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The Tome of Awesome
January 12, 2012 10:08 AM   Subscribe

If you enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons or similar fantasy RPGs, or if you just like reading in-depth analysis of fictional worlds, then the Tome of Awesome [pdf] is for you.

The Tome of Awesome is part rules summary and analysis, part homebrew rule-fixes, part homebrew classes/skills/feats/spells, and, best of all, part fantastic overthinking of the economic, political, and sociological implications of the Dungeons & Dragons rules and default fantasy setting. It focuses on the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 rules and so should fit well with Pathfinder.

Some excerpted highlights include:

Alignment (§ 4):

The Morality of Necromancy: Black and Gray: Is using negative energy inherently evil or morally neutral like fire or cold? Is a skeleton an evil creature or just an automaton made of bone?

Morality: How Black is the Night: What does Evil mean in D&D? What makes a good villain?

Law and Chaos: Your Rules or Mine: "Let’s get this out in the open: Law and Chaos do not have any meaning under the standard D&D rules. We are aware that especially if you’ve been playing this game for a long time, you personally probably have an understanding of what you think Law and Chaos are supposed to mean. You possibly even believe that the rest of your group thinks that Law and Chaos mean the same thing you do. But you’re probably wrong."

The Economicon (§ 8.3):

How does an economy function when spells like wish not only exist but can be cast a virtually unlimited number of times by creatures like djinn and efreets? How do coins work, as a practical matter, when items are priced in what amounts to literally tons of gold?

Advanced Combat (esp. §§ 10.5-10.7):

A fantastic set of vignettes describing the possible motivations of various player and non-player races before and after a hypothetical large-scale war.

Adventuring (§ 13):

Living with Yourself After a Raid: Justifying some of the apparently depraved actions common to D&D adventuring parties.

Empirinomicon: Another great analysis of several common non-player races and creatures.

The Constructanomicon: Why dungeons are ridiculous and what can be done about it.

The Book of Gears (§ A):

Character Advancement: Power and Wealth. This one is worth a longer quote that really gives the flavor of the Tome:
D&D society is essentially impossible. Not because Wizards are producing expensive items with their minds or because high level Clerics can raise the dead – but because the character advancement posited in the DMG is so fast that it is literally impossible for anyone to keep tabs on what the society even is. High level characters are the military, economic, and social powerbases of the world. And they apparently rise from nothing in about 2 1/2 months. That means that if a peasant goes home to plant his crops, then when he gets back to the city with his harvest in the fall the city will have seen the rise of a group of hearty adventurers who attempt to conquer the world and achieve godhood four times while he’s gone. The city will have been conquered by a horde of Dao and sucked into the Elemental Plane of Earth and then returned to the prime material as a group of escaped Dao slaves achieved their freedom and themselves became powerful plane hopping adventurers who graduated to the Epic landscape. Then a team of renegade soldiers from the Dao army will have run off into the countryside and survived in the Spider Woods long enough to return with the Spear of Ankhut to return the city to the Dao Sultan in exchange for a gravy train of concubines and wishes. Then a squad of frustrated concubines will have turned on their masters and engaged in a web of intrigue culminating in the poisoning of the Dao Sultan with Barghest Bile and ultimately turned the city into a matriarchal magocracy run by ex-concubine sorceresses. So when the peasant returns with his harvest of wheat, he returns to a black edifice of magical stone done up in Arabian styles and bedecked with weaponry from Olympus that is all controlled by epically subtle and powerful wizards who are themselves the masters of a setting created from the fallout of the destruction of a setting that is itself the fallout of the destruction of a setting that was in turn created out of the destruction of the setting that our peasant walked away from with a bag of grain come planting time last year.
More information about the Tome can be found at the project homepage and The Gaming Den forum.
posted by jedicus (50 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is Awesome.

It says it RIGHT THERE IN THE NAME.
posted by Artw at 10:09 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, credit where it's due: I was first tipped-off to the existence of the Tome by this MeFi comment.
posted by jedicus at 10:15 AM on January 12, 2012


It's being unable to not think about these sorts of things that eventually drove me out of role-playing games. Into the warm, tireless arms of hobbyist world-building for its own sake, though, so it's fine. Now I just ponder this stuff by myself, during slow days at work.
posted by penduluum at 10:19 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


437 pages of content yet only a 2.2 MB PDF. *That* is awesome. Someone must have a +1 LaTeX of Shrinking.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:30 AM on January 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


This book completely altered the way that I look at my game setting. I remember when I first stumbled on this a couple of years ago, then looked up like eight hours later from my screen and wondered how in the hell I accidentally read, like, 500 pages when I was just trying to skim.

I recommend reading up on their take on the sahuagin.
posted by absalom at 10:38 AM on January 12, 2012


This really is quite awesome. I very much like the section about alignment — I never thought about how little the Lawful-Chaotic distinction actually makes sense.

Most of all, the way they handle the inconsistencies and dilemmas by providing choices is really great: you, not the Tome, are allowed to pick whether you want option A, B, or C to resolve the implicit quandary it just told you about. It's an unexpected change from rulebook fundamentalism to something more like rulebook Talmud.
posted by RogerB at 10:39 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since most of my gaming experience consisted of reading the rules of games that I couldn't find anyone to play, this should suit me fine.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:42 AM on January 12, 2012 [12 favorites]


This is awesome and you should feel awesome.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:43 AM on January 12, 2012


Since most of my gaming experience consisted of reading the rules of games that I couldn't find anyone to play, this should suit me fine.

