Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Blast From The Past: The Canonical D&D 3.5 Alignments, As Chosen By Me

Before I started my first Contrarian Bias blog, I used to write a little-known and unremembered gaming blog called Simulation 16 on the TypePad service. Unfortunately, when I left TypePad, I didn't think to take my writing with me.

Enter the Internet Wayback Machine.

It's not perfect, but it's enabled me to find some of the writing I did back when I didn't know how to write for the web. One of my favorite pieces is the following, a list of the nine D&D alignments as they existed prior to the new 4th edition, and the iconic characters I decided to associate with each of those alignments.

(Note: Many of the links from the original post are now, sadly, defunct, but I've left in a few that I could confirm still function, years after the original essay was posted.)

* * *

Wizards of the Coast seems to have introduced the concept of the 'iconic character' to D&D - there are a number of characters in the Player's Handbook intended mainly to give players an idea of the 'look and feel' of the various classes in the game. The same is true of the various prestige classes listed in different WotC-published D&D supplements (to the point where, even before D&D 3.5 came out, Ed Stark noted that there are more iconic characters than character classes).

Interestingly, there have never really been characters created to illustrate the game's alignment rules. One could argue that you could 'retrofit' the existing iconic class-characters to illustrate the alignment grid - for instance, the iconic paladin would also be the iconic lawful good character - but there are a couple of limitations to this approach. First, because none of the 'core iconics' are actually evil - you have to go into the DMG to find even a couple of evil iconics (the assassin and blackguard). More importantly, the rulebooks don't really take time to explore the attitudes and behavior of the iconic characters, which is really where alignment can be most readily seen. And if you turn to the various works of D&D fiction containing the iconic characters, then you run right back into the first problem - the main characters are usually good, occasionally neutral, never evil.

So I'm going to attempt to fill this void, somewhat, by naming a collection of what I think are the nine iconic characters corresponding to the D&D alignments. Rather than drawing them from the D&D universe, though, I'll draw them from the larger sphere of popular culture. With any luck, this will give the chance to show not only that the D&D alignment system is much more broadly applicable and useful that some of its detractors claim, but also to dispel a few misconceptions about the D&D alignment system.

Lawful Good: Victor Lazlo

I know a good deal more about you than you suspect. I know, for instance, that you're in love with a woman. It is perhaps a strange circumstance that we both should be in love with the same woman. The first evening I came to this café, I knew there was something between you and Ilsa. Since no one is to blame, I - I demand no explanation. I ask only one thing. You won't give me the letters of transit: all right, but I want my wife to be safe. I ask you as a favor, to use the letters to take her away from Casablanca.

At first, I toyed with the idea of doing the entire 'alignment wheel' just out of characters from the classic 1942 film Casablanca, but ultimately decided against it because it would have required a few stretches to fill some of the alignment roles. But there's no doubt in my mind that Lazlo is a paragon of lawful good, perhaps the best example of a secular paladin in popular culture.

If you've seen Casablanca, then you know what I mean. If you haven't, here's a quick rundown:

  • A Romanian, Lazlo lived in Warsaw prior to the outbreak of World War II, publishing a newspaper calling out against the Nazi regime in Germany (the highest ranking German officer in the film refers to "lies and propaganda", as you might expect) until the very day the Germans invaded Poland.
  • Lazlo becomes a member, and then a leader, of the underground resistance fighting the Nazi occupation of Europe.
  • At some point, Lazlo is captured by the Nazis, placed in a concentration camp, and tortured. (I assume this occured after Lazlo became identified as a leader of the resistance.)
  • Lazlo escapes, beginning a chase across Europe that involves acts of organized partisanship, more "propaganda", and various heroic deeds. They're not spelled out in the film, but are impressive enough so that the cynical Rick Blaine congratulates Lazlo on his "work" the first time they meet. Lazlo modestly responds, "I try," to which Rick replies, "We all try. You succeed."
  • While in Casablanca, Lazlo stands up to the German officer assigned to bring him back to Europe, attends a meeting of the local underground despite the danger of being followed by German agents, leads the patrons of Rick's Cafe in a stirring rendition of Les Marsellaise that drowns out a German attempt to use the same melody as a drinking song, and utters the quotation above when it becomes obvious that Rick has the letters of transit that will allow Lazlo to escape to the relative safety of America.

