Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morality and the Cosmic Struggle

[quick note: I've decide to try moderating comments for the time being as I've been getting an excessive amount of spam lately, and it's become a real irritation]

This isn't really what I planned on writing about, but after reading Father Dave's recent post, I figured it was time to finally throw down my two cents on alignment, my (current) thoughts on the concept, and how it will apply in my game setting.

Over the years, I've gone back and forth on the subject many, many times. My current stance (which I've had for less than six months) is to use alignment in my game. Multiple reasons go into this decision that I [still] don't want to enumerate [yet]. However, I will assure the reader that NONE of those reasons stem from a personal desire to simplify the game ("Rules As Written!") nor make my DMing life easier. Finding a way to use alignment in a meaningful and effective way is actually more difficult and not a headache to be readily embraced; it certainly isn't a headache I've found terribly enjoyable.

Still, I think alignment is important to my game world, as the cosmology of the setting is at least as important as the physical geography to its overall design.

SO...having said that (and having spent the last few days going though the OD&D monsters and figuring out the IFs and HOWs needed to slot them into my setting), please indulge me a moment to talk about my personal viewpoints on evil and how it works in a game context.

Father Dave's post discusses the importance of evil as a concept for an RPG; how reducing the game setting to one of moral relativism (if I may be allowed to paraphrase) makes the struggle between selfish individuals (and the stories told of those struggles) both boring and pointless. I assume some folks would take umbrage with this statement, as "boring" can be recognized as a matter of taste (television shows that I find tedious are undoubtably stimulating to others) and "pointless" ...well, what can be more pointed than watching humans (and/or tieflings, etc.) struggle in the face of adversity? That IS the point of The Game, after all.

But I understand the good padre is writing from his stance as a Christian theologian and I respect his perspective.

[ooo...I can see the potential for this discussion to get nasty. Lots of people get LOTS of things out of D&D besides any potential "meaning" or morality lesson, people who hold the game on an equally high (or higher) pedestal. I really, really don't want to have that debate here. Please don't go down that particular road in the comments; yes, I understand D&D holds a lot of juice for a lot of people of all stripes and persuasions...]

For ME, it is important that my campaign setting is sensible; if the setting doesn't make sense to me, I will (eventually) become tired of and frustrated with the nonsensical elements until I chuck the whole thing...something that has happened many, many times to me in the past. I'd rather have a game setting that will last, oh say, a hundred years or so (enough time that it should outlive me) and my best strategy for doing so is picking an epoch in our real world past that is so far removed from today that who knows WHAT might have happened "way back then" (knowledge does tend to get lost after a few thousand years...). However, making use of our Real World means using a real world cosmology or, at least, a close approximation given the circumstances of the setting and the rules of the game; that, to me, is sensible.

So then what is "evil" as I believe it? Father Dave defines evil as the absence of God. "Goodness" is the same as God...God is the source of all goodness. The more you remove good/God from the equation the higher the degree of evil; the padre compares evil to cold, and God/goodness to warmth. Cold increases the more you remove yourself from the source of heat; add heat and cold is diminished. Easy-peasy...that's a fairly typical Christian perspective on the way the cosmos functions.

My own take is a little more New Age-y (I'm not the world's greatest Christian by any stretch): God is All; All is One. "Evil" comes from denying this separating ourselves (through thought and/or action) from the truth (or Truth) that All is One. Forgetting our place and our purpose as "higher beings," parts of God's whole, destined and designed to do God's will because we are one with God. Forgetting our higher purpose...or ignoring it, or working against it...results in the only "sin" that matters: selfishly separating ourselves from God. This causes suffering in the whole (for All is One) is a sin against God, against ourselves, and against our fellows for we are all part of a single whole.

But why does such sin (or the possibility of it) exist? Here, I'll take a page from Tolkien and draw the analogy that Eternity is like a grand symphony, composed of many notes, chords, rhythms, and movements. Only with an omniscient understanding can its whole be observed at once; only with the perspective of God can it be seen how one part leads to the next, how each portion is necessary to the whole. The struggles and challenges of those humans residing on our planet may seem terrible and terrifying...or petty and sordid...when viewed with only a limited ability to perceive. But that limitation, too, is part of the overall scheme and design of the composition.

Putting that into D&D language: I am using the three-point alignment system of Law, Neutrality, and Chaos in my setting. A Lawful person is one who actively does God's will (purposefully, though regardless of whether or not there exists understanding). "Persons" mean creatures with a level of intelligence rising to the level of sentience; "God's will" generally means living in harmony (with others and with nature), and generally promoting the same. There are very few species in my game that are (culturally) of the Lawful disposition; most are angelic beings.

