Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Morality & Justice

AKA What I Learned from Saint Cuthbert

Yes, another post about alignment in Dungeons & Dragons.

My last post on the subject (just reread it this morning) is a good example of just how far down the rabbit hole one can fall when one spends an inordinate amount of time theory-bashing, putting the cart before the horse when it comes to world building ("cart") and running ("horse"). NOW...well, I've been running the game for a couple-three weeks, and I just wanted to share my experience. 

When we started this up, I decided to simply ignore the entire concept of alignment until such time as it became "necessary" to the game. There were a number of reasons I made that decision, but the main one had to do with laziness: I am running Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1E) for small children, and I didn't relish the idea of putting a 9 point alignment system in terms they could understand (i.e. in a meaningful, playable way) when the concept is A) pretty shaky anyway, and B) mechanically meaningless. Besides which, as a parent to these small children, it's already my job to instill in them a sense of right and wrong, and I don't need to confuse that message with the artificial concepts of a game...especially a game that (often) celebrates murder and robbery.

We are, after all, Christians, and the main lesson of Christ is to love everyone (including one's enemies) as much as you love yourself. I'll be honest, I've been less rigorous in my proselytizing as I probably should be (given that we haven't been to Mass since February) but I try to point out examples as they come up in daily life. And they both understand that D&D is a game and that stabbing people is a "no-no" without me needing to throw down a disclaimer at the beginning of each session.

But rather than confuse things in their mind...forcing them to shift their paradigm of thinking when we're deep in the throes of imagining and expecting them to compartmentalize...instead of that, I've simply tried to create a bit more richness to the game world and pay closer attention to the depth of choices that abound AND the consequences of those choices.

Some examples:

The players were ambushed by a half-orc (read: "mutant") thief and his mountain lion pets while conducting a raid of the old goblin fort where the mutant made his home. The players won the fight, reducing the thief to negative one hit point which (per AD&D rules) left him alive. They then ministered to his wounds so he would survive, and took him hostage...for a time. What they found was that they had little use for an NPC who bore a great deal of resentment for the party (they'd invaded his home, killed his pets, robbed the place...not to mention beating the crap out of him); any "gratitude" he might have had for sparing his life was tempered by the overriding desire for revenge on his oppressors! 

The players on the other hand, were clearly loathe to murder an unarmed captive...what to do with the guy? Enslave him? Keep feeding him like a pet? After a couple-four days at the village where the players were staying, the town Elder asked the players to resolve the situation as it was making the locals decidedly uncomfortable (for a number of reasons). So they took him to the edge of town and let him go...basically banishing him into the wilderness, charging him with keeping his nose clean. This small mercy would give them a spot of trouble later, but in the end it was a decision they could live with.

In a later game session, the players were able to end their personal feud with a certain goblin tribe through a combination of negotiation and concession, sparing additional bloodshed (on both sides) and creating the possibility of allies while somewhat mitigating a local threat AND advancing their own goals.

In Saturday night's game, the players came upon a village that had been recently devastated by a band of gnoll raiders. Literally (per the adventure) there is NO ONE LEFT ALIVE in the place, except the gnoll chieftain (and his dog) who was abandoned by his own people for being too wounded to travel/fight. The players captured him pretty easily and, after getting what info out of him they could, were discussing what to do with him. I had the henchman magic-user blow him away with her single (unused) magic missile spell. She had, after all, been hired in this very village by the PCs a month earlier...she'd known these people and enjoyed their company, and this creature had led his people here to rob and slay every single man, woman, and child in the place. Killing him was justice for an unrepentant monster (who was only bitter at being left behind).

None of this has anything to do with alignment.

The plot of the adventure module (which I still plan on blogging about, one of these days) is that one ancient artifact of "good" (The Sentinel) has a beef with another ancient artifact of "evil" and wants the players to carry it into a final confrontation. But when one examines the reality of the artifacts' histories, it is clear they were simply created by two rival nations who were at war with each other...a war that has long since ended and which was won, rather peaceably, by the "evil" side (one kingdom being subsumed into the other). The sentient "good" artifact wants to be wielded by creatures of good alignment (and uses the know alignment spell to discover the proper person)...if PCs are unwilling or unable to use the item, the adventure provides a wandering 10th level ranger lord to which they can dispose of the thing...but this part of the narrative is completely unnecessary to the scenario. All it does is penalize (i.e. "You can't go on the adventure") players who don't buy into the module's heavy handed morality. Characters of evil alignment (not to mention druids, thieves, assassins, and bards, all of whom the Sentinel ignores) need not apply.