Oh man, at my parent's house I've got some completely unused cards for the Star Trek: TNG CCG to show you.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:47 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, credit where it's due: I was first tipped-off to the existence of the Tome by this MeFi comment.

My first thought on seeing this post was, "is this the sahuagin thing?" Probably my single favorite bit of D&D beanplating ever.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:56 AM on January 12, 2012


penduluum: "It's being unable to not think about these sorts of things that eventually drove me out of role-playing games. Into the warm, tireless arms of hobbyist world-building for its own sake, though, so it's fine. Now I just ponder this stuff by myself, during slow days at work."

If you want to play in a fantasy world that feels completely well thought out, I'd suggest Hârn. There's almost nothing in it that requires violent suspension of disbelief. It's wonderful 'realism' in the 1980s RPG sense of the word. Few RPG settings match it for sheer depth and thoroughness.

Worldbuilding is a wonderful pursuit in itself, though, so if that's satisfying, more power to you.
posted by jiawen at 10:57 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm going to have to download and read this for the alignment section alone. Alignment never made sense to me except in the context of clerics and maybe some other spellcasters. It's kind of like party registration in politics: if you don't have to have one, you have to care enough to bother, and why would most people?
posted by immlass at 11:06 AM on January 12, 2012


Alignments are an interesting restriction to force everyone (including the DM) to role-play in a certain way. When you say that a character is lawful neutral, everyone can wrap their head around what that's basically like. It's like a starting suggestion in an improv game. It's not meant to be an insight into actual human behavior.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:19 AM on January 12, 2012


Alignment never made sense to me except in the context of clerics and maybe some other spellcasters. It's kind of like party registration in politics: if you don't have to have one, you have to care enough to bother, and why would most people?

There are two ways of interpreting True Neutral: philosophically committed to balance and "I don't give a crap." The 4th Edition simplification of the alignment system made this more explicit by changing Neutral to "unaligned."

My own personal approach to the Law/Chaos distinction is reform versus revolution. A lawful person will, at root, work within the existing system to achieve his or her goals, which may include reform of the system. A chaotic person is comfortable working outside the system, including advocating wholesale revolution or fundamental change.

Consider a hypothetical situation where a tyrannical local lord is abusing his serfs. A lawful good character would try to ameliorate the serfs' suffering, try to persuade the lord to be nicer, or take it up with the lord's feudal superior, probably in that order. A chaotic good character would see no problem in threatening or even kidnapping the lord in order to teach him a lesson. A chaotic neutral character might go so far as to kill him, if his offenses were particularly egregious and his replacement were a better person.

Basically I see good/neutral/evil as answering the question "what kind of ends does your character pursue in life?" and law/neutral/chaos as answering the question "to what extent do those ends justify the means?"
posted by jedicus at 11:20 AM on January 12, 2012 [18 favorites]


Basically I see good/neutral/evil as answering the question "what kind of ends does your character pursue in life?" and law/neutral/chaos as answering the question "to what extent do those ends justify the means?"

That's tremendously insightful. What an interesting take.
posted by penduluum at 11:27 AM on January 12, 2012


See also Secret Santicore.

Might be worth mentioning that you can get PDFs of the Glorantha setting and a revamped Runequest to play it with for $1 each, and lots more Glorantha books for another $1 each.
posted by Zed at 11:30 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Work productivity is now zero.
posted by bastionofsanity at 11:51 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Might be worth mentioning that you can get PDFs of the Glorantha setting and a revamped Runequest to play it with for $1 each, and lots more Glorantha books for another $1 each.\

Whoa. Thanks for that. Bought.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:35 PM on January 12, 2012


Basically I see good/neutral/evil as answering the question "what kind of ends does your character pursue in life?" and law/neutral/chaos as answering the question "to what extent do those ends justify the means?"

That's roughly the sort of guidelines we ended up with as well. But back in the ancient of days, when there were actually alignment languages, alignment made no sense for anyone who didn't have to be aligned, which was clerics (aligned by their gods) and clerical types like paladins, and some types of magic-users. Random fighters didn't need to be so strongly aligned that they had to learn a language, nor suffer the sort of penalties that were in the rules for alignment change.

My old college gaming group tended to describe good/evil alignment by colors: white, grey, black and red (unaligned), growing out of the colors one of the mages' guilds used. The high-level mages all had colored cloaks that fit their alignment and a lot of them had sobriquets like "Whitecloak" or "Redmantle".
posted by immlass at 1:16 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Read through some of this, and got to the page on the nature of "evil" magic, like the kind of magic that created undead. The two options he gives for handling it is, this stuff is intrinsic, capital-e Evil, or it is another form of power, a dark form but still energy from the Negative Elemental Plane is directionless and unaligned as much as fire or electricity.

He then goes on to complain that, in different places in the books, both approaches are used. Raising undead is Evil, but revenants, who seek justice, are may not be evil.

His treatment of the issue ignores two essential points:
1. The raising of undead is not Evil because it creates beings who inescapably act as agents of evil (even if this is often the case it's not necessarily so in the case of mindless undead like zombies and skeletons), but by what is done to the dead to create those monsters. At the very least it is an act of disrespect to the dead, at the worst it transforms the essence of what was once a thinking being and repurposes it for selfish ends. That is both evil, and Evil.
2. Is energy from the Negative Plane necessarily Evil or not? The reason the official books have always played both sides is because not because they are confused, but because the dual nature is interesting to think about and play with. Like when religious types meditate on the triple nature of the Christian godhead, or physicists trying to wrap their minds around quantum effects, RPG-heads like thinking about something that doesn't map neatly into ordinary experience. Negative energy could actually be both, at once, and that is fun to think about.
posted by JHarris at 1:18 PM on January 12, 2012


The raising of undead is not Evil because it creates beings who inescapably act as agents of evil (even if this is often the case it's not necessarily so in the case of mindless undead like zombies and skeletons), but by what is done to the dead to create those monsters. At the very least it is an act of disrespect to the dead, at the worst it transforms the essence of what was once a thinking being and repurposes it for selfish ends. That is both evil, and Evil.

