Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Alignment" part 1

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.
            Last week I talked about healing as a game mechanic and how to adapt variations of this mechanic from video games into Dungeons and Dragons.
            This week I am going to focus on something that is quintessentially Dungeons and Dragons but falls into the strange limbo of being both a game mechanic and part of the metaphysics of the game’s various worlds.  Today I am writing about Alignment and the morality presented in Dungeons and Dragons.
            This blog bloated like a tick so I had to ultimately split it up, this week will be an introduction to the concept with some discussion of things in other worlds of fiction and some real world stuff.  Hopefully this will be informative (even educational) while not being offensive to anyone.  Hopefully.

What Have I Got: Moral Dilemmas
            I think I might on some level be a Martian or other alien life form that only looks human. My morality or solutions to various issues tend to fall outside of the black-grey-white spectrum.  Base assumptions about what people consider sacred or inexcusable tend to fall on my unsympathetic ears.  Aside from the Golden Rule I tend not to care about people’s possessiveness toward objects or people, I don’t care about traditions be they religious or communal, and I find people’s willingness to kill over maters of personal insult/pride to be baffling.
            I have Personal Values.  We all do.  On some level we have rules that we follow because somewhere in our brain we are performing a calculation and at the end of all that mental math and gymnastics we reach a conclusion about what we need to do or what rules we need to follow to continue living our lives comfortably and without guilt.  Some of these values have literal price tags, “How much money would you go down on a guy for?” being an example (that is a link to a SNL standup routine, it is funny).  But there are some things that some people will NEVER COMPROMISE.

            Take the movie that was based on actual events, “Hacksaw Ridge”.  Desmond Doss is a man so detesting of violence that he swears never to so much hold a weapon, but will risk his life to preserve the health and safety of those around him because his other values, those of patriotism and community, compel him to act but not in a way that brings harm.
            Would he ever compromise his values against not killing?  Who knows, but he didn’t waver in his commitment to try and save as many lives as he could.  In Dungeons and Dragons this aversion to violence almost exists outside of the game’s ability to handle conflict.  So much so that they had to release a book specifically for such levels of “goodness”, the Book of Exalted Deeds.  This is an example of compromising two “Good” values, wanting to help others and not wanting to hurt others taken to extremes, but with the added context of a war making each value harder to uphold.

            Conversely, one of the more popular television shows of the last 20 years is that of “Breaking Bad”.  A chemistry teacher, Walter White, is diagnosed with cancer so severe he is likely to die in less than a year.  Rather than spend his finals days discovering religion, trying to see the world, and showing love to his family, he instead decides that since he will die anyway he is freed from having to play by society’s rules.  He embraces the technical skills he had been wasting as a teacher to become a drug kingpin via the mass manufacturing of the highest quality drug on the market.
            Walter is motivated to create a legacy of wealth and power for his family, but he is also driven by his own pride and often his own twisted sense of acceptable or ethical behavior.  Sure he goes to war over the murder of a child drug dealer, but he also harms people and children or allows bystanders to die for no other reason than to cement his control over his industry and allies.
            Walter “Heisenberg” White, is motivated by a cavalcade of different forces (I would argue pride more than anything else, seeing his family as an extension of his own ego) and all of those conflicting aspects of himself and his world drive him to do actions that in a vacuum could be seen as monstrous and in context seem rational but self-serving.  What his Alignment would be according to Dungeons and Dragons slides based on the season and the severity of what he is willing to do and who he is willing to work with to accomplish his personal goals.

