Damnit, Wolfenstein, You Have to Earn a Moral Dilemma!

Ok, so I’m still playing Wolfenstein: New Order from time to time. In previous blog, I mentioned enjoying killing Nazis, due to the lack of moral ambiguity. Of course, I simply assumed the lack of ambiguity. A recent post by the makers of the game, which said “Make America Nazi-Free Again” apparently upset people who see a game about killing Nazis as a political statement against the alt-right. That’s funny. But also, sad. In any case, I don’t find it very interesting that literal Nazis are upset for being called Nazis.

Instead, I’m going to write about an issue I have in New Order. Overall, it’s a great game, and I’m really enjoying it. I like the premise, where Nazis won WW2, and I was basically ‘knocked out’ for 20 years while they ruled the world, only to arise and join the resistance. Pretty neat stuff!

However, there is a scene, fairly early in the game, that annoys me as an ethicist…and perhaps just as a decent person (if you are willing to concede that to me!). WARNING: What follows will be a spoiler of the end of the first level of the game. If you want to play the game, and avoid the spoiler, DO NOT READ FURTHER!


Still here? OK, in the scene in question, you have to choose between two hostages that the enemy has taken. The Big Bad Guy is going to kill one of the two men, who are squad mates on your team. He forces you to choose which one. This is meant to be a classic moral dilemma, a Sophie’s Choice moment, where you must choose between two beloved people (yeah, I just spoiled that book for you, too!).

There are bonuses to you for the rest of the game, depending on which choice you make. One gives you more hitpoints, and the other gives you more armor, basically. They also change gameplay by a small amount, with one giving you the ability to hotwire certain things, and the other the ability to pick locks.

Whatever. The idea of having a choice that unlocks different bonuses is pretty cool, but the choice itself is not. There are at least three problems with it.

First, you really don’t know either of these people. I’m sure they played roles in the mission somehow, but I’ll be honest. I didn’t remember either name or face when I was suddenly confronted with having to choose between them. After realizing the second problem (which I’ll get to in a second), I based my choice on purely utilitarian reasons. You see, I teach the Trolley Problem, and I know the proper solution. Once you rule out the deontological solution, you go with utility. One guy looked older than the other. So I chose to let the older guy die, figuring the other had a longer life ahead. I didn’t know the bonuses, and thus had no way of basing my choice on that. I guess I could have reloaded, but I already had to that once because you see….

The second problem is that you can’t bow out of the choice. My first instinct was to refuse. “No way, Bad Guy! I won’t do it! I’m a good person, and will not be an accessory to murder! Bite me, Nazi Scum!” Only that didn’t work. We all died, and I had to reload. Not choosing was not a legit choice. Oh, in the real world, it would be. But the game wanted to make a point. It wanted me to feel some guilt; it wanted pathos. But that leads to the third, and biggest problem….

The game never earned this moment. Moral dilemmas aren’t a chance to be edgy. They are a tragic part of human life, very rare, and very damaging when we are forced to make them. Moral dilemmas hurt, especially when the cost is human life. This is a game about killing Nazis. I’m playing it to avoid moral dilemmas. I don’t mean that video games must avoid hard moral choices, but this particular game is so over the top with it’s bad guys that it’s not really a game about moral ambiguity at all. It’s killing Nazis. Contrary to what some stupid, young, white, male, Americans seem to think (and yes, they are ALL those things….well, not all are young, but they are mentally immature), there’s nothing cool about Nazis. There are no redeeming qualities. I don’t care that Hitler liked dogs or was a vegetarian. He was a monster. I apologize when I use Nazis as examples in ethics, because it’s too easy.

Wolfenstein: New Order blindsided me with this horrific choice, and I resent it. Yeah, I’m still playing it, but it marred an otherwise uniformly enjoyable game by faking some deep emotions. Games like Fallout earn it, but Wolfenstein didn’t!

