Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hanging in the Balance

The past couple of days I've been talking about Good and Evil, and how the supernatural extremes of the two sides might be completely indistinguishable from a mortal on the ground. So how would one differentiate between the two on a conceptual level, and how to apply that to a game if the mortals don't understand the greater cosmic forces to begin with?

How do characters relate to all this? All this conjecture and theory about the Nature of Things is interesting and all, but without actual playable advice, it's really irrelevant.

First, perhaps some definitions.

Good doesn't mean perfect. Even a Greater Power of Good is going to be imperfect in ways and rub certain people the wrong way and even cause harm on the way to being Good. But for me, a working definition of a Greater Power of Good is one that, if it had its way, everything in existence would be measurably better off. Not to say existence would be a paradise or that certain types wouldn't be perhaps even fundamentally unhappy, but everything would work and people and things would be closer to kum-ba-ya than not. Grampa might still die at some point and you'd be sad, but it would be part of a natural order and it wouldn't be because he was murdered or disease shut down his body prematurely. Maybe you couldn't ever have your favorite food anymore but the abundant sustenance would keep your belly full and your body healthy. (just a couple of human-term examples)

Evil is a damn sight more difficult to define. You can't just reverse Good's definition. "Everything in existence would be measurably worse off"? What, ultimate destruction? Isn't the universe supposed to contract at some point in the future to where existence is wiped out? What, is the universe evil? phaugh! Are we talking a great cosmic sludge of everything/nothing like the Warhammer concept of Chaos? Isn't that just rather like some transcendental philosophy on LSD, with Chaos being really the natural way of things, and it's just the process of becoming one that's rather unpleasant to us Earthly fleshy types?

But Evil generally doesn't work like that. Usually, Things That Work Evil are doing it for their own benefit. The success of Great Evil would mean a great consolidation of power, where all but a very select few are worse off. It sounds like the beginnings of a political screed, but one could say that Evil is a giant Ponzi Scheme of Weal. Malicious (or even Indifferent) Overlords stepping on Great Masses of Suffering.

Or maybe all of the above.

However, one of the failings of Dungeons and Dragons when it comes to deities and in-game religion is assigning alignments to gods and assuming their worshippers should follow suit. Anything that humans would worship is going to be anthropomorphisized. Even if the object of their worship is an oozing ball of shit (literally), worshippers will apply human motivations and emotions to it, and relate them to their own activities. "Faeces the Mighty is angry at the infidels wincing at his Magnificent Odor! Kill them!" "Faeces the Mighty is pleased that his faithful feast on Super Hot Texas Chili on the eve of seeding the fields!"

But most deities, from classical mythology anyway, are not just Great Big Powerful Beings, but are powers representing aspects of the universe. You know, the Sun God, the God of the Water, the Thunder God, that sort of thing. If the deity in question actually does regulate an aspect, and isn't just taking it as a symbol, then that has consequences on a campaign.

First off, the Great Wheel cosmology goes out the window. How many Gods of Death will we need? Sun Gods? If there is going to be a variety of Powers and a polytheistic setup in a game's cosmology, a pecking order has to be established. Maybe different cultures will have their own pantheons in your game, but at the end of the day you need to decide who is In Charge of certain things. Are all of these cultures worshipping the same Sun God under a variety of local names? Or are they all actually different entities? If so... who is In Charge of the sun and who are just the lesser hangers-on?

If there is one God of the Sun (or The Sea, or Death, or Rain, etc), then even though the deity might be of a certain alignment, their worshippers and more importantly priests will not be.

Take Tlaloc (or maybe I should link to Tlālōc). Let's say that the requirement of sacrificing children is actually a requirement of the god and not just some insanity his worshippers came up with. I'd say that was evil, wouldn't you? But only if the god was perfectly capable of delivering things within his domain to worshippers without this sacrifice.

Divine certainly doesn't need to mean omniscient or omnipotent or even effective.

