Monday, November 10, 2008

The Moral Structure of D&D

Good and Evil: Basically stated, the tenets of good are human rights, or in the case of AD&D, creature rights. Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness. Cruelty and suffering are undesirable. Evil, on the other hand, does not concern itself with rights or happiness; purpose is the determinant.

--Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (1979)
I'd been intending to talk briefly about the underlying morality of Dungeons & Dragons, because I'd mentioned it as part of critique of Carcosa in Part 4 of my review. There I said that D&D is "built on a remarkably traditionalist moral structure." I fully expected that that line would raise hackles in some quarters and so it did. Geoffrey McKinney objects, saying:
I must admit to seeing no such things, whether in the D&D game or in its supplements. What is there in the OD&D game + supplements to prevent the PCs from being chaotic worshippers of Set, slaying and tormenting innocents, etc? What is there in a WWII miniatures wargame preventing players from playing the Axis powers? What is there in either case preventing such players from succeeding in their aims? I see no strictures on chaotic characters in D&D. Each type of playing piece has its own strengths and weaknesses, but I do not see that the game is weighted one way or the other. Neither do I see strictures or even admonitions to ensure that Law prevails over Chaos. Indeed, I think such things would cause the game to be less fun.
I find this a strange objection, because my point was not that D&D in any way prevents a player from creating and portraying an evil character; that's clearly not the case. When I said that the game is built on a remarkably traditionalist moral structure, I had in mind quotes like the one from the DMG above. That quote makes it clear that moral relativism has no place in D&D. Good and evil are very clearly defined and certain actions, such as treating creatures as means rather than ends, are always and without question evil.

The consequence of these objective definitions of good and evil is not that players are -- or even should be -- limited in their choice of alignment for their characters. Rather, it's that the text of the game itself does not support the notion that evil actions are in any way right, correct, or otherwise commendable -- quite the contrary! This is important for two reasons. First, it's useful as a reminder to players that, for example, torturing orc captives isn't appropriate behavior for supposedly good characters. Second, it's useful for when outsiders come along and read the books and erroneously think the game promotes murder and mayhem (among other things).

My concern with Carcosa is that its alignment system provides no means in-game to be able to say that the followers of Chaos, the servants of the Great Old Ones, are in fact evil and thus morally reprehensible. One might be able to infer this, given the likely reaction most people have to the idea of human sacrifice, but that inference is undercut, as I noted in my review, by the book's statement that all behaviors, "including the most noble and altruistic," can be found among adherents of all alignments. If true, if being Chaotically-aligned, which is defined in Carcosa as being a servant of the Great Old Ones, is in no way objectively wrong, then one could then reasonably suppose that the actions of Chaotics, up to and including human sacrifice, are not wrong, merely undesirable to the human sacrificed.

That may not seem like an important to thing to some and I grant that. However, I think it does put Carcosa at odds with the moral structure implicit in OD&D and explicit in AD&D, where moral evil is the realm of inhuman monsters and those men and women who choose to make themselves similarly inhuman by their actions.

57 comments:

  1. Thanks for the clarification, James.

    I recognize the universal and objective truth of natural law (as explicated, for example, by Thomas Aquinas).

    Personally, I don't see the need for game rules to expound on right and wrong. I think a discussion on just war theory in a miniatures wargame would be out of place. A section decrying greed and monopolies in the Monopoly game would be similarly out of place. Thus I did not include any sort of explicit condemnation of human sacrifice in CARCOSA. I take it as a given that the heinous acts performed as part of those rituals are wicked.

    Or, to take another tack, I've read books about Aztec human sacrifice. None of these books told the reader that this human sacrifice was wicked. That was simply inferred as obvious.

    I'd like to thank you, James, for your reasoned and pleasant manner. :)

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  2. Darn it, I forgot to address alignment in my comment above.

    In Carcosa, some people are very immoral, yet would fight against the Old Ones if freed. The Space Aliens are a prime example here.

    On the other hand, some cultured and decadent aesthetes on Carcosa find beggars and starving children to be unsightly. Therefore they use their money and resources to beautify their cities and make sure that everyone in the city has enough food to eat and a place to sleep. Yet these aesthetes worship Hastur.

    In CARCOSA I am not trying to portray a world with relativistic ethics, nor am I trying to portray a world with objective ethics. Instead, I leave that up to each Judge to determine as he sees fit for his own campaign. A Carcosa campaign would work well with either view. I hope to address this in more detail in my blog.

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  3. I agree, and this highlights an important point, i.e. that the "Lovecraftian" influence on D&D isn't that central to the game. In HPL's work the Great Old Ones and their minions are presented as "beyond good and evil" in that they are not concerned with human morality whatsoever.

    The question this raises for me is whether the moral structure of D&D owes anything to the example of its Sword & Sorcery/pulp fantasy roots, either. By the measure of the definition of evil suggested by your initial DMG quote, none of the S&S heroes with which I'm familiar (Conan, Fafhrd & tGM, Elric, Cugel, et al.) could be considered good by any stretch of the imagination. All of these characters use people as means to ends on a regular basis. In fact, the one most concerned personally with issues of ethics and morality (Elric) is the most evil of the lot.

    Seems to me that traditional Christian morality in the mode of J. R. R. Tolkien's is the primary influence on the alignment system, which seems to buck the insight (which I do think applies elsewhere in the game, as you've demonstrated) that pulp fiction was the predominant inspiration in the development of the early game.

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  4. This is true for D&D, which is your actual point. However, I'd argue that it's not true in terms of pulp literature. In many cases, particularly in the case of Elric and Moorcock heroes, characters struggle with their own sense of "good" or "right" while being pushed into clearly "evil" actions by the forces of chaos. Those who are pawns of chaos can try to impose their puny mortal sense of good and evil upon the supernatural divide between law and chaos, but law and chaos don't take good and evil into account. In many ways, it's a Nietzchean dualism, with chaos being Nietzche's ideal of the ubermensch and Law on the side of the so-called "slave mentality."

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  5. Oop. Thalmen Dahr made the same point, but a bit differently. Damn, I thought Nietzsche was a really creative point to make. :)

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  6. Very interesting point, Thalmen. I wonder how much Gary Gygax's own moral belief system influenced the alignment system as well, cutting across the more "free market" ethics portrayed in the S&S genre.