This is the view that my current DM takes, and I think it has some merit. However, what of a skeleton created from a person who "donated their body to magic" the way one might donate it to science in the real world? Or of undead created from an animal? These (admittedly unusual) counter-examples argue against the intrinsic Evil of necromancy.

And certainly one can argue that spells like summon undead actually conjure a skeleton out of nothing the same way that summon monster conjures a dire rat (or whatever) out of nothing. As I understand it, if you summon a dire rat, the rat isn't plucked from its merry life somewhere on the prime material plane but rather brought into existence by the spell. Arguably, bringing a living creature (quite possibly an intelligent one) into existence solely to do your bidding, whereafter it will be annihilated whether it wants to or not, is a more Evil act than creating a mindless automaton of bone. At least the skeleton isn't self-aware or even capable of feeling pain during its existence.
posted by jedicus at 1:49 PM on January 12, 2012


However, what of a skeleton created from a person who "donated their body to magic" the way one might donate it to science in the real world?

A Lawful DM would have the skeleton attack the players since it was evil and that's what rules imply

A Chaotic DM that was Chaotic would have the skeleton be (DM *roles 2d10*, looks up 23 in imaginary table in their head) a Mr. Beanish - clumsy, not ill-intentioned, but not quite well meaning either, skeleton who has a voice like Billy Crystal's and knows a lot about some of his friends who habitate in closets, but can't quite grasp the fact that this information could be of use to the PCs.
posted by forforf at 2:14 PM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the best campaigns I've played had both of negative energy interpretations in play (evil ravening skeletons vs bone constructs). The moral choice was societal: some societies in the world saw death as part of the great circle of being, some saw it as an immoral, malevolent force. Both societies were "right" within their context.

Made for some interesting role-playing when a cleric of one of the positive energy "good" deities met the druid/ranger nature society, complete with occasional "undead" (which he couldn't turn because they weren't evil).
posted by bonehead at 3:05 PM on January 12, 2012


As I understand it, if you summon a dire rat, the rat isn't plucked from its merry life somewhere on the prime material plane but rather brought into existence by the spell.

That understanding makes no sense to me - it's not "create monster," it's "summon monster," and summoning by its very definition means to send for.
posted by me & my monkey at 4:32 PM on January 12, 2012


However, what of a skeleton created from a person who "donated their body to magic" the way one might donate it to science in the real world? Or of undead created from an animal? These (admittedly unusual) counter-examples argue against the intrinsic Evil of necromancy.

The response to this would be: what happens to the soul and mind of the original creature when its body is reanimated? I think the capital E in Evil implies that one or both go through some kind of torment, and that supersedes anything your driver's license might offer. One might also see it as a perversion of nature.
posted by JHarris at 4:44 PM on January 12, 2012


Zed! Secret Santicore is amazing, why have you not FPP'd this?!
posted by JHarris at 5:07 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


That understanding makes no sense to me - it's not "create monster," it's "summon monster," and summoning by its very definition means to send for.

On further review I had it wrong. The summon spells are in the conjuration school / domain, but they teleport a pre-existing creature to you.

Either way it makes summoning a thinking, feeling creature downright abhorrent. You're basically yanking a creature from its life and environment, enslaving it for your own selfish ends, and quite possibly sending it to its death in order to save your own skin.

If summon undead is Evil then summon monster and summon nature's ally are just as bad, with the exception of unthinking creatures and, possibly, elementals.
posted by jedicus at 5:31 PM on January 12, 2012


Both these authors have a long history with the tabletop Shadowrun RPG as well. Frank's Alternate Matrix Rules for 4th edition Shadowrun are insightful, and crazy well-balanced. It's a shame that the current publisher didn't use more of his ideas back when they were still employing him as a freelance author.

(It's also a shame that Frank's role in spreading the news about Catalyst Game Labs' questionable bookkeeping and payroll practices have left him banned from the major Shadowrun discussion boards, but that's another story.)
posted by radwolf76 at 5:39 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


A better source for Frank's SR4 Matrix Rules can be found here.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:45 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


As I understand it, if you summon a dire rat, the rat isn't plucked from its merry life somewhere on the prime material plane but rather brought into existence by the spell.

I think summoned means summoned: the dire rat was borrowed from some outer plane and brings a temporary body with it (because it doesn't really have a body on the outer plane in the first place). When the spell's over it goes back to where it was, where of course it's still an exemplar of rat-hood. If you summoned it and taught it to drink tea, upon return it would probably forget.

So not a lot different than creating something out of nothing; IMC though, a character absolutely builds up a reputation on the outer planes based on how they treat their summons. Of course the summoning spells also compel the summonee to obey, so mostly it's an attitude thing. There's other kinds of summoning, though.

However, what of a skeleton created from a person who "donated their body to magic" the way one might donate it to science in the real world? Or of undead created from an animal? These (admittedly unusual) counter-examples argue against the intrinsic Evil of necromancy.