Belonging to a higher calling, concern for others over and above anything that might happen to oneself, unflinching courage and competence in trying circumstances. I'm not saying that every paladin should look and act like Lazlo, but if more of them did, there would likely be many fewer 'when paladins attack' moments.

Neutral Good: Blossom

Being a Powerpuff Girl isn't about getting your way, or having the best stuff, or being popular or powerful. It's about using your own unique abilities to help people, and the world we all live in. And you, little girl, have done nothing worthy of the name Powerpuff.

Gamers would know of Aaron Williams's Nodwick and the duct-tape-wielding cleric Piffany. And in many ways, Piffany is a great example of Neutral Good behavior. She's even quoted in one story as having entered an ecumenical organization so that she can uphold Good across the board. Yet Piffany's naivete, while endearing to her own character, isn't something that I identify as classically Neutral Good, or even Good. Instead, I turn to the leader of the Powerpuff Girls to serve as my iconic Neutral Good character.

The episode "Stuck Up, Up, and Away" (Episode 14, for those Comic Book Guy wanna-bes) from which the quote above comes from is an excellent example of why Blossom makes an outstanding representative of Neutral Good. When Princess's snooty behavior endangers Twiggy the hamster, it's Blossom that gives the orders that allow the Powerpuffs to rescue the poor creature (and creates the dramatic urge that drives the rest of the episode when Princess decides she wants to be a Powerpuff Girl). Blossom even defends Princess at first - noting that she's new and probably isn't good at making friends, so they should give her another chance. When Princess, in her first super-outfit, turns a routine bank robbery into an embrassing spectacle, Blossom again spares Princess the ire of her sister and tries to be understanding, only to see Power-Armor Princess stop by the very next day and threaten to destroy the Powerpuff Girls. In fact, Princess does defeat both Buttercup and Bubbles, then engages in the classic villain taunt to try to humble Blossom - who isn't having any of it. In a classic execution of judo-strategy, Blossom gets Princess to overcommit, then not only puts her off balance, but gets her sisters to chime in, in true leader-fashion, to finally defeat her.

Now, Blossom isn't perfect - when Bubbles, thinking that she's actually Mojo Jojo, clocks Blossom in a later episode, she originally wants to retaliate before Buttercup reminds her that it's not really a sisterly thing to do. And Blossom even commits a crime - swiping a set of uber-golf-clubs that Professor Utonium reeeeeealy wants because she can't afford to pay for them, then framing Mojo Jojo for the deed. But when Blossom does do wrong, she realizes it and corrects her action. In the first example, Blossom eventually has to restrain Buttercup from kicking Bubbles/Mojo's tush after a well-aimed barb hits home, while she ends the latter episode in jail for her crime, serving her debt to society as required. She does the right thing - which is the essense of Neutral Good, after all.

Chaotic Good: Cyrano de Bergerac

To sing, to laugh, to dream,
To walk in my own way and be alone,
Free, with an eye to see things as they are,
A voice that means manhood -- to cock my hat
Where I choose -- At a word, a Yes, a No,
To fight -- or write.

It is a delicious irony in these days of 'freedom fries' to note that the man who embodies what most American men would see as their national ideal is, in fact, a Frenchman. But Cyrano, as he points out in his own epitaph, is "not like other men."