            Popular culture as whole does not have the same knowledge of Alignment that a typical Dungeons and Dragons player does.  When someone like the Joker says he is a servant of chaos, deriving joy from the creative destruction of society and the murder/suffering of innocent lives, saying he is chaotic-neutral because he doesn’t bother to use the term “evil” in his blathering misses the point.  And the idea, “He is doing it for laughs” also misses the point.
            The destruction of civilization and the murder/suffering of innocents because he believes in some form of proactive ultra-nihilism is about as evil as it gets.  Chaotic Evil certainly because his methods are erratic, colorful, and frequently inefficient for the purposes of his own sadistic delight, but he is unquestionably evil.
            Same for Darkseid, Thanos, Red Skull, and most comic book villains as the over the top and theatrical nature of the medium makes Evil a more tangible and present force.  Even those villainous characters given greater depths, motivations, or internal logic are still causing suffering for their own gain.  Suffering that is often perpetrated on a personal and spiteful level and they sometimes derive pleasure not just from attaining their goal but in the act of causing suffering.  If someone does massive harm for no other reason than they delight in the committing of the harm, that is unquestionably evil.  They could even be so evil that they would be classified in the Book of Vile Darkness.

            Humans are complex.  We all have different values, and the price tag to compromise those values varies wildly.  If you believe that dying in service to your fellow man, rather than fighting back will get you to Heaven then there really is no earthly thing that can measure against Heaven that would compel you to kill.
            If you think that you can get away with making millions and all you have to do is poison someone or blow them up, maybe you will, maybe you won’t.  Maybe you just need to know that they are a shitty person before making the decision to act.
            Maybe, if there is no greater joy than hurting someone, and the whole world is one big joke on everyone, then trying to argue the sanctity of life to change your view of the world will fall on your deaf ears.
            All of these things are being encapsulated by Dungeons and Dragons’ Alignment system.  And it is heavy stuff to try and cover.  Hence why I and many other nerds don’t really care for alignment as it exists in the system.  I would suggest that perhaps there is a system that is better that already exists and is owned in another property by Wizards of the Coast, the owners of Dungeons and Dragons.  That might have to wait for a lengthier discussion in another blog entry.

Third Edition (and most of DnD): Two Dimensional Morality
            Dungeons and Dragons has traditionally had a two axis system of morality.  The y-axis from up to down describes your Good to Evil alignment, while x-axis from left to right describes your Lawful to Chaotic alignment.  Let me give each of these things some minor dimension.  This is as simple as I can boil it down and to the best of my understanding, if you have a variation on this share it in the comments or write your own overly long diatribe and post a link.  Let’s start with Good and Evil.

            Exalted, beyond being just Good you embody altruism.  You are so much about helping others you are willing to make personal sacrifices to secure the health, safety, and even happiness of those around you and even beyond those around you, extending your care and concern to the rest of the world.  Doing the right thing means doing what is best for the most possible people and taking every step not to leave people behind or neglect anyone in this benefit.
            Good means you are altruistic.  You are about benefiting the group, and you consider yourself part of that group.  This group can be your community, your country, or even the whole world.  Generally speaking, you want to secure the health and safety of those around you while maintaining your own (after all, your own ability to help others ends when you die).  You look for the best solution for everyone even if it is not necessarily the best solution for you specifically.  Doing the right thing means going beyond yourself and beyond simply making exchanges.
            Neutral, you seek to better your own standing, but not at the expense of anyone else, or at least not at the expense of someone who has done you no injury.  You see helping others as an investment and you want a return on that investment, likewise you accept aid that you expect to pay back with interest.  Doing the right thing means doing your fair share and expecting others to do their fair share.
            Evil means you are selfish.  You seek to benefit yourself even at the expense of others who have done you no injury.  You’re not stupid, and will not go out of your way to hurt anyone, but if the benefits of hurting someone outweigh the costs then you will.  You don’t take deals unless you see a benefit for yourself, and as much benefit as possible.  You will encourage cutting others out of a deal if it means keeping more benefits for yourself.  You might help or aid others that you see as extensions of your own ego (your party, family, community, nation, political party) but that is still seen (at least internally) as benefiting you or your long term goals; so even your generosity could be seen as a selfish act.  Doing the right thing means doing what is best for you even at the expense of others, sometimes especially at the expense of others if you consider those others a real problem.
            Vile, more than just Evil means you embody destructive behavior.  You will cause harm to innocent people even if doing so will cause harm to you.  You delight in the harm you are causing, even thinking that the harm itself is the reward.  You still have the ability to think in the long term, and might concoct elaborate mechanisms to grind out misery and suffering, but ultimately if Exalted and Good value all, Neutral values a few, and Evil values themselves, Vile values harm/entropy/suffering as a concept and furthering harm/entropy/suffering is doing the right thing.