What if the god wasn't even aware of the mortal realm without this sacrifice? Or hated that children had to die but was unable to deliver rain without the portal to the mortal realm being opened by the sacrifice?

Or what if the god was a finkish piece of crap that wallowed in the suffering he demanded in exchange for his gifts? You think in a universe where you don't get rain and all that comes from it (crops! drinking water!) without killing kids, that doing so would be considered evil? Even if Tlaloc was seen as a cruel, oppressive force that needed to be sated in order to deliver what is necessary to life, you don't think that kind, good men would be involved in this situation which, to them, is a natural way of being?

But this is taking real-world mythology and twisting it around for the sake of argument and variety. (Not offending any of you real-world Tlaloc-worshippers, am I?) Let's go real-world modern-day religion. Jesus Christ. I've never met anyone, atheist, Satanist, anybody, who thought that Jesus Christ was anything but a good man (the greater power he represents, and the significance of his death, are different issues for purposes of this argument). Supposedly the Christian religion is based on the teachings of Christ. Yet I'm sure nobody here need take any time to think of awful, horrible people that are ordained Christian priests. I'm sure everyone can thing of events that can't be described as anything other than atrocities committed at various times during history in the name of Christ. But at the same time, I'm sure every single one of us knows decent men and/or women of the cloth.

A religion doesn't have any bearing on the character or disposition of its believers or its priests.

Also keep in mind that the very existence of a pantheon means that people in general are not going to worship just one god, and priests will generally be priests of the pantheon more than any one entity within it. Perhaps priests will specialize (actually, they definitely would), but a priest of the God of Justice is certainly going to also worship and participate in rituals to the God of Death and the God of Disease, if even just to appease them so they don't strike. They won't blaspheme or fight other priests or gods as a matter of course.

(In such a setup, would druids really exist as a separate class than a cleric? What's the difference in a polytheistic society between worshipping the God of Thunder or a God of Nature or nature itself?)

But the key to the discussion at hand is that once you're thinking in terms of religion and how people relate to these powers, rather than just the nature of the power itself, then the power itself is almost irrelevant. How Good or Evil it is doesn't make a whit of difference on a human level, because humans are both good and evil and neither Good nor Evil.

At this point, the gods become just another rung on the hierarchical ladder, just a more flashy title than "King" or "Emperor." Deities and Demigods does indeed become just a Monster Manual for higher levels. So why use them? What value does the Cosmic and the gods and their religions have beyond local cultural significance (in which case the things about the Gods are really about the priests and kings)?


One of the points of the previous posts on Good and Evil is that We Don't Get It, So Stop It! Why use these alien agents of good and evil in substantive ways if in the end it's just a monster with more hit dice and an array of innate magical powers with the same motivations and schemes that a wizard or minor baron might have?

In the real world, religion matters. Whether there is an All-Powerful Being out there at all, whether it's benevolent or not, and whether or not it gives a crap about us or not is fundamental to the nature of our universe and our understanding of it. Getting it Right and The Search For Truth are absolutely important elements of our spiritual existence.

In a game... what? "You have achieved singularity and absolutely wisdom to the nature of all things" really doesn't mean anything. "You are having a crisis of faith!" is a role-playing hook no more serious than "You seek your long-lost brother." Each is exactly as intense and lasts exactly as long as the players involved choose them to. Adventurers adventure and take risks and go out there and do things. That's what the game's about, and a character's philosophies and assigned spiritual qualities are only relevant to the point where they emerge in play through their character's actions. Kwai Chang Caine just ended up kicking people a lot, you know?

