Tuesday, June 17, 2008

And I suppose there's no Limbo any more, either.

No, this isn't a religious post. But, content warning: It is highly nerdy. Up there with the rare computer programming post I make. But moreso.

The new rules for Dungeons and Dragons came out. I played D&D during my second decade of life, stopping not really because it wasn't fun but because I was busy and the people I played with all went off to college. For a guy like me, fascinated with mythology, lover of gaming and gaming systems, and a prolific writer and cartographer, D&D was an excellent outlet.

Now, truth be told, the original D&D (or Advanced D&D, as it was called, to distinguish itself both from its roots and its cheaper, less time-intensive, and less parent frightening sibling) was not what you would call a great gaming system. Even calling it good is stretching it a bit.

It was, however, good enough. And it was the first to make a splash (and the only one to really make a splash outside of the gaming nerd circle). So it is that D&D is the gold standard by which role-playing games are compared.

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast took over from the colossally poorly run TSR, and produced a new set of rules, the third edition. In a fit of nostalgic interest, I picked up those books and examined them for what they changed. (Also, I knew The Boy would take to it. Playing D&D was a prime motivator in getting him to learn to read.)

Now, about eight years after the third edition was released, Wizards has released a fourth edition, even more streamlined from the third.

This is not a bad thing, really. One of the things that makes D&D so impossibly nerdy is the stacks of rules and stats one has to manage. The new set of books is somewhat thinner, with much bigger, clearer print, and lots of boldface type. (Partly reflecting the aging of gamers, perhaps? The Golden Age of D&D was 30 years ago, eyes must certainly be failing.)

But here's what prompted this post: AD&D from the start had the concept of alignment. Alignment was the ethical and moral orientation of the beings in the universe. Good and evil, for example, was along one axis. Law and chaos were along the other. Also, you could be neutral along one or both axes. (If you're counting at home, that makes nine alignments.) These were not abstract concepts in the game: There were gods and forces akin to gravity that were associated with these alignments. Changing alignment was a cataclysmic event that could occur due to misbehavior, treachery or magic. It'd be like changing your blood type.

As I've read commentary over the years, "alignment" was always much maligned. Real people, of course, don't have alignments. They have points-of-view. They have goals in conflict with another.

But, what makes fantasy fun, is that there is evil, you can spot it pretty easily, and you don't have to feel guilty about kicking it's ass. Really: Humanize orcs, and Lord of the Rings becomes impossibly jingoistic.

In D&D the system was highly nuanced without being particularly burdensome, and resulted in a most unusual cosmology: The Outer Planes (like Heaven and Hell, essentially) consisted of sixteen different universes populated by beings of a particular alignment. Besides Heaven and Hell, for good and evil, there were such colorful places as Arcadia, representing Lawful Neutral, and populated by ant-like beings of supreme order, Mechanus (also Lawful Neutral), populated by geometrically-shaped creatures known as Modrons, who lived in an impossibly ordered society, or Limbo, the plane of Chaotic Neutral, so unstable as to be populated only by the insane.

These made good potential plot hooks. An entire fantasy realm based on these Outer Planes was created called "Planescape". One of the great computer RPGs of all time was based on it. That game showed that even in the highly artificial structure of a fantasy "afterlife", you could ask interesting philosophical questions. (After all, you couldn't really be killed. You were already dead! Where would you go? Detroit?)

Startlingly, the fourth edition halves the number of alignments, allowing only Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned (that's the half-alignment--it's not even Neutral), Evil and Chaotic Evil. This is sort of the gaming equivalent to the Catholic Church removing Limbo. In fact, it does perchance remove Limbo, since there is no Chaotic Neutral anymore.

Now, maybe it doesn't remove anything. After all, even in previous versions there were more Outer Planes than official D&D alignments (like Neutral Good, but with Lawful tendencies), so there's no saying for sure that those have been removed from the D&D cosmology, and perhaps the streamlining helps in the gameplay. (I'm not far enough along in the rules to tell.)

I can't believe I actually wrote this and am about to post it publicly. I don't even play D&D any more (except a small message board game at kingdomrpg.com). But it was a compelling idea. Check out the Wiki page, where they list the alignments of other fictional characters (some of which I would disagree with). It's up there with "Who would win in a fight against Superman and Batman?" for nerd discussions.

OK, now back to The Movies....


  1. It can be embarrassing to talk about a subject that used to be a passion for you when you were much younger. You feel that everyone is paying attention and will mock you as a nerd. But the embarrassment is only in your mind. It is exactly equivalent to my earlier discussion of the early days of Marvel Comics. A grown man of 50 talking about Captain America and Thor God of Thunder? You gently passed it off with a few comments and not think much of it. Same for D&D. I was aware of it but never played it. I remember how the people who played it were mocked as nerds. But hey we are all grown up now so who cares what anyone else thinks. Your hobbies are your hobbies. It’s not collecting interns or watching porno like certain judges. Enjoy and don’t sweat. Talk about stuff that interests you. That makes it interesting.

  2. Of course going to church can also get you into an argument and lead to people mocking you. But who cares what they think? They will be lucky if they land in Limbo let me tell you.

  3. Yeah, I really stopped caring what people thought about the time I started playing D&D. Interestingly enough, the attitude cultivated made me very cool (in other people's eyes) through the rest of my school years.

    It's true though: I didn't think a thing about your in-dept knowledge of Marvel. Actually, I'm envious. Not of the knowledge so much as the experience. I read comics, but wasn't really passionate about them.

    Which actually reminds me of something else I wanted to post.


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