Bioware Is Trying to Make Romance More Diverse, but Has a Long Way to Go

(Image from Afterellen.com-credit to them)

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out, and early reviews are mixed, as one would expect in a game that is continuing a series that many people love. The original trilogy was…well, a trilogy. It had an ending (which many people hated!). I didn’t play ME3, and I haven’t played the new game either. I very much enjoyed the second installment, but I didn’t have the console to play 3 when it was released, and then the negative feedback hit concerning the ending. I mistook it for an overall criticism of the game; or perhaps I was afraid the (allegedly) awful ending would ruin my memories of the series. In any case, I rarely finish a game, so I’m not sure why that deterred me.

But I don’t want to talk about whether the new game is good or not. I want to talk about the idea of Mass Effect, which allows you to choose between playing a male or female character (affectionately truncated to ManShep vs. FemShep in the video game community). Both choices have been excellently voice acted, though many people prefer Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the character, at least among my friends. She does do an amazing job, but I’ve tended to play as ManShep.

Ok, brief history time: Bioware has had an interesting relationship with gamers that have wanted to have more diverse (sexually) characters in their games. In the first Mass Effect, you could sort of have a same sex relationship, if you played FemShep, but only because of how Asari work (see below). In the second game, they played it safer, basically making everything hetero-normative. Then, in the third, they tried to open it up more, allowing a male-male pairing, but it was pretty lackluster by most counts. The latest in the series, Andromeda, has included more same sex pairings, to mixed reviews.

I think Bioware is trying to allow people to engage in a variety of sexual orientations, but they aren’t totally sure how to pull it off properly (maybe hire more writers that actually experience these feelings?). Whether you play as ManShep or FemShep, you can romance crew members of either gender, and each iteration has tried to be more inclusive in this regard. I’m going to set aside the troubling notion of romancing subordinates (though that would also be interesting to examine!) and focus on what Bioware is doing right here and what misses the mark.

Let’s start with the right: I like the idea of allowing players to decide whom they wish to romance and what sexual orientation their character has. In theory, it allows players to experiment with different roles, which is what a roleplaying game is all about. More importantly, it might increase representation among groups that have been grossly unrepresented in gaming: members of the LGBTQ+ community (note: I do not mean to exclude any of the groups that have since been included in this acronym…I use + to indicate them).

Furthermore, I think there can be value in presenting the choice of romantic partners as if gender were irrelevant, if only to get people to consider that as a possibility. Perhaps the world would be a better place if this were how things worked, and maybe in the Mass Effect universe, gender is no longer a barrier to romance. Cool.

However, if that’s what Bioware is trying to achieve, it misses the mark in several important ways. Let’s start with the most common complaint on this front: The Asari. The Asari are a race of aliens that have only one gender…which just happens to have the appearance of attractive human women (but with blue or gray skin!).

Mass Effect has tried to correct this a bit, with the most recent game in the series adding the notion that some Asari identify as masculine. As the linked article notes, such Asari do not actually appear in any of the games, but good for Bioware to at least acknowledge the issue. I think they are sincerely trying here, and I give them a lot of credit for that. Maybe they shouldn’t have started with the idea of “space babes” in the first place! Anyway, I’ll let this go now…

As for the number of options of characters to romance, one might argue that in the real world, people who are gay have less options for romantic partners too (statistically speaking), but then, this isn’t a real world. It’s a game. So, the realist argument may not hold water here. Bioware could simply allow people to romance anyone, and treat all romances the same, regardless of whether you are playing ManShep or FemShep. Romance whomever you wish, and have the scenes play out the same.

That could be very interesting, if the goal is to look at the future in a certain way, but it certainly would not capture what it’s like in today’s world to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Their romances are often not the same, precisely because of social conventions. The essential love is close enough to the same and deserves the same respect. But living as a transgender or homosexual or bisexual person is likely not the same as living as a heterosexual, cisgendered person, and treating these relationships as if they would be just like choosing what clothes to wear probably misses the point and would not actually help represent the views of players who are transgender. As a hetero-cis person myself, I’m not going to pretend to know how best to represent these differences. I’m just saying that ignoring them is probably not the best approach.

Beyond these issues, it would probably minimize sexual identity to present romances in such terms. Making every gender choice interchangeable suggests that there are no differences among us, but as feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have noted, the “treat the same the same and treat differences differently” approach doesn’t work well in practice. There are too many differences in people, and this approach tends to make sexism and other issues pretty easy to defend. Instead, MacKinnon suggests that we look for power imbalances, which we all recognize as being exploitative when not appropriate.

