Thursday, June 26, 2014

Good Isn't Stupid, or weak, or nice.

Note: Minor edits to clear up a point about the Arthurian tales.

  Many years ago I had been only DMing for months when a guy I knew invited me to sit in on a game he played. He said it had a ranger, a cleric, a magic-user and two thieves. I sat with him and rolled up a paladin on my first try. I was very eager to play and described how my character rode up to the small country home they used as a base and dismounted, and introduced myself as So and So the paladin.
  At that point the entire party attacked my character and killed him in a single round.
  "What was that all about?" I asked.
  "Paladin," said one of the players, "We hate paladins. Can't stand that lawful good bull."
  "But I thought you were a ranger?" I said.
  "I am! But we're all chaotic neutral - the DM let's rangers be neutral." he replied.
  The DM felt that killing a good person for no reason was at worst a chaotic act, which surprised me even more until, sitting in (I had a spare character because that is the way I roll) I watched this party ofchaotic neutral players loot and pillage a hamlet because one of them only needed 80 experience points to level up. When they were done they even burned the farms and barns. When I asked what they thought would happen to the 60-80 innocent men, women, and children whom they had just left foodless, penniless, homeless, and without any livestock, tools, or weapons since Winter was less than a month away they replied 'who cares? Just NPCs, man'. When I asked them why they never played or liked good characters they were near universal in saying, 'Good is stupid and weak'.

  I was once sitting in with a party, just observing, as the DM ran an NPC paladin who was guiding them. The party was neutral but on a mission from the Bishop and the paladin was the only guy that knew the way. The DM rolled an encounter and boom! red dragon attacks the party. After the first round I quietly asked the DM,
  "Did you forget the paladin? He's just sitting there."
  "What? He would never help neutral people!"
  The paladin sat there on his horse, sword in its sheath and lance rested doing nothing until the dragon breathed fire, killing half the party as well as the paladin and his warhorse. The party, with no guide and too weak from the encounter anyway, turned back. When I asked the DM why he did things that way he said (as close to a direct quote as I can get after the years),
  "Have you read the books? No paladin would ever help a neutral person, ever!"
  "But his inaction let an evil creature triumph! That wasn't about helping neutral people, that was about destroying evil!"
  "The lawful part means he has to do that even if it is stupid."

  As I mentioned here, there also seem to be a lot of people that think "good" = "chivalry" = "courteous" = "doormat"
  And as I mentioned here, there are plenty of lawful stupid and stupid good characters in the official novels and modules.

  Time for more personal revelation - that is what a blog is for, right?
  I had been running my Seaward campaign for 6 years before I read The Hobbit and for 8 before I read The Lord of the Rings. I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte D'Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance's Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.
  The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to the Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

  The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits - they were brave, they were honest, the protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

  Note that I didn't mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Mort D'Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory's work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

  And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good - modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren't.

  I think that there is also a tendency to look at a guy in black armor covered in spikes with glowing red eyes

 and say,
  "ooooh! Badass!"

  Then look at a knight in shining armor

 and say,
  "Meh, not as scary looking".

  One of the best (and funniest) examples of this was the South Park episode "Damien" which features a boxing match between Jesus and Satan. All of the townspeople, who call themselves Christian, bet on Satan because he is big and scary looking. Never mind that in Christianity Satan has no chance of even surviving the presence of Christ if He we to so will....

  So let's talk about how "Good" doesn't mean "soft", stupid", "nice", or "weak".

  Please Read This Personal Note
Full disclosure; I am a Catholic Systematic Theologian with formal training in theology, philosophy, morals, ethics, and logic. AD&D is explicitly based on European culture, among other things. In AD&D and similar games Good and Evil are objective truths within the game. The following statements are not statements about you, your beliefs, your religion (or lack thereof), or your status - I don't know you. The following statements are about making RPGs more interesting, about making game play more engaging, and about adding depth to your characterizations. Before you comment please be careful to read my comments policy (the tab at the top of the blog) and any comments about Real World religion may be deleted without warning or comment regardless of their content, positive or negative.
  Thank you for your attention.