IMC it's hand-wavy soul type thing. When you animate a skeleton you are damaging someone else's soul, or holding back a slice of damaged soul from being recycled. Not the soul of the person whose body is being animated, but more of a "damage to the fabric" type of thing.
posted by fleacircus at 6:04 PM on January 12, 2012


I just love spotting what the prestige classes are really based on - Dante from Dante's Inferno, Captain Planet or, my favourite, Skeletor (the "master of snake mountain").

I love that the "Skeletor" character has the special power "belittling tirade" and has to have a degree of skill in oratory, so he can say mean things about his enemies and cackle for dramatic effect. Someone involved in this clearly has a sense of humour and, more to the point, a love of 80s/early 90s cheese.
posted by lucien_reeve at 4:51 AM on January 13, 2012


High level characters are the military, economic, and social powerbases of the world. And they apparently rise from nothing in about 2 1/2 months.


Part of the nature of the game is time compression... novels also do this. It strips out the day-to-day mundanity of living to focus on the exciting moments.

And yes, real people reach meteoric heights, sometimes in only a few months - in the American Civil War, men went from local merchants to generals in only a few months, from generals to major political figures in a few years. Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley can go from stupid college kid to international business superstar in a matter of weeks with luck, connections and skill. (INT + CHR and a deft dice hand and your Neutral Evil wizard can start Facebook I mean conquer the kingdom!)

Another point is that D&D characters are meant to be extraordinary people - stronger, smarter, tougher, luckier, more determined than the average peasant (otherwise they'd still be peasants.) Adventurers are rare, successful adventurers even rarer.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:29 AM on January 13, 2012


Basically I see good/neutral/evil as answering the question "what kind of ends does your character pursue in life?" and law/neutral/chaos as answering the question "to what extent do those ends justify the means?"

This is good, but it risks conflating neutrality with chaos. If a lawful good character prioritizes the means over the ends, and a chaotic good character prioritizes the ends over the means, then what does a neutral good character do? Conversely, if a lawful good character prioritizes the means over the ends, and a neutral good character prioritizes the ends over the means, then does the chaotic good character actually hate the means (i.e., the law, whatever that means) so much that she'll sabotage her ends to rage against the machine (i.e., become chaotic stupid)?

Here's the way I think of it: like you, I agree that good/neutral/evil answers the question "what kind of ends does you character pursue in life?" But I think that law/neutral/chaos "how does your character respond to authority and balance that with individual autonomy?" In other words, a lawful character is an "authority pleaser" who feels nervous about (and in extreme cases is perhaps emotionally incapable of) breaking "the rules" (whatever the character has internalized as the rules laid down by the recognized authority). A chaotic character is constantly raging against machines and values individual autonomy over conformance (think Britta on Community). A neutral character is just a pragmatist without any particular emotional attachment to either conformity or rebellion. So:

A lawful good Paladin, a neutral good Wizard, and a chaotic good Rogue are all walking down the street when they spot, across the street, a burning orphanage. However, they are at a cross walk, and the light says they can't walk. Do they jaywalk?

The lawful good Paladin waits for the light to change before crossing the street. Because although his end (saving the children) is good, he feels you can't achieve a good end by breaking the rules (i.e., the intentions matter more than the consequences and the means matter more than the ends). In reality, he just can't emotionally bring himself to break the rules. Adherence to authority is an end in itself for the Paladin.

The neutral good Wizard runs across the street without waiting for the light or really worrying about it too much. Although it's generally good to abide by anti-jaywalking laws most of the time, the good achieved by rescuing the children outweighs that. Neither adherence to authority nor rebellion against authority are ends in themselves for the Wizard.

The chaotic good Rogue also runs across the street without waiting for the light, for much the same reason as the neutral good Wizard. The difference is that the idea that the State can tell people when and where to walk just bothers the chaotic good Rogue, so after the children are safe she goes back to the light and sabotages it as a symbolic rebellion against authority. Rebellion against authority, and personal freedom, are an end in itself for the Rogue.

A strongly lawful (but weekly good) character may occasionally commit evil acts in the name of submission to authority, just as a weekly lawful (but strongly good) character may ignore "the rules" if necessary to achieve what he or she sees as the greater good. This is true even if the character is a Paladin. So it's important to think of these axes as a spectrum rather than as discreet data points. A very strongly lawful and very strongly good character might have a nervous breakdown if put in a situation where he or she cannot serve both compulsions.
posted by gd779 at 5:53 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and "the law" for a lawful character is whatever system of rules the character has internalized and accepted. It could be the laws of her native country, or Kant's categorical imperative, or the Paladin code, or the code of the Thieves Guild: anything, really, but a lawful character is sure to have a rule system. Her internal psychology drives her to find a rule system and organize her life around it so that life "makes sense."

A chaotic character may or may not have a specific rule system that she is rebelling against: it could also be a sort of free-floating antipathy to authority. It depends on the character.
posted by gd779 at 5:58 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a lawful good character prioritizes the means over the ends, and a chaotic good character prioritizes the ends over the means, then what does a neutral good character do?

The same thing a neutral character does with regard to good and evil: he or she either doesn't care (in the sense that he or she doesn't really consider the lawful or chaotic implications of his or her actions), or he or she weighs each situation individually and tries not to go too far to one extreme or the other. Jaywalking to save orphans? Perfectly okay (frankly even a lawful good character would probably be okay with that one). Stealing bread to survive? Alright. Stealing bread from another starving person in order to survive? Probably not okay. Stealing bread from a starving person just because you're a bit peckish? Definitely not.