Of course, this suggestion gets us back to the original issue that I decided to set aside…why is a military commander romancing his/her/their crew, when an obvious power differential makes this very problematic?? Guess I never fully set that aside after all….

Anyway, Bioware is in a tough position, trying to represent all viewpoints while also trying to tell a particular story about a particular character. Hopefully, they find a way to get it right….eventually.

Pillars of Eternity and Obsidian’s Wonderful Use of Virtue Ethics


For the last several years, one of the better companies for producing both inventive and nostalgic RPGs is Obsidian Entertainment. Many of their games have taken existing properties and created sequels that took them a bit further (e.g. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). Last year, however, Obsidian released a game based on an IP that it created, called Pillars of Eternity (PoE). PoE began as a Kickstarter project, which I funded because it looked incredible and I like the company. It’s a throwback in design to the Infinity Engine games (like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), but with many new features.

One of these features is the traits system, which assigns your character values to various character traits that they have exhibited through conversations that they’ve had with different people and factions in the game. It’s a wonderful system because it reflects a moral theory that I’ve mentioned before in this blog—virtue ethics. What makes PoE’s take on virtue ethics great is that it assigns numerical values to various qualities that you’ve exhibited, and then other people in the world will hear about your reputation and act accordingly.

An example might help! I am playing as a druid character (you have a party of six characters, but one is the main character, i.e. the character you are playing). She is a good person, very helpful and mostly honest. If there is a conflict between producing good and honesty, she will choose to produce good. Those do happen in the game, but for the most part, she has been able to be honest. As a result, she has an ‘honesty’ score of 3.

This means that when I am first meeting a new NPC in the world, I am sometimes given the option of using my honesty trait to convince them that I’ll do what I say. Characters in the world will react to me accordingly, saying things like “They say you are an honest person. So I think I can trust you.” This really helps with immersion, of course, but it also has in game benefits. By being trustworthy, I am told things I might not otherwise find out. Of course, there are other characters that will not like me because I am so honest. They will know that I am unlikely to lie on their behalf, and this could make them wary to give me certain tasks.

The system that incorporates all of this is not perfect. I cannot always tell which option will be seen as the benevolent one (my highest trait at 4 right now). I try to do good, but you aren’t told which option will raise benevolence or honesty or any other trait. Still, you can get pretty close. I would prefer a system where you are told which option matches which trait. That way I can be sure that I am choosing the one my character can do. This might undermine immersion though; so I understand why it isn’t present. Maybe there could be a setting to make this visible of invisible, allowing players to choose. I can, of course, go online and find this information, but I don’t want to pause my game during every conversation in order to look at walkthrus, which often have spoilers.

Overall, though, the system feels about right. There are many traits. My character is seen as slightly stoic, but mostly passionate. She’s clever. She even has a one in ‘deceptive’, probably from the times where I chose benevolence over honesty. If you play a different way, you can get traits like ‘aggressive’. I don’t know all of the traits that might be seen as more negative. I assume there is a malevolent trait to counter benevolent. Perhaps I’ll play the game again and see how that goes.

But it’s a big game; one of those epic, sprawling RPGs that you remember companies like Bioware and Black Isle making. Obsidian is a continuation of an approach to RPGs that makes you feel like you really are playing a video game version of a roleplaying campaign. The characters have distinct personalities and issues they wish to resolve. Some of them are unlikable (I’m looking at you Durance! I do not like you!). Others are simply exotic, in the sense that they represent ways of thinking that reflect the fact that they come from non-human cultures. For example, one of my favorite characters prefers eating raw meat. She’s on a journey to find the reincarnated form of a village elder that died several years earlier.

There are factions that you can find favor with or who might become enemies. There are entire new cultures to learn about; different approaches to magic, psionics, even chanting (bard-like abilities). I’m glad games like this are still being made. The inclusion of a virtue ethics approach to morality helps me see the world as a living place, where my actions and my value (or my character’s values anyway!) matter. I’d love to see other developers extend this idea further.