And considering the item's raison d'etre and purpose (a mutual destruction suicide run) the alignment of the wielder has zero impact on the possible outcomes. It doesn't even mean anything as far as forcing the players down a specific railroad: the item itself has an incredible 38 personality (the sum of its intelligence and ego). To put that in perspective, the Sword of Kas only has a 34 personality, and "will certainly attempt to control whomever takes it as his or her own." (DMG161) If the Sentinel wants to force the PCs to do its bidding, it has no need to appeal to their "better natures;" it can simply seize control, in what I'd argue is a typical hazard of D&D.

[Blackrazor's personality is only 33]

The POINT being (man, I wander) that alignment is easily removed from the adventure...and from the game...and isn't really missed. This is perhaps even more clear when one examines the second module in this series (UK3: The Gauntlet) and find the PCs in parley and allied with a lawful evil fire giant family.

But what of clerics and deities and extra-planar cosmic struggles? Because those things are often cited as reasons that alignment makes sense and should be retained (some have said that alignment ONLY makes sense because of this). But I've been thinking long and hard about clerics and religion and theisms (poly- versus mono-) lately and I had a bit of an epiphany the other day, spurred in part by a recent post at Grognardia: one does not need rival gods to have a multitude of competing temples and religions. Even in the medieval Catholic church, you have different orders, different saints, different motivations, not to mention multiple schisms, scandals and heresies.

Why do all clerical spells look the same (as opposed to water magic from sea gods and battle magic from war gods and whatnot)? Because they're all coming from the same divine source. The "lords of light" in my campaign are simply a collection of ascended saints and holy men. Saint Cuthbert, for example (if I ever decide to throw Hommlet into my world). But while a seaside fishing village may have a church dedicated to Saint Barto of the Depths (or whatever), and the people pray to him like travelers rubbing their medals to St. Christopher, everyone understands that their patron's power comes from a "higher source."

[where does this leave traditional "evil high priests" and their underlings? In the realm of demon worshippers and satanists (diabolists), I suppose, performing twisted "miracles" (reversed spells) due to the nature of their patrons. Does that make their patrons as powerful as God Almighty? Hardly. The evil cleric's magic is (for the most part) destructive in nature while the good cleric's heals, restores, and extends life. In the final race for supremacy, Good can be expected to outlast Evil]

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: I'm finding less and less need for alignment...for any reason...in my game. 

Issues like paladins' alignment restriction can be accomplished through oaths and vows; their penalties are, after all, based on behavior and actions taken. Assassins and thieves, purveyors in murder and theft respectively, need no artificial stamp of "evil" and "non-good" as their professions speak for themselves. Things like whether or not a patriarch will heal a character can be judged by what purpose such restoration will serve, regardless of what "alignment" is noted on the character sheet. Likewise, sentient magical items can decide for themselves whether or not a character's motivations fit their own.

[with regard to other magic items with effects based on alignment...a libram of silver magic versus one of ineffable damnation, for example...I think it's fine to allow use to any character, especially as no character can benefit multiple times from a work of the same type. Other items, like a talisman of pure good (or ultimate evil) are fairly self explanatory in their function, regardless of the existence of "alignment"]

In closing this post, I think it's important to consider that "heroism" may be more a matter of reputation than inherent propensity for good (or evil); heroes are known for their press releases far more than even their actions. After all, how many folks in the D&D world actually get to witness the party's fight with the dragon? Sure, sure, the PCs have the thing's head (and hoard) to show for their prowess, but tales of their battle might well be greatly exaggerated (and/or "spun") by the party itself...especially if less-than-heroic means were used to slay the beast. I am reminded greatly of Reid's Rangers, a band of NPCs from the Rifts RPG sourcebook The Vampire Kingdoms. Considered legendary heroes by the local population for their exploits in fighting blood-sucking extra-dimensional entities, they are (to a man) of evil and anarchist alignment, a group consisting of sadists, bullies, drunks, necromancers, and megalomaniacal narcissists. Still, because of their reputation they remain beloved by the people; it's one of my favorite write-ups in any RPG ever.

