Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

Rethinking Small Creatures in 5E D&D

Image result for D&D size comparison 5e

I recently posted some thoughts on handling large-sized characters in 5th Edition D&D. I was also thinking about small-sized characters (and tiny, and so on). I’m certain that the decision was made for the purpose of simplicity and balance, but reading through the 5E rules I did think that too little was made of the advantages, and disadvantages, of being small. Especially small in a D&D sense, where you are shorter than 4 feet and weight maybe 50 lbs. Most halflings, and many gnomes, are smaller than my 6 year old daughter. Different build, more lean muscle mass, and so on, but still. She is not large.

In the rules as written, small creatures take up the same area on the battle map, have the same class hit dice if they have a class, etc. Small creatures with no character class have hit dice one die type smaller than medium creatures. I know that small creatures can use Acrobatics to move through the space occupied by a large creature, which is cool, and they have some weapon restrictions. They are also able to theoretically squeeze through a tiny space, whereas a medium creature can only squeeze through a small space.

Now, if I wanted much more detailed rules on size, I would just go back to 3.5 or Pathfinder. And no worries there, both are great games I’ve played many times. But what I would like are a couple of small changes that make the choice to play a small race more meaningful.

Hit Dice

I’ll start with what is likely my least popular idea – I think that PCs should follow the rule of monsters and small races’ class dice should be downgraded one step. I think that the actual effect of this would be mitigated in a number of ways. First, any PC casters who are a small race will often have one primary stat and then can easily put their second highest score into Constitution – this is especially true of sorcerers and wizards. Bards and clerics have more to worry about, on average, but can still be quite tough if they wish to be.

Stealth

I think that in general, size should be taken into account when rolling Dexterity (Stealth) – one size difference granting someone advantage on the roll. This would mean that small characters sneaking up on medium characters or larger would automatically have advantage, and it would add a house rule that would make it easier for all PCs to sneak up on ogres and giants and the like.

Cost of living

It makes sense to me to cut the cost of living for a small PC in half. They can get along with less living space, much less food, less water, and so on. Their clothes take up half the material or less, and all of their tools are small-sized, or can be. This makes a small difference, but makes sense to me.

Armor Class

Here  I’m going to just steal from Pathfinder/3.X and give small PCs a +1 to their Armor Class. They have about half the surface area to aim at, can more easily take cover, etc. This also helps do a little to balance out the loss of 1 hit point per level, on average.

Tiny PCs

This got me thinking about tiny PCs, like player-character pixies and sprites and quicklings, which sound cool. For them, I would reduce their hit dice by yet another step, also reduce their weapon damage by one die type while keeping the restrictions for small characters (being stabbed by an inch-long knife is just not that scary). I would divide their cost of living by 4 and give them advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) rolls to sneak up on small or larger creatures. Tiny intelligent creatures are also often balanced out by having super-speed or the ability to fly, like the examples above, and perhaps more innate magic than is normal. I’d want to see this in a game (someone playing a pixie, sprite, quickling, etc.) but I’d be open to the idea. They would also get an additional +1 to their AC.

Curious what I had to say about large-sized PCs? Check out that post here.

Flat Damage for GURPS

One of the things about GURPS that can be confusing is how damage is calculated. Unlike other systems where your attribute provides a bonus or penalty and the weapon provides the dice you roll, in GURPS your attribute provides the dice you roll and the weapon provides a bonus or penalty. Not a huge difference, but I’ve seen it derail new players. I wanted to put together a couple of tables to use if you want to run GURPS with flat damage – no dice rolls. This is obviously simpler, and also more predictable, but by removing the swingy results from damage results, you also remove the chance that you’ll roll to penetrate an opponents Damage Resistance if it is higher than your average roll.

I’d get through this in a couple of ways. One is to keep either the random hit location table, or allow called shots, or ideally both. This way, a low-strength attacker can still get past armor if they are accurate, or lucky. Also, damage types retain their multipliers – cutting damage times 1.5 after armor, and impaling damage times 2.