Let me know if there are other games that use a similar system. I’d love to hear about them.

Synths, Droids, and P-Zombies- why do we treat machines as moral beings?

robotsAs I play through both Fallout 4 and SWTOR, I’ve been thinking about how we treat both the synths in Fallout and the droids in Star Wars. While the concepts are treated very differently in these two fictional universes, our reactions to them have some similarities. We tend to forget that they aren’t human, which leads us to treat them like moral beings in some ways.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this in terms of p-zombies, or philosophical zombies, which is a concept that was mostly developed by philosopher David Chalmers as a way of exploring certain issues in the Philosophy of Mind. The basic idea is to imagine a being that in every external way resembles a human being, but which lacks internal consciousness. In other words, the p-zombie is just a shell. In every physical way, it resembles a human being. You could converse with it, and you won’t really be able to tell the difference between the p-zombie and another other person. However, the p-zombie is not really sentient in the human sense.

The concept is usually used as a thought experiment to question assumptions in materialistic (or physicalist) models of the universe. If everything can be reduced to just physical properties, then a p-zombie should be no different than an actual human being, even though it lacks internal consciousness, since there is no such thing as an internal life independent of our physical properties. If you want to find out more, you know how to look it up!

But I want to think about synths and droids using this idea, and to ask why it is that we treat them like moral beings. In Fallout 4, there is an entire storyline that revolves around the notion of synthetic humans that could be made to look like any particular human, allowing them to infiltrate communities by substituting a particular member with a synth. This leads to a lot of paranoia, of course! What if your neighbor is really a synth? In one scene, a pair of brothers gets in an argument, with one denying that he is a synth, while the other condemns him for being a copy of his brother. I won’t spoil what happens, but the situation is telling.

As the player, you are given a chance to help these synthetic beings, and I have to admit that it feels like the right thing to do. They have artificial intelligence of some sort, and they definitely seem like humans in many ways. You can’t help but feel for them.

The same kind of thing happens in the Star Wars universe with droids. When I was a kid and saw Star Wars for the first time, I didn’t think much about the cantina scene, where the bartender says “We don’t serve their kind!” pointing at R2 and C3PO. Now, when I rewatch it, I ask “What is this racist nonsense??” Similarly, as I play through SWTOR, I don’t really see the difference between my droid companions and other humanoids that might accompany me.

But do synths and droids have any real moral status? When I feel for them, emotionally, is this really any different than when I was a kid and felt bad because some toys didn’t get played with as much as others? True story time: when my brother and I were both offered toys at the same time, I tried to always choose the one I thought was uglier or less cool, because I felt sorry for it! I have no idea if my brother noticed, or even cared. Since we were kids, he probably just switched to thinking the one I wanted must have been the cooler one. In any case, the toys didn’t really care. There was no morally superior choice here. Toys don’t feel rejected; they don’t feel anything.

And yet, every time R2 makes that sad, whiny weeooo noise in the movies, I think he’s sad. In fact, even labeling R2 a “He” is misleading. These droids don’t have genders as such. We can call them male or female, and give them appropriate voices (are astromech beeps and boops really masculine or feminine, though?), but they aren’t really gendered, are they? Perhaps they are in the performative sense of gender, but that’s a separate topic. There is no biological reason to consider them anything but objects.

Yet, here I am, both in Fallout and in SWTOR, wondering what the correct moral choice is for whatever p-zombie I am dealing with at the time. I just can’t help it!

Star Wars – The Dirty Hands Problem

kentharAs my light side character continued to move through his story line, he found himself on the capitol planet of Coruscant. This planet is a giant city; so everything you do on it takes place in one vast city (well, vast for this game; kinda small for a planet-city).

I found myself working for a the Senate to infiltrate some of the gangs that were running rampant on the planet. However, when I broke into their complex, I discovered that they had made a deal to help fund one of the very senators I was helping! Uh oh! Time to make a major ethics decision.

In this case, when I returned to the senator and confronted her with the information I found, she asked me not to disclose it, for the good of the government and the people. I moused over my dialog choices and found that the ‘Light’ choice was to force her to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Since I’m playing a Light character, that’s what I did, and she thanked me for showing her the li…err, the right way to be.

