Thursday, June 11, 2009

On Swords-and-Sorcery

In running my Dwimmermount campaign, I've tried very hard to impart a swords-and-sorcery feel to the whole thing. One of the subtler ways I've done that relates to the presentation of morality and alignment. As I've explained previously, the campaign setting postulates a primordial war between Law and Chaos, with "Law" being equated with the forces of mortal civilization and "Chaos" being equated with forces of otherworldly destruction. Thus, while Chaos might be called "insane" or at least "irrational," Law encompasses both good and evil components, as anyone who prefers the orderliness of civilization over the howling instability of Chaos would throw their lot in with this alignment.

A good case in point is the religion of Typhon. Typhon is one of the main deities of the City-State of Adamas. He is a god of law, order, judgment, discipline, and trade; he is also quite evil by most understandings of the term. However, because his faith inspires rulers, judges, soldiers, and merchants to channel their self-interest in defense of civilization, he is generally seen as one of humanity's main patrons among the gods. Typhonian clerics are among the foremost exorcists and demon hunters and undertake missions of extreme danger in the war against Chaos. Nevertheless, Typhon is not a "nice" deity and his church's teachings are cruel and unforgiving. As the players will discover, there's a powerful disconnect between Typhon's ethical philosophy -- which might be simplistically described as "Nietzschean" -- and his followers' role in protecting humanity and its allies from the depredations of Chaos.

In a similar fashion, the City-State of Yethlyreom is ruled by necromancers and whose armies, constabulary, and workers consist in large part of mindless undead -- but Yethlyreom is every bit as much on the side of Law as is Typhon. The ruling necromancers have effectively made a deal with the Devil, employing Chaos-tainted magic in order to "fight fire with fire." This practice began out of desperation in the past but has evolved into an orderly, almost scientific approach to death, dying, and the afterlife that has served the city-state well, even if it sometimes results in one or more necromancers succumbing to seduction by Chaos. But, by and large, Yethlyreom is a peaceful, justly-run city whose inhabitants know that their rulers do what they do to keep them safe from worse horrors. It's not pretty much of the time, but who said fighting Chaos would be?

Both Typhon and Yethlyreom serve to highlight the campaign setting's difference from less nuanced styles of fantasy, where good and evil form the basis for the cosmic conflict. Good and evil aren't absent from Dwimmermount by any means; people still think and act according to such notions. What's different is that, because the cosmic conflict is between civilization and those who would tear it down, good and evil are often arrayed on the same side. Chaos is utterly alien and inhuman and against it both good and evil sometimes must lock arms and stand side by side. For myself, I think this introduces a level of moral complexity that leads to good roleplaying and that feels true to swords-and-sorcery literature.


  1. Wow. I am totally ripping this off for my next D&D campaing :)

  2. There is nothing wrong with using alignment in D&D whether there are four or nine teams of behaviour. However, claiming that there is anything nuanced or morally complex in what you described is either dishonest or grossly naive. Sword and sorcery literature is morally complex, are you having a laugh? D&D alignment has nothing to do with morality. It is a short list of labels for a very crude categorization of behaviour. This is the first post of yours I have found needlessly pretentious.

  3. How comparable is Typhonism to the state religion of ancient Rome, or other official cults of the ancient world?

  4. I've seen the situation you describe in other games, James, and I always think it makes for interesting gaming, because it challenges stereotypes resting in the modern minds of players: one side is bad and the other is good, no mixing allowed.

    For example, in the Old World setting of WFRP, Ulric (human god of winter, wolves, and battle) is by no means a "nice" or good god. His doctrines are harsh, bloodthirsty, and singularly lacking in mercy, and yet he and his followers represent something essential to Humanity's fight against Chaos: the will to survive. One of the joys I had running my WFRP games was in presenting my characters with dilemmas caused by recognizing you need someone, even if you are thoroughly repulsed by them.

    FWIW, I tossed alignments from my games early on; I felt if I presented the setting right, an alignment mechanic per se wouldn't be needed. The only place I'd keep it is in a game in Moorcock's multiverse, just because it's so integral to the setting.

  5. I am currently rereading Vance and Moorcock (in large part due to your blog, James). I'm not sure I would use "complexity.” Maybe ambiguity? Maybe ambivalence? Maybe something else? Complexity doesn’t seem to quite fit (not that I’ll lose sleep over this).

    But here is the cool thing for me: I was thrilled to read this blog as I have been intrigued, after reading your house rules, by how you might deal with alignment in the campaign setting. In this regard, this post was particularly interesting and thought-provoking. It seems to me that alignment and religion are shallow and lifeless unless they are contextualized and well-established in a campaign setting. If alignment is only something you choose while equipping your character (Long sword or broad sword? Bullseye or hooded? Good or evil?), the game may be better off without it. It seems the only way to make it matter in the game is to make it matter in the setting. Thanks, James.