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  7. Quick thought re moral sources for D&D other than Tolkien and the pulps: westerns.

    They tend to cleave more closely to the code James describes than pulp fantasy tales, and I believe they another avowed influence on the game.

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  8. Seems to me that traditional Christian morality in the mode of J. R. R. Tolkien's is the primary influence on the alignment system, which seems to buck the insight (which I do think applies elsewhere in the game, as you've demonstrated) that pulp fiction was the predominant inspiration in the development of the early game.

    While I agree that there's at least a presumed quasi-Christian moral underpinning to D&D, I doubt its presence comes form Tolkien, whose novel Gary famously disliked. I'd wager that it was just a sub-conscious import into the game, perhaps influenced by the Westerns in some respects.

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  9. They tend to cleave more closely to the code James describes than pulp fantasy tales, and I believe they another avowed influence on the game.

    I think this is a keen insight. Western heroes tend to be better examples in many ways of the kinds of characters Gygax liked and whom he expected players to portray. These are "rough men" who walk the line between good and evil and (mostly) wind up on the side of good, even if their methods often skirt the edges of evil. I think there's much to be discovered about the whys and wherefores of D&D by watching Westerns.

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  10. I wonder if roleplaying as an activity demands a strong moral structure, stronger even than we have in real life. I'm thinking of two things, the cliché of the psycho, torturing PC and those experiments where people shocked the crap out of victims relentlessly when ordered to do so. Maybe the game world lacking the inherent and reflexive strictures that we all cary with us is a sociopathic environment by nature and demands some actual morality rules for there to be an order that will allow the game to move forward.


    Just a general thought spurred by this discussion.

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  11. I think this is a keen insight.

    Thanks, but it's the insight of an attentive student rather than an original thinker. You and others here have made this observation in different contexts.

    A later book that Gygax spoke very highly of is Glen Cook's The Black Company. It's very much about a group of " 'rough men' who walk the line between good and evil and (mostly) wind up on the side of good, even if their methods often skirt the edges of evil," though they are probably much more compromised than many a western lawman, given who they work for, and the work they do.

    (And ssshhh, don't say how it ends. I'm still reading them...)

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  12. It seems like there's a rather, erm, interesting dialogue between the definition of good and evil outlined here and the dominant activity of dungeon-delving. I'm tempted to say that the definition here mostly signposts the meanings of the alignment categories, rather than giving any overall moral shape to the game: it lets players of evil characters know that they don't have to engage in recreational torture to play 'in alignment,' and good characters don't have to help kittens out of trees or old ladies across the road, which is rather an important point.

    As for relativism, I guess that all depends on how you interpret the "neutral" alignment in your campaign. I'm not convinced that I discern a positive moral direction to AD&D here - it at least seems that both James' and Geoffrey's readings are possible.

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  13. Point taken; I would agree that the western fits better as a model for D&D morality. Cowboys, at least portrayed in the movies, are pretty much a caricature of a caricature of medieval knights with six-shooters, though. I think perhaps we're dealing with several strata of romanticized history lacquered on top of each other when it comes to the quintessential Good D&D hero. Your garden variety AD&D paladin is certainly a strange mixture of Sir Galahad and John Wayne, that's for sure. The PC Murlynd (sp?) comes to mind as a prime example of this type from the Greyhawk campaign.

    Most players in my experience hew much more closely to the S&S prototypes, though (even those professing good alignments), eschewing a straight black-and-white view of game (or real life) morality.

    Is it that Gygax intentionally oversimplified the alignment system to avoid having to discuss and deal with "gray areas" in-game, or was his worldview really that cut-and-dried?

    A weird mix of

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  14. Whoops, some others more or less answered my question while I was writing them. Ah well :).

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  15. ...a further thought regarding Nietzsche's Superman: I don't think it's obvious that he's chaotic at all - rather, Nietzsche seems to think that whatever such a figure did would be (by its, or his, nature) natural law. He may seem chaotic to those who don't understand his actions, but the problem is with their understanding, not him.

    I'm tempted now to write a piece of fiction that deals with the "outer edges" of Law and Chaos: that looks into who gets to set the law and whether it's possible to avoid emergent order. No doubt it's been done.

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  16. I have my doubts about saying that OD&D had any the moralistic overtones, at least until Greyhawk expanded the alignment system to purposefully add Good and Evil to the mix. Admittedly many may view this as nit-picking since Greyhawk was the first supplement, but the implication was that neither Law nor Chaos was particularly moral. Certainly the forces aligned to Chaos was viewed as bad, but that was because they were often considered the enemy (the original game being inherently based on imposing some form of order on the chaos (small-c) of the wilderness).

    Think about it - the typical adventurer is not the most moral of individuals (graverobbers, thieves, slayers of innocent orc children...) Not exactly the sort of people you would generally want to associate with socially.

    I know we've played at least one reverse dungeon in the tournament setting early on - where the players are the monsters trying to prevent the wholesale slaughter of their kin by a party of adventurers. The difference is really rather negligible.

    YMMV.

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  17. Okay, bear with me, this is a long one...

    From what I'm seeing here, it looks like James and Geoffrey are talking about two different things.

    Geoffrey said: Personally, I don't see the need for game rules to expound on right and wrong. I think a discussion on just war theory in a miniatures wargame would be out of place.

    While D&D was built largely on combat rules from Chainmail, it's not a war game. It's a role play game, where character choices are the primary mechanic--not the combat system. (Yes, I know, obviously...)

    I agree with James that the mechanics/opportunity to play evil characters is present. That doesn't mean that the focus of the game (per its publisher) is to fight on/for forces of non-good.

    James, you'd know better than I, but is it safe to say that supplements published by TSR presupposes the heroes are in some way good, even if their alignment states neutrality? (Omitting tourneys)

    That's the point I would argue, that the works published by GG and TSR are meant to nudge PCs towards a common goal for good, regardless of what the baseline rules allow. This would be in line with your theory of a 'moral code' within the game.

    I’ve gathered from reading this and other blogs, that Carcosa's alignment issues have little bearing on the PCs because the Sorcerer class wouldn't be of much use without powers. . Yes, there may be penalties in the game, but the published material pre-supposes you will commit non-good acts in order to be an effective player. Thereby going against the Gygax grain, as it were.

