Friday, July 12, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 5 of 11)

Alignment in Moldvay is not a matter of determining “which side” your character is on in the fight between Law and Chaos, nor is it simply a means of determining the effect of spells or magical items that operate differently with respect to a creature’s alignment (there are no such items in Basic), nor is it a means of restricting certain character classes. This is an exhortation on how to think like your character within the game, and it is quite specific. It even provides an “Example of Alignment Behavior” showing how each type of alignment should act…as well as how the character should feel:

The [chaotic] character will not care what happens to the rest of the party.

Oh, I won’t, will I? Who is Tom Moldvay to say how I or my character will feel, or what I (or my character) will care about?

The game designer, that’s who.

Moldvay spends a full page on the subject of Alignment which, considering Basic is only a 64 page book (including glossary, literary appendix, coverleaf, and GenCon advertisement) is an absolutely huge amount of space to devote to the subject. 3rd Edition devotes roughly three pages to alignment out of nearly eight hundred pages spread between three core volumes. Giving that much space to alignment shows that Moldvay thought it was an important (perhaps core) concept that needed to be clarified (and was further described in a later example). And yet the whole concept of “alignment” is often denigrated, even by (or especially by) game designers who find it a “throwaway” system due to its lack of mechanical impact. You can count me as one of those people, by the way.

So, okay…I’ve since changed my mind.

D&D is a role-playing game, created at a time when role-playing (as a concept of gaming) was a new and radical concept…one which I believe was a complete side-effect outside of the original designers’ intention. I believe wargamers Arneson and Gygax were trying to create a different kind of wargame: one based on heroic myth and fantasy literature. I believe that the game they designed facilitated role-playing incidentally…by accident, in other words…but that it was precisely because of this “accident of design” that the game gained the popularity (across all walks of gaming life) that it did. I don’t know this is the case, I can only speculate based on my 21st century retrospective view point…but that’s what I believe.

By the time Moldvay came along to provide an additional editing of the rules, the role-playing subculture participating in the D&D game was an entrenched part of the group playing…and even if it wasn’t properly understood, it was recognized by the powers-that-be. Moldvay, in his writing, emphasizes alignment as a system, because it is the easiest and clearest way (at that point) of teaching players how to “get inside the mind of their character,” i.e. teaching new players how to role-play. It’s clunky and it’s simplistic, but it’s there and ready-made with a slight twist and re-purposing of the alignment “mechanic.” The alternative would be to include some sort of section on “how to role-play” which (even if understood at the time) may have been a “turn-off” for some players, notably wargamers, who may have still been a target demographic. Or perhaps there was a perception at TSR at the time that (regardless of “target demographic”) the idea of role-playing was viewed with suspicion and it was felt better to just kind of “sneak it up on players” in the course of play…the same way it had incidentally sneaked up on those early players.

Look at the great Example of Combat on page 28. This is a pretty well-written example, displaying all the facets of an encounter in Basic D&D: reaction rolls, initiative, morale checks, melee, missile fire, spell use, and character death. If the example had simply stopped where the hobgoblins provided instructions for finding treasure (and disarming the trap), the page would easily have fit the instructions to any small-scale skirmish game…from D&D4E to Mordheim or Necromunda. But then you add the last three paragraphs and you get something else entirely.

From the D&D Basic Rules (Tom Moldvay, page B28):

Before the party leaves, they gag the hobgoblins to make sure that no alarm will be raised. Morgan is Neutral in alignment, and argues that it is not safe to leave a sure enemy behind them, even if that enemy is temporarily helpless. Silverleaf is also Neutral, but he believes that the hobgoblins are too terrified to be of any further threat. If Morgan wants to kill the prisoners, he won’t help her, but he won’t stop her, either.

Sister Rebecca, a Lawful cleric, is shocked by Morgan’s suggestion. She tells Morgan that a Lawful person keeps her word, and that she promised the hobgoblins that they would be spared. Her god would never allow her to heal someone who killed helpless prisoners…

Morgan agrees that killing captives is wrong, and that it was only the great pain from her wound which caused her to say such things. Sister Rebecca casts her cure light wounds spell on Morgan. It does 5 points of healing, bringing Morgan back to her normal 6 hit points.

Note that all proper names here are the names of characters not players, though throughout the example players are referred to by their characters’ names; for example, “Silverleaf rolls a 4 for initiative.”

There are plenty of things to discuss here, but the most important for purpose of the topic at hand is the passage as a specific example of character motivation influencing player behavior. We recognize that characters are run by their players, not vice versa, and as such the decision of “Sister Rebecca” to withhold healing from a party member is a decision being taken by the PLAYER that is running the cleric.

And why the hell would he (or she) choose to do that?

If the purpose of the game is “to explore dungeons, not characters” then withholding a needed spell from the only surviving front-line fighter is kind of a dick move. You’ve got one player down to 1 hit point (and no other wounds in the surviving party members), but you’re just pulling this manipulative, passive-aggressive shit to exercise control over another player at the table? Is this what’s going on? If so, what an ass!

In Moldvay Basic, one can’t even argue the player is withholding the spell for the possibility of needing another in the future since clerics memorize (“pray for”) their spells ahead of time, just like magic-users. In other words, the ONLY spell available to Sister Rebecca is cure light wounds, and so she has to find SOME way to use it. Again, unless you’re some kind of jerk, you’d think a cooperative player would help further the party’s ambition by using her spell resources constructively (assuming the player remembers having the spell, which this one obviously does).