Here’s the problem, though. I hated this option. The senator had actually made a pretty compelling case here. She pointed out that her opponents had more money than she did; so she needed the gangs to help fund her campaign, so that she could get elected. Then, once elected, she would be able to be a force for positive change on the planet.

I get this! This is a version of what Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, calls the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’, a phrase he stole from Sartre. Walzer notes, I think rightly, that a good politician cannot help but dirty her hands a bit; it’s a messy vocation. If nobody is playing fair, then if you attempt to remain ethical and above the fray, so to speak, you will likely lose. What we want, Walzer argues, are people who are willing to do the dirty work that we do not want to do ourselves, but who are shameful enough to feel guilt at having to do so. In other words, we want someone who can’t sleep at night because she made a deal with the devil, but we still need her to make that deal, for the good of us all.

That’s basically what this senator was doing, and the game forced me (if I am to maintain my ‘light points’) to out her. That strikes me as pretty short-sighted. We might hope for a world in which politicians can tell us exactly how they feel, and what they will do. We might want a world of transparency where our politicians only do ethical things, and everything turns out right as a result. I’m not sure that’s the world we actually have though.

It’s an interesting dilemma, one that is especially fitting for me to consider the day after I voted in the Ohio primary. Do we need politicians with dirty hands? Or is it possible to clean up the system itself so that dirty hands are no longer necessary?

Ethics and Paladins- Part 3 (Existentialist Paladin)

knight of faith

While my previous posts deal with ways that we could expand on the traditional approach to paladins by looking at a variety of ethical theories, I want to take that idea a bit further by introducing the Existentialist Paladin, the ultimate Knight of Faith!

Existentialism is more of a loose movement of philosophical concepts than a cohesive theory. Put simply, existentialism, as Jean Paul Sartre explains, is the idea that “Existence precedes Essence”. What that means is that there is no essential nature to human life and our values that we must discover in order to know our true purpose. There is no such universal, absolute purpose. We exist first, and then we are free to create our purpose. While this sounds like unrestricted liberty, it’s not that simple. According to Sartre, truly realizing our existential state leads to despair and forlornness. The complete freedom we gain comes at a price-we have no innate direction. We must do the hard work of creating a life of meaning for ourselves in a universe that does not care about us. Many people are crushed by the weight of this Existential Angst.

Those familiar with Existentialism probably realize that most writers that fit into the view are atheists. Sartre sees the lack of God as a key part of the forlornness felt when we must create the world for ourselves. However, there are religious Existentialists, even Christians, and this is where we could get a template for the Existentialist Paladin.

One of the earliest Existentialists (some might call him a proto-Existentialist) is Soren Kierkegaard. Besides having one of the coolest names in history, Kierkegaard is known for his practically Post-Modern take on the idea of God. Instead of seeing God as the Infinite Realization of Actuality (i.e. as being the essence of everything), Kierkegaard saw God as Infinite Possibility. What does this mean, exactly?

Traditionally, religious philosophers, such as Augustine or Descartes, described God as Infinite Perfection. Everything that exists is part of God and thus part of perfection. There is nothing else. God cannot change, because there is nothing outside of God to change into. God cannot grow for the same reasons. God does not become; he was, is, and always will be. Time and space are meaningless to such a God. Defying God is like defying reality; it is unnatural. Similarly, any desire that things be other than how they are is not only pointless, but immoral and sinful, as it goes against God’s perfect plan.

This approach to God fits the traditional approach to paladins, of course. Defying God’s perfect will is immoral and must be punished. But now let’s look at God as Infinite Possibility. Kierkegaard writes about three types of people. The first are the ‘frogs in life’s swamp’. Most people fit into this category, flailing about in life, pursuing finite pleasures and making do with their lot as best they can. When they pray to God, they ask for things, but they rarely get them because their prayers are very selfish. Imagine if such a person lived in medieval times, Kierkegaard imagines, and he decides that he loves a princess. As a peasant himself, he cannot have the princess, so he makes do with the daughter of a butcher, who is a peasant like himself.