    From a philosophical standpoint does that mean we all should play good guys? Not necessarily. I would say that the game likely has a lot of unexplored territory (in the way of published material). Characters are more fun when they're played with both good and bad aspects in them. I'm sure most gamers have at least experimented with non-good alignments when creating PCs.

    Last year I played a pick-up game during D&D Day at one of the local shops. Everyone at the table was a stranger to one another. The PCs were pre-generated for us, but no one really acknowledged their alignments beforehand. (Does anyone these days?)

    After our first encounter the person playing the rogue/thief said aloud he "wanted to search the corpses of the monsters for treasure--before the other players can get the good stuff". The DM didn't even bat an eye, and allowed him to do so. There was no dividing of treasure at any point--it was 'finders-keepers' as set by that precedent.

    By the last encounter, the thief played a major part in taking out the big baddie. While I didn't agree with his bold declaration to screw over the other players-- or the DM's permissiveness--the team needed him in order to achieve a greater good. And that quirk made the game that much more interesting.

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  18. richard:
    "Nietzsche seems to think that whatever such a figure did would be (by its, or his, nature) natural law"

    Aleister Crowley:
    "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

    I'd peg the Nietzschean philosophy as highly Chaotic, within the D&D Law-Neutrality-Chaos moral framework. Obviously the Nietszchean framework rejects external morality; the Superman creates his own morality.

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  19. the Superman creates his own morality

    creates, or recognises/performs? I don't think it's so obvious (even if God, the trad. source of externalised truth, is dead). But that might be a discussion for another forum.

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  20. That's the point I would argue, that the works published by GG and TSR are meant to nudge PCs towards a common goal for good , regardless of what the baseline rules allow.

    I'd argue that "XP for gold" is never nudging PCs toward "good" behavior, at least under definitions of good that have much in common with that quoted in the post. I suppose you could take the perspective that the PCs don't know that relentless looting is the path to personal enrichment, though.

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  21. I agree with James that McKinney is in error when he seems to imply that someone who is chaotic might, nevertheless, be morally good.

    Surely anyone who worships the Old Ones, given what horrors they are, must be to some extent evil. But, of course, someone who is against them could perfectly well be evil in many other respects (as McKinney notes with reference to Space Aliens).

    The example of someone who is good but chaotic that McKinney gives--the followers of Hastur--is poorly chosen, because they perform an externally good action for an evil motive--which is evil. (They do what's good, as Aristotle would say, but not as a good person does it.)

    McKinney could avoid THIS criticism, however, simply by admitting that while the alignment system doesn't strictly track good and evil, it's also not entirely irrelevant, because anyone chaotic will clearly be pretty evil.

    I think the real objection, however, is that McKinney ABSOLUTELY ENCOURAGES players to play evil characters in the strongest way possible. After all, there are only two classes, one of which is totally evil. And it's the cooler of the two classes.

    Any Carcosa campaign will involve 70% what are called "evil men". That's a game design choice.

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  22. Sorry, I should also say that I think Carcosa is amazing. I am a big fan of the project, which McKinney executed with bravado and panache. And the end product is strange and wonderful in good ways.

    But its design does have this consequence, and that would be an obstacle to my playing it as written.

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  23. 'McKinney ABSOLUTELY ENCOURAGES players to play evil characters in the strongest way possible. After all, there are only two classes, one of which is totally evil. And it's the cooler of the two classes.

    'Any Carcosa campaign will involve 70% what are called "evil men". That's a game design choice.'

    First of all, only my home Carcosa campaign involves 70% evil PCs. Other Carcosa campaigns undoubtedly will differ.

    Second, I have no problem with any mix of alignments amongst PCs: whether 100% evil, or 100% good, or anything in between.

    Third, if I were a player in a Carcosa campaign seeking to maximize my PC's power, I most certainly would NOT be a human-sacrificing sorcerer. Instead, I would be a sorcerer who performed only rituals of banishing (none of which require human sacrifice).

    It's easier on Carcosa to find and acquire Space Alien high-tech than to acquire the knowledge of and material components for sorcerous rituals. So my PC would devote the lion's share of his time to acquiring laser rifles, grenade launchers, robotic servants, etc. Such a character would typically be much more powerful than an evil sorcerer who can summon a powerful entity and MAYBE bind it (assuming the entity fails its saving throw) after a 6-hour ritual. Ha! My "binding-only" sorcerer would blast that evil sorcerer out of existence with his ultraviolet beam rifle.

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  24. Thanks for the kind words, belst8. :)

    Just watch out for my sorcerer with a Space Alien rifle. ;)

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  25. ...an obstacle to my playing it as written.

    Fortunately Geoffrey, with true old school spirit, is nothing but encouraging of people who want to kitbash Carcosa.

    If I were to use the setting I'd add a single Lawful or Neutral god (a la Nodens in ..Unknown Kadath, perhaps) rumored to be bound in some howling wilderness. Perhaps this god is dead, perhaps not, but I like the idea of Carcosa with a single flickering hope.

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  26. Oops, in my post at 7:13 PM today, I meant to type "banishing-only" in the last sentence.

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  27. Chris, I hear you on the XP-for-treasure reward. However, that doesn't preclude the goal of most modules (save for those where obtaining treasure alone IS the goal).

    Usually, there is a greater goal.

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  28. A later book that Gygax spoke very highly of is Glen Cook's The Black Company.

    He indeed. In fact, if I recall, he went so far as to praise it with words to the effect of a "near-perfect D&D novel." Take that as you will.

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  29. Is it that Gygax intentionally oversimplified the alignment system to avoid having to discuss and deal with "gray areas" in-game, or was his worldview really that cut-and-dried?

    Hard to say. I know that Gary was himself rather traditionalist when it came to most matters of morality, so it wouldn't surprise me if he used his own beliefs to guide the presentation of alignment in D&D. I don't know this for a fact, however.

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  30. I have my doubts about saying that OD&D had any the moralistic overtones, at least until Greyhawk expanded the alignment system to purposefully add Good and Evil to the mix.

    Technically, Greyhawk didn't add to the alignment system; it's still threefold even in Supplement I. That said, I think you're right that Greyhawk is a turning point for OD&D thematically. It's the touchstone for a "purer" Gygaxian vision of the game and that vision includes a clearer elucidation of an objective morality.

