February 22, 2016

Running Without a Cleric

Do you need someone to play a cleric?  D&D without magical healing can be pretty rough.  5th edition helps out some, with the Hit Dice mechanic.  Pathfinder players have learned, over the years, that Use Magic Device and a Wand of Cure Light Wounds can cover for a missing healer, once you get high enough in level to make that combo work (in terms of skill ranks and gold).

But it really shouldn't be necessary.  Here are some mechanics and items GMs can add to their game to help them run without a cleric.

Save healing potions for battlefield healing, to keep them special.  And let's design some mechanics for out-of-combat healing.


Do you see your game as hard-core Sword and Sorcery?

Drums of Valor (Artifact)
When a character plays these war drums loud and fast for 5 minutes, all their allies within 30' regain hit points equal to the drummer's hit dice, if the drummer is within 1 mile of a hostile creature with hit dice equal to or greater than the drummer's.

Pathfinder:  Playing the drums is taxing, and requires a Perform (Drums) check, DC 10, or the drummer is Fatigued for 1 hour.

5e: Playing the drums is taxing, and requires a Constitution (Drums) check, DC 10, or the drummer gains a level of Exhaustion.


Is your campaign a low- or no-magic world?

Medic's Kit
Common Item
You're going to need some sheepsgut stitches on that wound, and a poultice.  And we'd better splint that ankle while we're at it.
Cost:  5gp/charge, up to 10 charges
Weight:  1lb/charge
Time to use:  It takes 15 minutes to apply a Medic's Kit,
Prerequisite: Can only be used by characters with at least 1 rank in the Heal (or Medicine) skill.
Effect:  Spend 1 charge from a Medic's Kit to help a character regain hit points equal to their current hit point total.  Like curative magic, any hit points not needed are not used.

Example:  Ragnar the Fighter has 44 hit points (maximum) but is down to 8 hit points.  Ragnar spends 15 minutes and spends 1 use of the Medic's Kit.  Ragnar regains 8 hit points.  Ragnar now has 16 hit points.  Ragnar spends another 15 minutes and another use of the Medic's Kit.  Ragnar regains 16 hit points.  Ragnar now has 32 hit points.  Ragnar spends another 15 minutes and another use of the Medic's Kit.  Ragnar gains 32 hit points, but can only gain another 12, so now Ragnar has 44 hit points - his maximum.

Design goal:  This is fairly realistic.  When a character is down to 1 hit point, it implies some serious injuries.  It will take several uses of a Medic's Kit and possibly a few hours of medical treatment to get the character back into strong fighting shape.  Because the improvement is proportional, the value of a Medic's Kit scales.  But it doesn't scale perfectly.  A 15th level character with 1 hit point left will need more uses of a Medic's Kit than a 2nd level character will.  But a character at half hit points will always need just one use of a Medic's Kit, whether they have a maximum of 10 or 200 hit points.


Are you running a game of epic fantasy?

Great Destiny (Blessing)
When a character with a Great Destiny spends 5 minutes out of combat after defeating their opponents, they heal all hit point damage.  This is something people in the game setting might notice:  These characters seem to have limitless long-term reserves of energy, luck, zeal, will, and dedication.

Design goal:  In epic fantasy, the PCs are usually heroes with a destiny or at least something special about them that others might notice.  Robert Jordan famously lampshaded this trope with the diagetic concept of "ta'veren."


Is this a whimsical fantasy setting?  Or high-magic?

Unicorn Amulet (Artifact)
When a character holds the amulet to their heart, and a specific prayer to call a unicorn is chanted repeatedly for 1 minute, a Unicorn appears before the holder and remains until its work healing the injured is done.  The unicorn is willing and able to use its healing abilities on any character the amulet holder asks, but it will not fight for any reason.  This amulet can be used any number of times per day.  If the unicorn is attacked, it disappears and will not return when called for 1d6 days.

Pathfinder:  When summoned this way, the unicorn's Cure Light Wounds spells are "at will" instead of 3/day

5e:  When summoned this way, the unicorn gains an ability, "Healing Horn (at will): When the unicorn touches a character, it regains 10 hit points."

Design goal:  For a whimsical or high fantasy setting, I wanted to create something that keeps healing magical, if not makes it more magical!


Is this a Fantasy Horror setting?