Using these outer powers as actors in your games will only cheapen the actual setting. It's one thing if you're starting out with a cosmic game and planehopping is the whole deal. Fine. But if your game has any sort of verisimilitudinous grounding that you wish to be familiar to players, going for the extradimensional pizazz will kill it dead. What, are you going to cross the Five Dimensions and combat the Void Which Contains All Pain... and come home and help that cattle farmer deal with the trolls that's thinning his herd? If you've stared at a Greater Power of the Multiverse, is a political struggle on Earth going to seem like a big deal anymore? *yawn*

Any evil you can think of can be assigned to a human. Any good you can think of can be assigned to a human. Philosophical differences need only be so deep to assign motivations and actions to NPCs and hopefully PCs. Otherwise... it's a complete waste of time. Are you writing a novel? Your little home version of the Silmarillion? Or are you going to get on playing a role-playing game?

Invent your gods and your pantheons. Give them brief personalities and domains, and dress up their priests in appropriate garb and come up with a few holidays and unique rituals if it's important for your game. Then forget about them. Really. Any plot or scenario that involves a god acting, just assign it to a priest instead and move forward. D3 becomes a lot more interesting if there is no Q1 to move on to.

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out. But between Good and Evil is the life we actually know, and by sticking to that, as strictly or as loosely as you prefer in your games, you can prevent your campaign from jumping that last threshold of illogic and absurdity and unreality that ever gamer has that will cause him to just not take the proceedings all that seriously anymore.

And now that I've just jumped the shark in my little series, there is still more to come in the coming days. Clerics (and paladins and druids!) and what this sort of game philosophy means for divinely powered characters, and the question of demons and devils and all the little planar beasties that would make a game world duller for their absence... along with the angelic deva/solar counterparts, and how to actually use them in a manner consistent with what I've been saying.


  1. Well, you lost me after a bit. However your first paragraph on evil seems to describe the world in which we live quite well - I think.

  2. Are you familiar with the Diablo series of CRPGs by Blizzard?

    The whole basis of reality is the war between "Heaven" and "Hell" - and that is what most of the struggles are about.

    I'm curious to your take on those kinds of campaigns.

  3. >>I'm curious to your take on those kinds of campaigns.

    Oh yeah, *now* provide me with a focus after I'd spent hours on that rambling monstrosity of a post. :P

    I'm not familiar with the Diablo games specifically, but the idea of a Heaven vs Hell game (or any sort of monolithic Good Guy vs Bad Guy scenario, say CONTROL vs KAOS) is that the PCs really don't have any choice in the matter.

    Is it really a possibility to side with Hell (or KAOS) without killing the campaign? If the PCs aren't interested in foiling this week's plot, is that OK? What if they are interested but fail to stop this week's plot? Aren't all the scenarios in such conflicts rather, ahhh, full of must-win situations? Or are the bad guys playing for low stakes?

  4. I think, and this is just a rambling-no-real-analysis kind of thought.. is that I don't agree with your assessment that PCs have any choice.

    Gods, this could be a huge comment or simple comment with a lot unsaid. *sigh*

    I think the classic "Heaven vs Hell" struggle is a stage. Man may be pawns, but Man is also key/central. It's through their manipulation and our overcoming of said manipulation to achieve what we desire that is the real plot.

    Heaven/Hell have struggled through the ages - and Man has allied with them in various ways and forms through the ages. Sometimes we can overshadow their plots, sometimes we can't.

    The struggle can be the flavor and backdrop for the 1-6 level characters. Contribute in small ways to EITHER side. You can have all sorts of morality plays where indeed, Man interprets and effects good/evil, but the Heaven/Hell adds an interesting flavor to it.

    At later levels, the adventurers can actually cause change - they can rival the angels and demons to carve out their strongholds in war torn earth and possibly in Heaven and Hell as well.

    I think, with an open-minded GM who is willing to set the stage and let the players drive the story - yes, players can side with Hell and the campaign continue. After all, if the players side with Hell, then the "monsters" are Heaven's agents and angels, no?

    Of course it's OK if the players aren't interested in "this weeks plot" - but then, when I read that, I think that that we're back to story/plot-driven - I'm thinking that a sandbox with "the ticking clock" will continue on, and I'll have to account for changes w/out PC involvement. That's OK, in my book.

    If they fail, same deal. Failure can happen. That doesn't kill the campaign, for a good GM can still give them options.