Here we see an explicit example of players matching their behavior and in-game choices to the motivations of their characters. THIS is role-playing, folks. It’s the only way the exchange between players makes sense in a non-dysfunctional gaming group. “Sister Rebecca” is “shocked” by “Morgan” and her suggestion to slay the (completely imaginary!) prisoners. There is nothing truly shocking to the players about this…it’s a logical course of action even for non-wargamey players. Hobgoblins are evil…hell, they just killed your dwarf buddy, Frederick!...and it’s not like REAL blood is going to wash all over your new, doeskin boots or something. It’s a game…a game in which survival (or rather, lack thereof) is the only real measure of whether or not you, as a player, have “lost.”

But to the Lawful character, playing in the explicit manner presented means honoring your word, not killing prisoners, being merciful, etc…and not standing by while others act against the tenets of your creed.

This doesn’t earn the PC any extra experience points. It doesn’t give the character a bonus to hit, or double the amount of gold found. It doesn’t do ANYTHING mechanically, system-wise. But in addition to “playing by the rules” (as described in the Alignment section), it allows the player to escape for a moment into the character being portrayed. And because the other players are on the same page and willing to do the same thing (as opposed to Morgan’s player bitching and moaning about what an ass and buzz-kill Sister Rebecca’s player is) it allows the entire group to experience an imaginary drama that enriches the entire play experience.

This isn’t a game of just moving miniature figures, throwing D20s, and maneuvering to avoid “attacks of opportunity.” This is a role-playing game, in which you get to experience (vicariously, through your imaginary avatar) the thrill of BEING ANOTHER PERSON IN A FANTASY LANDSCAPE ENGAGING IN HEROIC RISKS AND ADVENTURE. Instances like this within a game are what ADD to this escapist feature of D&D gaming, and is what is addicting in terms of play.

[to be continued]


  1. Again my question: what playing according to alignment (ALL versions of D&D have alignments) has to do with "moving miniature figures, throwing D20s, and maneuvering to avoid “attacks of opportunity.”" ? That's quite a rather cheap shot at 3e and later. But I might (I do, actually) use minis and maps with B/X AND play according to alignment, so by translation, I suppose I am doing something wrong? I hate to say this, I usually enjoy your posts, but more than analyses, they look like carefully worded expressions of your bias. I am no lover (nor play) 3e, 4e etc. but this lack of objectivity is really irking.

  2. Your comparison of "space devoted to alignment description vs. rest of the rules" is somewhat off. I suppose since you hate 2e you missed on the excellent job it does at explaining alignments. And obviously relative measures only tell a part of the story; absolute measures (i.e. how much REALLY you need to tell about alignments) do play a role. The other games offer larger bestiaries, more race and class options, bigger spell lists, bigger equipment lists etc. Mentzer devotes the same space that Moldvay does at describing alignments, yet the game is bigger, does it mean that its description is less valid? Sorry, but however you slice it, your comparison doesn't seem to make much sense.

  3. "The game designer, that’s who."

    Big whup.

    Okay, you have clearly drunk the Kool-Aid.

    Where this entire argument breaks down is at the place where players, generally, let's say 99%, aren't writers; they are playwrites, they have never put together a novel, they aren't literary critics or devotees of literary deconstruction.

    As a result, the 'characterizations' they create - and the characterizations that Moldvay advances - are bland, simplistic and repeated over and over again from the great playbook of Television. They're dull as dishwater, and they're exhausting. This is what makes them such good substance for satire, for jokes, for mocking and insults. Because they are SHIT. And unless you're the simple minded fool television writers work down to, after a few years in the game, most would rather people just quit playing the crappy motivation-driven clichés and would just play the damn game.

    But, as I say JB, you have CLEARLY downed the Kool-Aid, and in your drugged, near-to-death state, you can't see all this.

  4. This is a great blog post! Not sure why you're getting flack for it. I don't see any edition warring going on. Sure, you have a particular bias - we all do. That doesn't detract from your investigation.

    The idea that real roleplaying evolved as an accidental byproduct of individual fantasy wargaming is an intriguing one. Without knowing the whole story or being a fly on the wall at those inaugural sessions, I'm inclined to agree with you. Fascinating stuff!


  5. Count me amongst those that don't understand the heat of the earliest comments, either. Odd stuff - and I say this coming as a player of GURPS, who uses the tactical mini combat rules!

    I think that Alignment in D&D gets short shrift today because, as you said, when it was introduced people didn't explicitly know what was meant by role-playing. Now, many of them do - or they have friends to tell them what it means (don't get me started on how bad that can be) - and alignment feels less like a guiding attribute than it does a straight-jacket to them.

    I am a perfectly comfortable role-player. I don't need an abstract, potentially rigid construct to tell me how to feel when I inhabit the skin of an imaginary character. But, even today, some people do need that sort of guidance regardless of what system they're playing.

    "It’s a game…a game in which survival (or rather, lack thereof) is the only real measure of whether or not you, as a player, have 'lost.'"

    This particular sentence leaves me scratching my head a bit. I'm pretty sure that for me, living or dying have very little to do with my sense of losing when playing an RPG. Instead, the gauge is how good a story emerged from our character choices and random dice, and was a good time had by all.