Dark Pact 
Characters who are trapped in a Dark Pact can recover all of their hit point and ability damage by trading something to a demon or devil in a ritual sacrifice.  The ritual begins by contacting the creature.  The deal is struck, and then the creature makes its demand.  The character must give up what is asked immediately, if it is a material demand, or else forfeit their soul.  The sacrificed item is consumed.  Some sacrifices call for a mystic loss or a deed in the future.  If the character does not perform the service requested within a year and a day, their soul is forfeit.  To get out of the deed without losing your soul, you can always seek an Atonement (per the spell). 

Characters who have not forfeited their soul roll 1d20 to see what the creature wants.  Characters who have forfeited their soul already must roll 1d10+10.

1-3: Half of the food remaining from the food the character carried in the last day
4-6: All of the character's water (including wine and other beverages, but not magical liquids like potions)
7-8: The number of hit points regained, in gold pieces
9-10:  A gemstone or piece of jewelry of the character's choice (worth 1 or more gold pieces)
11-12: The character must burn a dead creature (could be an animal or a monster killed in a past fight) and let its smoke reach the sky
13-14: The character must sacrifice a weapon they carried in the last hour (even a cheap dagger will do)
15: The character must speak a serious blasphemy against a god of the GM's choice
16: The character must let the creature spy on them as with Scrying for the next day
17: The character must reveal to the creature the name of a character they care deeply about - a name they have not shared with the creature until now.
18:  The character must reveal to the creature a goal they have - a goal they have not shared with the creature until now.
19: The character must reveal to the creature a fear that they have - a fear they have not shared with the creature until now.
20: The character must agree to kill a criminal that the creature asks them to at a later date, within a year and a day.  The victim will be someone who has committed a crime against a person (not just property)... but they may be someone the character or another PC cares about, needs for their goal, or fears will be harmed (See results 16 and especially 17-19).


How about a cool narrative mechanic?

Tell the Tale
If one or more players tells the story of their last combat encounter in a way that makes it sound exciting, without using any mechanical game terms, the party can heal all their hit point damage.

Design goal:  Often the mechanics and tactics of combat make it more of a game than a story event.  A mechanic that rewards players for refocusing the game on storytelling after the tactics of a fight not only lets you run without a cleric easily, but also brings the game back into story mode after a battle.


How about a neat story mechanic?

Twists
At the start of each adventure, each player writes down three things that their character cares about, that might come into play in the upcoming adventure.  These are called Twists.  During the adventure, they can "spend" one of their Twists to grant the whole party a full heal-up of all their hit point damage.  The GM decides a result or secretly rolls 1d20.  On a 11-20, nothing happens.  On a 1-10, the GM must place the character's Twist in serious peril in the next encounter.

Design goal:  A mechanic that gives the party a big recovery, but then puts something important at stake, lets the players control the pace of the game.  If they want to have a cool, high-stakes scene show up, they can ask the GM for it using this mechanic.  GMs should have no trouble placing things in peril - especially once the players have identified something to place in peril for them and done the work of convincing themselves to care about and believe it could happen all by themselves!

February 12, 2016

Mundane Items Table for 5th Edition

I've done this before, for Pathfinder, and now I'm doing it for 5th edition D&D.  I've already written about what to use gold for in 5e D&D.  Now let's talk about what form your gold comes in.

Handing the PCs 200gp as a treasure reward is OK, but it can be rather boring.  It inspires players' imaginations far more to give them a lieutenant's purse containing 100sp, cartographer's tools, four books describing various ship captains' explorations of the Moonshae Isles with bookmarks in all the illustrations and maps, a broken quill pen, and a loaded hand crossbow.  That second treasure hoard - though it's the same value - is also a potential plot hook!

This table is a distillation of all of the 5th edition Basic Rules equipment for players.  It includes items worth a good amount of money, items that may be useful that the PCs that they wouldn't usually buy (like a magnifying glass), various animals and vehicles, and the more expensive weapons and armor.




