Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Supernatural

When I writing about rangers in yesterday's post (a post in which I expressed a near 180 degree turn on the subject of the class's inclusion), I mentioned I'd deal with the alignment issue in a separate blog entry. This is it.

First: the preamble. Lots of hate for the concept of alignment out there. I've vented my own spleen on the subject, most recently just a couple months back. Today, I'm not out to change anyone's mind on the subject...of the folks whom I respect and follow on Ye Old Interwebs, I've seen good arguments both for and against and this post isn't about picking sides or shaping opinion; DMs simply need to get things right in their own head so that they can run their game with aplomb and efficiency.

Second (aka Preamble Part Deux): this post is specifically aimed at addressing alignment restrictions with regard to class and (even more specifically) with regard to the ranger class (yes, it's "Ranger Week" here at the 'ol B/X Blackrazor blog). Other issues with regard to alignment (especially as relates to constraints on player behavior and its role in inciting intra-party conflict) I reserve for a later post.

Okay...all the ground rules laid out? Cool.

The ranger is one of three classes in the PHB that have "flame out" clause in its contract with regard to alignment, the other two being the paladin and the monk. Here's the explicit text, keeping in mind that the ranger is restricted to one of the three "good" languages (lawful good, neutral good, or chaotic good):

"Any change to non-good alignment immediately strips the ranger of all benefits, and the character becomes a fighter, with eight-sided hit dice, ever after, and can never regain ranger status."

In some ways, this is a bit harsher than the paladin strictures as by the letter of the book, any change (even, presumably, an alignment changing curse or magic item), will permanently strip the character of abilities AND leave the character as a weakened version of the fighter (using only D8s for hit dice instead of D10s). A fallen paladin, on the other hand, has to knowingly commit an act against her alignment...and would (at worst) retain D10s if reduced to an ordinary fighter.

[the consequences of a monk's deviation is incredibly interesting, even as it is especially tough: the character "loses all monk abilities and must begin again as a first level character." But a a first level what? A fighter? A magic-user? With such high ability scores required for the monk, most classes should be open to the now non-lawful character]

However, with regard to the ranger, it hasn't been the harshness of the penalty that's long bugged me: it's the penalty itself. I can understand the paladin's loss of abilities: the paladin concept is one of a holy warrior, granted many divine boons (save bonuses, immunity to disease, magic horses, healing hands) based on the character's inherent goodness and holiness. These are gifts from God (or the gods or whatever) a reward for a saintly individual doing The Lord's Work. Stumble on the path and, yea, you shall be smote, etc. They are supernatural abilities, not hard won skills, and metaphysical transgressions can result in them going away.

But many of the ranger's abilities...tracking, fighting giants, sneaking up on opponents, reading magic-user spells...seem far more grounded skills, earned through training ad practice, not bestowed by some divinity. I can get behind the idea that a ranger's bonus damage is based on the righteousness of her wrath and that this might disappear with a change in alignment (likewise magical abilities, specifically the druid ones). But tracking? I turn evil and suddenly forget how to spot footprints? What's up with that?

I must not be the only person who had this thought, as the 2nd edition of AD&D removed the consequences of alignment change from the ranger class (instead penalizing the class, like paladins, for "intentional evil acts"). 3rd edition D&D even took it a step forward, addressing the unspoken question "can't evil individuals track and hunt?" removing all alignment requirements from the ranger class.

[I'd like to make note at this point that MOST of the character classes in AD&D have alignment constraints: the cleric, druid, thief, assassin, and bard all have restrictions on their allowable alignment. However, unlike the aforementioned paladin, monk, and ranger, NO SPECIFIC CONSEQUENCES are noted for these characters, should they deviate from their alignment. Yes, clerics can have their spells withheld for failing to follow the tenets/ethics of their faith, and all characters are presumed to suffer the effects listed on page 25 of the DMG (i.e. level loss)...however, if my thief or assassin decides to "go good" and is willing take the XP hit, what's the prob? Apparently not much, other than a discombobulation with regard to alignment language]

Why should the metaphysical (alignment behavior, spiritual devotion, etc.) have consequences on the physical (ability to track, ability to cast spells, ability to both surprise AND be more alert)? It doesn't make sense for the supernatural to affect the natural...does it?

Here's the thing I realized: my gripe is based on my own post-Modern, secular perspective. A couple-few centuries ago, people ABSOLUTELY considered the metaphysical to affect the physical. Causation was based on far more than that which could be observed or scientifically proven. What a person of the 21st century might call "superstition" was an acceptable part of life and the natural world.

Even today, we have superstitions. I'm superstitious (I think this is probably more common with sports fans): I avoid walking under ladders and feel uncomfortable when a black cat crosses my path. Do I really believe that breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck? No. But I still have my game day rituals when watching a Seahawks game (like not drinking a beer until they've scored a touchdown), which I feel somehow will influence the result...despite any observable causal effect.

Medieval humans were far more superstitious. They lived with spirits and folklore and magic as a part of their daily life. The "evil eye" could kill you. Treating the dead with less than healthy respect could lead to haunts and visitations (or possession!). Excommunication from the church could imperil your mortal soul. Failing to make the proper sacrifice (or seeing the wrong omen) could lead to defeat in battle.