The second level is what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Infinite Resignation. This is basically a Kantian deontologist, which I explained in the previous post on paladins. It’s also how most paladins are played. The Knight of Infinite Resignation aims at universal values, where all human life is sacred, and moral laws apply to all equally and must never be broken. If such a Knight were to fall in love with the princess, Kierkegaard argues, he would never renounce his love in favor of another, because that would be a lie. Instead, he would recognize that the princess can only marry someone of equal nobility, which the Knight lacks. He will thus infinitely resign himself to never getting the princess. This does not make him any happier; in fact, his is a life of misery. But it is a moral life, lived in full truth and self-awareness. We can relate to the Knight as a tragic figure, understanding that his aesthetic choices are based on universal truths. That’s our basic paladin-he might annoy those of us in his party, but we understand his views, and he is extremely, irritatingly, consistent.

The third level is where we find the Existential Paladin, or what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Faith. Remember that the faith here is faith in a God of Infinite Possibility. The Knight of Faith, according to Kierkegaard’s explanation also falls in love with the princess. Unlike the Frogs in the Swamp, this knight does NOT give up his love for her; however, he also acknowledges that realizing this love is impossible, just like the Knight of Infinite Resignation. Here’s the important move. Through his faith and the “Strength of the Absurd”, the Knight of Faith actually changes the world so that he can marry the princess. This isn’t delusion or even some recognition that the rules were just a social construct. The Knight of Faith is capable of achieving the impossible through God.

Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate what he means. In this Biblical tale, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the traditional view of God as unchanging and perfect, this effectively means that Isaac will die. Abraham has no reason to believe that Isaac will not die. If he does, then the story is less interesting to Kierkegaard. Abraham must know, with certainty, that Isaac is now doomed. However, at the same time, his faith in God’s promise that Isaac would be the fulfilment of God’s covenant means that somehow, impossibly, Isaac will live. Both these things must be true to Abraham, which means that he must embrace the absurd. Isaac cannot both die and remain alive, and yet Abraham’s faith must believe this anyway in order for him to be a Knight of Faith. He does, and God spares Isaac at the last moment by offering an alternate sacrifice. This story is usually seen as a simple test of faith, but Kierkegaard takes it much further by seeing it as the ultimate sign that God can do the impossible.

I think this fits with the idea of paladins very well, at first glance. They are able to use healing spells, and if powerful enough, the magic of the gods in D&D can even bring back the dead. Paladins absolutely do the impossible. Of course, so do wizards and sorcerers and clerics, and even bards…. Still, in this case the paladin would be freed up from the traditional role of following a god’s orders and instead be partners with her god. She could engage in her faith in a uniquely existentialist way.

Consider how another Christian Existentialist, Paul Tillich, explains faith as ‘ultimate concern’: “[T]he ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.” The Existentialist Paladin transcends both the rational and irrational, the moral and the immoral, and becomes a law unto herself. Her faith lifts her above the rest of us, making her impossible to understand, though in her own mind, she never loses her faith, which allows an “affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness”. This is not relativism; it does not mean anything goes. Instead, such a paladin forges a path for others to follow, based on her own existential will and a god that enables her to achieve it.

The Existentialist Paladin would be incredibly fun to play because the other characters would no longer find her predictable at all. At the same time, she is not chaotic. She is lawful, but she is the creator of law, and can transcend any law through the Strength of the Absurd, not by ignoring law, but by overcoming it through faith. It would take a special player character to roleplay this properly and resist the urge to abuse it. It would also require an exceptional DM to recognize what is happening and react accordingly. Still, I’d like to try to play such a character at some point.

Ethics and Paladins- Part 2 (Divine Command Theory)

asian paladin

In a previous post, I suggested that paladins in D&D might be more interesting to play if we allowed them to follow more realistic ethical theories, such as utilitarianism or virtue ethics. Today, I want to take that point further by looking at the approach that most people take when playing a paladin and taking it in another direction.