Mundane Items of Interest
Gold Piece Cost
Leatherworker's Tools
5
Healer's Kit
5
Lantern, Bullseye
 10
Lock and Key
 10
Rations (1d6 weeks worth), 5sp/day
 10
Shield
 10
Cartographer's Tools
 15
Forgery Kit
 15
Cart
 15
Smith's Tools
 20
Sled
 20
Military Saddle
 20
Pigs, 2d6, 3gp/pig
 20
Ginger, 20lb bag, 1gp/lb
 20
Cinnamon, 10lb box, 2gp/lb
 20
Vial of Acid
 25
Climber's Kit
 25
Spell Component Pouch
 25
Flask of Holy Water
 25
Hourglass
 25
Jeweler's Tools
 25
Disguise Kit
 25
Dulcimer (instrument)
 25
Navigator's Tools
 25
Thieves' Tools
 25
1d6 Mules, 8gp/mule
 25
Scimitar
 25
Rapier
 25
Shortbow
 25
Light Crossbow
 25
Viol (instrument)
 30
Bagpipes (instrument)
 30
Lyre (instrument)
 30
Pony
 30
Cows, 1d6, 10gp/cow
 30
Greataxe
 30
Ring Mail
 30
Lute (instrument)
 35
Wagon
 35
Canvass sailcloth, 400 sq yds, 1sp/yd
 40
Studded Leather Armor
 45
Alchemist's Fire
 50
Vial of Antitoxin
 50
Potion of Healing
 50
Blank Spellbook
 50
Alchemist's Supplies
 50
Tinker's Tools
 50
Poisoner's Kit
 50
Rowboat or Canoe
 50
Oxen, 1d6, 15gp/ox
 50
Cotton Cloth, 100yd roll, 5sp/yd
 50
Longbow
 50
Heavy Crossbow
 50
Greatsword
 50
Chain Shirt
 50
Scale Mail Armor
 50
Draft Horse with pack saddle
 55
Camel with pack saddle
 55
Griffin (or other monster) saddle
 60
Saffron, 5lb box
 65
Hand Crossbow
 75
Chain Mail
 75
Books (1d6), 25gp/book
 80
Riding Horse with saddle and tack
 87
Magnifying Glass
100
Vial of Basic Poison
100
Carriage
100
Linen, 20yd bolt, 5gp/yd
100
Barding, Studded Leather
180
Elephant
200
Splint Mail
200
Chariot
250
Barding, Chain Mail
300
Breastplate
400
War Horse with military saddle
420
Half Plate
750
Spyglass
 1,000
Plate Mail
 1,500
Keelboat
 3,000
Sailing Ship
10,000

A few notes:

  • Some items are listed in random quantity (such as 1d6 weeks worth of rations).  The unit price for these items is in the item description, and the approximate value of the random quantity, rounded to a neat figure, is in the "Gold Piece Cost" column.  
  • Arms and armor usually sell for half their cost.  If the PCs want specific arms and armor, give them what they want.  If the PCs already have the arms and armor they want, you could give them alternative weapons and armor.  Otherwise, you can encourage the players to be creative with this loot.  Give a crossbow to the village mayor to help defend the town.  Arm the party's henchmen with random weapons you find.  Et cetera.
  • You can use tools without being proficient in them.  Even if nobody in the party is proficient in leatherworking tools, they might still welcome them, if only to modify, repair, and decorate their leather armor.
  • Gems, art objects, precious metals, and so forth are another issue.  You can give out gems with particular gold piece values.  There's probably such a thing as a 10gp diamond (small and flawed) and a 100,000gp diamond (huge, finely cut, and perfectly clear).  
  • Feel free to use the Pathfinder version of this guide, too.  There's no reason you can't import some of the items from there into 5th edition.

February 4, 2016

Alignment in Dungeons and Dragons

Old and messy as it is, the D&D alignment system can still be an excellent tool for roleplaying.  I love that the 5th edition D&D Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws are subtly connected to character alignment.  Even in 2nd, 3rd, 4th edition and Pathfinder, you can still get a lot of profit out of alignment as a DM and as a player.

First, for alignment to have value, it has to mean something.  Here's the very basic point you should understand about alignment:  The alignment that lets you do the expedient, convenient, logical, tactical, strategic, reasonable thing is True Neutral.  The other four options (Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil) occasionally require you to make sub-optimal or unreasonable choices in character.  In effect, those four alignment choices are "flaws," in the RPG sense of the word.  They're voluntary restrictions on your behavior.

Flaws in RPGs

A "flaw" is a common roleplaying game mechanic that gives you some game system reason to have your character make a decision that is different from and worse than the decision that you, the player, would make.

In a roleplaying game, players take on the role of people different from themselves, but RPGs are usually about problem solving.  Consequently, players spend a lot of time working out the most sensible solutions to problems.  But if you spend all your time having your character, Jordak, making the decision you, Joe, would make, what makes Jordak different from Joe?  Jordak is just Joe with a magic dagger and 45% Find and Remove Traps.  The character of Joe is the same as the character of Jordak.

