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.
What Have I Got: Alternatives to Alignment
Last week I wrote an overly long diatribe explaining the ins and outs of the alignment system as it has traditionally existed in Dungeons and Dragons and how that concept would be visualized in real life.
I also explained (it was a really long blog) about how this alignment system is not known too well in the wider popular culture, so many works of fiction speak to broad concepts like “Light and Dark” or “Order and Chaos” or “Justice and Chaos” or… Honestly, there are many examples of Dark and Chaos being looked at as the real “villains” and not too many that focus on Light and Order being the bad side of the coin.
I wanted to point out some alternative morality systems that exist in games and nerd-ness that do not necessarily gel entirely with Dungeons and Dragons’ alignment system.
Babylon 5: “Who are you?” and “What do you Want?”
“It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth/Minbari war. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully.
“It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.”
This is the standard opening of each episode. Personally I would have moved some words around as I think “all alone in the night” is the strongest possible line to end on.
“Babylon 5” is considered a classic of Science Fiction at this point. 20+ years ago the idea of writing a long form story as a TV show was put into motion and was hampered considerably by the limitations of budget, special effects technology, budget, lack of an internet to serve as a reference for the audience, budget, poor acting from outside the core cast, and budget.
To me this show is the best example of a conflict between Law versus Chaos as identifiable philosophies that could be applied to Dungeons and Dragons and Roleplaying games. I would even encourage the primary races to be adapted into Dungeons and Dragons as familiar tropes that are often given greater depth and complexity, and are useful to lampoon silly aspects of politics.
This section is going to talk about the central conflict of the first 4 seasons of the show, it would have been all 5, but the show was going to be canceled and so the central arc of the show was hammered down into season 4, and when it was renewed for a 5th season there was a lot of filler… I digress.
If you are interested in watching “Babylon 5”, and many fans of Science Fiction as a genre would say you should, please skip this section. But I should tell you that if you decide to watch the show you really need to brace yourself to swallow the many limitations of the series as a byproduct of its era. The story is worth the trouble.
SPOILERS START HERE
The primary conflict of the show is between the mysterious and menacing Shadows and the ancient and cryptic Vorlons. The Shadows appear as massive insects with dark ships and powerful weapons, they ask you, “what do you want”. The Vorlons are rarely seen, hidden away in methane rich atmosphere and inside of a cloaked containment suit, they ask, “Who are you”.
It is revealed that they are each part of a group of aliens called The First Ones, among the first space fairing races in the galaxy who (when the other first ones left to explore other galaxies) stayed behind to shepherd the younger races. They each took conflicting ideologies and decided to play them out with the races of the universe to see who was right. The Vorlons expounded peaceful cooperation among the many races while the Shadows encouraged Darwinian competition.
Shockingly, the war began because the Vorlons started meddling in a rather abhorrent fashion, they genetically altered the younger races to see them (when out of their suits) as angels, a telepathic trick but an effective one. That sort of manipulation couldn’t stand and deciding that the Vorlons cheated the Shadows decided to win the argument via open war.
In short, the Vorlons won, but it was a pretty hectic path to get to that point. A lot of time travel. Anyway….
Ultimately the level of genocide, destruction, manipulation, and bald faced terror caused by the conflict between the two sides meddling in the affairs of the younger races… Let’s just say that while order thru peaceful coexistence and advancement thru Darwinian conflict ostensibly look like Lawful-Good versus Chaotic-Evil it quickly turned into Lawful-Evil versus Chaotic-Evil as entire planets were being expunged for the sake of “peace”.
What is the point of all of this? The questions of “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” are the best possible questions to ask when writing characters. What social forces and moral codes define you? And what desires and goals would cause you to grow beyond who you are?
I would suggest that these two questions should be asked whenever making any character that gets more than a line or scene, both in games and in writing fiction. Nobody really gives a shit about the cashier your heroes buy snow caps from, but if you can’t answer why the cannibalistic serial killer thinks he needs to eat his victims you should maybe take another run at the script.
World of Darkness: Virtues and Vices
I am not as big a fan of “World of Darkness”. It has a simple system that does a good job of getting supplements grafted in but I generally feel a lack of motivation when I am playing something that essentially takes place in the real world but with monsters. Which is ironic because that novelette I wrote and posted on this blog is more “World of Darkness” than it is anything else.
In WoD the morality system takes on a classical Western view of the 7 Heavenly Virtues from which you pick one to be central to your character and the 7 Deadly Sins of which you pick one to define your transgressions. Taking instances in the story to act in favor of these aspects of yourself is rewarded (in a way that affects the story, not just the, “I go pray for an hour to satisfy my sense of piety” stuff you get from players that then expect a pile of experience points for playing their cleric right).
For instance, being put into a situation in which you can chose to satisfy the mission or be bought off by a villain who is okay with letting you have a cut of the money. To a person running/writing the game it is of value to know that certain players make Greed such a motivating factor in their personality. It is fun to know that you can use these simple guidelines to make the mission more interesting and reward them for such “weaknesses”.
To say that the 7 Deadly Sins are used a lot in fiction. Accurate.
This is a better story telling element than typical alignment. GOOD LUCK trying to predict how a “chaotic” person will interpret bribes. And watch as a “lawful” person justifies a chain of lies and deceit to their party members. But if that “chaotic” person instead has Greedy-Diligence on their sheet you can put them in a situation in which they have to choose between accomplishing their goal (diligent) and satisfying their desire for material wealth (greed). Or if instead of “lawful” you have Prideful-Kindness watch as they do good deeds but reveal in the attention it gives them.
Not every combination is going to result in interesting internal struggle, Lustful-Humble is not going to cause anyone any interesting conflict unless their sexual partner wants them to brag while in bed, “Yeah, that’s it, tell me how great you are!” Beyond that, classical virtues and vices are so well known that they work as game mechanics, but in general writing exercises they are perhaps too basic to be compelling.
Next Time: Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas
There are other ways to do “morality” and the Fallout games back when they were RPG’s instead of a shooter with RPG elements. To say it was thin would be accurate. That being said it is important to contrast the two of them and then point to Dungeons and Dragons for further contrast.
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 like “World of Darkness” feel free to share why in the comments.
If you have any interesting moral conflicts from pop culture you would like me to talk about in the next entry post those suggestions too, but if I get too many I might end up with another entry in the series.
I made this entry a great deal shorter, because it is hard to write a 4,000-word blog every week. And I imagine it is hard to read 4,000 words by some random dude talking about DnD and Babylon 5. Hopefully it was okay.