            Compared to that, at least from my perspective, Chaotic and Lawful are FAR MORE DIFFICULT to explain, and as a result I feel are more often misunderstood.  This leads to them being played badly when people choose this axis as their guiding star of role playing: Chaotic people who are erratic to the point of insanity and Lawful people who are inflexible to the point of insanity.
            GUYS, IT’S A GAME ABOUT TEAM WORK AND GOING ON ADVENTURES.  IF YOUR BEHAVIOR IS IMPOSSIBLE TO WORK WITH, YOU ARE RUINING IT FOR EVERYONE ELSE AND WILL END UP BEING “THAT GUY” WHO NEVER GETS INVITED BACK.  Even Chaotic Evil Party members should be able to view their party as an extension of their own ego (“their win is my win”) so stop stabbing each other in the back and play the game.  If you don’t think your character would work with other people, congratulations you made a bad character because the whole game is about working with a group to go on adventures, make a character that wants to work with other people because they see them as useful.
            So let’s start with the most basic assertion and work from there using examples when I feel it is necessary to illustrate the point (there will be lots of examples).  Generally, I will take this stance: Lawful is about means and Chaotic is about ends.  Neutral is about the big grey area between the two.
"You know what has been fun since we stopped inviting that bastard Gary to play?"
            Lawful wants consistent, reliable, and efficient behavior to guide them.  Lawful are the type who don’t have to grapple with temptation because they have convictions, they make up their mind and they follow thru, they want others to follow thru on their own convictions, even if those convictions are different (essentially, “I may not agree with keeping Kosher, but if you say you do, I would lose respect some respect for you if I saw a bacon cheeseburger in your mouth”).
            Lawful people keep traditions because either they see the reason for them, or at least trust that there is a reason for them.  But they will have their limits (“I know it is tradition to sacrifice a bunch of children on the solstice, but how about we revisit this tradition and maybe make it more modern?  How about we just burn effigies instead?  We could even make a craft festival for the best wicker person to burn.”).
            They follow the law because they would prefer a world where everyone followed the laws (for instance, “I don’t smoke weed, because it is illegal, if it were legal, I would probably try it… But it’s not.”).  But they know that some codified laws were written by self-serving people and are bad for the system, so they will seek to change those laws an oppose those officials as best they can in legal ways.  And if there is no legal outlet to oppose corruption and bad laws, they will form an organized rebellion and rebel.
            Following the written law most of the time does not necessarily mean a Lawful person will capitulate to or endorse tyranny, they just want to exhaust all legal methods for reform before resorting to insurrection (the best example I can point to on this topic is Optimus Prime, he did not like the “Functionalist” government of Cybertron, but could not support the terrorism of Megatron before at least trying to fix it the “Right” way, while Megatron saw the need for a radical upturning of the system immediately because of the horrifying and monstrous treatment of Cybertronians by their government; if you don’t know much about the IDW Transformers series you might want to check it out).
Things go in an interesting direction at times.
            Chaotic does not care if, “We’ve always done it this way” or “It’s tradition” or “It’s the law”.  They do what they think is “right” (see the Good and Evil entries for the “Doing what is right” bits).  Generally speaking, they will see “Mala En Se” crimes as lines that should not be crossed except in extreme/dire circumstances, but “Mala Prohibita” laws are at best meaningless scribbles.  (Those links lead to definitions).
            This is where I am going to take a controversial stance and say this, “Chaotic people write the most rules”.  A Lawful person does not have to be told the specifics and details of a Law, “Usury is bad, okay, I will make sure not to loan shark”.  Chaotic people will find work arounds.
            A Chaotic person will justify what they are doing whatever way they need to in order to get around the law as written.  “I wasn’t loan sharking, I was lending money to my friend for an emergency and they agreed to pay me back plus 15% very quickly, it is an agreement between friends, I love this guy… whatever his name is.  He is a dear friend.”
            In a society where there are lots of Chaotic people, there are a lot of minds trying to find work arounds to rules that had very specific intent, but those laws were written with the expectation that Lawful people would follow the spirit of the rules.  So, as Chaotic people challenge stuff in courts, Lawful and Neutral people will give them the benefit of a doubt, but to combat future use of that work around they will update the legal code.  ERRATA EXISTS IN CHAOTIC SOCIETIES MORE SO THAN IN LAWFUL ONES, BECAUSE LAWFUL SOCIETIES DON’T NEED RULES SPELLED OUT TO THEM.
            Chaotic people are utilitarian, they will go around rules that they feel are getting in the way of their goals (serve the world, serve a few, serve themselves; you know Good or Evil goals).  They know that rules exist, they may even like that they are less likely to be murdered because police are around to aid them if somebody tries to kill them, but rules against random sins (“What do you mean I can’t brew my own moonshine?”) or making a little money unscrupulously (“What do you mean I can’t brew my own moonshine?”) that shit is only to be followed if they run the risk of getting caught and facing a penalty bigger than the profits.
            Here is an example of a Chaotic company.  A company sets up shop in a country and pays their employees below minimum wage.  Those employees are desperate for work and thus work for less than the law says.  The government fines the company.  The government’s fine is for $100, but the company saved $110 by paying less, so they still profit $10, they are still not following the law about the minimum wage.  Why would they?  They got caught and still made money.  Do you think they feel shame?  No.  Do you think the will bother to follow the law in the future?  No.

