This is Faith in Play #32: Zealots, for July 2020.
Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime. They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these. They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.
After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment. One player objected. His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.
My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?
This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value. In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism. We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment. But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.
And it matters pointedly. Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals. The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish. This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.
For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments. We’ll get to that.
This is RPG-ology #29: Political Correction, for April 2020.
The phrase has been around long enough that I cannot imagine anyone in the English-speaking world does not know what “politically correct” means. In the short form it means never saying anything that might offend any member of any minority group, whether or not such a person is present. I bring it up here, though, because just recently someone in a role playing group asked whether the concept had any impact on our games.
I hope that my readers are all literate enough to have read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and intelligent enough to have grasped its message. I have elsewhere cited it in relation to Freedom of Expression, and consider it one of the most important statements on the subject, perhaps second only to the famous dissenting opinion by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (also excerpted at that link). It is entirely un-American to censor speech; beyond that, it is dangerous for reasons discussed in that article.
The issue here, though, is about censoring the content of our games. My answer is similar, but with some additional thought.
Someone (I think perhaps the Reverend Paul Cardwell of the CARPGa) once gave me the expression in relation to role playing games the great thought experiment, and I find that to be an extremely apropos description. In many ways, games are about expressing and exploring ideas, creating characters who either share our beliefs or offer other beliefs, and pursuing where these beliefs lead through the conduct of the characters who hold them.
In my Faith in Play series I have been running an intermittent miniseries on alignment in Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and I discussed what “chaos” means in the entry Faith in Play #22: Individualism. I mentioned having played an attorney in one game, and the fact that this lawyer was not lawful but chaotic: he very much stood for the principles of the ACLU, the fact that everyone has the right to be and do whatever he wishes within the parameters that in so doing he does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same. I am not a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and they sometimes support cases I would oppose–but I have a lot of respect for their defense of the First Amendment. Further, playing that attorney in that game allowed me to explore to what degree I agreed with them, believed that the rights of individuals needed to be defended as against the preferences of society at large.
In fact, it seems to me that this entire issue of “political correctness” is precisely about this: do individuals have the right to believe and say things that are offensive to other individuals? Do my freedoms include the right to be protected against anything I find offensive?
In my case, at least, they probably don’t. If you want to call me a dirty WOP, or a stupid Christian, or a narrowminded WASP, I have no recourse. I object that those are perjorative insults, but you are free to use them. But what about the game?
In one of my games, a half-orc player character insulted one of my non-player dwarfs. The dwarf took it in stride and responded, “Did your mother like orcs?” That certainly would have been politically incorrect if our rules applied to that world, but it was entirely appropriate within the context–and that is the key. Our worlds, be they fantasy, futuristic, historic, or something else, are filled with people whose views and prejudices are part of their time and place. In literature we use science fiction and fantasy to explore real-life issues. Enemy Mine is very much about overcoming racial prejudice, despite the fact that the tension is between humans and aliens. Captain Kirk says in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “I’ve always hated Klingons,” again exploring racial tensions. If you’ve never seen the classic movie Tick, Tick, Tick, you’ve missed a story that is very much about southern blacks and whites overcoming their differences. We use art, and particularly fiction, to explore these kinds of concepts. The characters within the stories are intentionally politically incorrect, because that is the only way we can convey our message.
There is a caveat here. We are gathered at the gaming table to have fun, to enjoy ourselves. Every one of us has limits, lines we do not want to cross. How graphic is the violence, or the sex? Are there particular abberations which bother someone at the table? Some won’t want to play a game that explores rape, or abortion, or–well, there are many aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable individually, and when we get together to play a game we should know what those lines are and not cross them, not make our fellow players uncomfortable.
I don’t believe in being politically correct. I also don’t believe in being impolite to people. That doesn’t mean that I can’t have rude characters in my games or my books or my stories. That political incorrectness is sometimes necessary to explore ideas and beliefs that are different from our own, and so come to understand each other better.
This is Faith in Play #27: Believing Balance, for February 2020.