 I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,
"Then he is safe?" asked Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver, "Didn't you hear what she told you? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good."
  Or this one, more detailed is less famous,
“Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion."I am dying of thirst," said Jill."Then drink," said the Lion."May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic."Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill."I make no promise," said the Lion.Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer."Do you eat girls?" she said."I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it."I daren't come and drink," said Jill."Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion."Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.""There is no other stream," said the Lion.” 
  Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless. 

  Another fiction writer eager to dispel the notion that good is soft or dumb is Terry Pratchett. Two of his quotes are,
"Just because you are an angel doesn't mean you have to be a fool"
"Something Vimes had learned as a young guard drifted up from memory. If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you're going to die. So they'll talk. They'll gloat.They'll watch you squirm. They'll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.”
   And other sources are also pretty clear that Good is not Weak,
"I will bless them that bless thee and curse those who curse thee..."
    -God, Genesis 12:3
"Then said he unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword. For I say to you, that this that is written must yet be fulfilled in me: And with the wicked was he reckoned. For the things concerning me have an end. But they said: Lord, behold here are two swords. And he said to them, It is enough. "  Luke 22:36-38
    There are many other examples to demonstrate that Good is not about being weak or completely pacifist. I would also like to point out is that while the modern understanding of angels is like this;

the Medieval image of an angel was like this;

  That is St. Michael the Archangel beating Satan like he owes him money, by the way. 
  Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.
  In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of 'don't be afraid'. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote,
"Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is."
   Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

  "But Rick," you ask, "what does this have to do with making my campaign or characters more interesting?"

  Simple! Two things:
  First, making Good something other than 'not evil' and making it not-stupid, not-soft, and not-nice can easily make your campaign much more balanced and believable.
  That's right - believable.
  How often have you seen a campaign where each and every top villain is lovingly detailed - every spell, every item, every foul minion, every dungeon cell - with multiple sketches of just how AWESOMELY BADASS the villain looks?! There are tales of how deadly the dragons are, how evil the evil cultists are, how depraved the anti-paladins are, etc.
  But not a word about how great the good guys are. No floor plans for the cathedral; no list of minions for the archbishop, not sketch of the head of the paladins abbey, no legends, or tales, or songs about good guys.

  Sure, sure, I get it; the players won't be looting the cathedral and fighting the archbishop to the death some day (we all hope) and you could look at that list of magic items the Dark Emperor's Bodyguard has as a loot summary. The songs and stories are supposed to be what the party is going to build, etc.
  But this makes it look like there is no Good other than the party. If you know how the evil overlord got that way, do you know who opposes him while the characters are first level? If the characters fail (there is the possibility of failure in your campaign, right?) then is the world doooooomed because the next guy is an incompetent 9th level non-adventuring abbot?

  In short, a campaign with an 'ecosystem' of good guys to match its 'ecosystem' of bad guys is going to make a lot more sense and add a lot more drama. I know that 'a story is only as good as its villain' is a truism, but how threatening or scary is the villain if Good sucks? How rewarding is being 'the best paladin' when paladins are dim?

Second, I am personally offended by so many bland, boring, uninteresting good guys! Being a paladin should NOT make you one of the less-memorable members of the Osmonds! Punch it up a bit; good guys can be quirky, odd, funny, you name it. But far too often I see Good characters played as boring, vapid, banal,  bland, stupid, and nice.
  One of the more humorous takedowns of 'good is stupid and soft' in recent literature is Captain Carrot of the Terry Pratchett books. Here are some quotes about Carrot;
"You're being reasonable again! You are deliberately seeing everyone's point of view! Can't you be unfair even once?"
"Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as simple. He was simple. The mistake people made was thinking 'simple' meant the same thing as 'stupid'"
  Let's look at a quote from Carrot,
“Have - have you got an appointment?' he said.'I don't know,' said Carrot. 'Have we got an appointment?''I've got an iron ball with spikes on,' Nobby volunteered.'That's a morningstar, Nobby.''Is it?''Yes,' said Carrot. 'An appointment is an engagement to see someone, while a morningstar is a large lump of metal used for viciously crushing skulls. It is important not to confuse the two, isn't it, Mr-?' He raised his eyebrows.'Boffo, sir. But-''So if you could perhaps run along and tell Dr Whiteface we're here with an iron ball with spi- What am I saying? I mean, without an appointment to see him? Please? Thank you.” 
  This is a wonderful example of how a good person can be courteous and intimidating all at once.

