Let's start with the basics: I'm about 10 seconds away from cutting alignment out of my D&D game. Yes, this is something that some folks (like the much esteemed Alexis Smolensk) has been advocating for years...blogging about it as recently as last week. But it's not Alexis who finally broke my back on the subject (even if he did lay a lot of the initial groundwork); rather, it was G.A. Barber's recent posts on decolonization, integration, and racist tropes in D&D.
And orcs. Thinking about orcs. Really just...orcs.
We're going to bring this around to the Icespire Peak thing in a second (that's a factor), but let's start with the orc thing first. I wrote a rather long comment/response on Barber's post that was either eaten by the internet or hasn't been approved. Doesn't matter either way because it was kind of dumb. But here's the summarized thought (refined a tad):
- While I understand the tropeyness of monocultures (an "elf nation," "orc nation," etc.) is both banal and uncomfortably similar to racist stereotypes (e.g. "all African nations are the same"), it's tough to separate from this when I want non-humans to represent a small segment of the world's sentient population (in comparison to humans, who are prolific and diverse). I'm more inclined to handle these monocultures as Gygax does the Drow in module D3: have a variety of internal factions, conflicting political/religious groups, and rogue independents within the monoculture. Another example might be the dwarves of Krynn as presented in the novel War of the Twins.
- That being said, there's an additional challenge: I like my tropey evil species. I like dragons that are greedy. I like goblins that are sneaky gits. And I like orcs to be scourges on the civilized species, whether because of some genetic curse or their innate subservience to some Dark Lord (Sauron, etc.). I understand this is a callback to European views of the Mongols or Huns (did Eastern nations view Alexander in the same fashion? Maybe) and, admittedly, lazy as far as world building. But what's the alternative? Feeling bad about killing orcs and taking their stuff? When we could be building bridges with and finding empathy for another sentient, misunderstood species?
[this is still D&D we're playing, right? A certain type of escapist fantasy that allows us to expediently resolve conflict with swords and spells, unlike the real world. Superhero fantasy (where conflicts are resolved with mighty fists instead of thoughtful dialogue) is similarly lazy and escapist, but sometimes we want that, right? Or not?]
- But even saying I go partway here towards "understanding orcs" (at least understanding that they are a group of homocidal, unreasoning inhuman humanoids), we can start to say HEY there's really no such thing as "evil races" and "good races" only SELF-INTERESTED peoples. Just like real life nations. Dwarves (or elves or orcs or whoever) might appear stand-offish to outsiders, but if your interests align with theirs, they're happy to become helpful, friendly allies. On the other hand, when your interests and theirs conflict, they're similarly likely to become enemies at the gate. And unfortunately for the orcs, the ethics and values of their particular "society" (such as it is) is quite likely to be at odds with those of (most) human communities.
[side note: I think it was the 2nd or 3rd edition of Warhammer 40,000 that suggested or implied that orcs were a plant-like species: the green skin/blood being related to chlorophyll, their seeming indifference to pain or lost limbs, their driving motivation to compete and expand like a hostile plant being introduced into an unprepared ecosystem. I do kind of like this idea, but D&D already has vegepygmies]
[hmmm...are vegepygmies kind of racist?]
Moving on from Barber's post (and my comments), this idea of "self-interest" echoes back to my thoughts on the nature of capital-E EVIL in D&D (advanced or otherwise). I wrote about this waaaaay back in 2010, when I realized there really shouldn't be a separate "holy" and "unholy" version of spells, water, and symbols. To the priest of Satan (or whoever), her symbols, spells, and special ointments are all "holy," and the implements of different faiths/religions are "unholy" or "blasphemous." Our perceptions are colored by our own values and self-interests, especially as ingrained in us by our parents/family/elders/teachers/society.
