Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Moral and ethics in roleplaying - alignment causes brain damage

Today I'm going to join the rest of the blogosphere and talk about morality, ethics and good and evil. Compared to the mainline D&D faithful I'm a heretic, so don your asbestos suit! This might be considered by some as a rant or a flame. Here we go!

For as long as I've known about Dungeons & Dragons I've known about alignment. At day one I thought it was one of the must stupid things in a very stupid game. These days I've changed my attitude a bit, become older and knows a lot more about how a game system support a style or play or not. But, I still hate alignment. It causes brain damage.

I have heard, as have probably everyone who have played D&D, the phrase “You can't do that, you're lawful!” This is just plain ridiculous. How come everyone but me knows what my character feels, thinks and wants?

There are many problems with this phenomenon. First off is the problem that it limits player creativity and enjoyment. One of the great strengths of face to face roleplaying is that it totally open ended. Playing a computer game or a family board game you can only do what the designer thought of. In a RPG you should be able to explore and stretch your legs. It's the biggest strengths that roleplaying games have.

A second problem is that it causes rigidity of thought, and turns mental powerhouses into vegetables. It causes brain damage. Since there are rules for what can't be done, there's no room for common sense. Suddenly you have sensible human beings who might be loving, caring friends and parents in their normal existence but now have become bloodthirsty murderers and amoral robots. Find a tribe of orcs, with females and kids? Suddenly one of the brain dead will say that they must be killed, “because they are evil” or “because they are chaotic”! I have seen it happen and every time I see it, it disgusts me.

So, if someone say that the Rules say it is right to kill sentient beings because they are Evil, what does that say about those who act upon that command? From my point of view it tells me that those who argues that RPGs should be banned because they teach the kids satanism could very well have a solid cause for banning, if they argued that they taught intolerance. Just the kind of intolerance that makes you want ban stuff, incidentally. I'd say it's perfectly fine to play a game where the player characters are, say, hired by the secret police in a totalitarian state in our world. What is cause for concern is what the players do with the responsibility. Having alignment to fall back to absolve the player from morals, and cause an "I only followed orders” mentality. I'd say it's flat out dangerous behaviour.

Now, maybe you object that it's just guidelines for roleplaying, and a starting point to ground the actions of your character. If it is “just a help”, why are there rules for punishing someone who acts out of line? If a rulebook tells me what is right and wrong in life I object (even if I agree!!), since I don't like to have someone elses morals forced down my throat, thank you very much! An observation from experience also tells me that those who claim it's just guidelines probably will be the ones shouting and arguing when someone acts against alignment later on in the session. Bad players are one objection to that observation, but I claim it's the aforementioned brain damage, since they seem to be just fine players as long as the "A" word is not mentioned.

If that wasn't enough there are more things which makes me rage about alignment. How does it work with spells like Known Alignment? Game mechanics have broken down the wall between player and character and suddenly the world knows about the rules of AD&D! The same thing applies to the concept of Evil or Good artifacts of detection spells. The only way to make that work out is for Good and Evil to be relative to the individual. If a cleric of a sun god encounters a warhammer sanctified to the good of darkness it will probably feel evil.

Since some people feel very strongly that moral relativism is more dangerous than HIV, I'd like to add that there's nothing saying that acts and ideals in the game has to be floating free in a sea of post-modernism just because of what I just said. You as a player probably have a set of moral values, an idea of right and wrong. Use those ideas in your game! It's not as if the game will degenerate into an unruly mess just becuase you don't have the crutch of alignment rules. A game about moral issues, where the choices made by the players come from their own convictions, have a much higher chance of being moving and engaging for real. Take a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. In that game your character have the power to define doctrine, and to meter out justice on the spot. You can overturn it all. But, when I've played it, it has every time been a question of us as players asking ourselves how far we really feel comfortable taking that power! Playing a game like that teaches understanding, not intolerance. Probably it will also give you some idea about what evil actually is.

That was a bit long, and rantish. But, I feel quite strongly about this. Alignment is not just a badly designed rule, it has social consequences that I feel are worth fighting. Feel free to disagree, but read what I wrote one more time and try to get what it is I'm trying to say.

8 comments:

  1. My weekly game doesn't use alignments, and that doesn't prevent anything you're talking about.

    Evil will still get killed "because it's evil," by some players whether or not it's part of the stat block.

    And playing Dogs in the Vineyard, some players will enforce a barbaric and cruel state of affairs onto their people not because they're assholes or bad people, but because they decide that using their real-life modern sensibilities doesn't fit the flavor of the setting.

    And whether alignments are used or not, the player *chooses* a character's morality. Most of my players don't give all their characters the same personalities (nor moral codes). And as referee, the only limit I set is "Doesn't make the other players uncomfortable." Considering this country (Finland) has had Nazi LARPs and for the most part people really didn't think it was any different running around wearing a swastika for a few hours rather than carrying a boffer sword (and people doing so weren't presumed to be real-life fascists or racists any more than a LARPer playing a wizard was thought to be a real-life caster of spells), I wonder what the discomfort limit is.