For starters, while he embarasses the pompous Montfleury for daring to make a pass as his beloved Roxane, he willingly enters into a bargain with Christian to provide words to bolster the latter's good looks so as not to disappoint his beloved. After Christian dismisses Cyrano as no longer useful to him (a dismissal which proves hasty on Christian's part), Cyrano not only forgives the young fool without another thought, but wins the lad a kiss (and ultimately, a marriage). Then, instead of fighting his arch-rival DeGuiche (as he defeated DeGuiche's catspaw in the first act), he delays his rival with a whimsical story of a trip to the moon. Promising that Christian should write every day while away at war, Cyrano runs a nightly siege blockade to deliver those promised letters. And, at the moment when it seems Cyrano might finally have his happiness after all, he instead allows himself to honor his dying friend Christian by keeping his secret faithfully until the day of his own death.

Yes, Cyrano kicks a lot of ass. But no one's ass is kicked who doesn't deserve it, and in some cases, the lesson is taught without an ass-kicking, but rather with more humilating weapons - wit, charm, and fiery honesty. It's also interesting to note that there are only three characters other than Cyrano himself that appear in all five acts of Rostand's play - Roxane, Cyrano's love; DeGuiche, Cyrano's arch-rival; and Ragueneau, the pastry cook and poet who is one of Cyrano's dearest friends. Cyrano does not lack the 'looking out for the little guy' aspect of the classic Chaotic Good - indeed, his closing line in the first act of the play might well be the call-sign for all well-played Chaotic Good heroes: "Did you not ask why against this one singer they send a hundred swords? Because they know this one man for a friend of mine!"

Lawful Neutral: Sir Te

In matters of the heart, even great heroes can be idiots.

This might be another choice that pushes the envelope of 'popular culture', since Sihung Lung's character probably isn't the first you'll remember from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and if you do remember him, you probably remember him as a father-figure to two of the main characters, Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien. Yet Sir Te is also a highly placed and effective bureaucrat in the government of medieval China, an age that prized law not just for it's own sake, but for its essence as expressed in diplomacy, manners, hospitality, and etiquette. Indeed, the scene where Sir Te meets with the newly-arrived General Yu, shows him the Green Destiny sword that Li Mu Bai has entrusted to him, and exhorts him to cultivate contacts in the Giang Hu underworld, despite Yu being the minister of security with the job of ostensibly opposing such criminals, marks him as being a true student of law and efficiency, regardless of whether or not the common understanding would take the means as 'good' or 'evil'.

'True' Neutral: Cool Animal Strong Bad

"(gurgling sound)"

Part of the problem with identifying a canonical Neutral character is that there are two generally accepted 'flavors' of neutrality. There is what I call apathetic-neutral, where the person simply doesn't care about morality or ethics and simply blows in the prevailing winds. Then there is what I call activist-neutral, which is more concerned with maintaining a 'balance' in the world between competing moral and ethical principles. (There is technically a third sort of neutrality, where the actor simply doesn't have the intelligence required to make moral or ethical choices, which is why all animals, constructs, and most other mindless or low-intelligence creatures default to neutrality in current D&D - animated undead being the significant exception these days.)

That's why I'm going with Cool Animal Strong Bad as my neutral iconic character. He has all the cool animal accessories: tentacles, claws, horns, mandibles, multi-faceted eyes, and a proboscis (as well as other traits you'll have to discover by watching the Strong Bad e-mail Flash cartoon called 'Animal'), but pretty much all he does is sit in one place, looking funky and cool, and gurgling when you ask him any question. On one hand, this may seem like I'm being unfair to those who prefer the concept of activist-neutrality, typically portrayed by druid characters. On the other hand, there's a Book of Exalted Deeds for good alignments, and a Book of Vile Darkness for evil characters, but can you name the equivalent book for neutrals without looking it up in the DMG? I can't.

(gurgling sounds fade out)

Chaotic Neutral: Calvin

Calvin: "Boy, did I get in trouble at school today. Wow."
Hobbes: "What happened?"
Calvin: "I don't even want to talk about it."
Hobbes: "Did it have anything to do with all those sirens about noon?"
Calvin: "I SAID I don't want to talk about it."