"the law" for a lawful character is whatever system of rules the character has internalized and accepted. It could be the laws of her native country, or Kant's categorical imperative, or the Paladin code, or the code of the Thieves Guild: anything, really, but a lawful character is sure to have a rule system.

This doesn't work very well because it makes "law" completely relative, whereas "good" is something most people can agree on. One character's lawful act can be another character's chaotic act (e.g. the laws of the land versus the code of the Thieves Guild). Thus, two chaotic good characters could be in violent disagreement virtually all of the time, which seems counter to one of the purposes of the alignment system.

A chaotic character may or may not have a specific rule system that she is rebelling against: it could also be a sort of free-floating antipathy to authority.

That kind of breaks down when you consider there are chaotic creatures that form effective societies. It also comes very close to reducing "chaotic" to "career criminal and/or anarchist." Or, alternatively, "Bizarro-lawful."

To me, alignment is about how a character approaches moral problems: do you seek good or evil ends, and how do you justify achieving them? Whether a character has a personal problem with authority seems like an unrelated issue. You can be lawful good but chafe at the strictures of society, or you can be chaotic good but a big believer in a well-designed system of laws.
posted by jedicus at 7:13 AM on January 13, 2012


The same thing a neutral character does with regard to good and evil: he or she either doesn't care (in the sense that he or she doesn't really consider the lawful or chaotic implications of his or her actions)...

This doesn't work. If law translates to means and chaos translates to ends, and a neutral good character doesn't care about either, then what is left to give an act its "goodness?" If neither the act itself nor its consequences are good, then what distinguishes the neutral good character from a true neutral character? There's nothing left.

...or he or she weighs each situation individually and tries not to go too far to one extreme or the other.

This is theoretically possible but unlikely. The classic hypothetical for thinking about means vs. ends is the ticking time bomb scenario: a terrorist has planted a bomb that will explode within 24 hours, killing hundreds of people. You've captured the terrorist. Setting aside the practical difficulties of torture, is it permissible to torture the terrorist (an evil means) to save lives (a good end)? You can argue both perspectives, but almost nobody says "well, you can torture him a little bit, but not a lot..." It's one of those things where you either believe the ends justify the means or you don't. (Though certainly would balance the evilness of the means against the good of the ends; everybody does that and it's not the sort of weighing I'm understanding you to refer to.) Some people are, psychologically, absolutists about morality, and others are willing to weigh the evilness of an act against the goodness of its consequences, but nobody seems to split the difference.

That's why it's better to think of law and chaos as the common psychological dispositions towards authority/individual autonomy. It maps better onto how people actually think and feel and makes the choice of each alignment meaningful.

Jaywalking to save orphans? Perfectly okay (frankly even a lawful good character would probably be okay with that one). Stealing bread to survive? Alright. Stealing bread from another starving person in order to survive? Probably not okay. Stealing bread from a starving person just because you're a bit peckish? Definitely not.

I think you're importing a lot of your own personal preferences/beliefs/feelings here without necessarily thinking about whether they make sense in the context of your means/ends distinction. Take the first example you give: jaywalking to save orphans. Although you say that a lawful good character would probably be okay with that one, I'm not sure that an Archon would be okay with that: that purity is what makes them so perfectly terrible. A Formian certainly wouldn't. In any event, although jaywalking to save orphans clearly puts a significant good over a trivial end, it is an example of prioritizing ends over means, and the very willingness to do is, in your scenario, a chaotic act. And your remaining examples are really about decreasing goodness, not decreasing law/increasing chaos. The neutral good character in your example is weighing the "goodness" of the act to see if it's worth violating the law: that presumes that lawfulness is "good" and chaos "evil" (or at least "to be avoided if possible"), which I don't think is consistent with the great wheel. It's much better to make law and chaos both arguably desirable concepts: either you value authority/order/fair play or you value individual autonomy/freedom. Neither is clearly right and neither is clearly wrong.

This doesn't work very well because it makes "law" completely relative, whereas "good" is something most people can agree on.

I don't think "good" is something most people can agree on. Unless you're running a very simple game where the black hats kick dogs for fun and the white hats are pure and chaste and completely selfless. It's much more realistic (and incidentally it creates the opportunity for better stories) if people have different ideas about what "good" is that sometimes conflict with the ideas of their neighbors. The good/neutral/evil spectrum is not about objective right and objective wrong, it's about selflessness/selfishness/masochism. Some people want to help others, even at the cost of their own wellbeing; others are only looking out for themselves; and finally others want to harm others for the sake of harming them (say, to get revenge for a perceived wrong or simply because they are emotionally fucked-up monsters that enjoy causing pain). So a brutal dictator could be evil or neutral, and two warring factions could both be good (with different conceptions of what constitutes "good.")

One character's lawful act can be another character's chaotic act (e.g. the laws of the land versus the code of the Thieves Guild). Thus, two chaotic good characters could be in violent disagreement virtually all of the time, which seems counter to one of the purposes of the alignment system.

I don't think that's the point of the alignment system. Characters with similar alignments won't always get along: the demons might take over the planes if they weren't constantly fighting each other. Instead, I think it's best to look at the alignment system as a role playing tool to help players figure out their character's motivation.

That kind of breaks down when you consider there are chaotic creatures that form effective societies. It also comes very close to reducing "chaotic" to "career criminal and/or anarchist."