    One player in my current game has played a hippie warrior, a murderous and nasty warrior (who at the end died a heroic death just because his hatred of the enemy was greater than his sense of self-preservation), and now a near-pacifist cleric.

    Another player started with a noble, knightly guy, and his current character is a highwayman type. Courteous and dashing with the ladies, but the last session with a ship's crew that was betraying the PCs showed just how ruthless he can be, taking over of the ship by slaughtering the command and a few of the crew members to scare the rest into submission. The other players were a bit shocked at the behavior, haha!

    In my experience, alignments and stating "we're playing a Good campaign" at the beginning leads to less "questionable" stuff happening in-game.

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  2. I've recently switched D&D alignment out for allegiances (see here: http://therecursionking.blogspot.com/2009/06/recasting-law-and-chaos-light-and-dark.html ) because while alignment is a confusing nonsense in D&D itself what it tries to achieve is not: setting up a backdrop for heroics to occur against. By this I mean law vs chaos (see my blog post for a better explanation). This in no way is about good or evil, but about two diametrically opposed sides that are trying to destroy each other.

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  3. while alignment is a confusing nonsense in D&D itself what it tries to achieve is not: setting up a backdrop for heroics to occur against.

    I'd say it is a needless complication. Why do you need a moralistic straightjacket to perform heroics?

    I have used a allegience system in Stormbringer myself. Never was there a question about good with law or chaos, though.

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  4. My weekly game doesn't use alignments, and that doesn't prevent anything you're talking about.

    Evil will still get killed "because it's evil," by some players whether or not it's part of the stat block.


    Well, it might not stop it, but it will at least give that kind of behaviour one less leg to stand on. That's all I hope for.

    In my experience, alignments and stating "we're playing a Good campaign" at the beginning leads to less "questionable" stuff happening in-game.

    So, alignment helped people behave like adults. I don't say it can't help some people, but I think a conversation about what everyone want out of the game works far better than a rule system that tells you what's acceptable or not. Then people need to think themselves.


    Another player started with a noble, knightly guy, and his current character is a highwayman type. Courteous and dashing with the ladies, but the last session with a ship's crew that was betraying the PCs showed just how ruthless he can be, taking over of the ship by slaughtering the command and a few of the crew members to scare the rest into submission. The other players were a bit shocked at the behavior, haha!


    Great fun! That's what I want. Characters acting like human beings.

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  5. as an aside, if your problem is that the orc tribe is being slaughtered, I must say..the kind of orcs that would live in a tribe should simply not be 'evil', if they function as a society and have child rearing and families...then they can't be all evil by default.

    Not to defend D&D alignment, but if the orcs are going to have alignment on their sheet, thats to let you know how they should act. If a player sees an orc village and isn't disgusted by the way they live and treat their children, they should ask "how are these orcs not evil?".

    If a player sees an orc camp and find that orcs come from eggs and are left to grow up wild and feral until a larger orc bullies them into slave labour and soldiering it makes more sense for them to be evil.

    That said im not a huge fan of the alignment system as it stands, but if orcs are evil they should be evil. The same railroading where someone can say 'but thats not how a lawful good person acts!' should be 'thats not how an evil orc should act!'.

    Terrible and boring, but it has a logic to it. I need to scrub my skin off for defending the 9 alignment wheel.

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  6. I'm not sure I grasp what you mean, Zzarchov. Do you mean it makes sense to call the orcs evil (and treat them accordingly) if they commit evil acts?

    I'm trying to say that alignment clouds the minds of people to behave like murderers since "the orcs are evil" because that's what it says in the Monster Manual, not because they have behaved evil.

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  7. Basically, if Orcs are going to be listed as evil, they should be evil. If they aren't evil, its no different than listing them as humanoids and then being unpleasantly surprised when the PC's treat them all as humanoids and not checking to see if some of them were actully centaurs.

    If a creature ever has only one alignment possibility, its supernatural. It has no true free will like people do. Ie, if you replaced orcs with Pit Fiends in your example (both creatures listed as exclusively evil) would you be annoyed your players slaughtered every pit fiend "just because they were evil"? The only difference between an Orc and a Pit Fiend is abilities, not intentions.

    The orcs you were running did not seem like flesh demons (Orc is another word for Demon btw). In which case, point out to the players that orcs are in fact not all evil (or run a game where the PC's start off as orc slaughtering bigots and learn the error of their ways and repent, maybe working on Orc rights)

    Again, D&D Alignment is a stupid system, but its harsh to judge the system on stuff its not meant to do.

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  8. Basically, if Orcs are going to be listed as evil, they should be evil.


    Ok. Fair enough. But, I think listing then as evil in the first place is a really bad idea.

    In my games a Pit Fiend will probably be committing evil, but not because it is an inherent quality of it's character.

    What are alignment supposed to do? Good question. It is doing something, and intentional or not that is what makes me hate it so.

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