            Neutral as can be inferred, is the middle between the two extremes.  They see no need to codify more laws than are necessary to secure a functioning government.  They are comfortable with gray areas of who is in charge, where boundaries are drawn in inhospitable territory (they will get a bit more exact of who owns what when natural resources or paradises exist), and generally don’t seek to circumvent written laws either.  They are more likely to abandon or ignore laws that become outdated, but might not go to the trouble of actually striking them from the books or rewriting them.  “Well, I’ll be darned.  Long Pants.
            Let’s look at an example of some thinking that falls in between two extremes.  There are (generally speaking) two philosophies to Law.  The first is Common Law also called Case Law.  Common law relies on the interpretations of the people who have to follow the law, those who have to enforce the law, and those who wrote the law to try and determine the most functional application of that law.  This means at each level, the cops, the juries, the judges, the appeals process, and the Supreme Court all get to look at how the law relates not only to the written law but every instance of the law being used in a court and seeking clarification of “what they meant”.  I would classify this as EXTREMELY Chaotic; it is (on paper, but with some exceptions) the system of the United States.  There are interpretations of law at every level of the system.
            The opposite force to Common Law is Civil Law, in which the Law as written is the way things are and there is little room for claiming a misunderstanding or arguing an interpretation.  Civil Law is far more common in Europe.  I would consider Civil law to be Lawful by the standards of Dungeons and Dragons.  So between these two where is the Neutral?  Neutral can be found in the execution of each.
            Neutral legal systems would be more apt to read the rules as written but would allow for mechanisms like Jury Nullification (when a Jury refuses to convict because they object to the law as written), they would cordon off legal interpretation only to the highest of courts and only in rare circumstances, and they would have a supreme set of guiding principles or baseline document (constitution) that would serve to trump lesser laws (these factors pull the United States back toward Neutral from purely Chaotic; and again, this is all an interpretation).
            Unfortunately, being an American I lack enough experience with the day-to-day functions of Civil Law to see where the Neutral parts come into play.  The on paper philosophy of Civil Law reads as Lawful to me, but if you have any experiences you would like to share, please write them in the comments.