By my definitions, anyone NOT actively doing God's will would be in the "evil" category (to greater or lesser degree), but the difference between Neutrality and Chaotic is a preferred distinction for my setting. While there are certainly selfish people out there who are more interested in their personal  desires than following the Law of One, not all are so wicked as to actively be working AGAINST the cosmic design (i.e. trying to create MORE separation from God). This, then, is the distinction: a Neutral person is not working to create a closer bond with God, nor are they working to undermine oneness (and, generally due to ignorance and disinterest, these may perform deeds at various times that move the needle one way or the other: helping an individual in need one day, while cheating someone else another). These maintain the "status quo" of life on Earth, perpetuating its cycles, and maintaining the possibility to join one side or the other. In contrast, the Chaotic person, by thought and deed, continuously pushes to destroy One-ness through selfish aggrandizement, exploitation of others, and general awfulness.

Regarding non-sentient beings: most are of the Neutral alignment (all "natural" creatures, for example) unless their very nature is an offense to the natural order: undead creatures, for example, or certain magical abominations created by stray and terrible magics (like trolls). "Demons" are not "fallen angels" in the Milton sense, but there are certain ethereal beings whose interaction with humans usually take a malignant turn (for the humans), much the same way that interacting with other "forces" (fire, gravity, etc.) have the potential to cause harm to the unwary; such forces are labeled as "Chaotic" due to the danger their interference poses to humans attempting to follow God's will. Such creatures (and those who harness them as tools in their quest for personal power) provide a steady source of conflict in the setting.

Hope that all makes sense.

This, by the way, has brought up other, "interesting challenges"...with regard to the design of the campaign's mega-dungeon. Licancabur is a natural formation, one that in recent centuries has been sacred and holy to the people of the region, much as such sites (Olympus, Rainier, Danali) have been sacred to other peoples throughout history. Moreover, nature may be aloof and uncaring to the wants and needs of human beings, but that doesn't make it evil...merely dangerous. So what "lawful" reason could there be for adventurers to delve its ancient depths, explore its hollowed out volcanic tubes, slay its denizens, and pillage its treasures? If Licancabur is not some sort of gateway to hell, what gives them the right to ravish it, sword in hand?

Corruption. Perversion. The temple has become a den of inequity. The hallowed halls are defiled with mutants and monsters of the vilest sort. Something must be done to return the place to a state of grace, though it may take years, and the blood of many would-be heroes, to do so.

And, for now, that's enough to kick-off a campaign. Because my setting takes place some 9000 years before the time of Christ, there are no Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions in the game, but there are religious orders and clerics. The line between magic-users and clerics is very thin, in my setting, the difference being mainly one of perspective and mission. Only followers of the Law of One have access to the full range of healing powers; worshippers of false gods and natural powers are little more than hedge wizards, and idolatrous demon-worshippers have no access to healing magic at all, being only capable of harnessing the powers of malice and harm for their personal "benefit."

Magic-users as a class hold themselves aloof from matters of the spirit and worship, but they are aware of the way the cosmos works, and ignore it at their own peril. Many wizards, lacking wisdom or lost in their pursuit of knowledge and power, will tread the path of chaos. Bad things undoubtably await them (in this life or in the next), but such a road will not curtail their progression.

My use of alignment in D&D isn't meant to dictate behavior, neither with regard to players, nor their characters. With regard to player characters, alignment is a stamp and statement of where their souls lie in terms of the cosmic struggle. There is no requirement to "act one's alignment:" presumably, a character's actions will stem from a [Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic] motivation, and even if not, so what? Individuals slip up, make mistakes, and act against type. Lancelot sleeps with the wife of his friend and liege. Hercules gets drunk and kills his family. Darth Vader decides he'd rather go out a hero than watch his son be murdered. Do such deeds make up for a lifetime of goodness/badness? Maybe, maybe not...the player is free to discuss a possible alignment change with the DM (me) if she wants to entertain that possibility.

Regardless, I'll assume that the character is doing plenty of acts "off-screen" that readily bolster and justify the alignment chosen.

