by Max Sirak
(Rather listen? Go right on ahead…)
Ho, ho, ho!
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Praise, Pelor!
Last year for my December column, I borrowed a Steve Martin bit from SNL about wishes and riffed on it. (Here) This year, in the spirit of giving, I'm going to offer up a useful lens and associated vocabulary you can use to analyze behavior and decisions. But before we get to the goods, I'm going to take a moment and explain how I got familiar with this system.
Back In The Day
Ah, the year was 1993. Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey, debuted. Bill Clinton became President. The Unabomber was running amuck. David Koresh was holed up in Waco, TX. And, because I was twelve years old, none these events garnered much of my attention.
Computer camp did.
That's right. The summer between sixth and seventh grade, me and two buddies, Josh and Andy, went to a weeklong, overnight programing camp. C++. BASIC. Visual BASIC.
I wasn't a strong coder. I never made it past your basic BASIC, but the week I spent at Cleveland's own, Ursuline College, influenced me greatly. It was there, amongst the caffeine- fueled, acne-riddled adolescents, who spent all their time staring at screens (long before it was cool…), I was introduced to a lifelong hobby.
A Sneaky Rogue With A Good Charisma – Or – How I Passed My Bluff Check And Infiltrated A Game of Dungeons and Dragons
Like every first day at every event you've ever been to, it started with orientation. Those in charge stood on a stage and spoke to the assembled nerd-masses about available activities. Remember, this was a computer camp. It was geared toward indoor kids. Fishing, horseback riding, archery, and rope courses were replaced by LAN parties, the fledgling internet, building motherboards, and writing programs.
There was, however, one analog option — a Dungeons and Dragons group.
At the time, I'd never heard of the game but Andy and Josh had. And they were amped. My entire first night of camp was spent listening to them talk about playing D&D.
The next afternoon, at the appointed time, we three band of merry middle schoolers walked into the lobby. There, seated at a table littered with books, papers, and dice sat five guys way bigger than us with five o'clock shadows — high schoolers.
Panic-stricken and having failed our saving throw against intimidation, we froze. Neither Josh, Andy, or myself said a word. We couldn't. We just stood there, rooted wallflowers awkwardly looking on. Mesmerized for what seemed like an eternity, we watched.
Eventually, the guy sitting at the head of the table, veiled behind a cardboard screen, turned his head and spoke, "Uh…so…you guys wanna play?"
"Sure," we all said, nervously and probably in unison.
"Okay, cool. I'm Alex. You guys have played before, right?" he asked.
To say time stopped would be an overstatement (that's a 9th level spell after all). But I do remember looking first to Andy, then to Josh, and making a split-second decision. See — I'd known Andy my entire life. Josh was a babysitter-turned-best friend, a neighborhood kid who I'd spent years playing video games with. I knew they both wanted to learn how to play but I also knew the wide-eyed terror painting both their faces wasn't a good sign.
So I did my friends a solid.
"Yeah," I said. Lying through my teeth with as much confidence as an almost-seventh-grader could muster, "I've played before."
Next thing I knew, Alex said a bunch of words I didn't understand, handed me a sheet of paper I couldn't read, and told everyone to scrooch. I grabbed a chair and sidled up next to Kyle and across from Oriah, who everyone called "Money."
For the next two hours Josh and Andy hovered over my shoulders taking everything in. It's a good thing too because I was confused as hell. That night, we returned to our room and did our best to figure out what just happened. This was pre-internet. There was no Google. No way to secretly look up "Darksun," "Thri-kreen," or "AD&D – 2nd Edition." I had to fake it until we made it.
Every afternoon was the same. Me trying not to blow our cover, whispering questions to Kyle, and laughing at Money's jokes while Josh and Andy scrutinized. Every night we'd return to our room, collectively digest what we'd seen, distill what we could, and get ready for another day of adventuring.
By the end of camp, the game made sense. Andy, Josh, and I talked about how we were going to ask for books and dice for our birthdays and start our own game. So we did. And so began the adventures of Nernan, Mryilliad, and D'engel and, brings me to your holiday gift.
Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy-based game about heroes, monsters, magic, and saving (or destroying) worlds. Lost in the leveling up and spell casting is a savvy set of ideas about behavior. Gygax and his crew, who founded the game, developed a quickly accessible system to discuss the character of their characters. It's based on two key spectrums: Law vs Chaos and Good vs Evil.
Chaos and Law
Are there natural laws undergirding the fabric of reality? Or are we, and all of this, a grand cosmic accident? Does "strength come through unity of action," like the 2nd Edition Players Handbook says? Or does power lie in embracing our individuality?
Believing in structure, order, and the power of teamwork are all Lawful dispositions. Scientists conducting experiments to learn the laws of reality, priests and devotees of religions who practice a "right" way to live, soldiers who trust in the chain of command, and grammar Nazis are all Lawful pals.
Posted up at the opposite pole are the statisticians preaching the under-appreciated role of luck, quantum physicists okay with dicing Gods, entrepreneurs doing things their own way, social reformers attacking the system, and Libertarians. These are folks who appreciate the role of chance, speak out, break laws, celebrate the self, and go their own way.
In the middle are the Neutral who consider balance more important than structure or independence. These are folks who think order and law left alone long enough descends into tyranny, which is no better than the miasmic messes of chaos, all things considered.
Evil and Good
When you meet someone new, is your first thought, "Hmmm…how can they help me?" Or, is it, "What can I do for them?" Are you a woman of your word? Or is fiction your friend? How do you feel about slaughter? Do all lives matter?