For our purposes, 1d6 is going to equal 4 and 2d6 is going to equal 7. I only adapted ST 3-20, and then took the weapon table from GURPS Lite 4E and adapted those basic weapons. Once the ST table is changed over, though, the weapon table doesn’t have to change. It’s just here for reference.

Strength Thrust damage Swing damage
3 -1 0
4 -1 0
5 0 1
6 0 1
7 1 2
8 1 2
9 2 3
10 2 4
11 3 5
12 3 6
13 4 6
14 4 7
15 5 8
16 5 9
17 6 9
18 6 10
19 6 11
20 6 12

 

Weapon (GURPS Lite 4e) Thrust Swing
Axe +2 cut
Mace +3 crush
Punch -1 crush
Kick +0 crush
Brass knuckles +0 crush
Broadsword +1 crush +1 cut
Thrusting broadsword +2 imp +1 cut
Large knife +0 imp -2 cut
Poleaxe +2 cut or +2 crush
Rapier +1 imp
Shortsword +0 imp +0 cut
Spear +2 imp
2H Spear +3 imp
Quarterstaff +2 crush +2 crush
Thrusting greatsword +3 imp +3 cut

 

Toxic Masculinity

I’ve fallen behind with my regular Friday updates to this blog, and I’m sorry.

When I post Profiles In Positive Masculinity on this blog, I’m contending with another kind of masculinity, generally referred to as “toxic masculinity.” Not that men are toxic, but that there are toxic ways that men are taught to be men. Toxic to men, and to women, and to everyone. Here is a video about it, because I have to get back to the other things that are eating up my life right now:

The Cult of the Gun

I don’t have anything left in the tank, so here is what I wrote for the church newsletter. 

Luke 22:35-38

Jesus said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

As I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, the news came through – yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Speculation, and then numbers began to come in, the body count of the wounded and the dead. Newscasters on the radio were crying, unable to finish their own sentences. On Twitter, kids who have survived their own school shootings were trying to talk these kids in Florida through what was happening happening, giving them advice on how to survive, while the shooting was ongoing, and after. Terrified school kids sent texts, like, “If I don’t make it, I love you.”  

The final count seems to be 14 wounded, 5 of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, and 17 dead.

This is, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s records, the 18th school shooting so far in 2018, and the 8th school shooting to result in fatalities. (1) As I write this, it is only February 15th, so by the time you read this Perspective article, that number of school shootings will already be higher. Every 2 or 3 days, on average, we can expect another school shooting, and every 5 days or so, a school shooting in which children and educators are killed.

I have long since lost track. I am not even able to grieve these shootings, because they happen so often and so relentlessly. And each time, there are tears, and questions, and “thoughts and prayers”, but no change.

The school safety industry is now a nearly 3 Billion dollar one, as companies scramble to develop curricula and training programs around mass shootings. We can no longer, I think, act surprised when these shootings happen. School shootings are now a normal part of life in the United States. All over the country, in elementary and middle and high schools and colleges, kids are going through regular training in how to respond to an active shooter. All the way from Poppy in kindergarten in Royersford to my friend Carol’s daughter in high school in North Carolina, children are training in how to survive a mass shooting.

I wish I had hope that our situation would improve in this country, but I think back to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed, along with 6 teachers who died protecting them. At the time, a British journalist reflecting on our lack of response wrote the following: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We decided, in particular our political leaders decided, that we would rather endure the deaths of hundreds of children than change our relationship to guns.

Since Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings.

I know that a pastor taking up this issue for a newsletter article is a risk. It seems risky to bring up gun control and gun violence in the United States. But on the other hand, we are not having a gun control debate. We are not having a gun violence discussion. We have decided.