    I would argue, though, that even in the 3 LBBs there's an implicit assumption that Law = Good/Chaos = Evil and Law has many quasi-Christian overtones to it. This makes sense given how much the alignment structure owes to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, which much more explicitly connect Law not just with Good but also with the Christian Church.

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  31. James, you'd know better than I, but is it safe to say that supplements published by TSR presupposes the heroes are in some way good, even if their alignment states neutrality? (Omitting tourneys)

    I think it's fairer to say that the earliest modules assumed that the PCs were all individuals willing to defend "civilization" through their actions, even if those actions were sometimes in themselves morally dubious.

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  32. I'd argue that "XP for gold" is never nudging PCs toward "good" behavior, at least under definitions of good that have much in common with that quoted in the post. I suppose you could take the perspective that the PCs don't know that relentless looting is the path to personal enrichment, though.

    XP for gold is definitely not something that encourages goodness by any means, which is why I agree that there's a certain amount of dramatic tension in early D&D between the way the game mechanics work and the way the adventures/book present the game world and the PCs' relationship to it. I personally find that tension one of the joys of the game: how can a bunch of money-grubbing ne'er-do-wells gain wealth and power in a world in which the acquisition of such is often considered immoral?

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  33. I would postulate that the tension arises in the conflict between Gygax's inspiration from Sword and Sorcery fiction (the "Big Five" as I call them: Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Cugel, and Elric) and his reverence and enthusiasm for various historical and pseudo-historical character archetypes (Roland, Arthur, Charlemaigne's paladins, etc.).

    In other words, there is a fundamental schism built into the origins of the game itself. You've got your so-called "money-grubbing" types who are out for the experience and gold, and then there are the clerics (in OD&D) and paladins and good-aligned clerics, rangers, and monks (in AD&D) who aren't wired that way.

    This seems to fit with JM's view that clerics don't really fit into a "pulp fantasy D&D". I'd agree. Not to say there is not some crossover and mixing of types.

    I'd say we had a fairly conflicted game designer when it came to moral and ethical issues (big surprise, and good for him!), who wasn't content with or interested in positing a single, overriding morality for the game, but still tried to model something usable and interesting.

    As an atheist and cosmicist in the vein of HPL, I find it refreshing to play in an environment (unlike the real world, again in my view) where there is an objective, yet somewhat ambiguous moral standard (I don't know what's objectively right and wrong, but the gods do, hehe).

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  34. On re-reading REH's Conan recently I was actually struck by how Good aligned he is. The most evil acts he commits are stealing and being a mercenary, neither of which are terribly Evil by AD&D standards. But he is frequently kind and never cruel - which are very representative adjectives of the opposite ends of the Good/Evil axis in AD&D.

    Cugel is clearly Evil and is intended to be understood as such - the whole point of the stories about him is to amuse the reader with his constant suffering as a result of his own actions.

    Elric's alignment drifts over time and, at least after visiting Tanelorn, he becomes more motivated by the desire to free everyone from the war of the alignments and is prepared even to sacrifice himself for this. As such, I would say that Elric drifts towards Good in AD&D terms.

    As to Fafhrd and the Mouser I'm not sure as it's a long time since I read over the stories and it's a bit hazy but I do think they fall into Conan's area of NG - they're out for themselves but not at the expense of the innocent. As I say, I might be wrong but I think I would have noticed if they were AD&D Evil.

    So I don't think there is any tension between the alignment system and the game's sources, really.

    And, as to Geoffry's comment about morals being out of place in Monopoly, that seems strange since the game design was intended as a condemation of property ownership and monopolies in its entirity!

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  35. This is really, really long. Sorry.

    there's a certain amount of dramatic tension in early D&D between the way the game mechanics work and the way the adventures/book present the game world and the PCs' relationship to it. I personally find that tension one of the joys of the game: how can a bunch of money-grubbing ne'er-do-wells gain wealth and power in a world in which the acquisition of such is often considered immoral?

    I've been thinking about this, and it strikes me that there's a basic incompatibility between Gary's definition of good and evil, above, and the rest of the game. It's partly structured in the rules, which detail a system for character advancement based on killing monsters and grabbing treasure, it's partly in the published dungeons, which detail combat stats and treasure hordes for all the inhabitants, but don't deal at all with how one might come to co-operative arrangements with them that respect their creature rights. The implication of the published materials (outside this single statement) is clear, and was understood by every gaming group I ever encountered: without exception, they all engaged in the most diligent and thorough evil.

    For a while I tried to find "just war" arguments that would allow me to recast the wanton (and elective) mayhem of dungeoneering as some necessary-evil-to-do-good, but (a) there are no vast countries of innocent and helpless civilians written into the game that theoretically need defending, and (b) even if there were, that's not the thrust of Gary's statement: if one treats the dungeon's inhabitants as means to an end rather than creatures with rights, one is doing evil, no matter what grand narrative one tries to fit to one's actions.

    I should note that I find Gary's definition quite laudable, on a personal level. That's no doubt because I'm a modern Westerner raised in a (Anglo-American, pseudo-Athenian) tradition that reveres declarations of human rights and their use to constrain individual and state action. Gary's definition comes out of this tradition, so we needn't go looking for some outlandish system of "fantasy ethics" that could explain it.

    Here's the thing, though: historically rights have been strictly limited to certain groups of people; many progressives have said that there's not a thing wrong with the Bill of Rights except that it was too narrowly applied - that our progress is in encompassing more and more people within it. That's true, but I think that argument rather forgets that the people who wrote the document were also slave-owning, Indian-killing, woman-exploiting sons of bitches, and that this was necessary to their way of life: they were very, very careful to keep their democratic republicanism away from their business, and a bright line between the world of rights and the world of extractive exploitation. That's the line Gary's creature rights crosses: he doesn't specify the limits of "creature" (making me imagine that all good PCs must be vegetarians, at least), and he still bandies about the term "monster," which, I would think, would be completely incompatible with such a stance, since it seems to be used to place the creature so described beyond the pale of peaceful interaction, rights and all that civilised jazz.