One of the great disservices done to the D&D alignment system was when TSR began to forcefully equate the Chaotic Neutral alignment with insanity and mental illness. It's one of the reasons I dismiss the Planescape setting to this day. Unlike fans of the setting who seem to have seen it as morally complex and ambiguous, I see the setting as morally two-faced: unlike the typical setting where reductive players use detect evil and similar divinations to distinguish between characters to interact with and those to simply be destroyed, Planescape allows reductive players to distinguish between characters who express personality traits or emotions atypical for their alignment 'type' (the ones to interact with) and characters slavishly devoted to their alignment 'type' (the ones to destroy). In the former case, you get murderous celestials who rationalize their crimes as necessary for 'the greater good' interacting with infernal characters capable of feeling and even understanding 'higher' emotions like love and sympathy (but who, because they're evil, still get to dress in funky leather or mailed costumes with - at least in the female NPC cases - an awful lot of exposed skin). In the latter case, you get the modrons, largely mindless minions of utter law whose very form follows a rigid Euclidian heirarchy, and the slaadi, masters of madness whose primary ability is to force their opponents to act based on random die rolls (the still-clunky-even-in-3.5 confusion mechanic).

It took Bill Watterston to point out that true chaos isn't found in non-Euclidian spaces or amphibian terrors cribbed from H.P. Lovecraft, but in the mind of a young boy with a hyperactive imagination.

Calvin sometimes does good. He seldom does anything blatantly evil, though 'naughty' is a word that applies to nearly all of Calvin's pranks. And while he has the wisdom of his imaginary pal/stuffed tiger Hobbes available to him, he's remarkably resistant to any sort of 'corrective influence' Hobbes might be. (Indeed, Hobbes is frequently a co-conspirator in Calvin's less sociopathic schemes, particularly the invention of bizarre clubs with their attendant rituals.)

The best example of pure chaos coming from Calvin's brain, however, is something that's even entered the game theory lexicon: Calvinball, a game where the rules are literally made up as one goes along. And part of the fun of watching Calvinball is realizing that Hobbes is often better at the game than Calvin himself is, which perhaps says something profound about what wisdom is capable of.

Or not. After all, this is Calvin we're talking about.

Lawful Evil: Darth Vader

Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

For an entire generation, those young enough to revel in Star Wars when it first came out but old enough to appreciate the subtler, more adult shadings of The Empire Strikes Back (from which the quote is drawn), Darth Vader was not just the embodiment of evil, but the embodiment of cool evil. He had a cool black armored costume, a spooky sound effect that announced his presence even when you couldn't see him, a tricked-out space fighter, and acres of unflappability. Despite those of us who ran around pretending to be Vader in kid-like play or later RPGs, Vader himself wasn't wanton or capricious in his choice of targets - he focused on those who challenged him, either his authority or his traditions, and made it known that failure always carried a terrible price where he was concerned. And in the second film, we even got to see some measure of his devotion to his even more evil master, the Emporer, which covers the lawful part both ways. And, because Vader is evil, not neutral, we also got to see that Vader was, all the time, plotting the overthrow of his master with the help of his son rather than being content to serve as the galaxy's number-two bad guy.

As an aside, part of the problem I have with the recent/'earlier' Star Wars films isn't necessarily that Lucas is trying to retrofit a galaxy that wasn't anywhere near as detailed when he made the first film than it is now. It's that, instead of a tale of the heroic journey of Luke, these 'earlier' films recast the entire story as a chronicle of the fall and redemption of Anakin/Vader. And while I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a little more to see what Lucas might come up with in the soon-to-be-released Revenge of the Sith, I'm finding that I can't quite reconcile the scheming, lawful Vader of the 'later' movies with the impetuous, frankly chaotic Anakin of the 'earlier' films. It's not impossible for a character's alignment to change* - even under AD&D rules, where the penalties were probably most severe - but convincing me of this one is going to take a trick of storyteller legerdemain that I'm not sure Lucas can pull off.