The research on gun violence is compelling, and it is summed up in a November 7, 2017 article in the New York Times titled “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest An Answer.” The article is available online if you’d like to read it, but the shortened version is that mental health has no correlation to gun violence (actually, a negative correlation). Video games and other media have no correlation to gun violence. The racial makeup of a nation, whether it is homogeneous or diverse, has no correlation to gun violence. The rate of non-violent crimes has no correlation to gun violence.

The only thing that correlates to gun violence, worldwide, is how many guns are in a society, and how easy it is to get them. Switzerland is a country where an above-average number of people own guns, but it is much more difficult to become a gun owner there than in the United States. Yemen is the only country on earth with anywhere near our number of guns per capita, and our ease of ownership, and they have a comparable problem with gun violence. (And we must remember that Yemen is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian disaster and civil war) We are a society with over 270 Million firearms, and we have the fewest restrictions on gun ownership of any country on Earth. And we are the only country on Earth that has the mass shooting problem we are seeing, and the only country on Earth with the school shooting problem we are seeing. In fact, our gun homicide rate is 50 times higher than countries with comparable wealth and standards of living.

Other countries have mental health issues, and violent video games, and violent media, and ethnic diversity, and crime, even at higher levels than we do. But none of them have the relationship to guns that we do. I would call that relationship, if I’m being honest, an idolatrous devotion to guns.

The passage from Luke that I quoted above is Jesus at his most warlike in all of the Gospels. This is the most approval Jesus ever gives for carrying or using any weapon. Every other time Jesus mentions a weapon, it is clearly metaphorical, but this time, he seems almost literal when he says ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword.’ There are three problems with seeing this passage as Jesus approving of owning weapons, however.

The first problem is that the “sword” in question, in Greek machaira, commonly referred to a large knife used for slaughtering animals. Picture a butcher’s knife, maybe at most a machete, and not a military weapon. A tool, not designed for killing people but for cutting up meat. (The Greek word for the war-weapon a soldier would carry was spatha)

The second problem is that, when presented with only two such knives, Jesus immediately says “It is enough.” In the NIV translation, they are more clear, and translated the Greek as Jesus saying, “That’s enough!”

The third problem is that, if Jesus really is promoting weapon ownership among his followers, it is in direct contradiction to everything else he has taught and done throughout his entire ministry. When Simon-Peter wields one of these butcher knives to wound a servant of the Temple, Jesus immediately rebukes Simon-Peter, and heals his enemy. That single wound is the entirety of Jesus’s followers’ violence and use of weapons.

So, my reading of this passage is actually that Jesus is speaking of swords metaphorically, the way he has done in other passages. A couple of his followers take what he says literally, holding up butcher knives as if they are part of some great army, and Jesus says “That’s enough!” Did Jesus think that two butcher knives were enough to overthrow the Roman Empire? I doubt it. He was also mindful of prophecy, and I believe this is an instance where he is doing and saying things so that they fulfill prophecies that referred to him, and would tell people what would happen (though seemingly none of them quite understood).

What I’m left with, for us, is the question: when will we have had enough? Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. The 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook have not been enough. The 400 deaths in those school shootings have not been enough. I doubt this most recent shooting in Florida will be enough, and I doubt the next shooting that will inevitably follow will be enough. We will get “thoughts and prayers”, and partisan bickering, and then a few days later, the next school shooting will happen.

Jesus hit his limit when two of his disciples pulled out butcher knives, and the moment someone actually used one of those butcher knives on another human being, Jesus rebuked the wielder and healed the enemy. If he is our example for what our relationship to weapons should be, where does that leave us?

At the beginning of Lent, traditionally a season of repentance, I think this is a good question with which to begin.

 

(1) Some people see the number 18 as inaccurate, and don’t agree with how Everytown defines “school shooting” as any time a weapon is discharged on school property, so I included the count of 8 that included fatalities.

Eberron: Random Tables for Shargon’s Teeth

I’m currently running a 5th Edition game in Eberron. The PCs are sailing across the Thunder Sea, past Shargon’s Teeth, to Stormreach and Xen’Drik. Of course, bad things are happening, and it looks like they’ll end up stranded on one of the islands of Shargon’s Teeth, possibly island-hopping their way to Stormreach.