  And let's pause and think about paladins in D&D for a minute. I mean, really examine them, shall we?
  Paladins are as good at combat as fighters and ever-so-slightly better than rangers (that delayed multiple attacks thing). They are as tough as as a fighter in hit points and armor class. They can heal themselves or others once a day by touch. They are immune to disease. They get a +2 on all saves. They can (eventually) turn undead and cast cleric spells. They can Detect Evil at will. And they are surrounded by an aura of good power that repels evil, an aura that can be boosted by the power of a holy sword until it can negate magic.
  Or, put another way, a paladin is a professional warrior who is tougher to kill, faster to heal, and eventually capable of magic - because they are so very Good.
  Or even simpler; they professional killers that hate evil and that evil can't hide from.
  When a paladin rides into town evil people should be scared. Of course, the paladin also knows that he is the #1 target of every miscreant, cultist, and were rat in his vicinity. Remember that minimum Wisdom requirement? Paladins may be polite, and even kind, but they are not fools.
  Why not have that hooded figure in the dark corner of the inn be a cold, quiet paladin? He is courteous (if very quiet, cold, and distant) but comes across as an implacable, driven killing machine - which he is.
  The guy in the inn laughing and telling jokes in between singing drinking songs and playing the lute can certainly be lawful good, so why not have a happy, jovial paladin that gets rid of excess wealth by spending his money freely on buying others drinks and food, giving gifts to his friends, and with generous charity to strangers and the poor?
  And mix up your NPCs; Archbishop Turpin could cleave an enemy in twain with one blow of his sword - what if the local bishop who gives your party their 'go fight evil' missions is also the swordmaster that trains the party's paladin when he levels up? The really obnoxious city guard can be very dedicated to fighting evil, he just has a short temper. You get the idea.

  So please - make those good guys stand out!


  1. Nice, I think this is really well put and a good contribution to the alignment argument.

  2. I appreciate your well thought out comments. I am planning on playing a Paladin for the first time next month. I want to fight for Good and help my friends.

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  4. Boffo! And, woe unto to evil doers when a paladin arrives with full cavalcade of mount, holy sword, followers, and keep - so true! Interesting post, overall.

  5. I absolute love this. I have grown SO tired of the fetishizing of dudes in spikey black armor. Gandalf was good---and terrible too. Aragon may have been disguised as a ranger---but was a Paladin at heart. Glorfindel and the elf lords were terrifying to evil...and we were all thankful for it!


  6. I want you to know, I have been siting this article for years now. It is one of my favorite pieces dealing with this topic. It is well thought out, and well explained. Thank you for writing it and keeping it available.

  7. Well said! I agree with you wholeheartedly. I would add as an example, the 1st ed AD&D adventure Temple of Elemental Evil. As the scene opens for the PCs, Good has triumphed over Evil. Yet, that ever present evil is creeping back even though Good is keeping a watchful eye. There are numerous well-defined Good NPCs that will offer aid to PCs that prove they are capable of rolling back that Evil.

    In light of your very astute observation of the nature of Good, I have to wonder if that isn’t the reason this adventure has and continues to be so popular?

  8. Rick - found this post again, while looking for something I *think* you wrote about streamlining alignment? A Law-Chaos axis, perhaps. I may be misremembering, but did you do something like that?

  9. This post is pure Gold. Discovery in 2020 aparently.

  10. Love it! The "garden-variety paladin" as played by folks with no imagination, no historical sense and even less social skills has always driven me up the fucking wall. Very few can do it well, but there are clues around if you know where to look (EGG dropped a few). I think this is because most D&D players have no experience whatsoever with violent action or actors. Those gamers who are also veterans, for example, tend to have a different view I've noticed.

  11. Your Carrot quote put me in mind of the Knights from Eddings' Elenium, where a paladin straight up murders a Church soldier for refusing to get out of his way, and then (with total sincerity) asks the soldier's companions to help him pray for the dead man's soul. Good stuff.

    Quick question: I am not versed in Arthuriana - can you provide any analysis (preferably accessible to laymen) on the "Arthur as a cautionary tale" interpretation. I find it interesting and would like read more.