Over a year ago we began a series on the notion that in the Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® game system alignment was the True Religion, what characters actually believed. We have since examined those beliefs in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism, the four sides of the alignment grid. However, the game also included a center, a middle ground between each pair of creeds, which it called Neutral, and a character could be neutral in regard to law and chaos or in regard to good and evil, taking the middle ground.
There are actually four distinct ways in which neutrality can be achieved in play; the book puts a lot of focus on the third, and connects it to druidism, but for the many applications of neutrality in the game it is important to recognize these concepts. I label the four choices pragmatic, oblivious, druidic, and cross-principled. Let’s start with a brief tutorial. Remember, a character can be neutral in either axis, that is, a “neutral good” character is neutral in regard to law and chaos but committed to good as against evil, and a “lawful neutral” character is committed to the maintenance of order without regard for whether good or evil is the outcome.
The pragmatic neutral has a strong belief in that in which he is not neutral, but regards the other axis as tools to achieve this. A pragmatic neutral evil character seeks his own benefit, and accepts that sometimes that is achieved by supporting the social order and sometimes by opposing it in the name of liberty. He thus uses law and chaos as means to the end of his own gain.
The oblivious neutral does not recognize these as real values. A chaotic oblivious neutral believes in liberty at any cost, and when people say that law is required to protect people and bring benefit to the greater number, he replies that this is so much sophistry, that the difference between helping one person and helping many is an illusion, and the many are just as selfish as the one. To him, the concepts of good and evil simply do not exist; what matters is the struggle between law and liberty.
The druidic neutral is in some ways the most difficult. The assumption is that the character will balance the good he does with a like amount of evil, and the chaos he causes with a like amount of law. Thus in combat he kills a man, and then in another place he heals one who is dying; he steals from an enemy but then gives to the poor. In this sense he is relatively unpredictable. Most who play this alignment try to keep their actions contained, never doing anything too good or too bad, too structured or too anarchistic. On the other hand, this alignment is open to some rather drastic conceptualization, such as a character who heals everyone in a village and then in the next village flame strikes a children’s playground. For the druid, the concept is that good and evil, law and chaos, must remain balanced in the world, and they must not put it out of balance by supporting one against another.
One solution to this seemingly erratic approach is the fourth option, the cross-principled neutral. This approach recognizes that the side alignments, while in a sense coherent approaches to reality, can be divided into distinct issues. A character who is neutral on the law/chaos axis might support the monarchy absolutely, but completely oppose legal slavery in the realm (a lawful structure in many societies). A cleric neutral on the good/evil axis might feel it his obligation to heal the poor of their diseases but at the same time take whatever valuables they might have for himself.
By the book, a druid has to be druidic neutral in both axes; however, that can be achieved by being cross-principled. Any character who is not a druid but is true neutral (“neutral neutral”) can be druidic in one axis and something else in the other, and those who are “side neutrals”–neutral good, chaotic neutral–can be any kind of neutral in the neutral axis. A true neutral fighter could be pragmatic to the ethical axis and druidic to the moral, that is, believing that law and chaos are tools to maintain the balance between good and evil; or he could be druidic in the ethical and oblivious in the moral, believing that talk of good and evil is all nonsense and what matters is maintaining the balance between order and liberty.
It should be evident at this point that the neutral alignments represent a plethora of belief systems, even within the concept of druidism. The druid, of course, believes in maintaining the balance of four beliefs, although he has several ways of achieving that. The “side alignment” neutrals are perhaps more complicated, and we will return to them in a future article.
This is Faith in Play #22: Individualism, for September 2019.
Quite a few years ago now I was playing a character in an experimental Attorney class in a game largely based on original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™. I had just successfully defended a player character (an Antipaladin) on a murder and robbery charge, and the player said to me, “Boy, your character must be really lawful.”
I answered, “No, he’s Chaotic Neutral.”
