On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Three)
By Mark Wegierski
Before going further, some comment should be made about the so-called "nine-point alignment system" in Dungeons and Dragons. (There have of course been attempts to further refine this alignment system, but this one can be taken as relatively standard.) One can usually choose any of these alignments for one's character. The following nine alignments (for both player-characters and the various other beings one interacts with) are recognized:
The choice of one's alignment will obviously have major bearing on the style of one's play. Some further explanation of the meaning of the terms should be made (all of which have a certain degree of arbitrariness to them, of course). By "Absolute Law" is meant a frame of mind that places the emphasis on the usually "good" belief system one holds, without being overly fastidious about the means that are used to advance it. By "Absolute Good" is meant a self-abnegating ethic of a saint. "Absolute Chaos" means a delight in the embrace of entropic forces of dissolution, anarchy. "Absolute Evil" means the embrace of evil, whether by systematic or anarchic means. "Absolute Neutrality" connotes the attitude of "looking out for number one", or "what's in it for me?" The character would side with whoever seemed to offer the greater advantage to them.
The prefixes "Lawful" and "Chaotic" generally indicate the degree to which one is willing to coordinate one's actions with others (especially, to submit to another's authority), and the degree of consistency with which one holds one's given outlook. The embrace of Lawful Good precludes the use of certain means, even when positive ends can be accomplished. By Lawful Evil (admittedly a rather contradictory-sounding position), is meant the strict upholding of a code of evil, by systematic means. By Chaotic Good is meant a positive but "anti-authoritarian" outlook, that has difficulty responding to authority, and might carry out idiosyncratic and/or joking actions. Chaotic Good could mean something like a libertine outlook that is largely good-natured, but enjoys and often indulges in riotous and ribald behaviors. Chaotic Evil is also "anti-authoritarian," combining anarchic rejection of others' authority, the embrace of entropic disorder, along with the embrace of evil. A Chaotic Evil figure would be guided more by their immediate impulses and emotions, rather than focussing on the systematic pursuit of evil.
This nine-point alignment system can obviously be seen as better reflecting a Tolkienian-type fantasy world, than the realities of human nature. The conscious embrace of evil understood as evil seems to be comparatively rare among human beings. It is sometimes difficult to understand that some of the most evil figures in human history (such as Hitler and Stalin) somehow defined themselves as "good" -- in their own self-understandings. One also wonders if many so-called common criminals do not define themselves as "good"-- in their own self-understandings. The cackling Hollywood supervillain is an unreal figure. Writers seeking advice on creating "realistic" villains are often advised to write villains (or antagonists) in their stories, from the villain's point of view -- i.e., that he or she is really the hero of the tale. It may be concluded that the nine-point alignment system probably functions relatively well in the context of a pseudo-Tolkienian fantasy background (remembering also that roleplaying tends to accentuate all the stereotypical aspects of written fantasy), but poorly mirrors real-world moral typologies. In many of the RPGs discussed further in the series, the alignment system as proposed by Dungeons and Dragons becomes mostly irrelevant, as there are only different shades of darkness to choose from.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.