    I'm not arguing that such a line is a good thing - far from it - just that it seems to be necessary to the game as presented (and fundamental to the Western, BTW). What results is a repugnant but gameable world, divided (racially) into rights-holding persons and ethnically-cleansable monsters. Perhaps the problem with Carcosa is that it does away with this line, placing the PCs in the realm of the monsters. On the flipside of this, I would dearly love to see a campaign where the PCs were (Gary's definition of) good, trying to spread their light in a benighted world, gathering dragons, owlbears, goblins and elves under their banner (for every race has creature rights, regardless of whether it's also considered "evil"), and debating whether slimes, oozes and intelligent plants should also be afforded their own access to the pursuit of happiness. Now that would be a game with a strong moral structure.

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  36. Oh, god: not long enough...

    I should add that I don't think it's reasonable to suppose that those with evil alignments should be shorn of their creature rights, and therefore placed in the realm of exploitation, as James seems to imply in the last lines of his post: where is such a thing said? If a PC commits an exploitative act, does that make them into a monster?

    My question, up thread, about neutrality is quite sincere, BTW: I really have no idea what neutrality might signify in this schema.

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  37. I certainly think D&D's moral structure owes more to the Western than to the pulps swords & sorcery genre; whose own moral structure is if anything closer to that of crime, thriller and noir - I remember REH said he based Conan on 'gangsters and oil men', FWIW. The taming-the-frontier trope so strong in D&D is absent from S&S except when deliberately imported (Wolves on the Border) - and in those rare examples the Barbarians/Chaos usually triumph over civilisation/Law.

    Re "What results is a repugnant but gameable world, divided (racially) into rights-holding persons and ethnically-cleansable monsters" - I recalll the 1e PHB definition of Lawful Good, a take on Benthamite Utilitarianism: "The Greatest Good to the Greatest Number of Decent, Right-Thinking Creatures, and Least Harm to the Rest". There's no doubt in my mind that Gygax's 'creature rights' were intended to encompass only humans, demi-humans, and any others admiteed into the 'community of value' on account of their proven moral decency. He certainly didn't intend PCs to be applying Kantian morality to goblins down the dungeon, unless for some reason they pinged Good on the Know Alignment detector.

    I also don't think Gygax was postulating a coherent moral framework. His various definitions of Good are a grab-bag of popular moralities - Benthamite, Kantian, Declaration of Independence (Life/Liberty/Pursuit of Happiness) et al.

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  38. "It's the touchstone for a "purer" Gygaxian vision of the game and that vision includes a clearer elucidation of an objective morality."

    James - this is where I find myself noticing a bird flying upside down in the picture. I could be wrong, but much of the argument you are making about the implicit morality of D&D rests on treating D&D as only Gary Gygax's creation. Dave Arneson clearly was Gary's co-author, and yet because of the unequal relationship between them (Gary acting as co-author AND publisher, with Dave as co-author and sometime employee), we simply don't get much sense of what happened in Blackmoor - what moral sense did Dave infuse into the game? I would posit that some of the confusion that others, notably Richard, have pointed out comes from two authors of the original game with different personal views on in-game morality.* Along with that, we simply don't get much sense of Dave's own approach to these issues - though I think it's telling that the original Blackmoor games (IIRC from talking to Dave) were adventurers vs. monsters, with the referee being a traditional miniatures ref.

    All of that having been said, I agree with S'mon that Gygax did not have a coherent moral framework - at best, it evolved over time. Look at the original chart for alignments as presented in The Strategic Review Vol. II, No. 1 - Gary makes it clear that his position had changed over time since the original game publication - and it changes again later in The Dragon (probably several times).

    So I must suggest, rather diffidently, that you may be retconning this idea of "implicit morality" - at least into any consistent form on Gary's part, and the omission of Dave's own sense of these things from your consideration. I would hope you would think about this.

    *It's interesting to note that both Dave and Gary were and are devout Christians; in Dave's case, it made a lot of the anti-D&D Jack Chick stuff seem pretty silly to him.

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  39. Good and evil in AD&D are simply defined and clearly as the opposite ends of a range which runs from generous and self-sacrificing (Good) to cruel and rapacious (Evil). Nothing very incoherent in that, as far as I can see.

    I'm having a hard time finding anything of any substance in these long-winded posts.

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  40. I'm having a hard time finding anything of any substance in these long-winded posts.

    I recommend finding another blog that provides you with more of what you're looking for then.

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  41. Well, when someone posts "I've been thinking about this, and it strikes me that there's a basic incompatibility between Gary's definition of good and evil, above, and the rest of the game." and then totally fails to explain their point, it seems worth mentioning.

    The game provides a definition of good and evil; it does not require anyone to be either. Players who wish to be one or the other (or neither) are free to be so and there's nothing stopping them. So what is the "inconsistancy"? What is the "imcompatability"? Why should I take without comment the declaration that "Gygax did not have a coherent moral framework"?

    EGG's position on alignment changed in that it became more complex - obviously the addition of the second axis is the biggest single step - but I don't see and evidence of a radical change in his direction, and none is presented amid the flurry of philosophical name-dropping as far as I can see.

    If you're going to attack someone as inconsistant then you need to do more than simply declare it so from on high.

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  42. Just to clarify: my comment about long winded posts was not in reference to the main blog item but to the posts in response to it.

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  43. then totally fails to explain their point

    Did I fail to explain it? I'm sorry, I thought I was fairly clear. I say that, while Gygax may posit good and evil PCs as equally valid, the rest of the game skews evil on the axis written up here, or at least, there's a lot more support for evil PCs than for good ones. It may be possible to allow for good PCs if we exclude monsters from creature rights, but then we run up against the question of whether an individual is a creature or a monster and, for me at least, the shaky moral position such a distinction occupies. I imply that D&D's adoption of the terms good and evil as in-game forces, although unlike Carcosa's approach, might not make for a really morally-directed or morally-structured game after all.

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  44. I say that, while Gygax may posit good and evil PCs as equally valid, the rest of the game skews evil on the axis written up here, or at least, there's a lot more support for evil PCs than for good ones.

    The game mechanically rewards the gaining of treasure and the overcoming of opponents - whether done by evil or good PCs. I don't see that as skewed, if that's what you're referring to.