The view is called Divine Command Theory, and it’s an approach to morality that basically says that we should do whatever God or gods demand. Following the Ten Commandments could be seen as Divine Command Theory; if the commandment says “Do Not Steal” then you must not steal. The reasons people might follow such a commandment vary, of course. Some might be trying to avoid punishment, while others want the reward of being favored. Still others may do it simply because God commands it, and they serve God. Most likely, Divine Command Theory is basically what D&D creators like Gygax or Arneson had in mind with the paladin originally. Paladins must follow the divine will of the gods, and there are real consequences if they don’t, such as loss of favor and the powers that come with it!

But what if we pushed this view a bit, in light of the fact that there are many gods recognized in D&D? I still have the original Deities and Demigods book, which includes stats on gods from Moorcock’s Elric novels, and even Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. If paladins are knights in the service of gods, why couldn’t they follow any of the gods, rather than being limited to a lawful good ethos? Imagine if my paladin worshipped Azathoth, which the book explains as a being the size of a star, and a god who drives followers insane? Now, I am an insane paladin, capable of doing whatever random things my capricious nature leads me to do at a given moment. In this case, I would become a Fallen Paladin if my character started to make act rationally, since I am no longer following the path of chaos and madness.

That’s an extreme example, and might actually be difficult to play for more than one, rather humorous, session. But my point is that there are many gods available, each with different goals and thus different Commandments that their paladins would have to follow. Later editions of D&D tried to capture this a bit by having evil paladins, or by giving clerics different domains based on the gods they followed. What I am suggesting would simply apply the same principle to paladins, and the player and DM would have to decide what Divine Commandments the paladin must follow.

Looking at some of the other gods in Deities and Demigods (D&D…get it?), we have a wide range of possibilities. There are gods from the Chinese and Indian Mythos, for example. Apparently, the world of ‘Oerth’ (names in the 70s weren’t so clever!) had the same religions our history has. In any case, a paladin following one of these deities could presumably be a Taoist or Buddhist, focusing more on harmony and balance than ‘good’ in the European sense. This might make her more like a druid, focusing on neutrality and the forces of yin and yang.

There are also plenty of non-human gods in the book, despite the fact that early editions did not allow non-humans to play paladins. They would still have gods, though, and surely some of them would become holy warriors. Baldur’s Gate 2 explored this idea with the character of Mazzy, who was technically a fighter, but had paladin-like abilities from her god, Arvoreen (the Halfling god of war…wait, there’s a Halfling god of war??). Following the commandments of non-human gods could lead to interesting ideas. Perhaps Dwarven gods have a very different sense of right and wrong than human gods would. Something about beards and mining and prohibitions against dwarf throwing.

The book also details Native American mythological figures, but interestingly none of the Central American gods are Lawful Good, and only one of the “American Indian” gods is. The heroes in these sections sometimes are, which I guess means that Hiawatha, who is listed as being a paladin, follows the Thunder Spirit, Heng, the only Lawful Good god on the continent! But if we loosen the restrictions on paladins, we could imagine jaguar paladins, who embrace the idea of being stealthy and cunning in the service of their gods.

Whatever the case, Divine Command Theory would actually allow a much broader variety than we typically assume, since most of us come from a Judeo-Christian background. Still, it wouldn’t allow as many possibilities as the next approach to ethics that I will examine- The Existentialist Paladin!

Ethics and Paladins- Part 1

typicalpaladinAh, paladins, the quintessential do-gooders—people with such moral fiber that they are incapable of bending principles, no matter the situation. This is the character that exasperates the rest of the party by refusing to do what is obviously necessary in order to achieve some end. In many ways, the paladin is a caricature of a moral person, one who views the world in such stark black and white terms that other players spend half of their time thinking of ways to trick the paladin into ignoring what they plan to do next.

In ethics terms, paladins fit into a moral theory known as deontology (from the Greek ‘deontos’ or duty). This theory presents the world in absolutist terms, where every wrong act is always wrong, regardless of context, and nothing immoral should ever be done, “though the heavens should fall”. That quote is often misattributed to the most famous deontologist, Immanuel Kant. The phrase is actually a Latin saying that applies to justice, but Kant approved of the idea behind it and argued that morality should be based on innate, logical principle rather than a desire to achieve certain results. The details of this principle are a bit complicated for a blog post, but the key is that once our duties are determined, we are morally obligated to follow them in all cases, without exception.