(And while I don't mean to turn this entry into yet another internet screed against George Lucas, who is about five hundred million times more successful than I am, it's pleasingly ironic that our canonically opposed alignment character once states, in the midst of one of his own rants, "Shall I labor night and day, to build a reputation on one song, and never write another?" Though I admit the quote isn't quite fair to the guy who also directed American Graffiti.)

* - Speaking of alignment change, one of the reasons I'm drawn to the Ravenloft setting is the rule that incorporates madness, not with a specific alignment (see Chaotic Neutral above), but with involuntary alignment change. Not only does it allow for the dramatically interesting portrayal of a character whose ethical and moral outlooks suddenly shift, resulting in a fracturing of that characters 'reality', but it also doesn't restrict the madness mechanic to merely shifting to an evil alignment (though admittedly there are many more ways to shift to evil in Ravenloft than there are to shift to good) - an apathetic neutral who suddenly finds herself with the moral attitude of a paladin might just as easily slide into madness (which is why, in my own Ravenloft campaign, if you decide you want to go after Elena Faith-Hold, you're in for a rude shock).

Neutral Evil: Hank Scorpio

But Homer, on your way out if you want to kill somebody, it would help me a lot.

At first glance, it might be hard to think of the charismatic CEO of the Globex Corporation as evil. After all, he gives Homer Simpson an influential, high-paying management job, one that comes with a tricked-out high-tech house in a managed community. He refuses to apply traditional labels to himself and his activities, like "boss" and "work". He even listens to and helps implement Homer's odd-sounding scheme for morale-building. He's a great guy.

Except for the blackmail of the U.N. And the blowing up of the 59th Street Bridge to demonstrate his willingness to back up his threats. And the attempted slow torture of an agent sent to defeat his evil plot. And the manaical glee he shows when brandishing a flamethrower against the assault team sent to try to thwart his plan at the last possible moment. Oh, and the plot involves doing something nasty to France, but he'd be the first to point out that it's not entirely his fault.

Let's face it; evil doesn't have to be slavering, clumsy, and obvious. Sure, it's easier to identify evil when it's massacring women and children, but that's not the real danger of evil. To borrow an observation from another film, the Antichrist isn't likely to be a hundred feet tall with tentacles and dark flames erupting from every pore and orifice; he's more likely to be a nice-looking, nice-sounding guy who simply convinces us to lower our standards, bit by little bit, until we're willing to do or believe anything. The most dangerous evil is cool evil, in my mind at least.

Scorpio best exemplifies the 'anything for evil's sake' methodology of the classic Neutral Evil, but with a twist - not everyone is a potential carcass or speed-bump on the road to world domination. He can be nice, outgoing, even magnanimous to those who will take that magnanimity and use it to work himself and his underlings that much more efficiently on the nuclear device or weather control machine. If you set yourself against him, you're going down, but until that point, he can be your best friend.

Chaotic Evil: Richard III

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to ’t pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

As the quote should make clear, I'm referring to Shakespeare's Richard III, not necessarily the historical man. (There is in fact some controversy over whether Richard really was all that bad a person or a king.)

Skakespeare's Duke of Gloucester is a swaggering, self-described villain. He manipulates his brother the king into imprisoning his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, then has Clarence killed in order to implicate the king. He pretends to piety to rally public support behind his own attempt at the throne. He has two little kids killed off because they might one day choose to challenge the legitimacy of his reign as king. He kills another of his rivals, then seduces the rival's wife at the funeral. These acts show the sort of brass cojones that guys like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity can only fantasize about.

In the play, Richard is defeated by the return from exile of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond - portrayed by Shakespeare as less a man than a force of divine retribution heralding the end of the War of the Roses. (It should be noted that Elizabeth, Shakespeare's patron, was also a Tudor.) But, in classic Chaotic Evil style, by the time Richard finally does go down, there are few significant rivals or even allies who haven't gone down before him. If a man's gotta go, after all, then the true Chaotic Evil takes as many folks nearby with him to the Abyss before he punches his own ticket.

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