players themselves. Again, genre buy-in is important here. Otherwise you might end up with a party of Bella Swans eagerly flinging themselves beneath the fangs of the nearest Edward Cullen, because they want nothing more than to be transformed into a beautiful superpowered monster with no discernible failings. Which could be fun, though characters with an unbridled enthusiasm for condemnation rather miss the mark if we were aiming for brooding or angst.
But even if your players are self-motivated to avoid transforming into full-on monsters, if you want them to use these powers some but not too much, then you probably need to define what "too much" means. But you probably also want the players to feel a little uncertain about where the line is drawn. You don't want them striding confidently up to it without fear of overstepping, you want them to worry that every step might be the one that carries them too far. Which means you need a dice-rolling mechanic. (Well, maybe not NEED exactly, but there's certainly a place for one.)
Offering the players cool superpowers that carry a chance of self-destruction creates a kind of resource management mini-game of risk and reward. The possibility that using your power grants you other risky powers serves to amplify the temptation. The possibility of partial disfigurement serves as a warning sign along the road to damnation. You want to use these powers, but every time you do might be your last. If your regular weapons aren't enough, the only way to kill the monster might cost you your soul. So roll that d666!