So I've come up with a way to explain Alignment that Dungeon Masters and players can use to best understand it.

It's a really simple distinction; there are only two kinds of alignment:  There's Neutral, and there's everything else.

Neutral
You act lawful/chaotic or good/evil when it makes the most sense for you.  You don't make a point of honor.  You don't make a point of defying authority.  You don't make a point of altruism.  You don't make a point of selfish greed.  If it's foolish to stick to strict rules, you break them.  When it's comfortable to let someone else continue to suffer while you drink fine wine, you drink fine wine.  When defying authority would cost you, you go along to get along.  When helping others improves your own life, you give freely.  Just because the players of Neutral characters have no limitations on the choices they make doesn't mean they should just play their character as an avatar of themselves.

Chaotic/Lawful/Good/Evil
You choose to act in a particular way, when an average person would not.  Chaotic characters choose to defy authority, even if it costs them.  Because they flout honor, they have flexibility.  Lawful characters choose to obey an honor code, even when it costs them.  Because they uphold a code of honor, they have trustworthiness.  Evil characters choose to satisfy their urges at the expense of others, even if it destroys their community.  Because they never spend a thought for others, they have to rely on their own strength and dominate those around them.    Good characters choose to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others, which often hurts them to no profit in the mortal world (but that's the point, of course).



Nine vs. Three vs. Five...
If you're playing with the 1e, 2e, 3e, Pathfinder, and 5e "nine alignments" system, you really have eight flawed character types and one with total freedom to act as the player would.  Other editions of D&D had different systems of alignment that made this easier to understand:

  • Original and Basic D&D:  Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic
  • 4th edition D&D:  Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.


When placed on a simple continuum like those editions, it's easier to see Neutral (or Unaligned) as the "normal reasonable person" alignment, and the others as deviations from it.

But the most popular D&D editions are Pathfinder and 5th edition, so let's look at the Lawful/Chaotic and Good/Evil axes independently.  And let's look at them as "flaws" in the classic RPG sense -- opportunities for the player to have their character act in a surprising way.

With RPG flaws, the player is not at fault when the character makes a bad decision in line with their flaw.

Bill:  "Joe, I can't believe you hid from the Reeve.  He just wanted you to pay a tax you could easily afford.  What if he'd caught you?  We'd all be in trouble over a few gold pieces!"
Joe:  "If it were me, I would have paid the tax.  Jordak, on the other hand, gives nothing to the sneering autocrats who think they can take whatever they want by right of birth."  

Flaws are an RPG mechanic that helps players make those decisions that they know are inexpedient without carrying the blame themselves -- it's not Joe's fault.  Joe doesn't have a chip on his shoulder about authority.  Jordak the Thief does.

So here are the kinds of inexpedient decisions you might make when roleplaying your alignment.

Lawful  
You demand your enemies surrender before attacking, removing the element of surprise and maybe giving them a moment to collect their wits and prepare for battle.  You let fleeing enemies escape unless there has been a warrant issued for their capture or their death.  You won't disgrace yourself by pretending to be someone else.  You will find a way to do what you said, even if you were forced or tricked into it.  You refuse to promise anything except to trustworthy people, because you know you will be bound to your word.  You demand apologies or satisfaction by violence from those who insult you.

Non-Traditional Honor Codes
D&D and Pathfinder assume a world similar to our own, with similar ideas about honesty, integrity, fairness, courage, and temperance.  Even honor codes in vastly different real-world cultures have similar ideas about those things.  But this is fantasy!  It's OK to play a character from a culture with a dramatically different code of honor, but it should be just as restrictive as the default Earth-like code of honor.

