I've been reluctant to talk over much about the “Chaos Index” blog side as it's awfully close to home in revealing how I make the “whirly bits” (the moving parts that lie outside what the PCs do) whirl. But Robert has let the proverbial cat out of the bag (with my blessing) so a few more clarifications are in order.
Reading Robert's account (which is quite good overall) one might get the impression that I run a crazy, over-elaborated, mechanistic system on my off days at the table. Crazy, I will cop too but what's going on is probably less rigid then it seems.
|An early prototype of the Chaos Index . Click to enlarge.|
First off the whole “track” concept (a mechanic grabbed from old wargames with political dimensions) is tied to the tension between human civilization/stability/corelands and the Weird/reality-bending in the campaign world (see here for the full tour of that who-ha). It's somewhat akin to the Law vs. Chaos tension we all know and love, but not quite: the Weird is not necessarily inimical to humanity, though it has a strong tendency to act that way. The whole she-bang has a definite geographical expression in the campaign, the stable corelands lose physical and metaphorical ground and the Weird rises and vice versa.
The Index is just the ball park tracker for that struggle in the particular corner of the world the characters do their business in. A big emphasis on “ball park” because what's not happening—and this was a central feature of the World Pattern schemata from the old Douglas Bachmann article that inspired it—is that when you hit certain points a rigidly defined event happens. In that old Dragon article when the chaos marker (on a track) hits say one point a war breaks out or a plague happens. While that's evil DM fun for a while, it ties you in my opinion way too rigidly to the whole scheme.
|Stop fucking with us...|
What I do instead is tend to brainstorm likely events (and on occasion roll them on the old AD&D Oriental Adventures events charts) and ask myself “how probable is this to happen and if it does how intense will it be?” How far the track is on the stable or weird side influences the number of dice I throw Matrix game side when answering the question. If the Weird is riding high, for instance, the chance of some kind of large scale supernatural strangeness occurring goes up (the “argument” strength goes up in other words).
Keep in mind the system is also hardwired not to be a High Fantasy business. In a campaign that is still really mostly about murderhoboes bouncing around exploring a strange and dangerous, robbing it of its wealth and blowing it in a debauch, saving the world from Chaos typically only comes as a self-interested after thought. The G+ party just famously saved the besieged city of Kezmarok facing an imminent collapse, but only after pushing the Index up themselves session after session disturbing the slumber of necromantic kings transitioning to Kirbyesque space gods deep in the undercity.
The Index by itself moves spaces back to balance--when in-game events and triggers don't keep propelling it away. Which, of course, the players so often do with their mucking around in places best kept locked and forgotten (cue the maniacal laughter).
But where would be the fun if they didn't?