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Mazes of Morality

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Dungeons and Dragons changed a lot over the years, going from what is basically an over-detailed wargame, through a dungeoneering hack&slash experience, to the open-ended fantasy storybook it is today. Pretty early, an alignment system was put into place to distinguish chaos from order, and later good from evil. Good and evil have changed over the years with it, as have our conceptions of what a deep fantasy world is like. I’d like to explore the alignment grid as a visual character development tool. You have the characters starting out as dots of alignment and growing into a sprawling network which helps shape the character’s future.

Consider monsters with the example of the archetypal orcs. Pig-faced bullies with a specific note about their breeding habits attached (“would breed with anything”), and consistently demoted to a lower species than humans (saying that one in ten half-orcs would be superior enough to almost be human-like). Orcs were simply evil for the sake of being something every hero would want to kill. Power fantasy and The Lord of the Rings helped this: inherent evil is what the orcs were always about. Being evil isn’t just nurture for these early entries, it’s in the nature of their being. Humans are somehow widely distributed in this regard and cover the full spectrum of good and evil, but it was convenient to have simply evil creatures to kill, call derogatory names and generally itch to behead… because the players are good!

A goblin society doing anything unwarlike is one of the rare things you can’t find on Google Images. Art by Steve Prescott.

Slowly, over the years, however, as storytelling was given more of a spotlight, this became a hindrance. I remember DMing D&D 3.5e and having conversations with players about why they couldn’t play holy goblin paladins (disclaimer: the expectation that they couldn’t was theirs, I had nothing against goblin paladins and those players still talk about that a decade later when we happen to meet). Questions of whether a player could be an orc, goblin, or other entry that could be found in the Monster Manual have since become more common: more and more DMs were just fine with that, trusting their players with the responsibilities that come with this choice. Interestingly, in the 2nd edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there’s around 4 full pages devoted to explaining the game’s human-centricity, and remarking how even though a player might be weird enough to play something else, the leaders of the group will most assuredly be human. The main problem here, I’d say, imagination bubbled by the time period and lack of alternative options to compare to. Early D&D needed outer (as in: set because players found it not fun) boundaries to push against, but it was as big as a universe and everything seemed possible, producing arbitrary inner (as in: the designer found it not fun) limitations as a result. The alignment grid stayed behind as a useful tool, but one that has its own set of problems based in the problematic past editions.

Scribbling on the Grid

Complex characters in D&D 5e aren’t a product of the singular pick of alignment, but rather a combination of the ideals, bonds, flaws, alignment, personality traits and background. This was generally always there, but now it’s codified. The problem that arises from this wide array of attributes is one of reconciliation: the alignment matrix gives us a good way to categorize behaviors and that’s enticing, but also limiting! Everything, including bonds, flaws, traits and backgrounds can tentatively be put onto the alignment matrix, giving depth to the represented character. However, being tentative, these pseudo-alignments are subjective and situational, exposed only when a certain perspective is used to view them.

Almost exactly this.

Last week, while constructing the Konamar “deity”, I glanced over the fact that her alignment is “chaotic evil for the sake of lawful good“, and I wanted to return to that statement: because of this complex system of pseudo-alignments, a character is no longer a dot on the alignment matrix, but rather a diagram consisting of pushes and pulls, arrows that drive them to their potential future selves! It’s most certainly the case that not all of your bonds are of your own alignment, and they most certainly affect you in their different ways, for example. Your character’s ideal self might not be the one they are right now, and if that exploration doesn’t take them on a journey — why doesn’t it?

An interesting journey filled with bonds which both attract and push away, and encompanying flaws and backgrounds that help drive the character of Luke Skywalker further to the truly neutral old man we see in the latest movies.

In simple terms, all of these elements help us empathize, and empathy builds understanding. Understanding is the basis for successful roleplay as the decisions we make have to be true to the character first and foremost, and we can’t fulfill that if we don’t understand the character’s basis in reality. I’ve been asked several times why this part of character building doesn’t carry more obvious, direct mechanical ramifications (for instance, the choice of personality trait, bond, etc. manifesting in the game as an ability/feat/etc.) and the answer is always the same: the game mechanics aren’t there to help sustain roleplaying, they are there to enable everything around it and give it a framing mechanism. The same way you’re sure of what the ground beneath your feet is going to “do”, the players need to have a sense of security, or — in its absence — a measure by which they can calculate their risks. Once they have this frame, they can be free to play their characters knowing that the world behaves a certain way around them. It is only then that the characters can know what they can and can’t do, which makes them push that boundary and grow.