Actions have consequences...all sorts of consequences. Kill all the lizard men in the local swamp and you have no lizard men. In some ways, this is a good thing: fewer dangers in the swamp (if the lizard men were apt to ambush unwary travelers), perhaps more game to be found by the locals (since the lizard men aren't hunting it). Perhaps, though, the lizard men acted as a natural "buffer zone" between the local village and a different threat of some sort, a more dangerous tribe of creatures that will now take their place. Perhaps the lizard folk worshipped a black dragon and their occasional "sacrifices" kept the thing from looking for prey elsewhere. Perhaps they hunted a particular type of animal that is difficult for a non-scaly hunter to eradicate, and now the unchecked pest threatens to overrun the swamp...maybe some sort of giant spider whose venom was ineffective against the lizard people (but is fatal to humans).

The point is: the genocide of the lizard people isn't necessarily may have been an expedient solution to a very real problem. But actions have consequences, and there may have been more than one solution to "the lizard man question." Finding a harmonious approach is, generally, the Lawful way, as I'm defining the term...but sometimes, stamping out a Chaotic threat IS the "Lawful" method needed.

But that isn't to say my world is one of moral relativism; I personally don't believe in moral relativism, and since my setting is my own, personal creation, I get to determine the truth of the matter. So there are absolutes of good and evil, right and wrong, broadly defined as moving in alignment with God or against God. And unfortunately, for most humans trapped in a fallible bodies of limited perception, having actual knowledge of what is God's will is pretty much impossible to fathom. Which is why we rely on the wisdom of priests and the teachings of religions for guidance. It's only too bad that the priesthood and writers of religious tracts are (mostly) composed of fallible humans of limited perception.

*ahem* Anyway, having a system of alignment allows me to shape the scope of my setting in (morally) absolute terms: these creatures are an abomination, these magic items are designed for the use of Law, these spells can only be used in the service of Chaos, etc. Alignment allows me to steer the tone of the game and provides a convenient shorthand for defining the nature of the cosmic struggle in my own morally absolute terms. It provides another layer to the physics of the game world, an extra dimension of challenge to be navigated, an additional meaning to the experience of play.

Again: its purpose is not an edict of player (or character) behavior.

That being said, it would probably be strange to have both Lawful and Chaotic characters in the same adventuring party.


  1. The characterization of "moral relativism" being "boring and pointless" is an old saw perpetrated by organized religion in the face of plain evidence that we who find ourselves comfortable living in a morally relativistic world don't experience either boredom or pointlessness on account of it.

    In this case, the Christian Theologian is offering mealcake in exchange for pastry and I, for one, don't respect his perspective.

    That's it. I could get nasty, as you say, but I'll refrain from further comment.

    1. I respect your stance as well.

    2. Alexis, I never applied "boring" or "pointless" to life in general. I applied those terms to the art of storytelling and to RPGs. I find that when one adheres closely to "moral relativism" in world building, there is no real meat to any of the characters or the conflicts that come out of that context. The only reason someone is a hero or a villain is largely a narrative conceit. I get bored with "just because" and have been bored by modern story tellers for a long time.

      In contrast, when evil is a real thing, well written villains become some of the most interesting characters out there because they see themselves as the hero of their own story. The reasons for the subversion of good is the stuff I get really invested in.

      Alexis, disrespect me all you want; however, as someone who chose the "meal cake" over "pastry" much later in life, I can tell you straight up that the meal cake tastes a helluva a lot better than the pastry.

      BTW, in my tradition the title "Theologian" is given only to three men in the entire history of the Church, so it most definitely does not apply to me ;)

  2. Thanks for sharing your toughts on this. I'm struggle to match the 9 alignment system (im ad&d boy) in a monotheistic cosmology right now. Fr.Dave's blog help a lot and your way here too.

    1. I ran AD&D’s classic 9-point system for a looong time, and within its context (and a Greyhawk or Greyhawk-equivalent setting) it works fine. Right now, though, I don’t require so many distinctions.

  3. I really like it and I can track with your thinking on this very easily. I rather like the lawful/sane vs chaotic/insane dichotomy (to roughly parallel Fr Dave's dichotomy).
    As you have things described, I might actually include animals under Lawful- they are merely following the natures that God gave them and did not experience the will-breaking effects of the Fall.
    A friend of mine is a Biblical Anthropologist and has written extensively on the anthropology behind Genesis. Since you are set circa 9000 BC, you might get a wealth of campaign material from perusing her blog. Here's a good place to start:

  4. Oh, I had meant to comment on what my son is doing in his worldbuilding. To make religion matter in game, he's made our PCs aware (through various storytelling means) of the afterlife in D&D and which plane will be your destination according to your alignment. That was a clever way of making it matter to your characters.