    War may be filled with "must win" situations from the generals POV, but from the combatants, it's grind grind grind with panic filled moments that are already chaotic.

    My Dark Ages campaign is actually somewhat a take on this, now that I'm thinking about it.

    If you don't want/like these kinds of games, that's cool - but I think they're doable and can be enjoyable.

  5. Part of the joy of my memories of very early ga,es in which I was player is that we didn't REALLY give alignment much thought.

    I wonder if we weren't happier then.

    We didn't worry about the ethical considerations involved in going into tunnels underground, killing things and coming out with sacks of loot --- I was really just hoping I could reach level 3 so I could learn the invisibility spell.

    "Good" and "Evil" or "Law" and "Chaos" were more like teams than philosophies. We didn't worry about WHY the kobolds were evil, we just knew if we killed enough of them before they killed us we could then get strong enough to challenge orcs, then gnolls, then bugbears, etc.

    My original DM (the one who taught us how to play via the Holmes Rule book and Dungeon Geomorphs back in 1978) did not focus much on alignment at all as I recall, although I was looking over some old player character sheets and saw 'alignment language' written under languages on each one --- for the life of me I can't recall ever having been in a game where my character tried talking to someone in 'chaotic good.' Alignment only came into play (as I recall) when we wanted to use some sort of magic item that was limited to one alignment or another or if we wanted to befriend something of like alignment, like a blink dog.

    Player characters didn't normally attack one another simply because a) we were friends and usually wanted to get along and kill orcs rather than each other and b) players who tried it found the rate at which their PCs died when every other player ganged up on them discouraging and c) I remember one game when we were about 15 where one guy (can't recall his name) was being an ass so we killed his character (in game) stole his stuff and then burned the body so he couldn't be raised. He left in a huff. Maybe it was a mean thing to do, but as I recall he was a real jerk so rather than constantly attempting to keep the game going despite him, we gave him the boot and played a little more happily after that. It had nothing to do with character alignment and everything to do with the one player behaving like a hormone tortured 15 year old with A.D.H.D. (which is probably what he was).

    These days I'm an occassional player, no longer a DM, and I grow wistful for the simpler times of D&D. Not just simpler rules (please, God, no more skill checks), but simpler games with simpler goals and the simple fun of attempting to find out 'what happens next' rather than some form of elaborate collaborative fiction. Unfortunately, at least in my area, such games seem out of fashion.

  6. I've often seen players whose PCs side with Chaos and become Champions of Graz'zt and such.

    I do think D3 is better without Q1 (mostly because Q1 makes no sense as a sequel), but I'm also a fan of Moorcock and his god-bashing heroes like Corum. Or the Iliad for that matter, with mortal heroes battling deities on the Trojan plain. So overall I think your post is kinda lame, and certainly unncessarily constricting.

    Also - everyone knows a wide variety of Christian priests and ministers? Really? Is this an American thing, or a Finnish thing? Because here in England, that'd be pretty rare.

  7. >>Is this an American thing, or a Finnish thing?

    Both. Before coming to Finland, I was told it's the most unreligious country EVAR~! It is quite a change from the States but I managed to go to a religious school (as part of my integration program, no less) and have had a good number of religious acquaintances, including ordained people.

    It should be no surprise to anyone that the US is superreligious, and even though I made no effort to put myself in the vicinity of that sort of thing, friend-of-a-friend is a powerful thing.

    As for the content of the post and the responses so far, I will get back to these last few responses. :)

  8. One thing about Moorcock's heroes like Elric, Erekose, and possibly Corum, is that they often do seem to have a genuine choice which side of Law/Chaos to pick - the 'GM' (in Moorcockiverse, that'd be the Cosmic Hand I guess) seems ready to go in either direction. This differs from eg LotR type fantasy where clearly the hero has to side with Good, or there's no story.

    On Finland & religion, I get what you say - my Finnish in-laws include a Minister & his family. :)