Removing alignment (as a system) from my game has not stripped it of meaning, nor caused players to devolve into murder-hobo lifestyle. BUT (and, yes, I want that "but" emphasized) this is mainly due to the PCs' actions having consequences in the campaign world. Behavior matters; reputation matters. Villages are not unlimited spawn points for hirelings, goods, and services...NPCs are not (all) nameless/faceless masses. Sentient monsters (like goblins) are not motive-less kills-waiting-to-be-tallied. Relationships matter, and issues of morality, justice, and honor all all tied up in those relationships.

At least, that's what I'm finding in my game.


  1. Replies
    1. Your comment appears to be missing the word "finally."

      Alexis, I know that YOU know that I've gone back and forth on this issue many times. I know what your stance is; I *respect* what your stance is. But (generally) I am just too much of a stubborn ass to simply take someone's word for something without doing my own legwork on the subject.

      [coronavirus excepted, of course. At this point, I certainly don't need to catch the damn thing to know I need to take all the prescribed precautions!]

      And I'll be honest...I'm not sure I would have come around on the alignment issue, if it wasn't for the fact that I'm playing ADVANCED D&D now. That may seem like a crap justification but it's true: AD&D requires a much greater depth of play than B/X or (even) OD&D. And that DEPTH gives you the freedom (or, rather, the incentive) to deal with characters based on real world principles (motivations, etc.) in a far more meaningful fashion, rendering the shorthand of "alignment" redundant at best. Worrying about the cost of your boots makes "cosmic struggles" kind of a moot point, you know?

      Anyway. Yeah. Sensible for THIS type of play. The "advanced" type.
      ; )

  2. I dropped alignment from my own game a while ago.

    Basic Fantasy RPG doesn't use it, and that game almost predates the retro-clone scene, or at least developed early on and independently from it. (I find myself recommending it often to people who want to get into old D&D precisely because it doesn't have alignment.)

  3. I've rewritten this a few times... going back and forth. I agree that pidgin-holing characters to an alignment is pretty useless... play and consequence defines the character. But I do see benefit in understanding societal structures (order vs chaos), and I do care about moral aspects, especially in a fantasy world with a pantheon of gods, angels, demons and devils. I generally play using alignment to help guide me as DM for all that is out there in the world, but leave the characters to play as they will. If a holy relic comes into play, I'll have a sense of which character it is more likely to be attuned too. My only question is what to do with the "Know Alignment" spell... could get rid of it, but I'd rather keep it as a perception spell (what is someone's general morality... liar, killer, cheater vs considerate, helpful, empathic) or even more of a mind reading spell (what is this person's immediate state of mind, feelings, intentions). A Psych 101 spell.

    1. @ Sir Rob:

      I had to go look up "know alignment" before replying, as it was never a spell that saw great use in my campaigns. I think it's better used as a limited "mind reading" spell; here's one possible way of using it:


      Structure to a campaign is fine, as is the idea of promoting certain institutions (law, order, civilization) over others (chaos, murder, slavery, destruction, etc.). But right now I'm feeling like the alignment *system* ends up losing some of the nuance of people (even fantasy people), their motives, and their interactions.

    2. Nice, I like that "Know Intent" spell. I've always found allowing new spells into AD&D, and even more so in B/X a challenge. I am terrible at judging a spell's impact on balance. Is it wrong to crave some variety while keeping the core simplicity of OSR? (and I digress...)

  4. I dropped alignment from the beginning too, mainly due to the players age. He has an overall grasp of what is good and what is bad and how the party mainly performs 'good acts' in so far as killing predominantly evil creatures is their role, but the subtleties of chaos/law etc would be a step too far.

    1. The issue of good vs. evil continues to crop up in our game, and I am considering reinstating alignment in a slightly different form. It's a little odd how my ten year old grasps the concepts of morality and seems hell-bent on being lawful/good in D&D, and yet in modern RPGs (like the superhero-based Heroes Unlimited) always wants to play the guy with the sniper rifle murdering cops and whatnot. I *think* it might have to do with the level of cooperation needed to survive the particular system.

      Or maybe it's just that kids are weird.
      ; )