D&D works in THIS mindset. It is fantasy, after all...it is chock full of magic and the irrational. The idea that a ranger would lose her ability to follow tracks seems as preposterous to me as the idea that masturbation makes you go blind...but I don't live in a world of wizards and elves and dragons. Why shouldn't an evil-aligned ranger suddenly lose the ability to do anything but hack and slash? The resulting causation of the metaphysical crime is supernatural...but in a fantasy setting, the supernatural is natural. It's not just a matter of playing the game "by the book;" it's a matter of establishing the proper headspace to run the campaign setting in a justifiable fashion.

Which is what I want as a DM: as I wrote in yesterday's post, I think it's imperative that a Dungeon Master gets her head right with regard to how and why the "physics" of the setting work. Doing so makes it much easier to speak and run the game with authority, satisfying questions that arise in play (both her own and those of her players) and permitting focus to rest squarely in the realm of play.

Now, I admit that there's still a question about other, non-good types having the ability to track individuals...but that's a question to be answered in a different post. Regarding the ranger, I feel my concerns have all been addressed.

Hmm...maybe I should have saved
this post for Friday (the 13th).

17 comments:

  1. Why is it that people in their thinking processes about D&D keep finding ways to subvert the player character's free speech, thought and action?

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    1. I am TOTALLY going to address this in a later post. Subversion isn’t the aim.

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    2. Enlightenment is a tall order.

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  2. We could put it in another terms.
    Basically, the D&D Ranger is Aragorn. If he acts unlawfully, he's not Aragorn anymore. He's just Boromir (ie: a Fighter).

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    1. ... and in the previous post JB distinctly stated that the ranger is NOT Aragorn.

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    2. Yep. I sure did. Can’t stand that Aragorn, son of Arathorn guy.

      I like the idea of the ranger being a no-nonsense type of warrior, with a lot less concern for the normal fighter trappings (castles, troops, extensive treasuries), a lot more attention paid to swift strike capability.

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  3. I just drafted a new blog post this morning, left it to percolate for a bit, and then later in the day saw that we're both blogging today along very similar lines! Our subjects are quite different but we're both discussing character alignments in light of pre-modern cultural sensibilities. I've included a link on my blog post to your post.

    https://gundobadgames.blogspot.com/2019/12/if-its-thursday-we-cant-fight-evil.html

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  4. As I suggest on my own blog post today, I see a clear distinction between restricting character actions/choices, and creating interesting constraints within which player choices can operate. A coherent culture that imposes meaningful consequences for certain character actions, imho, is a feature rather than a bug. Other people will disagree, of course, but I find the exploration of imagined cultures interesting enough, and the illusion of total freedom boring enough, to see things that way :-).

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    1. I agree with you, Gundobad, regarding the creation of meaningful consequences. But why THESE particular consequences? The logic of needing consequences does not in itself justify the designer's choice ~ the designer must defend that choice upon what, specifically, that this design offers that cannot be improved upon by some other constraint or meaningful consequence.

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    2. Alexis, I can certainly agree with that, too. I'm not wedded to the idea I raised today, to be clear, but I find it interesting enough to ponder its effects for a bit. If the primary consequences of (mis)behavior are social, this permits meaningful consequences without nerfing character design, an idea I like.

      To address these issues in light of today's Blackrazor post here: personally, if I were running a table with good-aligned Rangers using rules that punished lapses in alignment behavior, my inclination would be to state that woodland animals stop trusting and cooperating with a lapsed Ranger, not that the Ranger's mundane skills fail. To me, this would hit a sweet spot of meaningful consequences in context.

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  5. I have long seen the Ranger as front line fighters who go into the Demonic Wilderness to fight the demons where they live. Thus, it would be a small thing to world-build a knightly or even religious order that grants supernatural abilities to those willing to take the fight into the Wilderness. This sets up the penalty for alignment change, the restrictions on how many rangers can work together, and the limitations on hiring henchmen as consequences of the supernatural calling of the ranger.

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  6. One thing that still fascinates me about your blog, as well as other OSRtists, is the creative ways to justify certain mechanics of the game. I would assume the ranger's limitations were introduced in reality to discourage any abusers, but your rationalisation gives a brilliant twist to the class, one that makes sense. A note of worth, though, the ranger is still penalised in 2e for acting in an evil way (loses all class abilities and becomes a fighter of the same level).

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    1. @zonto:

      Thanks for the note; I missed that when I was reviewing the class in the 2E PHB (I'm not nearly as familiar with that edition).

      It IS interesting that they changed the "any alignment change" trigger to "intentional evil acts" (as with a paladin). I've changed the original paragraph in my post to reflect this error.

      Thanks!

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  7. If I can chip in here. My theory is that Tolkien's Ranger is actually based upon the Fianna of Ireland (and Scotland and the Isle of Man). The fianna were landless noble hunter-warriors who lived off the land (except in winter) and were used as raiders and skirmishes by the petty kings of ireland. Indeed the Irish Army's special ranger regiment takes them as their predecessors.

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    1. @ Jacob:

      Huh...fascinating. My sole encounter with the term comes from the werewolf clan of the same name in the World of Darkness RPG.

      Considering Tolkien's interest in folklore (especially folklore of the British Isles) I wouldn't be surprised to discover the Dunedain concept had some basis in the stories of the Fenian Cycle. The idea of mortals and fey mixing (as was the case with Aragorn), does seem to feel more "Irish" though I'm probably just being ridiculous...and there are many more examples of human-elf pairings in Norse mythology.

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