And that illustrates just why it is that the Chaos side of the alignment graph is so badly misunderstood and so poorly handled. My attorney was Chaotic in the best traditions of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): he firmly believed that every person (character) had the right to be and to do whatever he wanted, as long as in doing so he did not unfairly infringe on the right of any other character to do or be what he wanted. Although anarchy can be the consequence of chaos pushed to the extreme, chaos is not about anarchy, but about liberty. It is the alignment expressed in the Bill of Rights, espoused by the Libertarian Party, and represented by Democracy. Read more
A lot of people think that lawful (and specifically lawful good) is The Christian alignment in Dungeons & Dragons™. They think this because they associate it with keeping the rules, and they think that Christianity is about keeping the rules. I would disagree on two counts. First, I don’t think Christianity is primarily about keeping rules—in fact, it might be that keeping rules has almost nothing to do with Christian faith. Yet at the same time, I don’t think that the law alignment is really quite about keeping rules, either. It’s fundamentally about something else entirely.
This is a continuation of our series on alignment as the True Religion in the Dungeons & Dragons™ game world, begun a year ago. Since then we’ve considered Goodness and Wickedness, and I hope discovered that they were not what they are often thought to be. We are now turning our heads sideways toward the other axis of the alignment graph, looking at law, which is opposed to chaos on the chart.
Somewhere C. S. Lewis contrasted two perceptions of humanity and society. On the one hand, he said that if it were true that people are born, live a few decades, and die, and that’s the end of the story, they aren’t terribly important as individuals. Some of them achieve greatness, and perhaps as Churchill said some have greatness thrust upon them, but even great men are small in the total picture. They matter only to the degree that they serve the larger entity, society, the nation, perhaps the race.
It is this thinking which gives rise to the famous saying attributed to Mister Spock, The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. In this conception of the universe, I don’t matter, and you don’t matter, but we can hope that humanity matters, that somehow we will as a people survive the planet, survive the sun, populate the universe, possibly become part of the larger society of intelligent creatures scattered among the stars. It is not the individual that matters, but the collective, the sum of all individuals.
Therefore, by this thinking, the individual exists for the benefit of the society, and the society can sacrifice the individual, use the individual however it believes will best benefit the total. As Caiaphas says, do you not see that it is better for one person to be killed for the sake of the nation? People individually do not matter; society is what matters.
That is the core of the lawful alignment. It expresses itself in many ways, including that there will be structure within the society, rules which bind the members. It is important that the society function smoothly, that the society itself is healthy and prosperous. It achieves that by laws, by customs, by taxes, by restrictions and permissions, by castes and privilege, by masters and slaves, employers and employees, and by anything else that keeps the society functioning as a society.
This sounds rather bleak, but it’s not all bad—it’s just not all good. In fact, it’s neither good nor bad, in itself. It’s simply a way of seeing the world in which we are more important than I, more important than you, or him, or her. It is about whether each of us matters within the context of all of us, whether a government should put the whole of society above the needs of individual members. It has the effect, pushed to the extreme, of making us cogs in a machine, but it can make the machine much better for all the cogs if it’s done right.
Of course, that is, as I cited from Lewis, the one hand. The other hand is the view that people are at least potentially immortal, that we will outlive the universe. That gives rise to the other side—but we’ll have to wait for another article to address that.
This is Faith in Play #6: True Religion, for May 2018.
In the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons™, the original role playing game from which all others (including those electronic games that call themselves “RPGs”) are descended, there was a rules section known as alignment. Many players did not understand it; many gamers did not use it; it was often badly abused. However, I think it was one of the best and most important parts of the game, and I often defended and explained it.
I am going to make the perhaps rather absurd claim that I am a recognized authority on the subject of alignment in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™. I know, that’s ridiculous. However, I am also going to prove it. When Gary Gygax was promoting his Lejendary Journeys role playing game, he placed on his web site exactly two links to pages related to Dungeons & Dragons™ One was to my Alignment Quiz, which had already been coded into an automated version by a Cal Tech computer student and translated into German. The other was my page on choosing character alignment in my Dungeons & Dragons™ character creation web site. He apparently believed I had a solid understanding of the issues.
So big deal. I’m an expert in a game mechanic concept that isn’t even used by most of the few people who still play that game. However, even if you don’t use it, don’t play that game, I think alignment is important to understand, because ultimately the character alignment was the real religious beliefs of the characters in the game world. Read more