Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Problem of Evil

Or: Why I Never Use Alignment

Now before anybody gets the wrong idea, let it be said that this isn't one of those troll-bait, flame questions. This is a serious inquiry into the topic of evil itself. It's a big topic, to be sure, but here's one way to break it down: "What does it mean to be evil in a roleplaying game?"

Most people know what evil means, in and of itself, even if they can't define it in great, broad strokes. They'll point to rape, child molestation, mass murder, callousness, or any other factor. But what does it mean in the context of a roleplaying game, where most people aren't comfortable with the subject?

In many cases, it paints a convenient black hat on a person who is to be killed without remorse. Sometimes, the "bad guy" will wear a literal black hat, or a black, spiky suit of armor, or be a demon. Such things are certainly convenient, but are they realistic? Are they meant to be? Is a person with an alignment of "LE" or "C" (in older systems) a person who can be slain at a whim? Is that what you want to promote in your games?

And then, what does it mean when an entire race of people are "evil"? Case in point: Goblins. In 3rd edition, they were given an alignment of "LE", and then they were basically said to be mean tricksters. That's it? Apparently, all it takes to be lawful evil, on the same scale as an archdevil of the abyss who subjugates his followers under his boots and tortures people into the long, hideous sunset, is to lay traps and attack invaders and try to get lands in the same way that "good" people do- only eviller.

This one is one I can't answer alone, because I haven't used alignment seriously in decades and I've never really had any inkling of an understanding of what, exactly, alignment is to be used for. I've heard a couple arguments, both for and against, but nothing that was revelatory. Mostly it's between people who are moral absolutists and moral relativists who argue semantics and whether or not Batman or the Power Rangers are Chaotic Neutral or what-have-you.

Back to the question: What does it mean to be "evil"? What sorts of things are necessary to put the black hat on a man? What does labelling a person "evil" entail?

To me, there is no evil. Looking at paladins, I see a man who is inflexible, cruel, intolerant, violent, and possibly racist. All things traditionally associated with evil, in its most base forms. "But Mr. Crayon," one may be thinking, "that man is only inflexible in his pursuit of justice, cruel to the evil and unjust, intolerant of oppression, violent to the threats to his community, and racist against monstrous foes! He's not evil, he's good!"

Well, put it into context. Let's say you're a king who has had assassination attempts on yourself, so you're a bit paranoid. You raise taxes so as to better fund your personal spies, bodyguards, and palace. You put into place policies to limit the conspiracies against yourself, so that you can continue your rule. You waste no time in putting down the lives of those who attempt to sabotage your kingdom or the land and property of your subordinates. And yet, a paladin batters down your door, slays your guards, and puts you to the sword for oppression, tyranny, intolerance, violence, and "evil." Are you evil?

It's not for nothing that they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


What do you think?

Monday, October 6, 2008

All Classes are Not Created Equally

Something that really irritates me, and had me stumped for the longest time in the development of my own roleplaying system was the issue of classes.

Specifically, how many should there be? What differences should they have? How much customization should they have? And so on.

Most people who have played D&D for any length of time seperate it down into four classes, who, at their core, are seperate and irredeemably different than each other. They usually name Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric, letting such friviolities as Hexblade, Samurai, Barbarian, and the like out to rot, as some sort of combination of those few.

Putting the calls of "bullshit! bullshit!" away, let's look at the reasoning for these classes. Surely, there is a good reason for fighter to be there. After all, he's the big tough guy, the one who get slapped upside the head and takes all sorts of pain so the squishier guys can shoot their spells and whatever else. The theif, on the other hand, deals with locks and traps so that the party can steal better, so that everybody gets less arrows shot into them. The cleric, obviously, exists to patch the party back up, and to provide both frontline combat ability and some assistance through his magic. And the Wizard, dear wizard, he exists to fling fireballs and make everybody fly and whatever else he decides to do.

And it's all flawed.

The main flaw is that the roles are reduplicated, or in some cases entirely unnecessary. The biggest example is the theif, of course. Why the theif? Well, think about it. The theif is a character who is a relatively inept warrior whose entire purpose is to steal things and get away with it. He relies upon fighters to save his hide from the physical problems, and the wizard to help him escape from the magical ones. In short, he's a fighter minus the fighting. A warrior without the war. And why?

It's entirely possible to have a fighter who is also a theif, a man who is capable of intelligent thought and disarming traps and stealing things, who is also able to put on some armor and slash through some people. It's called a hero, this amazing man. It's a hero in the very most classical sense, ranging back to the greek Oddyseus, or possibly even the sumerian Gilgamesh.

In the systems I'd always come up with, there were basically two roles, one for each way of solving things. If you solved things with blades and muscles, then you were basically a fighter. If you were a sneaky fighter, then you were a sneaky fighter. If you used bows, then you were a fighter who preferred to be called an archer, or whatever. If you solved problems with the powers of your god or gods or arcane formulas or demon-pacts, or any other sort of mystical and magical powers, then you were a sorcerer. If you were a holy man, you're still a sorcerer. The rules didn't care about the flavor, only your abilities.

That, to me, is how a system should be. It should be rules-light, with no rules for anything other than combat. Already I can see people asking why, people telling me why rules need to be thick and heavy to cover every possible situation and how we need skills covering things like diplomacy and social skills and not putting your elbows on the table and all that "fun" stuff. That's a topic for a different post, and I promise I'll go into it then.