Adults Don’t Like Genocide–Who Knew?


About a year ago, I decided to introduce my girlfriend to the world of tabletop roleplaying games. I considered trying Vampire: The Masquerade, which can include a lot of roleplaying and storytelling. However, since she was nervous about the roleplaying part, I decided a D&D dungeon crawl might be a better transition, since she likes Diablo3 and board games. I would use the Keep on the Borderlands (B2-the module that came with the original Red Box, basic system).

So far, so good! She learned that the keep was on the edge of the wilderness. She listened to rumors in the tavern that spoke of monsters in the nearby mountains. A merchant described how he had been waylaid by vicious kobolds that had destroyed his wagon. He barely escaped with his life! Another unfortunate traveler agreed that the roads had become more perilous. Someone must do something! The captain of the guard even offered a reward if the party would help out in these dire times.

She made her way into the nearby hills on the edge of the mountains and quickly found a cave entrance to explore. Once inside, she was attacked by kobolds. As you know, kobolds are pretty much the easiest monsters in the system. I described them as small and goblin-like, with dog-like heads. She fought threw them and found herself in a store room, where another kobold had fled the earlier battle. She asked if she could capture it and talk to it, which seemed like a good plan. The kobold told her that the rest of the tribe were nearby and described their numbers.

This is when everything fell apart. She looked at me and asked sincerely “Why am I doing this? Isn’t this their home? It doesn’t seem right.” I should have expected a question like this; as DM, I’m supposed to be prepared for any contingency. But I wasn’t. “Ermm…what do you mean?” I asked. “Well, this is where they keep their food, right?” I nodded. “And this guy I captured lives here, right.” Again, a nod. “So, basically, the others I’m planning to kill are his family, and I just broke into their home and started murdering them.”

Hmmmm…I suppose so. But, wait!

I told her kobolds are evil and reminded her that they had been destroying caravans. She gave me a look that indicated that this was a totally insufficient response. Was I really suggesting that just because some kobolds had committed heinous crimes, we were now free to exterminate them on sight? Would we even do this to known criminals? Break down their doors and murder them and their family?

“Of course not!” I stammered. “But these are chaotic evil!”

“What does that mean?” she asked, clearly confused that I thought combining the words ‘chaotic’ and ‘evil’ somehow explained away genocide.

“Basically, it means you can kill them on sight because they would kill you. It’s like Diablo!” At this point, even I wasn’t really sure why she should be doing this, though.

She thought for a second. “So, they are demons? They want to destroy the world? Is that how all the monsters in this game are? Isn’t one of my characters chaotic….ummm…neutral it says here.”

“Yeah, your thief. It basically means selfish.”

She furrowed her brow a bit at this. “So, chaotic means you aren’t very good? And neutral means what?”

“No,” I answered. “Not exactly. Chaotic means you don’t have to obey laws. It’s the opposite of Lawful. The neutral part means your character is neither good nor evil, but in the middle.”

My attempt to use the alignment system, which we all know is broken (and will be the subject of a future article, once I’m ready to discuss something so over-discussed!), to fix the problem wasn’t working, and I knew it.

“I just don’t see what the point of the game is,” she finally replied. “Do I just kill monsters and take all their stuff? Why do I do that? I’m supposed to be playing characters here, right? It’s not like video games, where just killing things is the point, right? I mean, we could be playing Diablo.” She looked at me in a way that suggested playing Diablo would be a great idea right now!

She had a point. Roleplaying games shouldn’t just be murder simulators. They may have started out that way, and I’m sure many (including myself) basically played them that way when we first started gaming. I was only 8 years old, and the idea of killing monsters just sounded fun! I would stare at the pictures in the books for hours, imagining the worlds beyond the tiny windows of insight I’d been given. But my girlfriend is a grown woman. If she’s supposed to be playing characters, she wanted them to be people, not just stats on a piece of paper. One of them was even a paladin, she reminded me. Why would paladins do this?

I conceded that they probably wouldn’t, at least not without some real justification. And that was the end of the session. She was done, and I couldn’t really blame her.

We haven’t played a roleplaying game since that day, though I’m still optimistic about trying Vampire at some point. And I’ll definitely be careful about motivating her character!

Sometimes those of us who started gaming when we were young forget that a lot of what we enjoy is tinged with nostalgia. When I was eight, the world seemed pretty straightforward. There were good guys and bad guys. My characters were good, and monsters were bad. I didn’t know what words like genocide meant, much less consider that condemning a whole race for the actions of a few was very wrong.

Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that our moral development occurs in stages. In this view, at 8 years old, I was incapable of reasoning abstractly; everything was concrete and absolute. Lawrence Kohlberg extends this idea by adding notions of an expanding worldview, which starts from a very solipsistic perspective but eventually becomes more universal and empathetic towards others. Carol Gilligan adds that women may experience this development differently from men (whether this is biological or social or some combination is still debated).

In any case, as adults, when we are trying to introduce others to our hobby, we need to remember that straightforward notions of good and evil are for children. Don’t forget to motivate the characters with nuanced ethical situations that require more than just killing everything you encounter.

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!

Fallout Dilemmas Part 2-Silver Shroud

Fallout 4_20151114171057In a previous post, I discussed my dilemma with Pickman, an NPC that led me to wonder what choice to make regarding his existence. Today, I want to look into another dilemma the game created for my character that is trying to be roughly moral. Spoilers ahead! Again, I shall avoid main plot spoilers, but this one is a series of quests. While I won’t give everything away, I can’t really discuss it without spoilers.

Shortly after entering the ghoul-run town of Good Neighbor, one of its denizens asked me to reclaim some props from an attempt to televise an old radio program called “The Silver Shroud”. The Shroud seems to be based on a very old radio character from the real world (i.e. our world, which is not necessarily more real than Fallout, but that’s another topic!) called The Shadow. I used to listen to audiotapes of The Shadow on trips with my grandparents, who apparently grew up listening to the show. I can still hear the echoes of its main tagline: “The Shadow Knows!”

Anyway, the Silver Shroud is a pulp hero more than a superhero. Think of characters like the Phantom or Dick Tracy; he’s a vigilante with a silver submachine gun and trench coat with a scarf (maybe it’s an ascot!) and a hat. He fights villains like the Mechanists, whom you may remember from Fallout Vegas. It’s really terrible stuff, but perfectly captures how these old serials tended to work.

Once you bring back the costume props, the ghoul that idolizes the Shroud asks you to don the costume and bring justice back to the Wasteland…you know, give people hope that there are heroes out there. So what should I do? Do I lie and pretend to be a superhero? Or do I say no?

Honestly, I had to see this quest play out, so I didn’t care what the moral choice was. But here’s how I justified it for my character after the fact!

First, there’s no way that anyone but the crazy guy who hired me would believe in the Shroud. The bad guys I took out were certainly unconvinced by my horrible imitation of the Shroud. Seriously, though, you must do this quest and you must speak as the Shroud. It’s hilarious. But I don’t feel like I’m lying to these people by pretending to be the Shroud. I feel like I’m cosplaying.

Second, these are bad people I’m taking out. I get to find out the bad things they’ve done first, which means they deserve to be murdered in the streets by a fake hero…right???

Third, maybe knowing that a vigilante is out there taking down the bad guys is enough to give some people hope. I mean they might not believe in the shroud, but surely they believe that less bad guys in the world is a good thing.

Fourth, aww, who am I kidding? I did it all for the lulz.

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.