Not really. A very strongly chaotic society would be anarchist, which is a valid political philosophy and not at all the same as being a society of career criminals. A more moderately chaotic society would simply be libertarian. Though there is always going to be some inherent tension between chaos and a society of laws, these are really very valid options.

You can be lawful good but chafe at the strictures of society, or you can be chaotic good but a big believer in a well-designed system of laws.

I think your own language is exposing the tension in your conception of law and chaos here. It seems odd for a chaotic character to be a big believer in the law.
posted by gd779 at 10:38 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


If law translates to means and chaos translates to ends, and a neutral good character doesn't care about either, then what is left to give an act its "goodness?" If neither the act itself nor its consequences are good, then what distinguishes the neutral good character from a true neutral character? There's nothing left.

An unthinking neutral good character is someone who pursues good ends but doesn't really stop to think about whether the ends justify the means or not. This actually describes most people, who are basically good but lead unexamined lives. Think about someone who gives a beggar money (hey that's good, right?) without thinking about whether panhandling is illegal or not. The question of whether encouraging the beggar to break the panhandling law is a good idea or not doesn't even enter their minds.

An unthinking true neutral character, by contrast, is someone who doesn't think about whether what they're doing is even good or not. This tends to lead to short-sighted thinking (no concern for side-effects or a larger picture) and a preoccupation with satisfying immediate needs. Think about an unintelligent animal: at worst they might seem a bit selfish, but they're not really malevolent, and to the extent they form societies (e.g. a wolf pack) they don't think about the system they live in, much less whether or not to go outside its rules in order to solve problems.

I don't think "good" is something most people can agree on.

For the D&D alignment system, religion, and cosmology to be consistent, I think law, chaos, good, and evil need to be fairly universal and absolute. It's up to the DM to pick a definition of Good and Evil in his or her particular universe.

The idea that someone is lawful because they adhere to some code, whereas someone else is chaotic because they reject it makes no sense. By that definition, the rogue who strictly follows the Thieves Guild Code is lawful, whereas the paladin who rejects it is chaotic. Yet, the rogue rejects the Paladin's Code so he is chaotic, while the paladin follows it so he is lawful.

You might say what matters is that you intentionally follow or reject a particular code. Yet what of the rogue who intentionally follows the Thieves Guilde Code but intentionally rejects society's laws? Does that make him or her neutral? That seems a strange definition of neutrality, like describing someone whose left arm is on fire and whose right arm is sitting in ice water to be perfectly comfortable.

I think your own language is exposing the tension in your conception of law and chaos here. It seems odd for a chaotic character to be a big believer in the law.

If what makes a chaotic character chaotic is that they believe that it's okay to go outside the law or system of authority in order to pursue good, evil, or a balance between them, then there's nothing inconsistent with them also believing that laws could be good if they were different. It's about your approach to a law or system of authority that you disagree with, not a general belief that all laws or authority are wrong. Neither does it stem from the rejection of a particular, arbitrarily chosen set of rules.

A believer in civil disobedience, strikes (including illegal ones), and other kinds of direct action is chaotic: their actions are illegal, but that does not mean they are anarchist, libertarian, or think of themselves as a criminal. Compare that to someone who sticks to voting and speaking out for workers' rights: that's lawful.

The good/neutral/evil spectrum is not about objective right and objective wrong, it's about selflessness/selfishness/masochism sadism

That's a fairly objective set of criteria you have there, actually.

Though certainly would balance the evilness of the means against the good of the ends; everybody does that and it's not the sort of weighing I'm understanding you to refer to.

That's exactly the weighing I'm referring to. A lawful character takes the view that very little, if any, evil is worth a good end. A chaotic character takes the view that quite a lot of evil can justify a good end, basically right up to (and maybe including) an equal amount. A thinking neutral character sits somewhere in the middle, or they may take a longer-term view and say "quite a lot of evil is okay this time, but we'll have to balance it out for a while by doing less evil, even for good ends."
posted by jedicus at 1:01 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


To avoid dragging this out, I'm going to focus on what I think are the focal points of our disagreement:

An unthinking neutral good character is someone who pursues good ends but doesn't really stop to think about whether the ends justify the means or not.

Isn't this also an accurate description of a character who is (in your system) strongly chaotic good? They strongly believe that the ends justify the means, so they don't really stop to think about the means: they're just "someone who pursues good ends" without worrying about the goodness of the means.

It sounds like you're saying that the only difference between chaotic good and neutral good is that the neutral good character hasn't read enough philosophy to have well thought out ideas about how to make moral choices. That sounds more like a "stupid good" alignment to me.

To put it more clearly: let's say your character believes that the ends can justify the means if the good of the end outweighs the evil of the means. Okay. Now go back to my "ticking time bomb" scenario from above. I can see a response that says "I will torture the terrorist if and only if I believe that the evil from my torture will be outweighed by the good from saving lives." And I can see the opposite response from a Paladin: "I will not torture the terrorist, regardless of the good that would come from it, because I will not commit evil in the name of good." But who in their right mind would say "I will torture the terrorist and commit evil in the name of good, but only if the evil from my torture will be outweighed by the good from saving lives by at least a factor of three." That makes no sense: either evil means can be used for good ends or they can't, and if they can then the only question that makes sense is "will there be more good than evil."

In the otherwise terrible movie Swordfish, there's a scene that I've always loved that puts this in stark relief:

GABRIEL
Stanley, here's a scenario. You
have the power to cure all of the
world's diseases. But the price
for this is that you must kill a
single, innocent child. Could you
kill that child to save the world?