Example of a Dramatically Different Honor Code
Traditionally, a Lawful character would demand justice before attacking a humanoid.  "Repent your ways and surrender, or I will slay you where you stand!"  But maybe your character's culture is comfortable with attacking people without warning, if they deserve it.  If you commit a serious offense in that culture, you can expect to be ambushed and killed at any time.  Think about what effects that would have on a culture.  That culture would have strict rules about when it is OK to draw a weapon and what it means to bare steel.  If you take out a weapon in the presence of others, you might be attacking them - there is no cultural penalty to doing so, after all.  People carrying spears or other weapons that could not be sheathed would be immediately suspected of homicidal intent -- more so than just "he's carrying a deadly weapon" but "her choice of weapon signals that she intends to kill without warning."  Wizards would keep their hands visible at all times.   A culture that did not demand justice before administering punishment might also have no concept of repentance.  In a way, it would be more strict than a culture that did.  No repentance.  No forgiveness.  No surrender.  Retreat is only delaying the inevitable.  Such a culture would demand that its warriors fight to the death, even against overwhelming odds.  They might still retreat -- everyone gets scared -- but they would never surrender.  Such a culture would be very careful to never give even the slightest offense.  Politesse and manners would be much more important to them than they are on Earth.  Another thing about this culture -- accidentally hurting an innocent person or administering punishment harsher than was deserved would be strongly censured, or else it would quickly get out of hand.  This supports the culture's obsession with politesse.  If someone hurt you, it is safer to act like the offense is less than it was than it is to over-react.  That's not forgiveness so much as forbearance, dignity and patience.  Truly revered people in this culture would appear to ignore all offenses -- even attacks on their life.

Lawful isn't just Orderly
Discipline and temperance are part of the traditional honor code, but not all of it.  A lawful character is more than just organized and logical.  They have a code, expressed as laws or principles, that they follow.  Typically it reflects the traditional codes of honor we have on Earth, but see above for variations.

Lawful isn't just Obedient
Pro-social deference and humility are part of the traditional honor code, but not all of it, either.  A lawful character isn't just a person who obeys the law and custom.  They internalize the ethical virtues that underpin law itself - the honor code.

Chaotic
You won't give a copper piece to authority figures unless you get something for it.  When you meet The High Queen Jorella Moonflower, Her Highness, Defender of the Realms of Elvenkind, you might lean against a column and call her, "Jorella" like you would with a casual acquaintance, instead of taking a knee and calling her "Your Highness."  You show no respect to toadies or people who slavishly adhere to honor codes.  You don't want a trustworthy reputation - better to be unpredictable and unknown.  You never promise anything because you don't want to be held accountable; and if you are forced to make a promise, you make a point of breaking it somehow.  You sabotage and undermine authority figures, even if they're on your side.  You see no point in chastity or temperence - your character might get blind drunk just for the fun of it.  You're not hurting anyone.  And if you are, is it any worse than the teetotaler refusing to go carousing to gather information because of some abstract ideas about dignity and principle?

Unreliable slob or mysterious rebel?
Chaotic characters might appear to have a chip on their shoulder because they constantly undermine even legitimate, good-intentioned authority.  They see feudalism as an inherently unfair and broken system.  They might appear as lazy, over-indulgent, distasteful slobs because they see no reason to be industrious, abstemious, and dignified; they would rather do what they want without people judging them.  They might appear conceited and unreliable because they don't need to maintain a reputation of humility and trustworthiness; instead preferring to be proud or mysterious.  Charismatic Chaotic characters come across more positively:  A charismatic Chaotic character might be respected for going their own way.  Their confidence and charm make them seem more mysterious than untrustworthy; more revolutionary than undermining; more independent and spontaneous than lazy and unreliable.

(This goes for Lawful characters, too:  An uncharismatic Lawful character might seem like a hide-bound, sanctimonious bore with a death wish; while a charismatic one might come across as trustworthy, honorable, and courageous.)

Chaotic isn't Convenient
Chaotic characters don't obey laws and customs until it's convenient to ignore them.  That's Neutral.  Chaotic characters directly flout or undermine them.  To portray a Chaotic-Good character, it might help if the DM provides examples of how authority, law, and custom have flaws.  They don't have to be huge flaws, but even a few small problems with the social structure will help the C-G character justify their disdain.

Good
You might give your resources away to those in need, even if costs you effectiveness in combat.  You might risk your life for just a 1% chance to save or help an innocent person.  You might use your down time helping others instead of earning money or brewing a potion.  You might let enemies get away because you show them more mercy than they deserve.  When you get no benefit from helping others, only pain and suffering, you don't need excuses.  You know you didn't do it because it made you look good.  You did it because it was good.

Good is Easy to Act and Hard to Choose
It may seem like Good characters have to make more hard decisions than Evil ones.  And that's sort of the point.  Good is all about hard choices.  Evil is easy: Me.  On the other hand, most D&D players are pretty good-hearted folks.  It's hard to play Evil and scoff at an NPC's suffering, abuse your character's henchmen, and manipulate people to do what you want rather than persuade them of the social good of your mission.  So playing Good requires your character to make hard choices.  On the other hand, playing an evil character is going to challenge your acting skills.