  6. To groove on what Anthony from LA said, expanding from the WFRP setting to the larger setting of Warhammer 40K, when viewed from one lens, the Imperium of Mankind is nothing more than a nightmarish machine of sacrifice and death - your undead Emperor is fed the life force of a thousand psychics a day in order to power the psychic beacon that allows ships in the warp to travel between the stars. Likewise, a planet or whole system might be declared "tainted" by Chaos and Exterminatus declared - the most likely method of dealing with this is to strike the planet with a bio-weapon that kills, essentially, every living thing on the planet and turns it into a lifeless rock.

    Billions upon billions of human lives are ground underfoot every day by the Imperium, but when you view it all from another lens, almost all of the sacrifice and hardship humanity is put through is done because the alternative is far worse - enslavement or death at the hands of chaos-tainted mutants and heretics, or one of countless alien species, some of which are so inhuman (like the Tyranids or Necrons), negotiation or even enslavement is not an option - it is a battle against extinction, pure and simple.

    Not a very pretty picture, but it does make for some good storytelling (and, incidentally, a pretty cool setting for sci-fi wargaming...).

  7. I've been doing a similar thing with Vazkor (thanks Tanith Lee!) the major god of Law in my campaign. This is 1st edition so law can run the gamut from good to evil so monks, paladins and evil inquisitor types all revere him. My players are pretty much against any of his worshippers at this point so I'm thinking I need to put some chance of a sympathetic relationship into the mix.

  8. Currently reading Three Hearts and Three Lions...and getting a lot of good ideas for my B/X campaign from these new ideas on Law-Chaos. Thanks!

  9. CROM, You People can't even pillage honestly without bringing some pretext of blue-tinted morality into the picture. ;)

  10. Oooh. Hmmm.

    What's 'civilized'?

    While your game does allow for more morally nuanced gaming (good and evil working together to defeat Chaos), there is that question that I keep coming back to: "What's civilization?"

    I mean, to the Aborigines and Native Americans, "civilization" would have been a terrible thing, a thing of rapacious consumption and desolation that ravages the land to sustain its own existence, that eats its own people to perpetuate itself forever more.

    Even characterizing these 'natives' as following some kind of "Neutral" force or "Nature" is kind of simplistic. Inter-tribal conflicts exist, even between so-called 'peaceful' and 'harmonious' peoples.

    But it's an interesting idea. Hmm.

  11. Typhon as a civilizing god -- is this a deliberate switcheroo on Greek mythology's Typhon?

    P.S. Word verification is "subelves". Awesome!

  12. I like this idea because I *hate* standard D&D alignments. However, I'm curious about whether or not the alignments you do have (law and chaos; not sure about neutral) are objective things--that is, are there "Detect Lawful" spells, and magic items that only work for certain alignments? Do you have Neutral as a usable alignment?

    One thing I'd like to do in the old-school game I'm hoping to run fairly soon is drop alignments entirely--not because in the game "good," "evil," and the like don't exist, but because I *hate* having them as clear-cut, reified things. For those of you who have dropped alignments--how much tinkering with the rules does it require? Obviously, you have to get rid of "Detect" spells, but it seems like it wouldn't have that big of an effect beyond that. But I'd love to hear about others' experiences.

  13. I didn't quite go the whole "Runequest" hog of making the gods into endlessly recurring memes, but moral ambiguity and selfish inhuman gods works for me.

  14. Being a moral relativist from an early age the very first thing I remember thinking was stupid in the DMG was alignments and that alignment chart. I've never liked them, never really used them as a DM (although, fine with me if players wanted to call themselves CN or whatever).

    For certain campaigns, the more S&S ones, Law vs Chaos works well

    For others. the high fantasy/realistic/modern ones, I prefer allegiances. Which can maybe be thought of as mini alignments. Chivalric code, Bushido, religion, modern patriotism are all examples.

  15. Nice setup! I too have used something similar for my Classic D&D games set in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, wherein all the churches are Lawful, but they fight among themselves: one represents the tradition of the locals, the other represents the "state religion" of the Thyatian conquerors. Moral dilemmas always offer good hooks for role playing.

  16. I've been reading a long time (thank you for many thoughtful posts) but haven't commented often (at all?).

    I am a little confused on one point with regard to your emulation of S&S.

    First, I think that what you've come up with is fantastic background material, and exactly the kind of deep thinking that makes a background interesting, makes it seem living and lived-in. The moral ambiguity is perfect for S&S.

    My confusion perhaps stems from this statement:
    As the players will discover, there's a powerful disconnect between Typhon's ethical philosophy -- which might be simplistically described as "Nietzschean" -- and his followers' role in protecting humanity and its allies from the depredations of Chaos.

    In most S&S, with exception of Moorcock and, perhaps, some others (allowing the possibility of more authors, though certainly no other examples spring immediately to mind), most S&S *characters* don't get much of a glimpse of, care about, or find themselves able to do anything about, the big picture in terms of gods, alignment, etc.

    Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are as often tools (of Fate, of their respective wizardly mentors/sponsors) as protagonists. Their morality is ambiguous at best, and often framed in terms of their loyalty to one another.

    Conan has a code he lives by, but it's not framed in terms of Law or Chaos so much as what he considers "right." He does become a king in time, but it could be said that he disrupts law with chaos, only to become the new law.

    (Aside: There's a thought. All "chaos" framed as such because it's simply a different order than the one currently in power. A little too postmodern for S&S? Probably, but I had the thought and wanted to jot it down. It wouldn't work in your campaign, anyway, if Chaos is specific to the extreme "Other" of otherdimensional/otherworldly creatures.)

    Forgive my rambling, but the point I'm working up to is (again, with the exception of Moorcock, who uses the Balance), does the S&S genre really concern itself and its characters much with matters like capital letter Law and Chaos and the grand/cosmic scale? Or is that primarily the realm of Epic/High fantasy, with its Good and Evil?

    OR, are the Dwimmermount characters not really able to affect the grand scale here? Again, I could be confused by the statement I mentioned above, thinking that if the characters discover the disconnect you mention, they might actually be able to do something about it. This may not be the case.

    Alternately, they might be able to do something about it, but the solution would be just as messy as the problem, and the end result would thus be just as complex/morally ambiguous.

    In any event, thank you once again for all the thoughtful writing, your comments on 0ed., RPGs in general, and books and genres, and your contributions to excellent games like Thousand Suns and the certain-to-be-just-as-excellent upcoming Shadow, Sword, and Spell.

  17. I think most people (me included, I admit) look at the big picture and see D&D's good/evil + law/chaos formula as being a sort of vestigial artifact of D&Ds roots,
    it seems like you've managed to use that quirk of the system in order to generate some very interesting material for your campaign--sort of a fantasy equivalent of the ambiguous way many people feel about "the government".

    Whether this is truly "morally complex" or otherwise, isn't the point, the point is: once again, your When In Doubt Trust Gygax philosophy has born more fruit than I would've guessed.

  18. P.S. Most/many/your-average DM seems to dream up characters then assign them alignments. You've managed to create an interesting moral starting-point for parts of the campaign world by seemingly starting with the alignments, then deciding what they might or must mean.

  19. James, are there any mechanical differences rules-wise between playing the different types of clerics in your campaign?

  20. Excellent post.

    In my humble opinion, any alignment system is too wonky to be a hard-and-fast behavioral label, and better taken to be a character's "role in the cosmos" -- preserver (Lawful), destroyer (Chaos) or something in-between, from cowardly opportunist to stalwart agent of cosmic balance (Neutral).

    I really like the cult of Typhon, and I loved the CAS reference. Kudos for that! Sounds like an awesome sword-and-sorcery world you're building yourself. :)

  21. How comparable is Typhonism to the state religion of ancient Rome, or other official cults of the ancient world?

    There are certain similarities, due to my fascination with Roman paganism, but it's largely a fantastic creation whose main purpose is to hit home that, in S&S settings, sometimes the "good guys" aren't very nice people.

  22. What's 'civilized'?

    That's where things get interesting in my opinion and where the divisions within Law start to matter. I'm generally of the opinion that alignment works best when it's nice and muddled, focusing on "big picture" conflicts rather than the nitty gritty of how to live one's life. "Civilization" is purposefully ambiguous, because it creates much better opportunities for gameable conflicts.

  23. Typhon as a civilizing god -- is this a deliberate switcheroo on Greek mythology's Typhon?

    It's definitely meant to be ironic, yes.

  24. However, I'm curious about whether or not the alignments you do have (law and chaos; not sure about neutral) are objective things--that is, are there "Detect Lawful" spells, and magic items that only work for certain alignments? Do you have Neutral as a usable alignment?

    OD&D has no means to detect alignments, so, regardless of how "objective" the concept is or is not, there's no mechanical support for treating it as an attribute that others can know just be casting a spell or using an item.

    "Neutral" comes in two flavors in my game. There's unaligned neutrality, which is the default for many beings. Then there's Neutral (Balance), which is a wacky philosophy that sees Law and Chaos as equally good/bad and in need of equilibrium to preserve the cosmos. This is the belief system of the druids.

  25. James, are there any mechanical differences rules-wise between playing the different types of clerics in your campaign?

    Not at present. It's something I might add to the game at a later date, but, so far, it hasn't really been necessary and I prefer to keep things simple.

  26. So this Typhon has nothing to do with the one from Urth..? ; )

  27. Chris,

    If it does, it was purely unconscious on my part. I was riffing off the Hellenistic Greek name for Set.

  28. @Kent
    "Needlessly pretentious"? As opposed to?

    Only you, Kent, would ever dream that someone would ever -need- to be pretentious.