STANLEY
No.

GABRIEL
You disappoint me, Stanley. It's
the greatest good.

Silence for several beats.

STANLEY
How about ten innocents?

GABRIEL
Now you're getting it. How about
a hundred?

Gabriel becomes intense.

GABRIEL
How about a thousand? Not to save
the world, but just to preserve
our way of life.

STANLEY
No man has the right to make that
decision. You're no different
than any other terrorist.

GABRIEL
You're wrong, Stanley. Some men
are put here to shape destiny, to
protect freedom, despite the
atrocities they must commit. I am
one of those men.


At the end of the day, you're either Stanley or you're Gabriel. There is no logical in between. There is no one that says "I would take one innocent life to save a thousand, but I would not take five hundred innocent lives to save a thousand." Either the ends always justify the means or they never do.

For the D&D alignment system, religion, and cosmology to be consistent, I think law, chaos, good, and evil need to be fairly universal and absolute.

And this is probably a big part of the crux of our disagreement. I don't really use the standard D&D cosmology: I prefer something much more closely based on the Planescape cosmology. It's a much better basis, in my opinion, for good storytelling. In lore terms, while any given version of the D&D cosmology may be true at the moment, they're only true because the Planescape cosmology underlies them and is more true. That also explains why the rules and structure of the cosmology change so frequently.

So, in summary, while I think your position is insightful, I disagree with it because:

1. It leaves no middle ground for intelligent neutral characters and thus hampers role playing.

2. It ties chaos to evil (and lawfulness to good) in a way that makes them seem too interrelated. This is arguably inconsistent with the great wheel and it is certainly inconsistent with the more flexible Planescape setting that allows players to explore these topics in greater depth.

3. It encourages black hat/white hat stereotypes and discourages complicated stories with conflicts among similarly-aligned groups with different ideologies.
posted by gd779 at 4:44 PM on January 13, 2012


Oh, and let me add one more reason:

4. Your alignment system discourages mixed-alignment parties. (A lawful good fighter and a chaotic neutral rogue aren't going to get along very well.) My system, on the other hand, has no such problem: A lawful good fighter and a chaotic neutral rogue can get along just fine, as long as the lawful good fighter's ideology doesn't involve telling the chaotic neutral rogue what to do.
posted by gd779 at 4:49 PM on January 13, 2012


Because it's helpful for me to work these ideas out in writing, here are some examples of how my alignment system would provide legitimate, intelligent moral frameworks for any given alignment (note that these are paradigmatic examples of strongly aligned characters; characters with weaker alignments on one axis or the other might respond differently):

Lawful Good: I believe in the Paladin Code. To break the Code is to commit evil. To commit evil in the name of good is a paradox and is evil. Since it is not possible for good to come from evil, I will never break the code, no matter the circumstances.

Neutral Good: Look, I'm just here to help people. The Paladin Code makes a lot of sense to me... most of the time. But sometimes it's going to get in the way of doing good, and at those times it's important to be flexible. If I have to lie to a Nazi to save innocents from death, then I will do so. Arguing about ideology just gets in the way of helping people. If I have to commit evil to serve a greater good, I'll reluctantly do it.

Chaotic Good: I want to help people, but on my own terms. You won't tell me what to do or how to do it. I've seen too many "good" organizations do more harm than good because they think they have the One True Truth and the right to force everyone to agree with them. After I'm done freeing innocents from this Evil wizard, I'm going to free them from the shackles of State oppression.

Lawful Neutral: Right or wrong, the law is the law and it must be obeyed to the letter. "My duty's to the law... If you let me go beware, you'll still answer to Javert!"

True Neutral: I look out for Number One, first, last and always.

Chaotic Neutral: "Fuck you," that's my ideology. Leave me alone. People should be free to do what's best for themselves.

Lawful Evil: I believe in [insert evil cult here]. My God teaches that suffering is redemptive. You will all be redeemed.

Neutral Evil: I will conquer this world and bend it to my will to make myself rich. Those who oppose me will suffer for their insolence!

Chaotic Evil: "It's not about money. It's about sending a message: everything burns."
posted by gd779 at 5:27 PM on January 13, 2012


What I don't like is alignment detection magic you can use on people- it seems to run counter to personality and allow for a sort of minority-report esque reaping of evil characters, since the starting moral premise of D&D is that there are evil races to be exterminated (even undead) and any reasonably levelled good character in the Paladin/Cleric spectrum can detect evil. It makes some sense in terms of magic, ie detecting the lingering karmatic stench of the human sacrifice, but I think these sort of spells break the game unless all you can basically detect is that evil was done, for example a victim of child abuse should stink as much as their abuser and the room where the abuse happened, and people who actively make it their goal to stamp out evil by seeking it out to solve it would get muddied up. After all the impact of real evil effects not just the people who do it. Even witnesses to a war zone get PTSD.
posted by Phalene at 6:07 PM on January 13, 2012


There are many problems with the D&D alignment system, but it's still an idea that makes sense in the kinds of fantasy literature that inspired Gary Gygax to make the game. At least it has fewer problems than 4E's needlessly reductive setup, which strikes me very strongly of simplifying a thing that no one was complaining it was too complex. But I'm not going to go down the 4E bashing road this time.

Here is one problem with it. In the story of most peoples' lives, they are a good person. Setting out to be evil produces either Snidley Whiplash or self-aware psychopaths. Even supposedly objective things like murder can be excused, by Lawful Good folk, if the reason is just enough -- in fact, this is just what most D&D characters end up doing regardless of alignment. Even selfish people, however, tend to justify it to themselves in some way, and there are cases in which that justification even looks acceptable from the outside. A poor peasant stealing food for his family -- is that really chaotic or evil? Maybe it's just the sort of test that proves what his alignment really is?