Or they’re going to defeat a Marid as a 4th level group – 5th Ed is crazy.

I like having random tables – they actually help me with creativity when I need to do something like come up with a bunch of interesting but variable islands. If all of the options on the tables are interesting to me, then what becomes interesting are the surprise interactions. I didn’t always like them, but I’ve changed in the last few years.

I’ve come up with some random tables  to use in creating islands in Shargon’s Teeth. Part of my thinking here is to treat Shargon’s Teeth kind of like different versions of Galapagos islands. At least, I’m using the Galapagos as inspiration for the Teeth (as I’m using Madagascar and New Guinea as inspiration for Xen’Drik).

First is a random table of unique elements for each island. These are the first thing you’d notice about the island, and form the core of how I describe it:

Random Island Features: Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d10

  1. Easily accessible fresh water
  2. Barren and dry; water from fruit and coconuts and rain
  3. Plenty of coastal food, shellfish, shoals
  4. Brutal sharp coral surrounding the island
  5. A high peak at the center for long visibility (if climbed)
  6. Crumbling ruins of a lost civilization
  7. Island formed around the ruins of a massive, ancient ship
  8. Coral atoll surrounding a deep blue hole
  9. Groves of dragonsblood trees (Socotra Island)
  10. Sharp, steaming volcanic activity (steam and magma mephits)

Next, I have a random table for the dominant living thing on a given island. I’m thinking of the islands having some basic island plants and animals, but there’s one dominant living thing, taken from this list:

Random Island Megafauna (and Megaflora): Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d10

  1. Giant marine iguanas
  2. Giant tortoises
  3. Carnivorous pisonia trees
  4. Giant racer snakes
  5. Giant ironweb spiders
  6. Basilisks
  7. A water weird
  8. Swarms of stirges
  9. Giant crabs
  10. A Pseudodragon

Last, I have whether there are intelligent inhabitants on the island. There’s a one third chance of each island being uninhabited by any intelligent creature, and then some interesting options:

Random Island Inhabitants: Shargon’s Teeth

Roll d12

  1. No one
  2. No one
  3. No one
  4. No one
  5. Sahuagin outpost
  6. Sahuagin outpost
  7. Locathah living in a blue hole, self-sustaining and hidden
  8. A subterranean, underwater cult of kuo-toa
  9. Feral victims of a previous shipwreck
  10. Escaped sea spawn
  11. Lizardfolk
  12. Sea hag

Obviously, these are specific to Shargon’s Teeth, and may not translate to any other particular setting. But I really like these as a starting-point for these particular islands, and I hope the PCs end up island-hopping for a while.

I also created a big random event and encounter table to keep the journey interesting. The results weren’t quite what I’d hoped, but I think I tried to cram too much into the voyage, including testing out Xanathar’s Guide’s downtime rules during the voyage and having some intrigue as well.

As often as you’d like, have a player roll a d100 and consult this table. Not all of these are supposed to be combat encounters – none of them were for our game. Rather, they were glimpses of a larger and sometimes scarier world:

 

1-4 Huge marine iguanas

5-6 Water elemental

7-8 Air elemental

9-10 Kraken

11-20 Sahuagin patrol

21-22 Dragon eel

23-24 Dragon turtle

25-26 Giant octopus

27-30 School of giant squid

31-35 Soarwood ship

36-46 Ship – roll to determine if it is a pirate

47-48 Wind galleon

49-50 Lyrandar airship

51-55 Pod of whales

56-60 Dolphins at the prow

61-64 Merfolk at the prow

65-67 Dragon (black, green, bronze or gold)

68-69 Stirges

70-80 Becalmed

81-91 Thunderstorm

92-93 Roc

94-95 Steam or ice mephits

96-97 Plesiosaurus

98-99 Coelacanth or other huge archaic fish

100 Roll twice