Evil
The philosophy of evil is that you only rely on yourself.  Everyone is completely responsible for their own life.  Because everyone is expected to take care of their own life, it doesn't matter if you hurt others - if they couldn't keep themselves safe, they deserved it.  It doesn't matter that you hurt others and gained a reputation as an abuser - you're strong enough to avoid the reprucussions.  Evil people can be cowards.  They won't take a risk if they don't think they can avoid the hazards.  They don't trust that others will help them out of kindness or friendship.  They trust that others will help them if they have leverage over them, though.  Evil characters are abusers who get power over others through blackmail, bullying, corruption, lies, and dependence.  Evil characters would never believe they could persuade someone to help them out of a sense of decency.  They would immediately resort to finding leverage to force the person to do as they want.  Evil characters would never expose themselves to a hazard they couldn't survive or force others to endure in their place.  Evil characters would automatically push to gain the greatest reward or greatest share of the reward, only backing down if it would cost them more to persist.  In a party of other adventurers, an evil character would take only their fair share of loot unless they could get leverage over other party members, which is probably not possible if they're all the same level.

Social Contract: Don't Be a Dick
If you're playing an evil character, it is important to talk about your character's penchant for abusing others out of character with the GM and other players.  They might decide to collaborate with you to decide how your character got leverage over their character, so that they could later roleplay how their character turned on your character and punished your character for their manipulation.  Never abuse and manipulate your friends in real life -- make sure they know out of character that your character is doing it. If they want to play along, good.

If the other player is not OK with it, you have to back off and come up with an in-character reason.  Maybe your evil wizard is too afraid of the barbarian to try manipulating him.  Sure, his low Int makes it easy to trick him; but if he ever snapped and turned on you, a single blow from that +2 Keen Falchion would be the end of you.

Over the Top Evil
Some aspects of Evil in D&D are just plain awful.  Cannibalism, soul-stealing, consorting with demons, wanton slaughter, destroying the world, genocide, despoiling things out of hatred for purity, torture for the fun of it -- these activities are horrible and disgusting.  They're "over the top" evil.  An evil PC in an otherwise non-evil party may not get away with these acts.  And they don't have to try -- you can be really evil without doing these things.

Keep it PG-13 (or Whatever)
Alignments are ultimately moral choices, and moral choices can lead to mature themes.  Make sure you understand the "MPAA Rating" of your table and keep from taking things too far.  If your table is playing a PG-13 campaign, then choosing to run an adventure about sexual abuse might be pushing it too far, even if you treat the subject in a mature and educated manner.

Final Thoughts

Mixed Alignments
Lawful and Good seem to go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways.  Honor and honesty seem altruistic and good; and charity and kindness seem honorable and lawful.  The same goes for Chaotic and Evil.  So mixed alignments, like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil create contradictions.  Some editions didn't have these mixed alignments (Original, BECMI, and 4th edition).  This might be hard to roleplay spontaneously, but the GM can make use of your conflicting alignments to create dramatic choices for you.

A lawful-evil character might find a situation that makes them choose between putting themselves at risk with no expectation of gain, and breaking their word.  One or the other has to give.  You might expect them to break their word and then cover it up; or keep their word and then take revenge for being forced into the situation.

A chaotic-good character might find a situation that makes them choose between helping people and supporting an authority they especially dislike.  The Duke rewards them by bestowing a hospital on them and giving them title Lord Hospitalier.  As long as they don't piss off the Duke, they can do a lot of good for the people of the duchy.  The character would have to grit their teeth and serve a Duke, or else undermine the Duke more subtly.

Neutral as Balance
In some D&D settings, Neutral is more than just "not law/chaos/good/evil" but instead a concept of balance between them.  In Dragonlance, for instance, the world is at risk when it is not balanced.  Neutral alignment in those settings can also mean "my character is aware that the world needs to remain balanced, and I intend to restore that balance."  Ultimately, that character has a strange (alien to us!) philosophical idea that some amount of cruelty and abuse is necessary to the cosmological underpinnings of reality itself, but too much is just as bad.  Same with order and chaos.

True Neutral Still isn't Just "You"
If you play True Neutral, try to invent some important ways in which your character makes decisions differently from you.  In a way, Neutral can be more challenging than the other alignments, as a result.  It helps to pick a driving goal for your True Neutral character, and seek to achieve it no matter the cost.