Interlude: while researching, I stumbled on this text called The Maze of Moral Relativism and first thought that it was my own future blogpost, as this was one of the names that I decided not to pick, but had on the list. While not referencing D&D, it is an interesting read about moral relativism in general.

In Relative Terms

When helping your players roleplay, or generally giving advice about imagining a certain situation, I wouldn’t reach for any of these elements by themselves. I’ve seen people ask what alignment the character is, and then deciding on that basis, yet I can imagine situations dire enough for a past fear or hatred to overrule any logical sense of alignment. Asking for ideals or flaws has a similar problem. Instead, remind them that all of these helpful bits are there to help them out, and go with “what does this situation mean for this person?” More general, but to the point! Not all people experience the same situation the same way, and in many cases there isn’t a unique description that would fit everyone’s perception. It’s important that players have an understanding of what some event might mean for their characters outside of what it means for the party or campaign in general. Even if we, as people, realize that characters aren’t real, seeing the depth of secondary motivations that we are not privy too can open up a character to being seen as multidimensional. You might, for example, see a calm, open and collected person become very stiff and uncommunicative when a topic is mentioned.

Sorin Markov, a vampire, kills the archangel Avacyn. From an outside perspective: darkness triumphing over light. From an inside view, a father eternally sorry for losing a piece of himself forever. At the same time a grand epic event, and a sad, private family matter. Wizards of the Coast at their best. Art by Victor Titov.

You might see your party’s paladin in a new light when you look from the perspective of the unwitting victims of his latest crusade. The crux of party development is to accept these perceptions or act upon the conflict that is raised among them. It’s in everyone’s interest for the party to survive, so we take it as a given it did — but how? What compromises were made? How did this move your character around the alignment chart? At what point did you realize how different you were from the time you met for the first time?

Two different characters from a campaign I’m in. The Party and Community are the same for both. One is a tiefling who was cast out of school and shunned by her local community, with ties to powerful ancestry, afraid of it, but also very proud of it. Her alignment seems very stable. The other is a paladin of good, who uses every single chance he gets to selfishly do things in the name of his deity, and loves the community around him. His alignment is very hard to guess.

As inviting as it is to construct narratives around absolutes like good and evil, I like to interpret good as “one who places others’ needs above their own”, and evil as “one who selfishly follows their own needs”. This can be argued to be a parallel, non-equivalent axis to the good-evil one, but it is what is most often described. Instead of thinking of goblins as “evil”, take it as if they care about themselves first, and their society is based on such standards. They still can have all the normal moments of peace and quiet, love and fun that one would expect in a lifetime. Outsiders might see these events as crude, cold or otherwise different, but calling it evil is wrong. In our world, with our 650+ ethnic groups and nationalities, such behavior would be blatant racism, and it shouldn’t be far off in any fantasy world either.

Think in relative terms: consider what the prevalent perspective is, but also consider the many smaller perspectives bourne out of bonds, ideals and flaws. When you put your character down on the alignment matrix, cover as much ground as possible and see the extremes in which your character is imaginable. If a bond were to completely pull this character in, would this still be possible for them? What fun choices are present from there, and what will it take to push you there?

The Need for Absolutes

Going back to the roots, D&D is at it’s core a game with inherent good and evil. There are angels and devils, and a full pantheon of gods that are very definitely some alignment. How do we now work with an absolute basis and relative framework? Definitive alignments are extreme cases, where the environment around the subject is so singular that, from its perspective, it’s probably True Neutral. Approaching such environments is influencial on the characters, it can pull them in or push them away, and in no way contradicts the relativity of their own morality.

At one point, for extra kicks, one can insert the discussion about free will into this: do the devils and angels, hard-pressed by the will of their deities and princes, even have the will to choose their alignment, or are they extensions of a being that is aligned only because of historical reasons in the first place? Is nature aligned? Is a volcano chaotic evil? It’s my personal preference to embed the alignment of beings like this into not only their character, but their environments as well. Absolute alignment in D&D, when encountered, should change things around itself in obvious ways, relative to everything else. I tend not to see a problem in any one given scenario, and tend not to think about the philosophical aspects outside of that. As a game master, you have too much work on your hands anyway, it would be a shame to waste it on something the player characters won’t see in-game.

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