    If you are suggesting that in D&D evil is easier than good, then I would say that that is simply a reflection of reality - good is creative and co-operative while evil is self-centred and destructive overall and creation simply is genuinely harder than destruction simply because of how entropy works. It is always easier to give into temptation than to resist it - if that's true in the game then that probably implies an attempt to be impartial as regards Good Vs Evil but it's also part of why the Good Guys are admired and as such there is no contradiction between EGG's sources and the moral model in the game as far as I can see.

    It may be possible to allow for good PCs if we exclude monsters from creature rights, but then we run up against the question of whether an individual is a creature or a monster and, for me at least, the shaky moral position such a distinction occupies.

    I think it's a distinction you are inventing. "Monster" is defined in the PHB p40 (BTW: I'm assuming that this is an AD&D context since the quote posted by JM was from the DMG). It is perhaps badly choosen, but it means essentially "every potential threat" and specifically includes humans and demi-humans who are encountered "in action" as it were. It make no moral judgement, it simply implies a level of uncertainty about the immediate future as regards reactions, motives etc of the thing encountered.

    What is actually excluded from "creature rights" are evil beings who wish to restrict those rights to a small group (probably just themselves). If you wish to build utopia it is an inescapable fact that you will have to exclude those who wish to burn it down.

    I imply that D&D's adoption of the terms good and evil as in-game forces, although unlike Carcosa's approach, might not make for a really morally-directed or morally-structured game after all.
    Insofar that the game uses the words "Good" and "Evil" and the value judgments they carry to describe certain behaviour and attitudes, I think it clearly does have a moral direction even although it makes relatively few serious attempts to force that direction on the players.

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  45. Nagora, I think you are missing a finer level of distinction here made by others, based on a reading of Original D&D materials (and not AD&D). Given that's the case, you might reconsider your characterization of others' posts as "long-winded" lest you be thought of as "ignorant." Your mileage may vary.

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  46. vraymond said... Nagora, I think you are missing a finer level of distinction here made by others, based on a reading of Original D&D materials (and not AD&D).

    Do you think so? Let's take a look:

    When I said that the game is built on a remarkably traditionalist moral structure, I had in mind quotes like the one from the [AD&D] DMG above. That quote makes it clear that moral relativism has no place in D&D. Good and evil are very clearly defined and certain actions, such as treating creatures as means rather than ends, are always and without question evil. James Maliszewski

    By the measure of the definition of evil suggested by your initial [AD&D] DMG quote... Thalmen Dahr

    I recall the 1e PHB definition of Lawful Good... S'mon

    Look at the original chart for alignments as presented in The Strategic Review Vol. II, No. 1 [introducing the AD&D alignment graph] vraymond (!)

    Hmmm. A quick survey would appear to suggest a rather wider discussion than OD&D.

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  47. Perhaps it would have been more clear if I had said "not just AD&D" - at the time of the article I cited, AD&D did not yet exist, for example. While AD&D is cited, it is by no means the original material in this matter - there's a fair bit of older Original D&D material that actually is the basis for this discussion and therefore you've simply turned a blind eye to it to suit your own argument. As James has already pointed out, if you're bored, there are other places on the web that you might find more interesting. A question, though, before you leave - have you actually read any Original D&D material?

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  48. I agree with above posters that the best reaction to not finding our discussion interesting would be to cease reading it and go do something else.

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  49. Perhaps it would have been more clear if I had said "not just AD&D" - at the time of the article I cited, AD&D did not yet exist, for example.

    The fact is, however, that the article you cited is the first public appearance of the AD&D graph - a graph never released in any OD&D suppliment. We all know that the diagram in question influenced AD&D far more than it ever did OD&D, which was completed that same year with the original three-way alignment system officially unchanged.

    Original D&D material that actually is the basis for this discussion and therefore you've simply turned a blind eye to it to suit your own argument.

    The whole discussion is about Good and Evil in D&D. Since the terms were first defined in AD&D and that definition is what founded this thread it seems bizarre to claim that it's obvious that we're actually discussing a different game which does not define these terms. Indeed, OD&D rarely uses them except in Eldritch Wizardry, which was a much more important turning point for alignment than Greyhawk, IMO; it is EW which contains the footnote about Mind Flayers being Evil and Lawful at the same time, for example, and that signals the begining of the end of the one-axis system, I think.

    Richard's first post is entirely about AD&D's moral axis and the definition in the DMG, and my response to his follow up was based on that, although my argument is not totally dependant on the AD&D rules. Does he too stand accused of turning a blind eye to the basis of discussion to suit his argument?

    Richard at least came back with an explanation of his position - and I explained why I disagreed. That's what we grown-ups call "a debate". He didn't just try to pretend that a different conversation was taking place or that he was some divinely-appointed gatekeeper for that conversation.

    If you wish to specifically talk about OD&D then you'll need to say what it is you are inferring as regards the (unwritten) definitions of Good and Evil, and if you want to show that "Gygax did not have a coherent moral framework" then you need to demonstrate the incoherence - where "incoherent" is not at all the same thing as "evolved over time".

    As James has already pointed out, if you're bored, there are other places on the web that you might find more interesting.

    Oh dear, did a bad man disagree with you? How traumatic it must be for you, dealing with plebs who demand reasoned arguments instead of glib declarations of Truth.

    A question, though, before you leave

    Pathetic.

    have you actually read any Original D&D material?

    On and off since 1974, yes, quite a lot.

    Now, have you anything useful to say on the substance of what I posted or are you just going to keep crying because someone refused to post unalloyed praise for your wonderful insights?

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  50. I'm happy to debate with you, Nagora. I just find your arguments and commentary about the positions of others to be unconvincing.

    "The fact is, however, that the article you cited is the first public appearance of the AD&D graph"

    Well, no, actually. It's not an AD&D graph. It's a precursor, since - as I pointed out, AD&D didn't exist at the time. In addition, the article makes clear that Gygax thought of five alignments in that scheme, not AD&D's nine. So it's inaccurate to say they were the same thing.

    "- a graph never released in any OD&D suppliment. We all know that the diagram in question influenced AD&D far more than it ever did OD&D, which was completed that same year with the original three-way alignment system officially unchanged."

    You seem to place some sort of imprimatur on "official release" but that's implying a continuity of thinking or agreement that simply doesn't follow. (This is also the sort of thinking that leads to thinking that 4th Edition D&D is somehow more "evolved" than any previous version, which is also not necessarily true.) Past that, using "officiality" as the standard misses out on the commentary of Gygax and others in The Strategic Review and The Dragon - which is relevant regardless of what "TSR the Company" had to say on the matter.