The basic crux between Good and Evil, in Dungeons and Dragons, comes down to the question of altruism versus self-interest.
Being loose with the truth, using people to get ahead, greed, and not really giving a damn whether other people live or die are all hallmarks of Evil. Profiteering corporations concerned only with quarterly reports, imperialistic governments, hate mongers, and most politicians tend toward Evil.
Consequently, those who value life, charity, honesty, and helping others find themselves in the company of Good. Here are your civil servants, social workers, volunteer relief workers, teachers, and folks who spend a majority of their time doing things to support others, not themselves.
As with Chaos & Law, there too is a third way between Evil and Good. Neutrality, here, is signaled by withholding judgment. Our animal friends, who aren't capable of making moral distinctions, and those of us who believe we are incapable of truly knowing the ramifications of our actions are Neutral.
Ready? Here were go.
A person is either Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic depending on their general feelings about Law/Chaos.
A person is either Good, Neutral or Evil depending on where they land with regards to the Good/Evil continuum.
Put the answers from both scales together, and that friends, is your "alignment."
Below are brief descriptions of the nine possible combinations…
Lawful Good – Goody-Two Shoes
These folks like following rules, listening to others, and doing the right thing. Preferably all at once. They believe structure, order, laws, working together, and looking out for one another are all-important. Superman is a Lawful Good archetype. Post-Microsoft Bill Gates is probably Lawful Good. He uses his fortune to start foundations to help others. LeBron James might be too. He preaches teamwork on the court and devotes resources to charitable organizations off it.
Lawful Neutral – Structuralist – "Just Doin' My Job, Ma'am."
Believing in order above all else, the Lawful Neutral of us are the ones happiest doing what they're told, following the well-worn paths of society, and not asking too many questions about how their actions affect others. Soldiers following orders who don't get bogged down in ideas of "right" or "wrong," judges who uphold the laws because they are on the books, officers who enforce said laws, and strict adherents to any religion (or diet) may find themselves here.
Lawful Evil – Politicians
"These characters believe in using society and their laws to benefit themselves. Structure and organizations elevate those who deserve to rule as well as provide a clearly defined hierarchy between master and servant. To this end, Lawful Evil characters support laws and societies that protect their own concerns."(PHB) Using the rules to consolidate power and wealth with no regard for the welfare of others. Sounds sadly familiar, doesn't it?
Neutral Good – Do Gooders
Doing good for the sake of good because it's good and that's what's right. These folks abide by a philosophy of ignoring both the law and chaos of society in order to promote greatest good to the greatest number to people. Community building, outreach, telling the truth, and contributing never go out of style, regardless of who's in charge. Sometimes the most good is done through supporting society. Sometimes breaking the law is what's required. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks could be called Neutral Good. They disobeyed the rules they disagreed with and upheld those they didn't.
True Neutral – Zen And Your Dog
There's no way I'm going to do better than Alan Watts at explaining this. So watch here. It's short.
I know, I know, I know…your dog is both loyal and good. They are full of cuddles and kisses. They're always there for you. I get it. But that's because you give them food, shelter, water, and squeaky toys. If you were cruel and tortured your dog then it probably wouldn't be so snuggly.
Neutral Evil – Our Corporate Overlords and Corrupt Political Masters
Remember, evil is essentially defined by greed. What is more greedy than treating people like numbers and basing decisions solely on the bottom line? Consequently, wanna know what's better than breaking laws? Restructuring and changing them to support your own agenda. I mean that's just good common Neutral Evil sense. Gerrymandering anyone?
Chaotic Good – Rebels With A Cause
The system is broken. The people in charge don't have a clue. The "normal way" things get done is wrong. These are your mavericks recognizing inherent flaws in "the way it is" and breaking the rules for the good of the many. Robin Hood robbing is a classic example. The Rebel Alliance in Star Wars is too. I'd also say Elon Musk and any is a socially-conscious entrepreneur is a solid non-fiction exemplar of Chaotic Good.
Chaotic Neutral – Camus and Cats
"Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?" Kind of a wide range of values and options in Albert Camus' famous question, huh? Is life worth more than a cup of coffee? Do our choices matter? Does anything? Also – cats. Do you think they care about you or your rules? Sometimes, when they feel like it, to the first, and not at all to the last.
Chaotic Evil – Super Villains
Usually in D&D, this alignment is reserved for the main baddie. An arch-villain who is anti-society and looks to destroy existing structures for completely selfish reasons epitomizes Chaotic Evil. However, lucky for us, there is an actual living person who fits this bill. Steve Bannon. And I quote – "I am a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that's my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today's establishment." (Shout out to my colleague Adam Ash for the quote.)
Before I Send You Off Into 2018
I am well aware the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is a drastic oversimplification of complex ideas and their intersecting dynamics. But isn't that the point? The beauty of this system is the reduction. It offers a usable framework and vocabulary to foster discussion about important, difficult matters.
I am also equally aware we aren't robots. None of us, even the most Lawful Neutral person you can think of, is unwaveringly consistent. Likewise, your cat does use its litter box. Which is why there's a good caveat in the Players Handbook.
"Always consider alignment as a tool, not a straightjacket that restricts…"
If only Josh and Andy could see me now…
(And if Kyle, Alex, or Money are reading – thanks. I owe you one.)
Bill Gates – By World Economic Forum – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21582990
Steve Bannon – By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Steve Bannon) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons