Thursday, 8 September 2016

Inner Worlds #2: Rights and Wrongs

From my first edition Player's Handbook.
So in Dungeons & Dragons, there has always been this thing that annoys a lot of people –

No, wait, I can't say that with a straight face. I'll start that again. So, among the many, many things that annoy players of Dungeons & Dragons1 is of course the Alignment system.

It's a plank of the game. An Alignment is very simply a tag you put on your character to say where your character stands morally and ethically. There's three versions of it, depending on which version of D&D you're playing2, but in the most popular version, the general idea is that you're either Good (one of the nice guys), Evil (one of the bad guys) or Neutral (one of the don't care guys) morally and you might also be either Lawful (into rules and society and respecting authority) or Chaotic (into self-determination) or Neutral (not really caring).

What makes this particularly interesting and which very much makes D&D its own thing quite outside of any other genre of fantasy is that aside from its Black-and-White-and-One-Shade-of-Grey nature is that it's diegetic; in the worlds of D&D each alignment has a magical, cosmic element to  it; it's literally the universal force to which you've aligned yourself. In the earliest versions of the game that even meant alignments have their own languages. You could speak Lawful Neutral. You could cast a spell to know a person's alignment.

And if someone made you put on the magical Helm of Opposite Alignment, you flipped over, so if you were Lawful Good, you had to be Chaotic Evil, and you'd have to do a quest to be Lawful Good again. And some character classes depended on alignments, so you could only be a Paladin if you were Lawful Good, and if you stopped being Lawful Good, you'd have to be a bog standard fighter until you were Lawful Good again.

Each alignment had its own plane, an alternative dimension where the gods of that alignment live and which works out as that afterlife, and they were all based on a mish-mash of different mythological afterlives, so you had Olympus next door to Asgard, Arcadia next to Heaven and Nirvana a few spaces away from actual Hell.
Note the proximity of Nirvana to Acheron and Hell. In later editions some of the less sensitive appropriations would be redacted (so Nirvana became "Mechanus" and the Happy Hunting Grounds became "The Beastlands".
And yeah, the alignments had codes of conduct, but they were vague and hard to enforce, and although there were house rules about tracking alignments and checking how your behaviour mapped to your alignment, honestly, even then it was pretty arbitrary, so much so that your idea of what sort of code of behaviour fit any given alignment was probably going to be entirely subjective, and one person's idea of where the alignments mapped and what sort of person fit into each box was completely unlike anyone else's.

I mean, OK. Here's an alignment chart I made for this essay, for example. I can go through and justify all of them, but I bet that yours probably doesn't look exactly like this.
Top row: Aneurin Bevan, Mahatma Gandhi, Daniel Berrigan;
Middle Row: Winston Churchill, Jean-Paul Sartre, Johnny Rotten;
Bottom Row: Margaret Thatcher, Ayn Rand, Charles Manson.

See what I mean? If there is no one out there without some point of contention with that chart, I'm going to be surprised. But then that's the point I'm trying to make. You can't actually put real people in these boxes, because real people are more complex than this.

I actually really like the wonky DnD alignment system with its aligned dimensions and alignment languages and spells and alignment-changing Helms; but it doesn't map onto any real world mythology, or even really to fiction3.

Unsurprisingly, I think a lot of role-playing games produced in the first few years after D&D didn't tend to have alignments at all4. They made the idea of good and evil a thing that was presented by the fiction. That is, you had adventures, and you were the good guys and the bad guys were the bad guys, because that's how the game was cast, but this could be weird and political, so in the 1980s game The Price of Freedom for example, you were red-blooded Americans slaughtering the commies who'd occupied the USA, and in post-apocalyptic soldier RPG Twilight 2000, hell, I don't know, that was basically a moral void. While a lot of gamers were happy with that, games got a bad press, and sometimes they moved into areas that made people uncomfortable.

Games began to explore themes of morality and ethics in other ways. In Greg Costikyan's original Star Wars RPG, you got Force Points for doing things that were heroic and/or dramatically appropriate. What was interesting was how this worked in relation to extra-diegetic ideas of story. If you behaved like a hero, you could get a Force Point. if you behaved like a hero at points where it was exciting and served the resolution of the story, you definitely got one. On the other hand, if you behaved like a bad guy, or stood back and let injustice happen on your watch, you were in danger of getting a Dark Side point, and if you got too many of those, your character Turned to the Dark Side and you lost your character, because the game explicitly didn't allow you to be a bad guy.

I remember being like fourteen when I got hold of this, and I thought, this is actually a pretty good way of doing things. It felt satisfying. Good guys didn't have to play like good guys, but if they did, they got rewarded for it.
The most important bits of the sheet are here.
Vampire: the Masquerade (or Green Vampire, as I like to call it, to differentiate from Red Vampire, the one I wrote all those books for), for all its innovations, had one legitimately genius mechanic. That’s the Humanity system. Now I appreciate that there’s a school of thought that the Humanity system in Green Vampire is somehow a bad thing. This has extended to designers too, which is why in the most recent iteration of Chronicles of Darkness, for example, this system’s been defanged (if you'll pardon the pun). But let's talk about the original and best.

You have a Humanity rating, and it goes up to ten dots, and it measures how, well, humane you are. How decent. If you have all ten of the dots filled in, you’re basically Gandhi. Most people start with seven: you're all right. You've probably nicked an envelope from your office and shouted at your dad, but you’re still a pretty good person. If you have three or four, you’re probably killed someone and you don’t feel bad about that, and if you have none, you’re so repellently awful you can’t actually operate as a human being… and you lose your character forever.

Every time you do something sufficiently selfish or violent or callous, you roll your Conscience stat and if you succeed, you feel remorse for what you did. Your conscience works, see. If you fail, you don’t feel at all bad about it and would probably do it again, so you lose a dot of Humanity. The fewer dots of Humanity you have, the worse the things you have to do to lose them are… But the harder it is to keep them when you do these things. With seven or more it’s assault, at about five it's serious theft, by the time you're down to three or four it’s murder. With fewer than three dots it's things so horrible that the game hestitates to even name them.

I think – and yes, I'm aware that this flies in the face of most serious writing about game design in the last fifteen years – that this is an absolutely fantastic mechanic because in Green Vampire... you play a vampire. Yes, this is obvious. But. If you are playing the game, you are playing someone who is mixed up in badass factions, and you have cool, creepy vampire powers.

And those badass factions and cool, creepy vampire powers – mind control, shape changing, lurking in shadows – all drive you to do bad things. Hell, you have to seduce people, intimidate people or otherwise coerce people into drinking their blood just to survive! You have to do bad things. Because you're a vampire!

So the more vampirey things you do, the worse a person you become. This tension is interesting! It's rewarding! Something important is at stake here. It matters. And you know it matters because it’s on your character sheet, because the stuff that’s defined on your character sheet defines the way you lean into a game. Incentives for gameplay are codified in the things on the sheet. And that is the personal horror that Green Vampire has as its selling point. The violence, the powers and the badass factions make you lose something important even as you amass power.

These things are there to tempt you. Green Vampire makes you play an elaborate metaphorical game of chicken. What will you do to win at this? How far will you go? What will you give up?

The row of dots is a measure of the good in you. All that stuff is stealing the good from your soul. All your compassion, charity, affection, everything in you that’s worth something. As it slips away you’re tempted to do worse and worse things for power.

And this is where the game models personal horror. We as people like to think we’re good. We do. And the game makes us question how strong the good in us actually is. If you’re invested in this game, the dots are there to make you stop and go "Oh God, what am I doing?"

And yeah, this has been watered down as time has gone on, but then so was the crazy D&D alignment system through the editions.

More recent developments in games have extended towards making games that explore moral decisions in their own way, to various degrees of success. The most obvious example is Dogs in the Vineyard, which I love, but which I've written about before and not uncritically, and which is all about putting someone inexperienced in the position of being the arbiter of morality. And there isn't a system of morality in the game, but the set up forces you to make those decisions. To think about this stuff.

I favour rewarding behaviours myself, but that of course only works if you have a solid idea of where you're going with it, and you make it clear what it is you want to reward.

You can't expect people to be on the same page as you morally or politically (I remember years ago a colleague whom I still hold in high esteem writing on his blog how Gandhi was morally deficient because of his pacifism, and me thinking: nope) so I think that however you try to approach the morality of what you do – and you don't have to have systems, but you're still going to have to frame it5 in terms that make it clear what actually counts as "the good" in your game setting.

Next time, I'll talk a bit about mental health, and about how games model that. Expect more vampires, as well as evil twins, cyberarms and Tentacled Nasties from Beyond.

Footnotes (yes, proper footnotes)
1Seriously, ever since reading the slow-motion arguments in Dragon magazine's monthly Forum pages back in the late 80s and early 90s, I've always wondered why so many D&D fans despise the game so much, while all the time slavishly sticking to its form. It's largely why the OSR so often pisses me off: if you hate D&D so much, and frankly you clearly do, why the fuck are you making it all over again? And again? And again? (back)

2In Basic/Expert D&D, there were three Alignments, Law, Chaos and Neutrality. In 4th Edition, you had five: Good, Evil, Unaligned, Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil. Incidentally, I realised not long ago that I've played eight versions of the game! Basic/Expert (Moldvay) D&D, Advanced D&D 1st and 2nd Editions, D&D 3rd (I'm only counting 3.0 and 3.5 once), 4th (my favourite by miles and miles and miles) and 5th Editions, Pathfinder, and Astounding Pointless Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Actually I Don't Even Care. (back)

3Having said that, you can make a strong case for a direct line from Michael Moorcock's (and I say this as a fan) interminable cycle of heroic fantasies, where the protagonists might be explicitly aligned to Law and Chaos while not necessarily agreeing with who they're working for – Elric of Melniboné is an agent of Chaos but hates it and often does things against the interests of Chaos; Corum works for Law; Hawkmoon works for Balance. None of them are happy about whom they're working for and never cease to be true to themselves. Ironically, if the older version of D&D didn't have all that advice about tracking behaviour, they might reflect this particular source material better. (back)

4One notable outlier was the Palladium system (used for Robotech, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rifts and others) which had alignments, only they were kind of weird: Principled and Scrupulous (the "Good" ones),  Unprincipled and Anarchist (the "Selfish" ones) and Miscreant, Diabolical and Aberrant (the "Evil" ones). (back)

5This is why, by the way, I have such a strong antipathy towards the internet nerd tic of referring to game setting material as "fluff" as opposed to "crunch" (the mechanics); if anything, these terms should be reversed, since the setting material grounds the game, and supplies the expectations that underlie the game. Well-written setting material is a foundation, it is the basis on which the mechanics can work, and without it, the mechanics are simply unhooked numbers with no meaning. (back)


  1. I think both D&D and Moorcock got Law vs Chaos semi-independently from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions.
    (Reading Three Hearts and Three Lions explains why D&D trolls regenerate just as watching Disney's Sleeping Beauty explains why D&D orcs used to have pig heads.)

    I find the 2*2 axis frequently helpful for thinking about certain ways morality and politics are represented in fiction, although one reason it can be helpful is that my interpretation is free to be at least as idiosyncratic as anybody else's.

  2. As a tangent, why do you prefer 4th edition? I have a soft spot for it, but it does have immensely detailed rules for combat and some half-hearted attempts slapped on to handle other things (also no monsters that aren't there to be fought).
    I liked the 4th ed multiverse, which would work really well for an overarching law vs chaos conflict, but they dropped that from the alignment system.

    1. I like 4th edition best because:

      1. Classes are balanced. Fighters and wizards and clerics are all pretty much equal. In fact, out of the eight books I have with character classes, only the Vampire class actually really doesn't work, compared to 3.5/Pathfinder which has clear tiers of effectiveness, even among the core classes.

      2. It has a lovely formal economy; its complexity is ordered, procedural and easy to run. Basically it shows that a complex game is playable if it's structured right.

      3. 4th edition npc/monster stat blocks are much easier to use off the page than the editions preceding or following. It's the only version of D&D where I've been confident enough to use a dragon, and played it right.

      4. Skill challenges. Love them.

      5. Feats not really such a thing.

      6. The explicit recognition that hit points are mostly nothing to do with actual injury eased open lovely mechanics like the Bard singing you back and the Warlord bringing hit points back by yelling "get up, soldier!" in a drill sergeant stylee.

    2. Oh and 7. I rediscovered the pleasure of pushing little men around on a battle grid.


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