I'm of the view that D&D works best when it sticks fairly close to its roots as a loot-acquisition game of morally ambiguous types, closer in philosophy to Conan than Tolkien, and the idea of an alignment that could be sensed is very much a Tolkienian kind of idea. What alignment is Conan though? He does do some good things in his life, but for much of it he's really kind of a bastard -- we just don't dwell over long on those periods. True Neutral or Chaotic Neutral fit him pretty well most of the time, except for those times when he's good. Nothing really forces him to help out Yag-kosha in the classic story The Tower of the Elephant, for instance. And while he does some things that could be considered evil (trying to rape a goddess for instance, even if she was herself evil and luring him with her body into a trap set by her god-brothers), the wizards he fights are always much *bigger* evils.
posted by JHarris at 1:04 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


A discussion about alignment should mention Moorcock, right? However, according to his original conception both Law and Chaos are stifling in their extremes; the Law creates navel-gazing, immutable and fragile systems (as in Corum) and Chaos is ultimately inhospitable to humans and dismantles the world (as in Elric). Neutral could be representing the Cosmic Balance, but it is only of use to describe long character arcs: Although Elric ends up restoring balance, describing him as Neutral isn't often a terribly useful descriptor.

If you add to this the Good - Evil axis that has been debated in philosophy since forever, it is easy to see why the alignment system is often considered a sticking point. It is basically a prescriptivist system without an Académie française to provide the rules.
posted by ersatz at 3:06 AM on January 14, 2012


My useless input is that Leslie and Chris from Parks and Recreation are both Lawful Good, and yet they can also be in conflict as a result of that. Ron Swanson, Andy Dwyer, and Anne Perkins are all Neutral Good. April is Chaotic Neutral. Tammy 2 is pure Chaotic Evil, and Tammy 1 is pure Lawful Evil.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:36 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


At least it has fewer problems than 4E's needlessly reductive setup, which strikes me very strongly of simplifying a thing that no one was complaining it was too complex. But I'm not going to go down the 4E bashing road this time.

Yeah, but in 4e alignment doesn't matter. It doesn't do anything, and can thus be totally ignored in favor of RP.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:20 AM on January 14, 2012


Then why have it at all? I think I'd actually like 4E better if it went ahead and discarded alignment, rather than keep it around when it serves no game purpose? Of course, that would take the ame even further from its roots. My problem with these days is like those above, who say its not a bad game, it just doesn't feel like D&D.
posted by JHarris at 10:47 AM on January 14, 2012


They probably wrote something about it in the book because "this is D&D and S&F has alignment," but as far as I can tell it has no game effect whatsoever, and that's fine with me. It's vestigial. I agree.that 4e "feels different" from the 3e & 2e I played in the past, but I can't be sure that's not just me getting older.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:54 PM on January 14, 2012


D&D has alignment. Thanks for nothing, autocorrect.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2012


It only makes sense -- for most campaigns -- for alignment to be absolutes, there are actual true to witness Gods who either are goodness itself or the very exemplar of it. As for Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic I think people are getting confused on the interactions between good/neutral/evil spectrum.

Philosophy 101 teaches you very quickly that that the just(or the lawful) isn't always the good, that they are competing values. A lawful good character struggles when the two come in conflict. A lawful neutral character rarely has a dilemma, law is a guiding virtue, if a character waivers in it's support because of self interest or altruism, his alignment might begin to shift. The same goes for lawful evil characters.

Like any idea of morality, an easy and quick definition will invariably end up in counter example specifics. It is better to keep it hazy and general, follow a Wittgenstein idea of family resemblances.

Example, lawful characters tend to value groups over individuals, custom and tradition over innovation and change, they are in a sense "conservative", they rather work within a system then outside of it, stability and order over chaos and disorder, civility over barbarism, they value things such as manners, etiquette, ritual, law(think of it in the deepest sense, "no (hu)man is above the law", "justice is blind", the ideal of inalienable "rights", etc etc, anyway dichotomies are useful starting points in examining the meaning of alignment differences, but these dichotomies are easiest to study when one side of the equation is neutral. Looked upon in this way, even ideals of Law can come into conflict, it isn't like all Lawful Neutral Gods always agree, same for LG or CE or N, sometimes custom conflicts with stability or what-have-you.

Because it is, after all, a game, absolutes ought to be spelled out early on between DM and players, that acts outside of alignment need to be noted and spoken to ensure everyone is on the same page, because even in a multiverse where there is such a thing as THE GOOD, the people sitting around the table will likely be arguing what exactly that is and if you all can reach a workable consensus on it then you're doing at least as well as Plato and friends.
posted by Shit Parade at 12:05 AM on January 15, 2012


You don't even have to have two non-neutral alignments to have problems deciding on the proper course of action. Just being good or lawful, themselves, are enough to cause conflicts within that single alignment.

A problem is that D&D alignment (in older versions) isn't a personal matter, but players are expected to live up to their ideals, sometimes at the cost of permanent abiities if the player's roleplaying doesn't match alignment. In real life, who could decide when that happens? In game life, one player decides -- the DM. But it's not always an easy choice to make, especially if a player is in a situation that forces him to make a choice that has no obviously right answer.
posted by JHarris at 2:48 AM on January 15, 2012


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