    "The whole discussion is about Good and Evil in D&D. Since the terms were first defined in AD&D..."

    This is problematic on several levels. First of all, as others have already pointed out, philosophically Gygax's own positions on the concepts of good and evil are not completely consistent. Secondly, to begin your analysis with AD&D is like starting The Lord of the Rings with The Two Towers - and it's not enough to suggest that AD&D somehow "superseded" Original D&D, not when Gygax was trying very hard to differentiate the two games, which as much as anything, ends up adding to the incoherence of these issues. Supposedly two parallel games, using different ideas about alignment, but looking very much like one another, cannot help but be confusing. It might be argued, in fact, that the number of articles and columns in The Strategic Review and The Dragon written about just exactly what alignment meant were indicative of some lack of clarity on the issue. Third, to say that alignment in D&D ("D&D" used as an umbrella referent) was defined in AD&D misses out on all of the material in Moldvay/Mentzer D&D, published concurrently or later - in other words, AD&D != all of D&D. Lastly, saying that "OD&D rarely uses" good and evil is a misapplication of the Argument of the Beard - the fact that they are used at all, and in fact, are used by Gygax and Arneson in ways that are confusing (e.g. "Evil" High Priests are "chaotic") is relevant to the debate.

    ":If you wish to specifically talk about OD&D then you'll need to say what it is you are inferring as regards the (unwritten) definitions of Good and Evil, and if you want to show that "Gygax did not have a coherent moral framework" then you need to demonstrate the incoherence - where "incoherent" is not at all the same thing as "evolved over time"."

    Oh, that's easy. I don't even have to do that myself. Gary does it for me. From the article I originally cited:

    "Many questions continue to arise regarding what constitutes a “lawful” act, what sort of behavior is “chaotic”, what constituted an “evil” deed, and how certain behavior is “good”. There is considerable confusion in that most dungeonmasters construe the terms “chaotic” and “evil” to mean the same thing, just as they define “lawful” and “good” to mean the same. This is scarcely surprising considering the wording of the three original volumes of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. When that was written they meant just about the same thing in my mind — notice I do not say they were synonymous in my thinking at, that time. The wording in the GREYHAWK supplement added a bit more confusion, for by the time that booklet was written some substantial differences had been determined. In fact, had I the opportunity to do D&D over I would have made the whole business very much clearer by differentiating the four categories, and many chaotic creatures would be good, while many lawful creatures would be evil."

    By itself, I would say this might be representative of possible evolution of Gygax's thought. But there's more to consider. Don't forget, we really have little idea of what Dave Arneson thought about these things, aside from commentary about adventures in Blackmoor, or what might be implied from a reading of Adventures in Fantasy (though that's a bit further afield). When the differentiation of D&D and AD&D took place, Gygax attempted to claim OD&D and AD&D were "the same, but different," which is where further incoherence came about. (The publication of 3rd and 4th edition further muddy the mix, but that's not as immediately relevant.)

    A last set of comments about debate style: suggesting someone isn't a "grown-up" or that somehow I see myself as a "divinely-appointed gatekeeper" when I claimed nothing of the sort, or that my response is somehow "crying", or even that arguments you don't agree with are "long-winded" - these things speak badly of you and do you no credit. When I suggested that you might reconsider your terminology because you might be considered ignorant wasn't a pot-shot - it was a direct assessment of your argument: you weren't taking into account other versions of D&D (and given the history of this blog, that's an important lacuna). In addition, if anything, it was a word to the wise - making subjectively judgmental comments (which you were) might lead others to think poorly of you.

    I've carefully refrained from engaging in personal attacks in this post. I will continue to not engage in them, but confine myself to responses to your points, as you have asked for. I hope you will do the same.

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  51. Well, no, actually. It's not an AD&D graph. It's a precursor, since - as I pointed out, AD&D didn't exist at the time.

    That seems a fine hair to split, given that the two axis appeared in AD&D and not in OD&D but I don't think there's much to add.

    In addition, the article makes clear that Gygax thought of five alignments in that scheme, not AD&D's nine.

    I think that the issue here is just terminology. In the first graph there are 8 "outer planes" listed, including the ones for LN, NG, CN,and NE, adding in the neutral area that gives us the 9 major alignments of AD&D. These alignments are not listed at the end, but these planes and the positions of some of the monsters (such as unicorns) on the second graph clearly show that they were already a part of Gygax's thinking even if he had yet to give them a space in the jargon of the game.

    You seem to place some sort of imprimatur on "official release" but that's implying a continuity of thinking or agreement that simply doesn't follow.

    It's a fossil record - if it didn't see print then it's unlikely that I know anything about it.

    Past that, using "officiality" as the standard misses out on the commentary of Gygax and others in The Strategic Review and The Dragon - which is relevant regardless of what "TSR the Company" had to say on the matter.

    Yes, but it does say something about decisions made in the light of those commentaries - in this case it was clearly decided not to integrate the second axis into OD&D, which was at that point incomplete. That decision is also part of the record.

    First of all, as others have already pointed out, philosophically Gygax's own positions on the concepts of good and evil are not completely consistent.

    It has been stated, but so far all I can see is that his opinions the in-game definitions changed, and the result was the system in AD&D.

    It is true that EGG moved from a conflated system where chaotic=evil and lawful=good, but it appears to me that his dissatisfaction with that system was not because he changed his mind on what was "evil" or "good", but on what Lawful and Chaotic meant.

    It seems clear from reading the LBBs that an "Evil High Priest" in OD&D would be still be evil in AD&D. What would have changed would be that they could now also be Lawful or Neutral.

    The Mind Flayer entry shows this too - they have to be specially specified as evil dispite being lawful. The mind flayer is still evil in both systems. Again, I don't think that EGG's idea of what "evil" means changed, rather he decided that lawful did not mean "good" and it is lawful's conception that alters, not good's; although I will admit that there is a two-way aspect to this.

    In AD&D, acts which would cause the DM to class a character as evil or good seem to me to be the same acts that would have caused one of the LBBs to use the same (non-game-defined) word, but which system one is using might radically alter whether the character is classed as lawful, neutral, or chaotic.