This principled viewpoint certainly fits how most players approach the paladin class. A paladin has an unbreakable code, which means, for example, that lying is wrong, regardless of the reasons or the target of the deceit. Other beings are either good or evil, and the evil ones must be destroyed, even if they have information that might be useful to the party. Want to rough up a recalcitrant NPC in order to determine your next move? Forget it! The paladin won’t let you.

The result is a system in which deontological baggage basically dictates your character’s actions. I’ve seen many players become disillusioned with their first attempt at a paladin as they quickly realized that they have almost no free will with the character. Key decisions became exercises in algorithmically inputting information to get a predestined result. Many lesser DMs actually use the paladin’s principles as a way of railroading players, thus adding to the frustration. In fact, most editions of D&D punish paladins for any act that doesn’t perfectly fit what the system thinks paladins are supposed to do. A fallen paladin, bereft of his or her connection to the gods, becomes pretty useless, since they lack the full benefits of a straight fighter and lose all of the spell-like abilities they once possessed.

So, how can this be fixed? One way would be to drop the deontological requirements of the class, while keeping the idea that paladins have to be lawful good. Instead of deontology, the paladin might follow utilitarianism, which focuses on the results of our actions rather than the actions themselves. An act itself is neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong. It depends on whether it creates more pleasure than pain when compared to other acts we might do.

I think playing a paladin as a utilitarian could be a lot of fun! Imagine if your character takes the Law of Utility to be the law that she follows (satisfying the ‘lawful’ part), and sees the greater good in long terms. Such a paladin might be willing to torture a defenseless goblin in order to foil a greater evil, especially since the normal flaws in torture (i.e. the victim’s willingness to say anything to end the pain) would be mitigated by the spell-like ability to discern truth from fiction. The possibilities here could be very interesting!

More importantly, this would eliminate some of the frustration that other players feel when there is a paladin in the group. For once, a group member could turn to the paladin and say “Look, we know that stealing is wrong, but it’s the only way to get the potion that will save the kingdom!” and the paladin would agree. Even the restriction on being in the same party as evil characters could be lifted, since the paladin might recognize that as long as the party is doing good, overall, it’s OK if that’s not the main goal of every one of its members.

This isn’t the only approach to ethics that could change how paladins are played. What if our paladin follows virtue ethics, a view that focuses more on character traits than principles? After all, paladins are supposed to be full of virtues, like bravery, honesty, integrity, and compassion.

Aristotle, the most famous virtue ethicist, proposes that we should aim at the Golden Mean when developing character traits. The basic idea is that every character trait has a deficiency, where too little is shown, an excess, where too much is displayed, and a middle ground, where we exhibit just the right amount. To help students remember this, I often refer to it as the Goldilocks and the Three Bears approach to ethics, where there is always too much, too little, and just right!

So how does this fit with paladins? Well, the bravery they display would have to be tempered rather than extreme. They have to be able to fight the forces of evil, but a single paladin charging into a legion of demons is not brave; he’s a fool. The same is true of compassion; too much makes you soft. Too much integrity is actually stubbornness, where one refuses to change position even when there is overwhelming evidence that the original position is wrong. A good DM should allow a player to play as an Aristotelian rather than a virtue robot programmed to always recite the truth, charge into evil, and accept every quest.

Paladins, as presented in most D&D campaigns, are too excessive to be virtuous. The advantage of virtue ethics is supposed to be its flexibility. An honest person does not have to tell the truth in every single instance; if that were true, none of us would qualify as honest. Ironically, as presented in the rules, paladins are too extreme to qualify as virtuous. They do not bend enough. (Am I the only one picturing a Stretch Armstrong paladin right now?).

These are just a few ideas on how you could spice up the role of paladins while still insisting that they follow a code of ethics. But we could take this a lot further! In my next post, I’ll explore two other ethics positions that could really change how paladins are played. The first seems at first glance to fit the idea of paladins perfectly. It’s called Divine Command Theory and is just what it sounds like; however, in a world where there are many gods, DCT could lead to all sorts of possibilities! I’ll also examine what I think would be an amazing alternate approach to take: The Existentialist Paladin.