That doesn't mean everyone is a SELFISH BASTARD! There are still people in the fantasy world that are taking actions that enlightened 21st century (and, in my case, Christian) folks would consider "good" or "altruistic." Self-interest doesn't preclude acts of charity and kindness, if those things are of value to the particular fantasy being in question. Orcs, however, may not have those values by definition of their "particular society." A few outliers aside (as always).
Back to the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure: the adventure background concerns a white dragon moving into the territory and setting up shop. This sets in motion a number of events, including the forcing of orcs (the dragon's convenient prey) out of their usual territory, forcing them into conflict with the nearby human settlers. Again, I will say this isn't a terrible premise for an adventure...it is in fact, a very reasonable, realistic scenario. In a fantasy world of monsters eating and enslaving other monsters, it's only natural that such a chain of events would occur (the dragon in the adventure is youngish and was forced out of its territory by other, more powerful dragons...similar to a young lion being forced from the pride by the alpha male). The problematic part of the adventure is the execution of the scenario: kill encroaching monsters (orcs or otherwise), level up, kill dragon, yay...all for little or no reward.
Do I want to take out the orc fights? No, not necessarily. Do I want the PCs to peaceably "integrate" the orcs into their society? No. Even if they were re-skinned as "barbarous hillmen" (or something) I want to retain the cultural differences and conflict. I do not want my Dothraki walking around and enjoying the culture of King's Landing in some fantasy version of Renaissance Venice, okay? Keep that shit to the final episode...er, session of the campaign when you're done with "adventuring."
But do you see where I'm going with this line of thought? There's no need for alignments...especially monster/species designated alignment...in a campaign world based on thoughtful self-interest and reasonable motivations. THAT is why I'm finally, finally willing to take a hard look at axing alignment from my game, after years of resisting the idea. In B/X this isn't difficult: "evil" (for purposes of detect evil, protection from evil, etc.) is only limited to supernatural evil of the undead or demonic variety, with "evil" being defined as "contrary to the natural order of the world." Here are the only other considerations, as far as I can recall:
Alignment language: I don't use it anyway.
Intelligent magic weapons: even without alignment, such items have an ego and an agenda, and will attempt to control a character. I see little reason to do the "gotcha" damage from picking up a weapon of different alignment; being mind controlled by an intelligent sword is "gotcha" enough.
Alignment changing magic items: there are better, more interesting cursed items to include in a campaign world.
"Good" alignment play for adjusting XP acquisition: No.
Alignment restrictions based on class: I'd address this on a case-by-case basis.
- Assassins: originally required alignment was "neutral." Evil is as evil does: no restrictions.
- Bards: requiring "some sort of neutral" is the same as no requirements. Duh.
- Cavaliers: PHB only, please.
- Clerics and Druids: see the bit about holy symbols above. Priestly types are expected to follow the tenets of their particular faith in order to produce magical effects. Failure to do so might result in loss of abilities.
- Monks: have you not seen Iron Monkey? Look at the main villain.
- Rangers: I'm not running a Middle Earth campaign. These are outdoorsy hunter dudes, and that doesn't require a "good" alignment. Other restrictions certainly apply!
- Thieves: plenty of examples in fiction of "heart-o-gold" thieves; see Grey Mouser. Not sure why there was ever such a restriction (I think, back in the day, we house ruled this to "non lawful" instead of non-good).
- Paladins: the most problematic of the bunch, and my main impetus for years for keeping alignment (even when not playing AD&D!). I know that I still want "behavioral restrictions," but I don't want to tie them to DM fiat of what is or isn't being "true" to the lawful good alignment. Are the paladin's abilities supernatural? Yes. So then, as with other spell-casters, they are tied to their beliefs as self-imposed strictures (like a wizard's taboos against weapons). As such, I'd probably set a number of tenets/laws (similar to the cavalier's "code of conduct" in the UA) that such a character would not be able to transgress without the loss of her abilities.
All right. I think that's about all I want to say on the subject. Next post will be shorter (I think) and address the "vanilla fantasy" setting that is the Forgotten Realms.
|Not all orcs are alike.|