Fourth Edition: “Let’s make morality even thinner”
            Let’s talk about the stupidest aspect of Fourth Edition, they took the paper thin, two dimensional (yes I know that paper thin and two dimensional mean the same thing) moral code of Dungeons and Dragons and made it one dimensional.  They collapsed the particle stream into a wave form and it sucks!
            Lawful Good -> Good -> Neutral -> Evil -> Chaotic Evil.
            Fucking weak.

            Let me start again.  Alignment is not really necessary to roleplaying well.  Aside from the whole “it is a game mechanic, the Paladin class is kind of built around the concept” there is no reason to really have it at all.  But if you are going to have a roleplaying game, maybe stripping out ideas tied to roleplaying is not the wisest strategy for making the game compelling.
            Dungeons and Dragons is about writing stories with your friends, complexity in narrative is an asset to that process.  I kind of understand what they were trying, they were making the system simple in order to be accessible, coupling this with the simple and balanced (but bloated) game mechanics.
            This is stupid.
            Feel free to make game rules simple, that is good, but don’t strip out the morals and ethics.  Audiences, especially fans of fantasy and writing, have never been more savvy.  TV, thanks to streaming services, are going thru a golden age of long form narrative with morally complex characters.  PEOPLE PLAY DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS TO WRITE THEIR OWN MORALLY COMPLEX CHARACTERS!  DUH!  FUCKING DUH!
            If anything you should have taken the opportunity to introduce more complexity to narrative and motivation.

Next Time: Alternatives
            I was originally going to write a blog on the Alignment system that illustrated the simplicity and complexity of the traditional system and then propose several pop culture references and debates about morality that I find fun… AND THEN, suggest what morality-as-game-mechanic that Dungeons and Dragons should adopt, and then throw in some examples of how it could be done.
            I started to creep up on 6,000 words and anticipated another 2,000 would be needed.  So I decided to snap this section off and just make a two-parter (maybe more).
            Hopefully, this was enjoyable enough that the idea of reading a SHIT TON MORE does not offend your eyes, nor does the idea of having to wait a week to get it.
            If you would like I can recommend another article that I have given to my players forpast games to help them grok what this subject is about.  It does a good job of explaining how the alignment system was written from a very “Lawful Good” world view and how to re-write the system to suit the world views of a Chaotic Evil or Neutral person who do not think of themselves as “Evil” or “Neutral”.  I think it is a good article.
            There is also this blog entry that is far shorter and points to how alignment should be an aspect of your character, and that motivation (become king, be a man, go thedistance, etc.) is more important to your world view than “I’m Evil”.

The Beg for Attention:
            If you venomously disagree with me, please tell me why in the comments.  Feel free to leave links to your own blog on the topic or articles that you have found helpful.  Or write your own counterpoint to all this (or parts of it) and come back and post a link. 
            If you have any interesting moral conflicts from pop culture you would like me to talk about in the next entry (I have a small section on “Babylon 5” and it might make the cut) post those suggestions too, but if I get too many I might end up with another entry in the series.
            This is the most debated thing in Dungeons and Dragons because, as I wrote, we all have personal values.  We all have things we will not do under any circumstance (even if we don’t know it yet because we have never been tested) so if you disagree with me that probably means you are Evil and should be careful not to run into some jerk off who is playing a merciless Paladin because that guy will read your aura and murder you without provocation.
            Have Fun!

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. 5th edition made a very subtle and overlooked change to Alignment:
    "A typical creature in the worlds of DUNGEONS& DRAGONS has an alignment, which broadly describes its moral and personal attitudes. "

    That's right. Players DO NOT have alignment, but CREATURES do.

    So gone are the issues with alignment, if players accept the idea they are not bound by them unless they choose to be.