    The insight of that SR article was in realising that having good and evil undefined in game terms was a problem, not that the unwritten and implied meanings EGG was using and assuming had changed in any major way.

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  52. nagora:
    "if you want to show that "Gygax did not have a coherent moral framework" then you need to demonstrate the incoherence - where "incoherent" is not at all the same thing as "evolved over time"."

    Gygax at different times uses different definitions of moral good, like I said, and these are not wholly consistent with each other:

    1. Greatest good of the greatest number (within the community of value) - Benthamite Utilitarian

    2. Creature Rights (within the CoV) to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

    3. Treating creatures (within the CoV) as means rather than ends - Kantian.

    A Utilitarian approach is not compatible with a Rights-based approach, which is why Bentham rejected the concept of moral rights.

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  53. Now I'm wishing I'd taken that ethics and philosophy of the enlightenment course at university: it seems to me that Gygax's statement, quoted at the top of this post, comes from a period just before the emergence of arguments about social contract. The definition of evil pretty much conforms to the idea of the rational actor or homo economicus - didn't Adam Smith lays out an idea of how a society of such rational actors could (and does) function, which allows for peace, stability and even a measure of mutual support, without requiring any virtuous impulse to altruism? James actually is a philosopher, and might be able to set me straight here, though I don't know if he ever deals with this sort of thing.

    I should note that my comments come out of a vision of D&D that involves "bashing down the door, killing the monsters and taking their stuff" as its basic activity. I'd actually like to make a request for a post that addresses this, because I don't think I'm alone in having this vision. Perhaps I am talking to a group of people for whom it isn't true - I recognise that D&D is an RPG, and therefore individual campaigns and play styles can be whatever the DM and players choose. If so, may I blame my confusion on the large number of published adventures, many of them set in dungeons, that seem to be built around this basic activity - that present long series of encounters with no obvious purpose except for violence and acquisition? It's because of this that I have such trouble trying to reconcile players' killing and looting with the "good is harder than evil" line that Nagora takes.

    I'm pretty confident, based on the Gygax quote, that I can dispense with the popular idea of good and evil Nagora gives: as the opposite ends of a range which runs from generous and self-sacrificing (Good) to cruel and rapacious (Evil): neither generosity nor self-sacrifice is mentioned. Cruelty is, but only as something undesirable for the good - it's not a requirement for evil at all. The status of rapacity depends rather on whether my dungeoneering impression has any truth to it.

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  54. Have to admit I've skimmed a lot of this comment thread but the overall discussion reminded me of something I always felt was odd. I think it's in the AD&D PHB, in a section toward the end where Gygax gives advice on planning and carrying out a dungeon expedition, and he warns the reader to beware of evil characters, chaotic characters, and "selfish neutrals".

    It suggests to me that Gygax felt, on the one hand, that freedom to choose any alignment was necessary to the form of an RPG or the completeness of the fictional worlds he was outlining. But he himself thought mainly of playing the game from the perspective of the L and especially G ends of the alignment graph.

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  55. Generosity and self-sacrifice are not directly mentioned but are implicit as the outcome of non-neutral action.

    A non-actor will exhibit no characteristic capable of being classified by the D&D alignment system. Once actions are taken (and motives for those actions accounted for), then the question of what actions fulfill the descriptions of good and evil given in the book arises.

    If someone acts to increase rights, happiness etc. only for themselves then the AD&D definitions would suggest neutrality or evil as regards the moral axis. In order to be positively good the character must exhibit a desire to spread happiness - to actively bring good to all deserving creatures, as it says in the DMG definition of NG.

    I find it hard to see how this is not characterisable as generosity. The whole theme of the good-evil axis is about the move from being totally focused on improving one's position at the expense of others (evil), through to simply looking after oneself ("selfish neutrals") to helping others to attain their fulfillment (good).

    The thumbnails of the Evil alignments on DMG p23 consistantly discuss dominance (the taking from others) for the individual or clique, while the Good alignments stress the desire to improve things for all.

    The question of "bashing down doors, killing and looting" is indeed one that depends on one's play. Negotiation is an option with intelligent beings but if one views the racially evil creatures as "enemies of weal" who are implacable then slaying them is no more evil than putting out a fire so long as it is understood that an orc who speaks peace will be given a hearing, even if not well-trusted.

    Altruism is a red-herring IMO. All creatures act because they want to and the "selfish" flag can be raised so easily as to make discussions of Alturistic action as fruitless as discussions of whether or not we can tell the world around us exists - it is a philosophical singularity.

    S'mon: I'm confused by your third point; Gygax listed pursuit of ends regardless of means as an evil characteristic so I don't follow you there.

    Gygax often talked about good and evil as a points-based system: Good destroying Evil is 1 point to Good's favour (-1 for Evil); Good converting Evil is 2 points (-1 for Evil, +1 for Good). His famous article about paladins slaying repentant orc converts was an example of this (I haven't got the ref to hand, sorry). I think that the "Greatest good of the greatest number" idea has to be viewed in that light, as well as many published dungeon-crawls.

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  56. It suggests to me that Gygax felt, on the one hand, that freedom to choose any alignment was necessary to the form of an RPG or the completeness of the fictional worlds he was outlining.

    I think that's exactly right.

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  57. James actually is a philosopher, and might be able to set me straight here, though I don't know if he ever deals with this sort of thing.

    I studied philosophy rather extensively but whether I qualify as a "philosopher" is a matter of debate ...

    That said, I think it's probably unlikely that Gygax ever studied much philosophy formally and his definitions of good and evil are largely "common sensical," by which I mean that they're informed by the popular notions of such things in Western, liberal societies. He oftentimes uses terms and phrases that he undoubtedly picked up elsewhere but whose meanings he doesn't employ in a technical or even specific way. I'd be wary of drawing more than a general thrust from his words, except in a few cases where we can see his drawing out of the implications of earlier statements in a coherent fashion.

    I don't mean to derail this very interesting discussion, but I don't think Gygax was laying out a manifesto here. Mostly, he was using common sense meanings and assuming that an American reader of the 1970s would have the same basic understanding. A lot goes unsaid, because they didn't need to be said at the time. It's only 30 years later that there's much debate over these questions, because some of the readers of these passages no longer share Gygax's assumptions.

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